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Learning a Language, (Mostly) on Your Own 
by Scott Nesbitt June 10, 2005

While the best way to learn a foreign language is to live in the country where it's spoken, not all of us have the time and money to do so. In fact, many of us can't even squeeze in regular classes. But with the right materials and some hard work, you can give yourself a good grounding in a foreign language.

Let's face facts: learning a language from word one is difficult, time consuming and boring. It can also be quite expensive, up to $60 an hour at a commercial language school! And if you're not willing to put a considerable amount of time and effort into the process, you shouldn't bother trying. There really is no way around this.

But it is possible to learn a language without setting foot in a classroom. It can be done though self teaching. And it can be done anywhere: at home, on the train or bus to and from work, any place you have some free time.

Collecting Your Tools

But what will you need an how much will it cost? Well, you'll need a textbook and a set of tapes or CDs. If you're serious about learning a language, don't pick up the $15.99 "tourist kit;" that all-but-useless one cassette and phrase booklet set. Look for a text with dialogues, example sentences and drill exercises, both on tape or CD and in the book. The cost of a good text and tape/CD set shouldn't exceed $180. You'll also need a dictionary, a grammar book and a verb guide (about $15 each). Finally, a 10 minute blank cassette ($2). All told, your materials should cost no more than $250.

You don't have to buy your materials new. You can find language courses in used bookstores, at online auctions sites (like eBay), and can even find low-cost or free courses posted at your city's or site.

There are a lot of courses out there. Some people I know swear by the generally excellent Pimsleur CDs, which concentrate on listening and speaking. Other like the Living Language courses from publisher Random House. If you're in doubt, ask friends who are studying languages, or read the reviews of language courses at

Getting to Work

Using this frightening mass of paper and plastic lying in front of you is easier than you think. And it can be done in four steps:

Step 1

Record the first lesson on to the 10 minute blank tape. Using one section at a time on a single tape ensures you don't skip ahead, and gives you control over what you're listening to. You can rewind and fast forward at will, without finding yourself at a place on the tape where you shouldn't be. Listen to the taped dialogue three or four times to become accustomed to new sounds. Don't try to understand everything or pick out every word; this ability will come in time. On the third listening, follow the dialogue with the textbook.

Step 2

Listen to the dialogue line by line, pausing the tape and repeating what the speaker says. Don't worry about speed or fluency; these will come with practice. Try to get your mouth and tongue around the sounds, striving for proper pronunciation. Repeat this step, this time without using the text.

Step 3

This is where the drudge work begins. It's slow and boring, but it's vitally important. Listen to the tape line by line again; stopping each time you come across a new word or new grammatical pattern. For the first few weeks, all you will be doing is memorizing words and patterns. Do so by repeating the sentences of the dialogue, then by writing them out several times and repeating them onto a blank cassette. Compare what you've spoken with what's the main tape.

After a few lessons, you'll have amassed enough vocabulary and grammar to begin varying patterns by substituting different nouns and verbs. As you progress, you'll be able to create longer and more complex sentences with new material and old. Learning a language isn't merely accumulating new words and phrases, but being able to use what you've learned.

Practice the drill work in the same fashion. Listen to what's on the tape, repeat, record and play back. Then create your own examples. Strive for proper pronunciation and fluency. When necessary, refer to your dictionary, grammar and verb books for clarification of difficult-to-grasp points.

Working this way ensures you are not merely learning by rote, but are understanding what you are memorizing. The patterns will, if you practice properly, register almost automatically. And you'll be learning mainly with your ears.

Step 4

Six weeks or so after starting, go back to the first lesson and start reviewing the grammar and vocabulary you have forgotten. Believe me, you'll have forgotten more than you realize no matter how great your gains are. And I can't overemphasize the importance of review. Almost 50% of effective language learning is review.

Practice, Practice

Along the way, of course, you should get in as much live practice as you can. Doing this will improve your listening comprehension and, more importantly, sharpen your thinking skills. Having to converse in a foreign tongue will force you to think in that language. And it does wonders for your fluency and vocabulary.

Getting this live practice depends on you and what's available in your area. Many colleges and universities have language exchange clubs. If you have friends or relatives who speak the language you're learning, ask them for help. And although it defeats the purpose of this method, you could spend an hour or two each week with a language teacher. A teacher can not only offer a chance to practice your skills, but can also smooth out any rough spots you have and explain tricky points of grammar.

If you follow these four steps, at the end of eighteen months of one hour a day study, you will have a solid grounding in the basics of your chosen language. You'll have done away with the most difficult and wearisome phase and will be ready to fine tune your skills and augment your vocabulary.

Learning a new language isn't easy. But no language is impossible to learn. It can be done with desire, dedication and a lot of hard work.


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