In this article, guest author Geoffrey Taylor attacks the more difficult “active” foreign language skills of speaking and writing. Both require practice and interaction with native speakers, but don’t despair! As Geoffrey suggests, there are ways to approach this even without going abroad.

This is the second of two articles written by Geoffrey Taylor for the San Diego Mensan. Geoffrey is a naval instructor, doctoral student, and president of San Diego Mensa. As he explains below, he has attained proficiency in eight languages and is now a linguist for the U. S. Navy.

Language Learning Made Easy- Part II

By Geoffrey Taylor

             Last month, I described some easy strategies for learning to understand another language, in both written and spoken modalities. While this takes time and patience, it is far easier to learn to understand a language than to learn to express oneself in it, and that is going to be the topic of this article.

Many of us know somebody, perhaps someone with parents from another country, who claim to be able to understand the language of their parents, but not to be able to speak it. This may seem strange, but there are several reasons why expressing yourself in a language is so much more challenging than simply understanding someone else. Think about the difference between understanding what’s going on in a game of football, and coaching a major league team yourself. The difference is qualitative.

You might not know the French word for "empire," but you can still read this title!

You might not know the French word for “empire,” but you can still read this title! (gt)

First of all, it is much easier to remember something by recognition than by recall. You might not be able to think of the work for “water” in Dutch, but you might recognize it if you saw it (it’s “water”). This is especially true with languages that have a large number of words similar to English, such as French, Dutch, and to a lesser degree, other European languages. When you’re speaking or writing, you have to continually recall the words from the new language fast enough to keep the communication flowing. With writing, of course, you can stop and use a dictionary, but if you’re doing this every five words, it will quickly become frustrating. Although the ability to take more time and use more references when writing makes writing in another language easier than speaking in some ways, we will see in a minute that writing is actually the most difficult competency of all to master.

inside dictionary

Dictionaries can be overwhelming at times! (gt)


             Learning to speak begins with learning how to say those things which you are most likely to say. One of the first things you should do is get a phrasebook and begin to memorize it. Phrasebooks contain the most common and practical things you will ever have to say; after all, memorizing grammar rules and vocabulary lists will not help you to introduce yourself or reserve a hotel room. Start with ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’, and go from there. Use flashcards. And there are excellent phrasebooks available for free on the internet! (http://wikitravel.org/en/Phrasebook). Later, as your vocabulary increases through reading, you will want to practice speaking with native speakers. Developing fluency is absolutely dependent on this, but it is surprisingly easy. For every one of you who is trying to learn another language, there are most likely dozens of people who speak that language who are learning English. Use a conversation exchange network to find one of them! My favorite is http://www.conversationexchange.com, but there are many others. You speak English for 15 minutes, or an hour, or whatever, and then speak your target language for the same amount of time. Best of all, you can do this over the internet for free, using a voice communication service such as Skype!

Language classes abroad with organizations like Goethe Institut or Alliance Francaise offer wonderful opportunities to start talking.

If you can go abroad, language classes with organizations like Goethe Institut (above) or Alliance Francaise offer wonderful opportunities to start talking. (gt)

On a cautionary note, speaking can quickly become frustrating if you are having trouble understanding what the other person is saying. This can be caused by:

  •  A bad phone or Skype connection can make it difficult to understand someone speaking English, let alone another language! Try to get a good connection.
  • Dialect and Colloquialism. Sometimes the way people talk to each other in real life is different from how they talk on TV or on the radio. You can ask the person to speak more clearly and plainly, but eventually you should get used to understanding the way people naturally talk, with their idiomatic expressions, vowel shifts, and shortcuts. In Bavaria, sometimes Germans say “Gemma” instead of “Gehen Wir”. In the Caribbean, Spanish speakers often drop a final ‘s’ from a word.
  • Speed and Clarity. Speakers who talk too fast, mumble, use slang, and slur words together are not good to practice with, and it is easy to get quickly frustrated with them. Also, you should avoid using slang- it will almost always sound wrong, no matter how good you think your accent is, and it may be offensive to some.

In general, the slower, clearer, and more correctly your language exchange partner speaks, the faster you will progress as a speaker. You will also find that practicing speaking will greatly accelerate your mastery of vocabulary, because words used in conversation form more neural pathways, and tend to stick in your head a lot more firmly than words memorized off of flash cards.


             While writing may seem easier, since you can take your time, use references, and make revisions, it is actually more difficult than speaking. Think about it- when we talk in English, we use incomplete sentences, we relax our grammar a little, and mainly concern ourselves with getting the message across. Also, with speaking, you can usually tell immediately from the other person if they understood you correctly or not. When you write, spelling, grammar, and punctuation all suddenly become important. Writing is often hard even for native speakers—think of all the poorly written emails, memos, and even public signage you have seen. Also, think about the kind of impression that poor writing makes. It’s not incredibly difficult to learn to write in another language, but it does take more work and attention to detail.

Grammar is particularly important when writing. (gt)

Grammar is particularly important when writing.

In writing, you will want to have a good grasp of the grammar. In fact, writing is the only one of the four language competencies in which grammatical correctness is important. You can get away with bad grammar if you are a foreigner speaking a language, and you only need to have the most basic understanding of grammar to read and listen. Grammar is important in writing, not only because of the impression it makes, but because you won’t likely have that safety catch of instant feedback that you have when speaking with someone, and you won’t have your nonverbal cues to support your words. In writing, what you ultimately produce is your one shot at communicating, and you had better hope that the message is clearer than this sign found on a restroom door: “Toilet out of order. Please use floor below.”

Compared to vocabulary, grammar is relatively easy to learn because it is finite. You will need a grammar book (or other comprehensive grammar reference), and possibly some help from a native speaker. Grammar books can sometimes be frustrating, and if you get to a particular principle which seems to perpetually escape your comprehension, just keep moving and come back to it later. The more you learn, the more the rest will make sense.

Reading can be fun, while helping your vocabulary and your comprehension. (gt). (Il y a un Cauchemar dans mon Placard, Mercer Mayer).

Reading can be fun, while helping your vocabulary, your comprehension, and your understanding of sentence structure.
(gt). (Il y a un Cauchemar dans mon Placard, Mercer Mayer).

In order to write well, you should also read as much as you can. In reading in the new language, you will come across the accepted conventions of the language. Some of these may be exceptions to grammatical rules, and others may be strategies to avoid ambiguity or misunderstanding. Sometimes, speakers of a language simply say something a certain way, and will think it is weird if you say it different; for example, saying “She is above” rather than “She is upstairs.” Reading makes you a better writer. This strategy, more than any other, helped me to make it through my writing assignments in my classes at the Conservatory of Music in Graz, Austria.

Children's dictionaries show you how to use a word in a sentence. In this case, German word order differs from English. (gt)

Children’s dictionaries show you how to use a word in a sentence. In this case, German word order differs considerably from English. (gt)

Finally, if you have the benefit of a spelling and/or grammar checker, you should definitely use it. Having a native speaker who is willing to proofread your writing is even better (just make sure that the person is a decent writer in their own language; you can’t assume this). Having your errors in writing pointed out to you is very productive learning. Retention of the information you learn this way is much higher than studying on your own.

Learning languages has been one of my great passions over the years. For those who enjoy it, language learning provides an endless fount of pleasure that will last you the rest of your life. The first language is the hardest, because you aren’t just learning the language, you’re also learning how to learn a language. The more you learn, the more irresistible the next one comes.

I have been studying languages for years in order to pass the Navy language tests, in order to boost my income. To date, I have passed the Defense Language Proficiency Test (DLPT) in 8 languages: German, Spanish, French, Italian, Dutch, Portuguese, Indonesian, and Swahili, all self-taught using more or less the same methods described in this series of articles. However, it wasn’t until last year that I finally took the next step and applied for conversion to duty as a Navy linguist. My application was accepted earlier this year, and in February of next year, I will be moving to Hawaii to begin an exciting new career in languages! I would like to offer my encouragement for all other language lovers out there: It can be done, it’s worth it, it’s FUN, and it’s one of the most rewarding experiences out there.


He’s right – it is fun! One of my favorite practice techniques is singing along with music in the car. It gives me vocabulary and experience in the flow of the language. I prefer older popular songs, like ballads, that are relatively slow and easy to understand. Using your languages with Facebook friends or in other social media is also fun. Reading can be entertaining and a good vocabulary builder. The illustrations for both articles are from my own library, so they reflect my background French, German, and Latin, rather than Geoffrey’s more extensive array of languages. (By the way, the “gt” after the captions is me.)

Don't laugh--they're old, but singing along with easygoing ballads like these helps me remember words and phrases. (gt)

Don’t laugh–they’re old, but singing along with easygoing ballads like these helps me remember words and phrases. (gt)

Many thanks to Geoffrey Taylor for being our guest author. I hope you have enjoyed his creative approaches to learning languages as much as I have!

Gail Taylor

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