Most of us wrestle with learning languages at one time or another.  Certainly languages are one of the most challenging components of a historian’s skill set. Fortunately, today the opportunities to immerse yourself in a foreign language are readily available through both printed and digital media.

Our guest author, Geoffrey Taylor, is a naval instructor, doctoral student, and president of San Diego Mensa who has developed proficiency in seven languages.  I am happy to share two articles on practical approaches to learning languages which he wrote for the San Diego MENSAN.  The article presented below gives practical tips on building reading and listening skills. Next month, part two will share methods for developing competence in speaking and writing.



“I’ve always wanted to learn another language.” This wistful remark, much like its brother “I’ve always wanted to learn the piano,” grates me like fingers on a chalkboard every time I hear it. When people say it, I always think that they really mean “I wish I could speak another language without having to go through the trouble of learning one.” Surprisingly, learning another language is not as difficult as people make it out to be. So, I am going to try to clear up some misconceptions that many people have about learning languages, and then put forward a simple and effective system that can be applied to learning any language… in the hopes that someone, somewhere will be able to fulfill their polyglot ambition. This is the first of a two-part series; in this article I will discuss reading and listening, and next month I will get into speaking and writing.

Try reading some old favorites in the original language. Many can be found on line. (gt).

Try reading some old favorites in the original language. Many can be found on line. (gt).

Shortcomings of popular systems

Unfortunately, most commonly used systems for learning a language fail to deliver meaningful results for students. Living in Southern California, I am constantly running in to people who studied Spanish for 4 years in High School, and can’t speak, read, write, or understand Spanish at all. Language courses tend to focus on grammar (one of the least important elements for basic communication) and to neglect listening comprehension (which is essential). Numerous commercial language learning products are available, and many of them are useful, but almost all of them focus on only one or two of the four elements of language, which are reading, listening, writing, and speaking. This month we will discuss reading and listening.


Learning to understand the written language is generally easier than the other three elements, and is essential for building a foundation of vocabulary and syntax. I say syntax rather than grammar, because I want to emphasize that memorizing grammar rules will not necessarily help you to understand how people say things, and that is what you need to learn. Learning grammar can help with this, but the focus in learning to read should be practicing reading. Get a simple grammar book, and try to work through the first few chapters. Then, start a regular (if not daily) reading routine. Find some written material—there is plenty available for free on the internet—and work through it with a dictionary, building flash cards each time you encounter an unfamiliar word. Also, get into a routine of studying these flashcards. One easy way to find time to study flashcards is to carry some with you all the time, so you can study them using time that would otherwise be lost, such as waiting in line at the grocery store, or waiting at the bus stop (or sitting through a boring lecture… discreetly, of course). Limit the time you spend each day reading and studying, though, to a sustainable amount of time. I do 15 minutes. Your 4-hour crash sessions will not help you if you don’t get into a routine you can sustain over the long term.

Children's books are a fun way to expand your vocabulary.

Children’s books can be a fun way to expand your vocabulary. (gt)

While sustaining this reading routine, continue to read through, and refer to, your grammar book in manageable chunks. It is important at this stage to avoid spending a lot of time trying to understand difficult grammatical concepts. If you don’t get something, move on, and you can come back to it later. The purpose of reading (I didn’t say learning) grammar at this stage is to help you understand the material you are reading each day. You will notice that, in another language, people say things funny, put words in a different order, add strange prefixes and suffixes to words, and other diabolical tricks that will confuse you thoroughly if you don’t at least pay a little attention to how the grammar works. Vocabulary, however, is the real bottleneck for any language. There are thousands of words you need to memorize, so start early and persist, and focus more on this than on grammar.

Even though poetry is seldom translated word for word, it can add variety to your reading. Read something you enjoy. (gt)

Even though poetry is seldom translated word for word, it can add variety to your reading. Read something you enjoy. (gt)

What to read? There is something to be said for starting with children’s books (because the language is simpler), or books you have read before (because you already get what they’re saying), but I will share with you my two by-far most highly preferred sources of reading material: Internet news articles, and internet joke sites. News articles are the perfect medium for absorbing vocabulary, and at the same time, they establish the standard for basic reading fluency. News articles are mainly written at a simple level, for mass consumption, but if you can read news articles comfortably in another language, you’ve come a long way. Try to avoid articles about politics, which use limited vocabulary, and will probably be difficult to understand if you are not familiar with the politics of that country. The reason that I recommend jokes is because they showcase a lot of the grammar (syntax) that you won’t see in news articles, like the use of the first and second persons. In jokes, you will encounter a lot of the language that people use to talk to one another in a normal, everyday context. Not only that, but there are few feelings comparable to the delight of understanding and laughing at a deliciously tasteless yet hilarous joke in a language you have been struggling to learn. It will be a reward you will have justly earned.

Reading jokes is a fun language exercise. Just "getting" the joke is a reward in itself! (gt)

Reading jokes is a fun language exercise. Just “getting” the joke is a reward in itself! (gt)


Learning to hear and understand a language is probably the element that requires the most patience, because there is no way to rush it. No matter how hard you try, there is no way around taking the time to let the language ‘get into your ear’. This can be frustrating, especially when you’ve gotten to the point at which you can read entire newspaper articles without ever consulting a dictionary, but you turn on the radio and can barely make out more than an isolated word or phrase here and there.

While a good foundation in vocabulary is helpful to understanding the spoken language, I believe it is productive to start listening to the language right away. Your ears have to get used to hearing it, and your brain has to get used to processing the new sounds, before you’ll start to be able to make sense of it anyway. This involves setting a regular (and again, sustainable) routine of listening to the spoken language every day.

While there are several audio language learning materials available, most of which are mainly helfpul for memorizing basic phrases, these will not be enough to get you used to hearing a language. In fact, I would recommend foregoing these commercial products until you are ready to try speaking, because that is where they are most useful. There are two forms of foreign language media which I have found most helpful in easing a language into your ear over time: radio/podcasts, and movies.

I say radio/podcasts because most of us will not be among the fortunate who can simply turn on the radio to a channel in our target language. If you do have a locally available radio channel in the language you are trying to learn, you can just listen to in in the car, or maybe 15 or 30 minutes a day at home. You can do it while you are washing the dishes, or doing other chores. If you don’t have a radio channel to work with, despair not! There are podcasts available in practically every language in the world now, on the internet! I think iTunes has foreign language podcast channels, but I don’t have an iPod, so the way I always do it is to look up the word “podcast” in the target language, and then Google that. Sometimes it helps to go to the country’s Google site (there are international Google sites for almost every country) and search there. Try to find files that are in an audio format, like .mp3. You can put them on an .mp3 player, but I usually burn them to a CD. An hour of listening material is plenty; I’ve gotten by with as little as 20 minutes. The key is getting used to hearing it, and a lot of that is just passive listening, although you make progress faster when you actively try to figure out what they’re saying. Listening to the same 60 minutes of audio repeatedly helps ingrain the speaking patterns into your brain, and you start recognizing them faster, which is rewarding as you start to slowly understand more and more of the CD.

Movies are also a great way to practice listening,  and they are usually more fun. Here are some strategies for practicing using movies, each of which helps in a slightly different way. Try rotating through them, but don’t overburden yourself:

-Watch a movie in the language with English subtitles. You can read the English and hear what is being said in the language, and often figure out what they said that way.

Watch a familiar movie - try French with French subtitles. (gt)

Watch a familiar movie – try French with French subtitles. (gt)

-Watch a movie that you already know in English. It helps to know what is going on, and if you remember a lot of the dialogue (how many of us have the Star Wars Trilogy practically memorized?) you can recognize more of what is being said. The advantage of this over the previous method is that you won’t have to read the subtitles, and can focus more on listening.

-Watch a movie in the language with subtitles in that language. Once you have a solid foundation in vocabulary, sometimes it just helps to see it written out. Sometimes seeing a difficult passage written out in text makes it just click, and suddenly you get why you couldn’t understand it before. While this method is more useful when you become proficient at understanding the written language, I recommend using the other methods more often. With this method, it sometimes becomes too tempting just to read the subtitles and forget about listening.

Many familiar movies are available in multiple languages. (gt)

Many familiar movies are available in multiple languages. (gt)

What next?

Sometimes reading and listening is enough. Many people learn just to read a language, and stop there; for example, historians do research in languages they never intend to hear, speak, or write in. Some people stop at reading and listening, which are the easy half of learning a language. As a linguist, many of the languages I qualify for only require a reading and listening test, and so I stop there. Speaking a language is much more difficult to learn, but it is well worth the effort for any language that you expect to be able to use (conversely, it’s no fun learning to speak a language that you aren’t going to talk to anybody in). Writing a language, interestingly, can be the most difficult part of all of learning a language, and also the most rewarding. Until next time!



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