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 listening/reading skill 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 skill using electronic flashcard system; (f) hire native speaker for one-on-one conversation practice.

For case of native English speaker learning Russian, assuming 1 hour study per day, schedule as follows. 4 months to complete 90 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 4 months for 100 unit Assimil Sans Peine course, plus initial cursory reading of grammar books. This completes first 8 months or about 240 hours of study. For next two years, build listening/reading skills: listen to variety of audio recordings and read associated transcripts; look up unknown words in dictionary; reread grammar books; repeat Assimil course. For fourth year, build speaking skills using electronic flashcard system, start reading real Russian books, listen 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.

Motivation ultimately determines success or failure at language learning. If motivation is strong, then any method will eventually work. If motivation is weak, as is usually the case, then be careful not to destroy motivation entirely by using ineffective methods or pushing oneself too hard. Sometimes ineffective methods are very enjoyable initially, which boosts motivation. Later, when the student realizes how little they are actually learning, they may become disgusted and give up language study altogether. Examples of methods that are often highly motivating initially but ineffective and thus eventually demotivating: "immersion" (think of immigrants living in the USA for 20 years and still unable to understand or speak intermediate English); native speaker boyfriend/girlfriend (very effective initially, but then no further progress); Duolingo (grammar and vocabulary focused, with no practice listening to extended sequences of normal speed native speech); group classes (typically, same problem as Duolingo, plus lots of time wasted on socializing); infrequent private lessons (learning a language to intermediate level takes hundreds or thousands of hours of study, but few people can afford or even arrange time for this amount of private lessons).

Listening comprehension is far and away the most important skill. Natives are almost always willing to tolerate foreigners simplifying vocabulary and sentence structure and speaking slowly, but they are usually annoyed at having to simplify their own speech, so it is perfectly acceptable for speaking skill be much lower than listening skill. As a rule of thumb, input (listening/reading) vocabulary should be about 10 times output (speaking) vocabulary. (Input/output are better terms than passive/active, since listening/reading should both be done actively, meaning full understanding.) Thus if intermediate level output vocabulary is 2000 words, intermediate input vocabulary should be 20000. (Multiple distinct meanings of the same word, irregular verb forms, changing stress in Russian, etc should count as separate vocabulary items, which explains the huge number for input vocabulary, even at the intermediate level. Output vocabulary might only include one meaning, present verb tense, etc, whereas input vocabulary would include all meanings, all verb forms, etc.) Because of its importance, we should spend about 90% of learning effort on listening (or reading, which is essentially a form of listening, assuming we sound out words internally as we read them) versus 10% on speaking. Listening skill can be easily and objectively tested by listening to several minutes of native language speech then answering questions about what was just said. It is easy to give a false impression of language fluency when steering the conversation so that listening comprehension is never directly tested: recite several memorized phrases, ask a question then nod while listening, ask another question not dependent on the response given to the first, nod some more, recite some more memorized phrases unrelated to what the other person was saying, etc. Self-proclaimed polyglots and "language hackers" on the internet often demonstrate their "fluency" in this way.

Speaking practice should initially focus on mastery of pronunciation and a small set of essential words, versus grammar or extensive vocabulary. Pronunciation, including stress and rhythm, doesn't need to be perfect, but it must be good—if you can't make the sounds of a language more or less correctly, then no one will understand what you are saying. Vocabulary should allow asking for additional words from natives, who are effectively living dictionaries/thesauruses. For example, instead of memorizing words like screwdriver and hammer, be able to ask "what is the name of this tool?", then imitate movements of someone using a screwdriver, hammer, etc. Grammar is of minor importance for spoken communication, at least for Indo-European languages. A native English speaker, for example, will understand the 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 other Indo-European languages. (Mastery of grammar may be necessary to understand poetry in highly inflected languages like Russian, since word ordering in poetry is frequently contorted to produce rhymes.) Grammar should eventually become correct naturally with Indo-European languages, by simply reading and listening extensively to native speakers, occasionally reviewing grammar books, making an effort to speak with correct grammar whenever you are confident as to what is correct/incorrect. No need for tedious grammar exercises or for being afraid of making mistakes when not confident about grammar.

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 may need to repeat the Pimsleur course to get the language to fully sink in. In particular, I recommend a new lesson each evening, then repeat that lesson the next morning. 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 from the publishers website. As of 2019, Pimsleur offers monthly subscriptions for just $15/month, with free 7-day trial membership to test the system. Thus a 90 lesson course would cost $60 if completed in 120 days (extra month allows for occasional missed days), or well under $1 per hour of study. 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. 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 paying for quality courses like Pimsleur and instead waste time and effort learning via less effective but free methods.

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, assuming you do it thoroughly, so $1 or less 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. "Shadowing" Assimil speakers, meaning listen to one sentence then repeat, should also give correct pronunciation, but less effectively than Pimsleur method.

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 speaking practice

Once you have a large enough listening/reading input vocabulary, use electronic flashcard system to make vocabulary active for speaking. I used smartphone version of Anki. Search online or create your own decks with sentences with foreign language audio on front of cards, and large print foreign language transcript plus small print English translation on back, such as this deck. Listen to audio, store in short-term memory in language neutral form, such as mental images, convert stored form to foreign language speech, display back of card to check speech for correctness. Only read English translation if absolutely necessary.

Another possibility is decks with short sentences in English on front of card, in foreign language on back of card. Such decks have disadvantage of emphasizing translation versus thinking in foreign language.

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 input vocabulary) and had good pronunciation skills from listening to, without fully understanding, Spanish television news. Live instruction was very helpful in making my input vocabulary active for speaking. 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. 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. My reading ability of French eventually improved to advanced level fluency by reading French literature and looking up unknown words in a French-English dictionary. Long after that, I spent several years hiking in France, during which time speaking/listening skills improved to intermediate level fluency.

Spanish I learned as follows. Short grammar-oriented textbook to get basic vocabulary and grammar, plus listening to Spanish language news on television (commonly available in the USA in the early 1980's when I was learning Spanish), without understanding what was being said, to get correct pronunciation. Followed by many years reading Spanish literature, looking up unknown words in a Spanish-English dictionary. Initially, needed to look up several words per sentence and so reading was slow and unpleasant. Reading ability eventually reached advanced level, at which point able to read almost effortlessly, with only occasional use of dictionary. After having reached advanced reading fluency, traveled to Guatemala for two weeks of individual lessons to develop speaking skills, followed by many years hiking in Spain. Currently at intermediate level speaking/listening fluency, advanced level reading fluency.

With Modern Greek, I used the 30 unit Pimsleur course plus a short grammar book and phrasebook to reach basic level speaking/listening/reading fluency in a few months. This allowed me to hold my own in simple conversations and read signs and menus while hiking in Greece in 2007. This basic fluency came in useful, since older country people in Greece often only speak their native language.

Basic knowledge of Modern Greek later made it fairly easy to read Biblical or Koine Greek. Like Modern Greeks, I pronounce Biblical Greek using slightly modified Modern Greek pronunciation (see here), versus Erasmian pronunciation used by most scholars whose native language is English.

With Turkish, 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 study of Turkish during the preceding three months in Greece. After returning from 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, however I think it best to move on to another learning system after 90 Pimsleur units], 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,, Ochen Po-Russki, all providing MP3 audio files for downloading to smartphone for offline use, and HTML or 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 skills active for speaking. As of late 2019, after 5 years of about an hour of study per day (1825 hours total), Russian skills approaching final goal of intermediate listening/speaking fluency, advanced level reading 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 dictionaries, 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 dictionary only shows stress for nominative/infinitive. 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.

Reading knowledge of Russian makes it easy to pick up reading knowledge of Bulgarian and Ukrainian, which is useful when traveling in those countries. Younger Bulgarians usually speak some English, older Bulgarians often speak Russian, and most Ukrainians can speak Russian, but signs, menus, bus schedules, etc are often only written in the local language.

Reading knowledge of Spanish, especially combined with reading knowledge of French, makes it easy to pick up reading knowledge of Catalan, Gallego and Portuguese. Reading knowledge is useful for things like signs, menus and hiking guides written only in these languages. No need for foreigners to speak either Catalan or Gallego, since everyone in those parts of Spain can speak Spanish (aka Castellano) fluently. Speaking ability of Portuguese would only be necessary for someone spending significant time in Portugal. Otherwise, most Portuguese in the tourism industry speak either Spanish or English fluently.

I picked up basic reading knowledge of German by using 30-unit Pimsleur course to get correct pronunciation, then reading a German language hiking guide and looking up words I didn't know in a German-English dictionary. This was for my 2007 Greek trip, before GPS and GPX tracks were widely available. Only maps I could find were small scale, so hiking guide was essential, but only guide I could find was German language. (Both guide and dictionary were paper books, since this was before smartphones.) I've never tried speaking German and have no plans to do so in the future.