Language Learning

How I recommend learning languages

English is commonly spoken in Europe, but it is always better to speak the local language. Method I recommend for learning languages is as follows: (a) work through as many Pimsleur language courses as available in target language, to develop good pronunciation skills plus basic vocabulary and grammar; (b) work through Assimil Sans Peine course, to further build listening/reading skills, vocabulary and grammar; (c) read some self-study grammar books, to fill in gaps left by Pimsleur/Assimil; (d) build passive listening/reading skills, and assimilate grammar inductively, by listening to audio recordings in foreign language (podcasts, audiobooks, etc), followed by reading transcript of recording, followed by listening to recording again; (e) build active speaking/writing skills using electronic flashcard system with English sentence on front and foreign language version on back; (f) hire native speaker for one-on-one conversation practice. (See Word Brain, Antimoon, Learning Russian Marathon for additional language learning ideas.)

For case of native English speaker learning Russian, assuming 1 hour study per day, schedule as follows. 5 months to complete 120 unit Pimsleur course, assuming new audio unit each evening and repetition of unit next morning (audio units about 30 minutes each, thus evening plus morning gives about one hour total per day), with extra month (4 months = 120 days) allowing for occasional missed days and for separate reading units. Then 2 months for 100 unit Assimil Sans Peine course, assuming 2 units per day, plus initial cursory reading of grammar books (Assimil textbook, New Penguin Russian Course, Essential Russian Grammar). Then 4 months to repeat Pimsleur course starting with unit 11, while rereading grammar books. Then 1 month to repeat Assimil course, continuing to reread grammar books. This completes first year or 365 hours of study. For next two years, build passive listening/reading skills: listen to variety of audio recordings/podcasts and read associated transcripts; look up unknown words in dictionary; use electronic flashcard system to drill passive vocabulary understanding; reread grammar books; optionally begin reading real books in Russian. For fourth year, build active speaking/writing skills using electronic flashcard system (English sentence on front, Russian version on back), while continuing to develop passive reading/listening skills (reading Russian books, listening to more advanced Russian podcasts with transcripts). After 4 years or 1460 hours of self-study, arrange for 40 or so hours (hour per day over period of eight weeks) conversation practice with native speakers. For English speaker learning Spanish or French, similar but shorter schedule.

"Language fluency" should be distinguished from "language level" (though note that not everyone uses these terms as I am about to define them). Language fluency is the ability to use language skills in a flowing manner, without hesitation or difficulty, at native speaker speeds. Fluency is obtained naturally by simply practicing with what we already know of a language, however much or little that is. Language level roughly corresponds to vocabulary (since most learners eventually master the grammar appropriate to whatever level they become fluent at, whether or not they formally study grammar). Pedantically speaking, there are thousands of levels for any language, since a person who learns even one new word clearly has improved in level. Practically speaking, we can distinguish three levels: basic; intermediate; advanced. Basic means about 1000 words, which is enough for both buyer and seller haggling at a market, checking into hotels, buying bus/train tickets, asking directions, etc. When people boast of becoming fluent in a language after two months study, they are typically talking about basic level fluency. Intermediate means about 5000 words, which is enough for ordinary conversation, not involving fine distinctions or technical vocabulary. Advanced means an active vocabulary of maybe 10000 words and a passive vocabulary of 20000, which is sufficient for educated conversation and reading newspapers, scholarly books, and fine literature. It is possible to be fluent at different levels for the four language skills. For example, intermediate fluency at speaking, advanced fluency at listening and reading; basic fluency at writing—this is the combination I strive for.

There is talk of Google Translate and similar technological gadgetry eliminating the need for foreign language skills. This may happen eventually, but probably not for several more decades. Also, learning foreign languages is good exercise for the brain, and those of us who are retired may need such exercise.

More on Pimsleur and Assimil and why I recommend these systems for beginners

Pimsleur courses work for everyone, since they involve almost pure listening and speaking, with grammar and vocabulary assimilated by induction, which is the way we naturally learn languages. Pimsleur courses also pack a lot of fast repetition into each half-hour lesson, more than could be obtained in an hour with a live instructor, so they are very time-effective, as well as easier than alternative methods. Assimil courses combine listening/speaking with explanatory grammar notes in the accompanying book, but as with Pimsleur, the emphasis is on inductive assimilation of grammar and vocabulary rather than rote memorization. Assimil advertises their method as "painless" (literal meaning of the French Sans Peine), but that is an exaggeration. Pimsleur is truly painless, while Assimil is only painless if you have first gone through about 90 Pimsleur lessons. Most other self-study courses only work for some types of learners, since most of these other courses emphasize rote book learning, which is not a natural way to learn languages though it does work for some people.

You'll probably need to repeat the Pimsleur course several times to get the language to fully sink in. For a simple language (like French or Spanish), you'd do all the lessons once each, then repeat starting with lesson 11 a few months later, after working through the Assimil course (you'll also need to listen to the audio for the Assimil course several times). For a more difficult language (like Greek, Turkish or Russian), it might be necessary to repeat each Pimsleur lesson twice the first time through, before doing the Assimil course then repeating the Pimsleur course from lesson 11. Pimsleur company downplays the need to repeat lessons, and repeating may not be necessary for everyone. But it was definitely necessary for me with Greek, Turkish and Russian, which are the languages I studied via the Pimsleur method.

Pimsleur courses can be ordered and downloaded from the publishers website. As of 2015, a 90 lesson Pimsleur course costs $335 for the MP3 version, but they offer frequent 10% discounts (do an internet search for Pimsleur coupons) which brings the cost down to about $302. Assuming each lesson repeated 3 times, cost per lesson would be $1.11. This is much less expensive than live instruction, even with a human teacher in a poor country who is communicating via Skype or other internet connection. $302 is also small compared to the total cost of a long trip to Europe. I think it is penny-wise, pound-foolish for people who can afford to travel to Europe, and who really want to learn a foreign language, to balk at the price of a Pimsleur course and instead waste a huge amount of time learning via some less effective method just to save money.

Assimil courses can be ordered directly from the publisher's website, which is French only as of 2015, but not too difficult to navigate. Specify "Anglais" (English) as the "Langue maternelle" (mother language), specify the desired target language, leave "niveau" (level) unchanged. Then select the "Collection Sans Peine" course, specify "pack MP3 (livre + MP3)" (paper book plus CD with MP3s), then fill in the shipping/payment details. Cost of the English to Russian course (book plus CD with MP3s) when I ordered in 2015 was about €70 plus €18 shipping to the United States, or about $106 total (at 1.20$/€ exchange rate). Shipping was tracked and took about a week. I would estimate the Assimil course requires at least 100 hours to complete (even more so than with Pimsleur, lessons will need to be repeated multiple times, plus there is the textbook in addition to audio, which is why 3 hours audio translates to 100 hours study), so about $1 per hour of study.

For some languages, there is no Pimsleur course available. In that case, you can use the Assimil course alone. Assimil alone can accomplish the same as Pimsleur followed by Assimil, but Assimil alone will be much more difficult than when preceded by Pimsleur.

A 90 unit Pimsleur course contains 45 hours of audio, though much of this is English language or silent gaps allowing the learner to speak. Whereas the 100 lesson Assimil Sans Peine course for Russian contained about 3 hours of audio, all of which was in the foreign language with no gaps. It is evident to me that a 90 unit Pimsleur course teaches correct pronunciation better than an Assimil Sans Peine course, due to the greater amount of audio and the emphasis on speaking immediately after listening. Pimsleur units have the advantage that they can be done while driving or while lying in bed with your eyes closed. Whereas the Assimil unit normally requires touching buttons so as to repeat the recording several times, perhaps glancing at the Assimil book in between each such repetition. Hence the Assimil units cannot be done while driving or with the eyes closed, at least not initially. Both Pimsleur and Assimil audio comes in MP3 format, so can be loaded on a smartphone, tablet, computer or digital music player. (It is possible to create an ebook transcript of the Assimil audio, by extracting from the MP3 title data, so you don't have to carry the paper book everywhere when repeating the audio but you still want a written transcript. Contact me if you need help with this.)

Grammar and vocabulary books are merely to fill gaps left by Pimsleur and Assimil courses. Especially for Indo-European languages spoken in most of Europe, correct grammar not necessary to communicate at intermediate level. A native English speaker, for example, will understand garbled and ungrammatical "me yesterday climb mountain" almost as easily as the correct version "I climbed the mountain yesterday" PROVIDED all words are pronounced correctly. Similar reasoning applies to all Indo-European languages. Also, grammar will tend to eventually become correct naturally with these languages, if you read and listen to native speakers enough. Thus I would not recommend spending too much time studying grammar. Pronunciation, stress and rhythm are important for all languages—if you can't make the sounds of a language more or less correctly, then no one will understand what you are saying nor will you understand anyone else. This is why I recommend the Pimsleur courses, since these provide extensive pronunciation practice.

Listening practice

For the step involving audio recordings with transcripts, consider using an ereader or ereader app for smartphone/tablet rather than paper books for the transcripts. Ereaders usually allow looking up words in a foreign language dictionary by simply pressing on them, or you can copy from the book and paste into a dictionary app. This is much easier than fumbling with a paper foreign language dictionary.

I use the Moon+ ereader app for Android smartphones, together with the ABBYY Lingvo app, which integrates well with Moon+. Essentials dictionaries that come free with ABBYY Lingvo app are not very good, so buy add-on dictionaries. ABBYY Lingvo's own Universal dictionaries are both inexpensive and excellent, in my experience (tested English-English, French-English, Russian-English, Spanish-English, Ukrainian-English, Ukrainian-Russian). Note that Kindle ebooks purchased through Amazon can be converted to epub format with the Calibre program for Windows, so as to be usable with Moon+ ereader.

I recommend buying transcripts, for those sites that sell them. First, as a material of principle, to encourage good work. Second, because it is penny-wise pound-foolish to waste time using inferior rather than quality materials ("quality" meaning more efficient in terms of time to accomplish a given amount of learning). Because of the enormous time investment involved in language learning, paying for quality materials usually makes economic sense if your time assumed to be worth at least $2/hour, even if upfront cost appears high.

Some people use television and other forms of video to build vocabulary and improving listening skills. I listened to Spanish television news extensively back when I was learning that language. However, I now think video is a bad way to learn languages, mainly because it is often possible to deduce what is being said by facial expressions or bodily actions, without actually understanding the language. Also, most videos lack transcript, so difficult to look up unknown words in dictionary.

Flashcards for active practice

Once you have a large enough passive vocabulary, use electronic flashcard system to make vocabulary active. I used smartphone version of Anki. Search online for decks with English sentences on front and foreign language version on back, or create your own decks. (If using other people's Anki decks, you may need to modify to show English first rather than foreign language first. As of 2018, this can only be done with full computer version of Anki, modified deck can then be downloaded to smartphone.)

Live human instruction

Live human instruction works best to build upon intermediate level fluency developed via self-study. First, because self-study is cheaper than live instruction. Second, and more importantly, because few humans have the patience to repeatedly drill another adult in the basics over and over, whereas this is not a factor with recordings. (With a cute little baby, especially their own baby, humans do have such patience.) Long ago, I spent two weeks in Antigua, Guatemala taking one-on-one live instruction at a language school. This instruction was effective for me because I was already fluent at the advanced level in Spanish for reading (large passive vocabulary) and had good pronunciation skills from listening to, without fully understanding, Spanish television news. Live instruction was very helpful in making my passive vocabulary active and thus bringing me to basic level fluency for speaking (later improved to intermediate level, due to practice while traveling in Spain). Other students, who started with no background in Spanish, made very little progress.

My own language learning experiences

French I learned very inefficiently, through many years of live classroom instruction (elementary and high-school grades 3 to 10, plus another year at university) because foreign-language instruction was mandatory at the schools I attended. At the end of all that classroom instruction, I still couldn't engage in a basic level conversation in French or read even the simplest book in French. My French eventually improved to intermediate speaking and advanced reading/listening fluency via an inefficient process of self-study combined with travel to France. Effective cost of all those years of classroom instruction (whether paid by my parents or by the state) was surely far greater than the cost of Pimsleur and Assimil courses for French. Furthermore, those many years of classroom instruction were often unpleasant, whereas the Pimsleur and Assimil courses are enjoyable, at least in my experience.

With Modern Greek, I used the 30-unit Pimsleur course (all that was available at the time, there are now 60 units of Modern Greek available) plus a short grammar book and a variety of phrasebooks, to reach basic-level fluency in a few months. This allowed me to hold my own in simple conversations during my 90 day walking tour in Greece in 2007. This basic fluency came in useful, since the country people in Greece only speak their native language. (Compare with the well-educated city folk in Greece, most of whom speak English fluently at least at the intermediate level.) This knowledge of Modern Greek also made it fairly easy to pick up a reading knowledge of Biblical or Koine Greek. Like the Modern Greeks, I pronounce Biblical Greek using a slightly modified Modern Greek pronunciation (see here), versus the Erasmian pronunciation used by most scholars whose native language is English. As of 2016, I've forgotten most of my Modern Greek, but it would probably come back quickly, given how much I used the language during my 2007 trip.

With Turkish, the 30-unit Pimsleur course was only sufficient to allow crude exchanges with shop-keepers and hotel-owners ("how much for room?", "too much, I pay X", etc). This was sufficient to impress the Turks, since few travelers can even accomplish that much, and perhaps useful, though probably sign language would have been just as effective. Turkish is not a difficult language at the basic or intermediate level (at the advanced level, the verb system is very complex, from what I understand), but it is a paradigm shift for someone whose only previous exposure is to Indo-European languages. It didn't help that I had mostly given up the study of Turkish during the preceding three months in Greece. After returning from the Greece/Turkey trip in 2007, I soon forgot almost all the Turkish I had learned. Use it or lose it.

With Russian, I used the 90-unit Pimsleur Russian course [as of 2017, there are now 120 units available], followed by the Assimil Russian Sans Peine course, then two introductory grammar books: New Penguin Russian Course by Nicholas J. Brown (1996) and Essential Russian Grammar by Brian Kemple (1993). The first of these books not available in Kindle format and Kindle version of second was so poorly formatted as to be unusable, so I used paper format. Both the Assimil course and New Penguin Russian Course teach the Cyrillic alphabet, which must be learned in standard, italic and cursive versions (cursive used for hand-written signs in stores, italic very common for printed signs). To build vocabulary and improve reading and listening skills, I used various audio recordings with transcripts. First, ebooks from Language Practice Publishing in Kindle format from Amazon, with MP3 audio recordings available on the publisher's website. Then podcasts from National Capitol Language Resource Center (website disappeared, but I saved a copy and can send as a ZIP file, upon request), News in Slow Russian, RussianPodcast.eu, Ochen Po-Russki, all providing MP3 audio files for downloading to smartphone for offline use, and HTML or PDF transcripts. In Russian Terms has podcasts in libsyn format, which can be converted to MP3 using video-download.online, along with PDF transcripts. School of Russian and Asian Studies has links to other Russian language podcasts with transcripts. Center for Language Technology at Indiana University another good source of audio files for Russian language students. Assimil Perfectionnement Russe course is effectively another set of audio recordings with transcripts, though as of 2015 only available in French-Russian version. After about 18 months at something over an hour a day of self-study, I hired a tutor in Ukraine for conversation practice, to make my skills active for speaking at the basic level. I then continued my self-study and eventually expect to develop advanced level reading and listening fluency in Russian, intermediate speaking fluency, basic writing fluency. St Petersburg University offers sample examinations for official ТРКИ (Test of Russian as Foreign Language). Telc offers mock examinations for testing proficiency in various languages, including Russian, with MP3 files to test listening comprehension.

As noted above, I use ABBYY Lingvo as my dictionary app for Android smartphones, which integrates well with Moon+ ereader app. For Russian, I recommend buying Universal Russian-English add-on dictionary, since free Essentials dictionary not very extensive. ExplanatoryBTS Russian-Russian useful even for beginners who can't understand Russian definitions, since it shows stress for all inflections whereas Universal only shows stress for nominative/infinitive. Finally, Explanatory Russian-Russian contains some words not in other dictionaries listed here, so all learners will eventually want this also. Universal English-English also useful, for Russian words whose English translation itself obscure. For example, "batata" is valid English word and most direct translation of Russian "батат", though most English speakers don't know this word and instead use synonym "sweet potato".

One thing I discovered from my study of Russian is that I learn much slower than when I was young, partly because my mind is less flexible but mainly because I no longer have the will to study for more than an hour or two a day, even when I have nothing else to occupy my time. Life seems too precious to waste, and wasting life is exactly what intense studying and other forms of deferring gratification feel like to me now—sacrificing the precious present in favor of a future which may never arrive. The good news is that non-intense studying is still manageable and even enjoyable as a way to occupy time and work off excess mental energy. So I can still learn new languages and other skills, just not quickly. Slowness to learn makes anticipating future skill needs far in advance much more important than when I was young.

Spanish plus French makes it easy to read Catalan, Gallego and Portuguese, with the exception of a small number of words in these languages which don't have Spanish or French equivalents and also can't be guessed from context. Either ask people about these difficult words or look them up in a dictionary, then memorize them for future use. This reading ability is useful for things like signs, menus and hiking guides written only in these languages. There is no need for a foreigner to speak either Catalan or Gallego, since everyone in those parts of Spain can speak Spanish (aka Castellano). Speaking ability of Portuguese would only be necessary for someone spending significant time in Portugal. Otherwise, most Portuguese in the tourism industry can speak either Spanish or English.

I picked up basic reading knowledge of German by simply reading books in that language with the aid of a German-English dictionary, using the 30-unit Pimsleur course to get correct pronunciation. This reading ability comes in useful occasionally for books only available in German. For example, I used a German-language hiking guide during my Greek trip. I've never tried speaking German and have no plans to do so in the future.