Fast-tracking Foreign Languages
How to Meet the Linguistic Challenges of Working Abroad
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Fast-tracking Foreign Languages: How to Meet the Linguistic Challenges of
by: Philip Yaffe
Native English-speakers are increasingly exhorted to learn foreign languages
to play a more effective role in globalisation. However, we tend not to learn
foreign languages for three very valid reasons.
- Many other peoples in the world are not just exhorted to learn
English, they are required to do so. Thus, you can find English virtually
everywhere you go.
- The grammar of most other languages, certainly most European languages, is
much more complex than English. Thus, native anglophones often view language
learning as a daunting, and even demoralising task.
- Most native anglophones, especially in North America, live in almost
exclusively English-speaking environments. We virtually never hear other
languages spoken live, on radio or television, and virtually never see them
written in newspapers, magazines, books, etc. This is hardly motivating.
The fact is, the world conspires against anglophones learning other
languages. So if you speak only English, you have no reason to be ashamed.
Nevertheless, whilst these factors explain why so few anglophones know other
languages, they are not valid excuses for not learning them when the situation
calls for it. For example, you are sent to open or manage a foreign subsidiary,
you are assigned to negotiate or maintain working relationships with a foreign
How should you go about learning a foreign language with the least pain and
most gain? In my personal experience, the secret lies in changing your mindset.
I live in Brussels. I speak French fluently, understand and can more-or-less
get around in Dutch and German, and I am now rapidly acquiring Spanish. But the
first language I mastered was none of these. It was Swahili, which I learned
when I spent two-and-a-half years working in Tanzania.
Like many (probably most) Americans growing up in an essentially
English-speaking environment, I thought the ability to speak another language
required superior intelligence; only people endowed with this unique talent
could actually achieve it. Shortly after I got to Tanzania, I visited in a
remote tribal area where virtually everyone spoke three languages. Moreover,
virtually none of them had ever seen the inside of a school (there just weren't
any schools), let alone graduated from a prestigious university (UCLA).
I therefore had to radically rethink my attitude towards language learning.
This new mindset has significantly helped me master the languages I now
regularly use. I will illustrate with French, the language I know best. But
remember, these same ideas and techniques apply to virtually any language you
may need to acquire.
Some Useful Psychology
The good news is: Learning to speak a language is the easiest part of the
I know you may have thought that speaking would be the most difficult part.
However, I would argue that most people, with minimal effort, can learn to speak
a foreign language reasonably well really quite quickly.
Writing a language is very a different story. French, for example, is one of
the most complex written languages in the world. In fact, written French and
spoken French are almost two separate languages. Therefore, if your objective is
to speak, concentrate on the spoken language and leave the written language to
come along later.
I know this may sound like heresy, because the majority of language courses
try to teach both at the same time, particularly in public schools. They spend a
demoralising amount of time making you write a language (probably because it is
easier to grade students this way), although this is the last thing you really
need to know.
When I say that speaking is the easiest part of the job, I am not advocating
"total immersion". Few of us have the luxury of spending a week, or preferably
several weeks, totally concentrating on learning a language. What I am
advocating is doing things in the proper psychological order.
Most people can master enough of the fundamentals to be able to speak (poorly
but nevertheless coherently), and to understand what is being said to them,
within only 2 - 3 months. The trick is to recognise that the major obstacle to
acquiring a foreign language is not grammar. It's vocabulary.
If you don't know the verb you need, it doesn't matter that you know how to
conjugate verbs; you still cannot speak. If you don't know the adjective you
need, it doesn't matter that you know how to decline adjectives; you still
cannot speak. And so on.
I therefore suggest that the most effective order for learning a language
1. Basic grammar
The minimum necessary to put together an intelligible (if incorrect)
In my experience, this is most efficiently done self-taught. Sit down with a
grammar book for about 10-15 minutes each day until you begin to feel somewhat
comfortable with it.
2. Basic vocabulary
The minimum necessary to begin using the basic grammar.
Again, in my experience this is most efficiently done self-taught, i.e. the
classic "learn five new words each day". It won't be very long before you start
seeing how different words are related, so you can begin to guess what new words
mean without resorting to the dictionary.
3. Speaking the language
Putting basic grammar and vocabulary to work as soon as you can actually
begin using them.
This is the time to consider a language school or a personal tutor. With the
foundation of what you will have already learned by yourself, you will certainly
progress more easily and rapidly than if you had leapt into formal language
instruction at the very beginning.
4. Writing the language
Tackling the daunting task of putting the language on paper.
You will almost certainly never need to do much writing. And what you do
write will certainly need to be revised and corrected by a native speaker.
Since vocabulary is crucial, then the largely unrecognised key to mastering
another language is: Learn to read it.
There is nothing like being able to sit down with a newspaper, magazine, or
even a novel in the language to reinforce both grammar and vocabulary. The more
you read, the more your vocabulary will expand. And the more some of the
language's apparently bizarre ways of doing things will become increasingly
best results, the novel should contain a maximum of dialogue and a minimum of
description. With dialogue, you can frequently anticipate and interpret what the
characters are saying; with description you haven't a clue.
When I was learning French, I used novels by Agatha Christie and the
adventures of Tarzan by Edgar Rice Burroughs, because they are about 90%
dialogue and 10% description. Hardly my favourite literature, but they served
the purpose. I would also suggest Animal Farm by George Orwell and Candide by
Voltaire. However, any novel with a high ratio of dialogue to description will
The purpose of reading in the language is to learn vocabulary
automatically. Constantly looking up unfamiliar words will break your
reading rhythm and damage your enjoyment. Consequently, keep use of a
dictionary to an absolute minimum.
It isn't heresy to say this, just common sense.
In fiction, very few words are crucial for understanding the story line. Do
you really need to know precisely what a room looks like? It's enough to know
that is large and elegantly furnished. Do you really need to know precisely what
a landscape looks like? It is enough to know that it is isolated and windy.
Moreover, words repeat. You will certainly see an unfamiliar word many more
times throughout the text. At least one of those times, the way it is used will
tell you exactly what it means, with no effort at all.
As a rule of thumb, if you are using a dictionary more than 2 - 3 times a
page, you are probably being too fastidious. Stop it. Just read and enjoy!
Once you arrive on site where the language is spoken, all the grammar and
vocabulary you have stored up in this way will rapidly show its worth.
In my case, this occurred only a very few weeks after landing in Tanzania. At
the beginning, I was speaking by translating through English. However, one magic
day I suddenly realised that I was no longer translating through English. I was
speaking in Swahili directly. It was like being released from prison. Although
this happened more than 40 years ago, the picture of my cell door flying open
and my mind flying free is as vivid now as the day it happened. It's an
experience not to be missed!
Having discovered that I could really speak a foreign language - and that
I didn't have to be a genius to do it - I tried to determine how it had
happened. I came to the conclusion that the single most important psychological
factor is resignation.
Different languages have different ways of doing things, some of which will
seem quite absurd. It is useless to keep moaning: "Why do they speak in this
ridiculous way when it is so much easier to do it the way we do it in English?"
Whatever it is you find so annoying: Don't fight it; accept it.
This is how children learn languages. They don't constantly question
grammatical structures, because it would just never occur to them to do so. And
we all know how much more easily and rapidly "naïve" children learn languages
than do we "sophisticated" adults!
Three Fundamental Principles
With Swahili as a basis, I also tried to determine the fundamental principles
of language learning that could help me go on to mastering others. I found three
to be particularly useful.
What you don't have to do is always
easier than what you do have to do.
In other words, the less you have to think about in learning a language, the
more rapidly you will learn it. And the fewer mistakes you will make. As I will
demonstrate below, French has certain features and characteristics that make it
dramatically easier than English. Take advantage of them.
Here is the second principle that can smooth your way.
Familiar habits and patterns of thought are often hard to
Paradoxically, some of the aspects where another language is easier than
English at first glance appear unfamiliar - and therefore falsely difficult.
Although it may take you some time to accept them, once you begin to think in
the language, you will rapidly come to appreciate them and enjoy their benefits.
Here is an anecdote to illustrate the point.
One time I was talking with a Dutch-speaking friend. He agreed that English
is fundamentally simpler than his own language; nevertheless, he complained that
he just couldn't get used to English's simpler sentence structure. In certain
instances, Dutch grammar requires the order of the words in the sentence to
reverse; this never happens in English. Objectively, then, English sentence
structure should be easier than Dutch. But to him, not reversing the word
order just didn't seem natural.
Here is a third principle you will find extremely useful.
By themselves, words and sentences have little meaning; often
they can be understood only in relation to other words and sentences.
This is very reassuring. It means that even if you say something incorrectly,
in general people will still understand you because of the context in which you
say it. Likewise, even if people say something to you using unfamiliar grammar
or vocabulary, in general you will still be able to understand them because of
the context in which they say it.
In short, you don't have to approach perfection in a language in order to
use it effectively.
Focus on Simplicities, not Complexities
To conclude, let me fulfil the promise I made to demonstrate that French has
certain features and characteristics that make it dramatically easier than
English. This is equally true of most other languages, regardless of how
difficult they may seem at first. The important thing is to focus on the
simplicities, not the complexities.
Here are just seven examples; I could cite many more.
1. No tonic accent
Most people are largely unaware of how seriously difficult their own native
language could be to a foreigner. As a native speaker, you probably find that
English is quite easy to pronounce. But the fact is, French is even easier.
What! With its nasalisation, trilled "r" and other difficult sounds?
First, it is important to understand that no sounds, in any language, are
inherently difficult to pronounce. If they were, they wouldn't exist because
the native speakers would never have accepted them in the first place.
Learning to pronounce unfamiliar foreign sounds is never easy. Francophones
learning English have a terrible time pronouncing the "th" sound in words such
as "the", "they", "through", "throw", etc., because there is no French
equivalent. But they do it reasonably well. Just as you may have difficulty with
certain French sounds that have no English equivalents. But you can also do it.
Where French pronunciation has an undeniable advantage over English is its
virtual lack of a "tonic accent".
Tonic accent simply means that certain syllables are given more stress than
are others. For example, "difficult" is pronounced "dif-fi-cult"; the
first syllable carries the tonic accent. It could just as easily be pronounced
dif-fi-cult, or even "dif-fi-cult".
Technically, the tonic accent does exist in French, but it is very hard to
hear it. For example, in English we say "rest-au-rant; there is a
distinct stress on the first syllable. In French, this is "rest-au-rant", with
no stress anywhere. Likewise, "con--ven-tion" has a distinct stress on
the second syllable. In French, this is simply "con-ven-tion", with no stress.
And so on for every word in the language.
Thus, you never have to guess where the tonic accent should go, so you can
never make a mistake.
You have grown up with the tonic accent, so you might not immediately
recognise what a problem it really is, even between native speakers. Britons,
for example, like to say "con-tro-ver-sy" whilst Americans prefer to say
"con-tro-ver-sy". And sometimes they don't understand each other because
of this difference. Britons say "gar-age" whilst Americans say gar-age",
again with the possibility of misunderstanding. And so on. In French, there is
no tonic accent, so this problem simply doesn't exist.
2. Gallic Impersonality
A. Use of "on"
or anglophones, imbued with the idea that French is a very personal language
(the so-called "'language of love"), few things are more surprising than the
frequent use of the very impersonal "on" (pronounced ohn). By contrast,
francophones learning English are surprised to discover that English has no
equivalent of "on", so they have to search all over the place for substitutes.
Actually, this is not entirely true. English does have an equivalent, "one",
but it is seldom used. The Queen of England uses it: "One has considered the
matter carefully" rather than "I have considered the matter carefully".
Moralists use it: "One should not kill", "One should be ready to fight for one's
French uses "on" without the slightest embarrassment. In fact, using it
prevents a lot of embarrassment. For example, a key problem in English is
avoiding "genderism". This is the explanation for the very odd use of the plural
pronoun "they" as if it were a singular. Example: If someone studies hard,
they will succeed.
Why do we make this apparently illogical switch from the singular pronoun
"someone" and the singular verb "studies" to the plural pronoun "they'? Because
otherwise, it would have been necessary to say "he will succeed". However, the
sentence clearly is not directed only to males. Alternatively, it would have
been necessary to say "he or she will succeed", or "he/she will succeed", which
are cumbersome. French has no such problem, because "on" (one) is the universal
B. Use of possessive adjectives
Here is another example of how Gallic impersonality avoids genderism.
Consider the sentence: "Everyone who studies hard will see their effort
rapidly rewarded." We start the sentence with a singular subject and verb;
however, we finish it with a plural possessive adjective ("their"). In French,
the sentence remains singular all the way through, because there is no gender
distinction. "Son effort" can mean either "his effort" or "her effort",
according to the context.
Thus, the inherently impersonal nature of French grammar automatically
precludes a lot of "political incorrectness". In English, we can achieve this
only through some rather illogical and inelegant grammatical contortions.
3. Use of infinitives
A major problem French speakers (and most other Europeans) face in English is
the correct use of infinitives. As a native speaker, you probably never realised
that infinitives can be a problem. After all, an infinitive is just an
Well, not quite. English infinitives are in fact very unusual compared to
French infinitives. This is because French infinitives are unified, whilst
English infinitives are separable. For example:
1. French: manger (-er marks the infinitive)
2. English: to eat
The French infinitive is always a single word; however, the English
infinitive can be used with both parts or only the second part. The problem is,
in many cases this is not optional, but required. For example: "I need to eat
something" (both parts), but "I must eat something" (only second part). So
what's the difference? Why in the first example is the "to" necessary and in the
second not only isn't it necessary, using it would be quite incorrect?
In French, this problem never arises. "J'ai besoin de manger quelque
chose" (I need to eat something) and "Je dois manger quelque chose" (I
must eat something). Simple, isn't it. Just imagine if French worked like
English. You would constantly be making choices about which form of the
infinitive to use - and in many cases you would be wrong.
4. Use of definite articles
Use of the definite article ("the") in English presents pretty much the same
problem as use of the infinitive. In other words, you must always be making
choices about when to use it and when not to use it. French is much simpler.
Really! Doesn't French have three definitive articles (le, la, les) compared
to only one in English? Absolutely! But the problem is not deciding which
definite article to use. Rather, it is deciding whether or not to use any
definitive article at all.
In French, you retain the definite article much more frequently than you do
in English. Thus, you have considerably fewer decisions to make, and therefore
considerably fewer opportunities to make a mistake.
1. "I like cats" (cats in general)
2. "I like the cats" (specific cats, not necessarily all cats)
In French, both statements are rendered "J'aime les chats", so no
decision about whether or not to use the definite article. You distinguish the
meanings of the two sentences from the context in which they are used, not their
5. No distinction between "a" and "one"
The words "a" and "one" are the equivalent of "un" in French. Fundamentally,
these two words mean the same thing; however, "one" is more precise, so it adds
emphasis. For example:
1. I saw a Chinese film (at least one, perhaps more)
2. I saw one Chinese film (only one, no more)
Both of these sentences are rendered in French as "J'ai vu un film
chinois." As with the definite article, you distinguish the meaning from the
Many francophones speaking English frequently make the mistake of saying "I
have eaten in one Japanese restaurant" when they really mean "I have eaten in a
Japanese restaurant". As an anglophone speaking French, you will never make this
mistake, because it simply isn't possible!
6. Simple & progressive (continuous) tenses
English makes frequent use of progressive (continuous) verb tenses, whilst
French almost never does.
The progressive tenses are formed by two verbs: the helper (auxiliary) "to
be" and the "present participle" (-ing form) of the other one.
Example: She is eating.
English uses progressive tenses to distinguish between the general time
period during which an action takes place and the exact moment that the action
takes place. French generally does not make this distinction. "Elle mange" means
either "she eats" or "she is eating". Once again, French leaves interpretation
of the correct meaning to context.
And once again, since there is only one grammatical form, there is no
possibility of error!
7. Converting verbs into nouns
Because of its fondness for progressive verb tenses, English has a
characteristic way of converting verbs into nouns, i.e. using a verb as the
subject or the object of a sentence.
In French, and many other languages, you simply use the infinitive:
Marcher est bon pour les poumons. You can do the same thing in English:
To walk is good for the lungs. However, the preferred form is: Walking
is good for the lungs. To anglophone ears, "walking" is more dynamic than "to
walk", i.e. it seems to give a better picture of what is happening.
This may very well be the case - in English. But there is no such
distinction in French. So once again, there is no way of making a mistake!
Admittedly, learning another language is never easy; it takes time, energy
and dedication. However, as we have seen, there are three powerful strategies
you can use to make the job considerably easier.
- Focus on the simplicities of the other language rather than on its
- Channel your energies according to the best psychological order:
- Basic grammar
- Basic vocabulary
- Speaking the language
- Writing the language
- Concentrate on reading the language to comfortably and automatically
master its grammar and vocabulary
Good luck! Bonne chance! Veel geluk! Viel Gelück! Buena suerte! Buona fortuna!
. . . .
Philip Yaffe is a former reporter/feature writer with The Wall Street Journal
and a marketing communication consultant. He currently teaches a course and
conducts one-day workshops in writing and public speaking in Brussels, Belgium.
In the 'I' of the Storm: the Simple Secrets of Writing & Speaking (Almost)
like a Professional, his recently published book, perceptively and
entertainingly explains the key principles and practices of persuasive
communication. It is available from the publishers in Ghent, Belgium (www.storypublishers.be)
and Amazon (www.amazon.com).
Contributor: Philip Yaffe
Published here on: 19-Aug-07
Classification: Learning, Communication