How to learn a foreign language: Familiarization

by Jakub Marian

Tip: See my list of the Most Common Mistakes in English. It will teach you how to avoid mis­takes with com­mas, pre­pos­i­tions, ir­reg­u­lar verbs, and much more.

Familiarization is a language learning method applicable only to languages that are not closely related to a language I already know, especially if they use a writing system I am not familiar with (if you are interested in learning, for example, French, Spanish, or German, feel free to skip to the next section).

First, I familiarize myself with the basic grammatical rules of the language. Michel Thomas Method is a good thing to begin with, as it doesn’t require you to know the writing system, teaches you quite a lot of grammar using only very basic vocabulary, and is not very intellectually demanding (for example I sometimes listen to it when I travel in a bus or a train and wouldn’t be doing anything else otherwise).

Other sources for learning grammar can be found all over the Internet; however, most of them are just too complicated to be useful in this initial stage. I do not memorize conjugation or declension tables; the underlying principles of grammar are far more important. For example, one such principle in Hindi would be:

In most tenses, verbs are conjugated as (verb stem) + (something) + a/e/i (+ the appropriate form of “to be” in some tenses), where -a, -e, and -i indicate the gender (and the number) of the subject.

Once you understand such a principle, it is easy to recognize this pattern when you see or hear it, and you will naturally develop intuition for which form is appropriate in a particular situation. It makes no sense to repeat “-a is for masculine singular, -e for masculine plural and i for feminine singular and plural” like a mantra to remember it; if you want to say “the girl does something”, you have to feel that -i naturally follows after “girl” and just say it, not to stop for half a minute and think “A girl is feminine, which was that for feminine? Oh, it was -i, so I’ll have to use this one”, and Michel Thomas is a great method to create this kind of feeling.

Next, it is necessary to familiarize yourself with the writing system. Wikipedia will probably be a good source in this case, but don’t try to memorize all that is written there! There is no point in going through IPA tables for all the symbols; only the basic principles matter at this stage. Taking Hindi as an example again, an important thing to know is that large letters represent consonants or standalone vowels, smaller diacritical marks denote vowels that are pronounced after these consonants, and a few other elementary principles.

What I need next is a software or a website that contains short phrases or just sole words, both written and clearly pronounced, to familiarize myself with the writing system and the peculiarities of pronunciation (however, I have a thorough musical education, so I can pick up sound differences easier than other people; just listening might not be enough for everyone). An ideal software for this stage is Rosetta Stone. The grammar should already look familiar (as you have already familiarized yourself with the basics of the grammar), so a lack of translations doesn’t really matter. Building up from very easy vocabulary and grammatical constructions, you can familiarize yourself slowly with the writing system. It doesn’t matter whether you are learning Hindi, Chinese or any other language. Listening to a small set of words used in various elementary phrases will provide the context which will make remembering its meaning much easier. A little tip: if you use Rosetta Stone, do not go through all the activities it offers; it progresses too slowly.

Unfortunately, Rosetta Stone is pretty expensive. If money is not a problem for you, go for it; however, if you have a smartphone or a tablet, there are numerous alternatives to Rosetta Stone, such as various flashcards programs, games etc. (although these will never give you the Rosetta-Stone-type experience). Although games might seem worthless at first sight, I find them quite useful for learning very distant languages. For example, I play Mandarin Madness on Android, a game that helps me to associate Chinese characters with their sounds and teaches me some basic vocabulary. Since playing the game is actually a form of relaxation, I often play it when I wouldn’t be doing anything useful otherwise.

By the way, I have written several educational ebooks. If you get a copy, you can learn new things and support this website at the same time—why don’t you check them out?