How to Learn a Language

By Ian Mosley, Instructor of Latin, School of the Ozarks

The old saying is true—“familiarity breeds contempt”—but that isn’t even half the problem. Familiarity also leads to comfort, and the human mind does odd things when it is comfortable. G. K. Chesterton wrote his wonderful book The Everlasting Man, he said, to re-present the Christian west as if examining an alien country, so that, the obscurity that familiarity creates being dispelled, his readers could appreciate it for what it really was.

This is also one of the blessings of learning a foreign language—it alienates us from our own language. Is “alienate” too strong a word? It is true, though, that the comfort we feel with our own language leads us to have strange ideas about it. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, if I ask one of my students why it is we say things a certain way in English—why we say “I am” but “you are,” or why the past tense of work is worked but the past of run is ran, or, my personal favorite, why we say “a big red truck” but never “a red big truck”—I get the same answer: “It just sounds better that way.”

For those ignorant of foreign languages, the answer must remain eternally the same: my language works the way it does because that’s just how language works. Those other languages, our thorny inheritance from the hubris on the plains of Shinar, are merely some strangely encoded form of English. We say table, and Spanish, out of some mysterious perversity, says mesa, and, voilà, learning another language is just the tedious process of figuring out the silly code those foreigners have devised.

Once we really learn a foreign language, though—and not just some phrases, but once we learn to really rethink grammar in a different language—this impression should be forever demolished. If our foreign language study gives us no appreciation for the judgment of the linguist John McWhorter, that English is the “strangest language in the world,” our time has been spent in vain.

To really learn a foreign language, then, is to relearn our own as if it were foreign at the same time. My students sometimes jokingly call this “second English”—we learned English from our parents, and we learn second English from Mr. Mosley. Or as the French proverb at the beginning of Wheelock’s Latin has it, apprendre une langue, c’est vivre de nouveau—“to learn a language is to live anew.”

In her seminal address, “The Lost Tools of Learning,” Dorothy Sayers proposes a similar justification for foreign language study—studying another language exposes the structure of language in such a way that our understanding and appreciation of language as a medium of communciation is forever enhanced. Such an understanding should be a beneficial tool of learning no matter what studies we pursue because all studies, from plumbing to petroleum engineering, are expressed in some linguistic form.

Granting this, then, how should we go about learning a foreign language? As a Latin teacher, I have a pretty good command of the language in reading, writing, speaking, and listening. My French is behind my Latin, but not by too much. I can read Koine Greek, the dialect of the New Testament, and I know some “getting around” Italian. I am just beginning to study Hebrew more intensely. I can claim no real expertise in the science of linguistics or second language acquisition, but I can certainly try to explain what has worked for me.

The foundation for acquiring any language, in my opinion, is a mastery of the grammar. That, unfortunately, cannot be done apart from a lot of brain-busting labor in memorizing paradigms and rules. There is good reason to doubt those who try to point to a more royal road. For example, a pedagogical method called “comprehensible input” is quite fashionable among modern language teachers and even some classicists, and it allegedly imparts a better command of the language while almost totally eschewing grammar.

But there are good reasons to doubt the effectiveness of this method. For one thing, ask anyone who studies languages how he goes about learning a new one—if he is candid, he will probably confess that he begins with a great deal of grammatical study. He wants to know the ins and outs of how the language works—how it handles the different parts of speech, its essential syntax, its morphology, etc. As Sayers also points out, a craftsman picks up a new tool by “doodling” around with it, tinkering with it, testing it, and grammar is how people who know languages “doodle” with them. There is every reason, then, to think that learning a second language is more like learning a third than it is like learning the first.

Immersion, the wisdom goes, covereth a multitude of grammar, and this is true to a certain extent and at a certain stage of study (more on that below). Immersion, though, requires something that students do not often possess in abundance, and that is boldness. In a truly immersive environment—an American kid being raised, say, in Argentina—motivation comes naturally and forcefully, because a student desperately wants to communicate with his peers and do it correctly. A student in Argentina is immersed in Spanish the way someone might be immersed in water—sink or swim!

This overriding motivation serves to mitigate the negative effects of immersion, such as its deeply alienating emotional aspects. But in a clasroom where all his peers speak English, the same kind of motivation is never going to be present for a student. The exceptions here prove the rule, as most successful immersive classrooms are dealing with a small body of highly motivated people, themselves often not wholly ignorant of grammar, such as the scholars of the celebrated Vivarium Novum in Italy.

The second step after climbing the hill of grammar (which takes years for young students, perhaps a year or two for those near or past adulthood) is reading, reading, reading. Reading—including the kind of reading we do when we translate—builds knowledge of vocabulary and syntax like nothing else. Being exposed to endless examples of correct use of the language is the only thing that ultimately builds our lingusitic sense—the kind of sense that tells us that “big red truck” is good English and “red big truck” is not. It is true that at this stage grammar, in the sense of formal rules, is transcended to a certain extent, though formal grammar and linguistic sense in combination can be mutually reinforcing (precisely the way they are in, say, English compositon).

Reading fluency has been obtained when you can pick up a random text in the target language and read it comfortably (though not necessarily perfectly). Reading fluency takes years to develop. It requires daily exposure to the best literary models. In my experience, after reading fluency we begin to develop writing fluency—usually, in the first place, sticking close to models of things we have read, and then gradually developing our powers of original expression. Formal grammar reasserts its importance at this stage, because we naturally wish to express ourselves in as pure an idiom as possible, and we rarely trust our linguistic sense enough at this stage unless we are sticking very closely to a model.

Next comes listening fluency. I have yet to find a method that speeds this part of the process along except just exposing myself to hours and hours of full-speed native speech. Youtube has made this feasible even for dead languages like Latin—I laid the foundations of my listening fluency in Latin with the lectures of Luigi Miraglia and Wilfried Stroh, and now there is even more out there with podcasts like Quomodo Dicitur and Latinitium. For modern languages, of course, there is an embarrassment of riches, from radio to TV and movies.

Like any immersion, this process is frustrating and alienating. You understand nothing at first. Your brain is going through a painful process of rewiring itself to hear the sounds of the new language, and this requires a lot of patience. For languages with a simple and unambiguous phonetic system, like Spanish or Latin, this takes a shorter amount of time than for more challenging languages, like French, or, presumably, English.

Speaking again from personal experience—and that only—I have only ever begun to develop spoken fluency after a long time spent on developing listening fluency. Here again, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, immersion is the worst method, except for all the others. Unfortunately this kind of immersion is also the most difficult to obtain, as it usually requires travel or a dedicated study group.

Most people who are studying dead languages only want reading fluency, though I think most would find that if they keep progressing they will become better readers as part of the bargain. For modern languages, of course, listening and speaking fluency is the ideal, to the point where many people seem to eschew reading fluency altogether—a mistake, I think. The mind benefits greatly from gaining comfort in a controlled environment—a book will not look at you like you’re an idiot while you try to puzzle out one of its sentences—and then moving from confidence in one area to confidence in another. It is a great help when developing listening fluency to know that you would certainly understand everything being said if it were written down—you just have to wait for the ear to catch up with your eyes.

No matter how arduous and long the process, I don’t think anyone who has put in the time to learn a new language has ever regretted the effort. We give a great deal more time to things of far less intrinsic satisfaction. If we get nothing else, we will get the sublime experience of returning home and seeing it, as if for the first time.

2 thoughts on “How to Learn a Language

  1. Hi Ian. I agree that boldness is the hurdle that once passed, will allow the quickest assimilation. I learned this from the circumstance of being an opera singer, where people are trained to ‘say first, understand later’. As an adult, I have the patience and reference to study grammar.
    The study of studying grammar, however, is prior to this for the young student. ‘He who does not know another tongue does not know his own’ — Goethe.


  2. His tractibus postremo vespere, me delectat id invenire (gratiis omnibus debitiis “baggerts,” qui mihi hunc argumentum hodie memoravit). Macte Virtute!


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