What is the best way to get started with a new foreign language? A foreign language gives you access to a whole new culture and people. It is a way to speak, as Nelson Mandela said, to another’s heart instead of their head. Everywhere I’ve been, my halting and poorly pronounced advances in several languages have always been met with joy and gratitude and never scorn. Foreign languages remove you from the category of foreign!
I was asked recently how I would approach a different language as a beginner, given my experience with Arabic. I have always been interested in language learning as a hobby since middle school. I took French (2 years), Spanish (1 year), German (1 year), and Latin (2 years) in school. I started trying to teach myself Arabic in 1999. In the time since, I have dabbled in foreign languages like Chinese, Hebrew, and Russian, while trying to restore and improve upon my French. Despite the breadth of my language exploration, I am only functional in Arabic and English (some may challenge me on that last one!)
I recently decided to focus on Russian since about half of my business efforts involve Central Asian states that end in –stan. Since my previous flailing efforts have not been effective, I thought about how I learned Arabic and how that might be applied to learning another language.
A Very Good Place to Start
I recently read Fluent Forever by Gabriel Wyner. He recommends that anyone interested in a new language begin with the pronunciation of that language. For foreign languages with an alphabet that means learning the character set in addition to pronunciations for the consonants and vowels as well as diphthongs and other combinations of letters.
It is important that your foreign language reference for this phase of learning be from a native speaker. The only way to truly learn the difference between the various h, s, t, d, and z sounds in Arabic is through listening to variations both as standalone sounds and as they are integrated into words. Every language has such variations or unique combinations of characters that make up the building blocks of the language.
With a character based language like Chinese, I would start with the pinyin system to learn the sounds that make up the language before focusing on the characters and the words they represent. Obviously this is a harder bridge to cross as you cannot simply learn an alphabet and hammer through words when all you have is a single character that represents a word or idea.
Once I am comfortable with the alphabet system if there is one, I would begin with a frequency listing for the language. It is important to remember that there are usually significant differences in the frequency of word use between spoken and written forms of the foreign language. You will need to decide which you would prefer to begin with. For me, since I’m fairly anti-social, I would begin with frequency of usage in written communications. If you are primarily interested in spoken communication, I would recommend starting with a frequency list based on the language as it is spoken instead.
There are a variety of sources from which to pull these words. Visual dictionaries are a good source. Many languages have books available that teach you your first 100 or 1000 words. Gabriel Wyner, through his Fluent Forever site, has a variety of curated lists with audio from native speakers. I am approaching Russian using his resource as the foundation.
Once you have the letters and some basic words down, it is time to start reading. I am not above reading children’s books. I have walked out of libraries with armloads of colorful books featuring bunnies and flowers and all manner of mischievous children. Visual dictionaries are helpful too with pictures and simple words.
Even if you’ve memorized the top 100 words, you will encounter many words that you don’t recognize. That is OK. Contextual exposure is the key to learning and retaining foreign language vocabulary. Avoid rushing to Google Translate or your dictionary and just get what you can. Sometimes I underline unknown words, but in the beginning it may be easier to underline known or intuited words.
At this point, I start to look at news headlines and cartoons/comics in the target language. Here again words and grammar usage are generally simpler. Simple summary news sites like Euro News are better for this than an in-depth opinion site. Continue to expand your vocabulary at this stage with your goal being the top 1000 words by frequency of usage or a phrase book with common use phrases.
To get much beyond a beginner stage you are going to need to acquire a few basic tools. For me, I get an introductory language learning book, a dictionary, a grammar book, and a memory tool. These can be purchased or in many cases found free on the internet. The subReddit r/language learning is a great resource for finding recommendations and tools for your chosen language.
For my upcoming Russian language adventure, after perusing the recommendations on Reddit, I’ve decided on the following as examples of the types of books to acquire.
Tuning your Ear
If you followed the earlier recommendations on finding native pronunciation resources for characters and early words, then you’ve already begun this process. Early on in the process, I recommend you start listening to anything you can find in your target language. YouTube is an incredible resource for this. There are many channels that have beginner resources, cartoons, and tutorials on getting started in a language.
Early in the process start to listen to content relevant to how you intend to use the language. If speaking is your goal, I would immerse yourself in TV shows in the language. The dialogue and idiomatic language usage will be critical to smooth and fluent production as your vocabulary improves. If more business or academic uses are your aim, then I would focus on news and documentaries in the target language.
It will be a stream of gibberish initially, but don’t be discouraged. A magical thing starts to happen the more you listen. The first indicator of progress is beginning to recognize the space between words. As you listen you will start to discern where one word ends and the next begins. Spaces between sentences will begin to become obvious to you. Soon you will begin to recognize individual words within the stream.
For me I start to recognize conjunctions and pronouns first, then prepositions, then nouns, and finally verbs. There is no short cut for this process. You must listen as often as possible to train your brain to extract the language from the spoken word.
Once you have a foundation of words and some initial success in understanding written and spoken communications, you will have to commit to learning some basic rules for forming sentences in your target language. Again, there are a variety of resources available, but you need to find one that suits your learning style. Want to do exercises like you are back in school? There are books for that. Want to learn from listening to and watching videos? There are tons of those too.
I am a huge fan of the Practice Makes Perfect series of grammar books. They come in most languages. These books step through the grammar from a very basic level of constructing simple sentences to very advanced concepts like declensions and cases. I have a section on my bookcases with weather-beaten and dog-eared copies in most of my hobby languages.
Whatever your tool, you must spend some time understanding how your language constructs sentences. Is it Subject-Verb-Object, Verb-Subject-Object or something completely different? Don’t let a lack of understanding keep you from attempting to produce language at this point. I’ve had pointing and gesturing conversations that centered around nouns strung together with an occasional verb just to try and get a point across. You’d be surprised how often this actually works. Our brains are remarkably talented at filling in gaps based on context. Imagine a non-English speaker who approached you and pointed at his mouth and rubbed his stomach who could only say “food.” You’d get the point.
Language is not a one-way street unless you intend to consume without ever interacting with anyone in the language. Hmmm, I resemble that remark a bit too much in most of my language efforts. Start reaching out to other learners or native speakers in your languages. There are huge communities on the internet for most any language you are trying to learn. Why go it alone?
Get yourself a phrase book and start with basic greetings. Find a partner online or locally and start practicing these simple exchanges. Learn to introduce yourself and field basic questions about where you are from, what you do, what you like to do, etc. As your vocabulary and grammar improve you can begin to have very deep conversations but don’t be afraid to start with hello, my name is…
I’m a big believer in writing as a tool for cementing words and grammar structures in your memory. From nearly day one with Arabic I started keeping a journal of my daily activities or of stories made up around the words I had learned that day. This type of reinforcement is crucial to retention. If I was focusing on fruits and vegetable names I would invent a trip to the market. Make sure you are playing with adjectives of color and size to get comfortable expanding your language with appropriate descriptions.
I went to the market and bought a large coconut from a small woman who also sold tomatoes, cucumbers, and oranges. She had brown hair and big eyes. She wore a green dress.
There is nothing too simple to write about at this stage. While you may eventually be able to write a journal entry on the Syrian Civil War and its implications, start simple with your daily activities and interactions. Get someone to check your entries regularly, daily if possible. There are language exchange websites that can help you find a partner.
Building to Fluency
From here consistency is the key along with gradual expansion. Practice every single day. Try to read, write, speak, listen, and study every single day. Look to learn at least ten new words each day. There are great apps and flashcard programs that will allow you to use the power of spaced repetition to really lock the vocabulary into your memory.
Whether your goal is to enjoy the language on your own or use it to interact with others find opportunities to practice. Go beyond fixed resources like flashcards and make your own living deck or words and phrases. Keep adding to the list as you learn. I keep two lists in my pocket every day. I use small Moleskine books for this but simple index cards or even folded sheets of paper will work. Anytime I think of a word in English that I do not know in my language, I write it down to look up later. When I see or hear a word in my new language that I don’t know, I write it down and look it up when I get home. Through daily practice and expansion you will eventually develop an impressive vocabulary that extends beyond those first 1000 words.
What are your other hobbies? Find communities for these hobbies in your target language and get involved. Looking for Arabic speaking jugglers, or Russian magicians, or Chinese skateboarders? They are out there. Find them and get involved!
When you can seamlessly integrate idioms and tell jokes in the language that get laughs out of native speakers, you are well on your way but there is no finish line. I learn more about Arabic every single day. When I get discouraged about finding words I do not know, I try to remember that I’ve been speaking English for over 40 years and frequently find English words that I have to look up!
Just get started and remember that it is about the journey and not a particular level of proficiency that must be reached, unless you are learning the language for professional purposes. Perhaps in the future I’ll write on test taking strategies that have served me well on annual proficiency tests in my language.
I wish you all the best in your language learning efforts. As a fellow traveler, I understand the challenges and frustrations but can tell you from having gone from nothing to hours of conversation with native speakers that the investment is well worth it. We all have so much in common that it is a shame to let language barriers keep us apart. Feel free to reach out if I can offer any additional advice on your language learning efforts.