A Language Learning Guide

This post consists mostly of a combination of articles previously posted on Cogitationum, for the benefit of the readers brought together in one location. Enjoy!

Some general words about learning:

According to the Oxford English Dictionary online: ‘scholarship’ is ‘Academic study or achievement.’ This is a sound definition, but it tells nothing about the process. The process of scholarship is different for everyone but here is a general outline.

{1} Admitting Socratic ignorance. That is admit, ‘The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.’  If one knew something than there would be no reason to seek knowledge no reason to go about the process of scholarship.

{2} Doubt everything. As Descartes put it, ‘Puisque je doute, je pense; puisque je pense, j’existe.’  (‘Because I doubt, I think; because I think, I exist.’) If one was certain of everything than there would be no reason to search for certainty.

{3} In the words of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: ‘Presume nothing.’ This goes with doubting everything, if one presumes something is the case without truly thinking about it than there is no seeking for knowledge.

{4} ‘Study hard what interests you the most in the most undisciplined, irreverent, and original manner possible.’ – Richard P. Feynman.

{5} Read. Read as much as possible. However, as Walter Block pointed out ‘reading is only part of the practice of scholarship. Personal interactions, debate, dialogue, too, are necessary.’  Thus, {6} Debate, create dialogue. It is in talking over a position that one truly comes to understand it. If person-to-person dialogue is too hard for someone, they can always create a scripted dialogue. (This is best done by taking a book, article, or the like for someone of the opposite position and writing out a refutation of it.)

{7} Fail. Everyone makes mistakes, everyone is wrong. As C.S. Lewis put it, ‘ Failures are finger posts on the road to achievement.’ More importantly, failure allows one to correct one’s mistakes. Failure shows what was wrong in a line of thought, in a process, it provides a check on the process of scholarship.

{8} Practice. Without practice all knowledge gained is lost. Certainly some things are harder to practice than others; however, it the path to knowledge were easy there would be no reward.

{9} Self-examination and reflection. One must question oneself about one’s learning, one’s knowledge, the path to get there, and what one has gained. In the words of Socrates: ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’

{10} Start over again.

‘Education never ends, Watson. It is a series of lessons, with the greatest for the last.’ – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

What sets people apart for other animals? Many would say that “thumbs” are what have allowed people to create and thrive in harsh environments (read all environments). But if this is the case why haven’t all primates spread out and conquered like humans?

The key factor in human survival and human flourishing, the factor above all that sets humans apart from the other animals, is the mind that humans have. A logical mind, a self-aware mind, a mind capable of producing infinitely complex linguistic functions, and above all a curious mind.

Certainly other animals have curiosity, but not to the scale and scope of human curiosity. What is curiosity?

The OED online defines it as ” A strong desire to know or learn something.”

It is curiosity that has allowed people to study and want to study science, language, philosophy, indeed everything that humans have studied and discovered was preceded by the thirst for knowledge. It is curiosity that has put humans apart from other animals.

Which Language To Learn?:

This is an age of globalization. There are two kinds, a good and a bad kind, on the generally good side there is economic globalization, trade supports the spread of culture and languages and helps lifts the poor (so long as trade and the markets are not interfered with by governments), and on the bad side governmental globalization, the United Nations, the European Union, NATO, etc. In this age of globalization, languages are becoming global. Which languages?

Top five spoken languages [L1 speakers] (Ethnologue data):
Chinese (all dialects/languages): 1,197 million speakers
Spanish: 414 million speakers
English: 335 million speakers
Hindi: 260 million speakers
Arabic (all dialects/languages): 237 million speakers

Top five languages with greatest official spread (Ethnologue data):
English: official in 99 countries
Arabic: official in 60 countries
French: official in 51 countries
Chinese: official in 33 countries
Spanish: official in 31 countries

Official languages of United Nations:
Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish

Official languages of the European Union:
Bulgarian, French, Maltese, Croatian, German, Polish, Czech, Greek, Portuguese, Danish, Hungarian, Romanian, Dutch, Irish, Slovak, English, Italian, Slovene, Estonian, Latvian, Spanish, Finnish, Lithuanian, and Swedish

Here are five of the most spoken  languages, those with more than 1 million speakers, that most people have may never have heard of. The percent of the worlds population for each language was hand calculated based on (a) the Ethnologue language data and (b) the equation [(Number of speakers/World Population)(100)]. {Example: Chinese (all dialects) = (1,197 million/ 7.125 billion )(100) = 16.8%}

1. Lahnda: 82.6 million speakers; 1.16% of the World’s population

2. Telugu: 74 million speakers; 1.04% of World’s population

3.  Gujarati: 45.7 million speakers: .64% of World’s population

4.  Begheli: 2, 860, 000 speakers;  .04% of World’s population

5. Dhundari: 1, 870, 000 speakers: .03% of World’s population

The question is simple: What will the language of the future be? Many contend that English will remain as the Lingua Franca of the world. However, others contend that machine translation (MT) will overtake English and replace the entire idea of lingua franca.

Many people may be inclined to say that Mandarin Chinese will overtake English as the next lingua franca. However, there are some facts working against this view. Firstly, Mandarin has a very small spread, that is few countries have many native speakers. Chinese is spoken mainly in China. The median age of a Chinese citizen is 36.7 years old, the total fertility rate is 1.6 children per woman (which is below replacement), in short, the Chinese population is slowly ageing without enough children to replace them. Furthermore, almost every Chinese person receives some education in English. Given these factors it seems unlikely that Chinese will replace English.

Many people predict that English will remain the global lingua franca of commerce, entertainment, and, increasingly, culture. Most with this view hold it in a predictive rather than hopeful mindset. They predict that one day every child will receive English education. They say that the internet is providing students today with easy access to English media, news, entertainment, etc. Many contend that MT, though getting ever better at document translation is heavily impaired when it comes to translation of the spoken word. However, believers in MT disagree.

Those that hold the view that MT will overtake English, also contend that MT will displace the need for a lingua franca at all. Instead everyone will use simple MT for their cross-language communication. They hold that business will have a greater impact on international customers through the use of MT on their websites, they will be able to reach the people that do not know English. Further, supporters of MT state that it is getting batter and better each day in both areas of document translation and spoken word translation. What is more, many supporters of MT say that it will help save indigenous languages, by removing the prestige of a lingua franca and providing a platform for them to speak in their language and be understood be the wider world.

It is impossible to predict the future. It is unlike that anyone in the late 1800s would have predicted that English would displace French, not only as the lingua franca in diplomacy, but in culture, art, and entertainment, by the close of the next century. Few would have predicted the displacement of German as the language of technology by Japanese and English. It is not clear what the future will hold for English, MT, and the global lingua franca. What is clear is that no matter what happens, both MT and English will have a future.

Which language is the hardest to learn? Everyone is different. However, According to the Defense language institute (DLI) Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Pashto are some of the hardest. The main issue with trying to say what language is the ‘hardest’ is that everyone comes from different experiences. If you know some Spanish, French will become easier. If you know Cantonese, the grammar and writing of Mandarin will come easier.

How to learn a New Language:

Some tips:

1. Have a reason to learn: If you don’t have a reason to learn, you won’t be motivated to learn, study, are practice.

2. Practice: As it was state before on this site, in “Only Perfect Practice Makes Perfect: The Key Factor to Language Learning,” constant and continual practice is one of the most important things in learning a new language.

3. Embrace mistakes: They are going to happen, perfect conventions, prefect language use, perfection is impossible. Think about how you use your own language, is it perfect, do you use flawless grammar? No. Don’t expect to be perfect in another language.

4. Immerse yourself in your new language: Watch the news, read children’s books, listen to music, etc. in your new language.

5. Chose either grammar or phrases first: You should learn both but when first starting off you should make a choice. It depends on what your goals are. If you want to read and write technical papers, grammar is probably the best place to start. If, on the other hand, you want to talk to people from the countries that speak the language or watch a soap opera in it, phrases are probably the best place to start.

6. Dip your toes in, then dive in: No one (few people, that is) blindly jump into a pool they don’t know the temperature of, they dip their toes in, then dive in. Do the same with the language you are learning, unless it is for school or a job, first dip your toes into the language. You might find that the language you want to learn is unappealing to you when you get a little taste of the language. If you like the language, dive in.

7. Don’t lie to yourself: As, physicist, Richard P. Feynman once said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.” If you tell yourself that you can’t learn a language, a lie, you won’t be able to learn that language. If you say to yourself, ‘Why, I can’t learn a new language, I’m too old,’ you will never learn. As to the too old part, a study by University of Haifa, Israel, found that under control conditions old people are better at learning a new language than younger people. Don’t lie to yourself.

8. Have fun: If learning your target language bores you, you will never be motivated to learn. Play games, chat with pals, do something that makes learn the language fun (or interesting).

9. Do what you want: If you want to write, write. If you want to read, read. If you want to listen to music, listen to music. If you want to shout at your neighbors, shout at your neighbors. If you want to chat, chat. You probably get the point. Whatever it is you want to do in your target language do that.

10. Don’t let others dictate: You are your own boss, unless you are in a school class, you are your own judge. Don’t let others tell you which language to learn (all languages are useful), how you should learn them, or anything else. Of course, listening to others, especially native speakers, is important in learning a new language, but don’t let others dictate for you. You know what works best for you.

An important part of learning a new language is having a goal (or goals) for that language. Good goals are a great way to get and stay motivated to learn that new language. What makes up good language goals?

Gaugeable: the goal(s) should be able to be measured or gauged, like passing a test, or being able to watch movies in the language without subtitles.

Obtainable: the goal(s) should be something that is actually achievable for the learner.

Ambitious: the goal(s) should be something that is hard to achieve (but not to hard).

Liveable:  the goal(s) should be capable of being done, without causing huge amounts of stress, or throwing of the balances of the learner’s life.

Specific: the goal(s) should be clear, not vague; targeted, not generalised; and have a specific ‘accomplish by’ date.

Language goals can be big or small. From ‘have a conversation in French with my friend by the end of July,’ to ‘read all of Tolstoy in Russian by April.’ Language goals are a great tool for the language learner.  Sometimes interactive goals, communicating with others, are the most helpful.

To learn a new language:


The key part of learning a new language is practice. Practice listening, practice speaking, practice reading, practice writing. Practice a little here and little there. Practice everyday, overcome the urge to say ‘I don’t want to,’ and not practice for the day. Weigh the short term costs with the long term ends. Practice for one minute, five minutes, ten minutes, an hour, two hours. Practice in the car, in the shower, on the toilet, anywhere. The point is that it does not matter, how much, how long, or where one practices, the key to learning a language, anything for that matter, is practice.

Self-directed language learning is defined by the Summer Institute of Linguistics [SIL] International (2015) as, “the learner [of a language] takes responsibility for their learning, choosing the content, resources, time, place, activities, and pace of their learning.”   The self-directed learning may be a person that has a passion and/or wide-knowledge of language and language learning, or may be a person that for some reason wants or needs to learn another language but has no particular passion or knowledge (an everyday language learning). However, neither the presence nor lack of passion or knowledge is the ultimate determiner of the effectiveness of self-direct learning. The ultimate determiner is really a drive to learn the language out of want or need. The self-directed learning must put forth an effort to learn.  The self-directed learning is not a purely atomistic learning, but as SIL (2015) noted, may use a team, coach, commercial resources, on-line resources, etc. Indeed, the self-directed learner may utilise language classes and schools, while supplementing those with self-directed learning activities outside the classroom.

An important skill for self-directed language learners to have is self-assessment. This simply means that the learner assesses their own ability to use their target language. However, there are problems in self-assessment. Self-assessment requires the learner to have clear goals to judge progress; yet, many learners will degrade themselves in their self-assessment because of anxiety and subjectivity of standards. As MacIntyre and Gardner (1989) wrote, language anxiety presents in three major forms: “communication apprehension” (in which the learner is unable to express their complex ideas with a limited vocabulary), “fear of negative social evaluation” (being preserved poorly for incorrect language use), and “test anxiety.” Language anxiety may hinder the process of self-assessment because the learner may degrade their abilities based on preserved inabilities. This speaks the role of subjectivity in standards may play in inhibiting accurate self-assessment. The learner may judge their own language skill more poorly than a non-speaker would. Self-assessment may be subject to variations based on situation; for example, take Mr X learning Language Y. In the presence of a native speaker, Mrs Z, of Language Y, Mr X may self-assess his skill level in Language Y very poorly because of anxiety in speaking with a native or feelings of lack of knowledge. However, when with Miss И (a non-speaker of Language Y), Mr X may self-assess his skill level in Language Y very highly because of the lack of anxiety (no native speaker to judge or correct speech) or feelings of superior knowledge. Self-assessment can be a useful tool for the self-directed learner. However, as Saito (2003) noted self-assessment occurs “through complex cognitive processes,” which “many uncontrollable factors” influence.

Second language acquisition [SLA] is simply the learning of a second language after the first language is established. Operant conditioning is sometimes used in SLA, because of the influence of Behaviourism on language acquisition in 1950s and ’60s.

B. F. Skinner wrote, “operant conditioning shapes behavior as a sculptor shapes a lump of clay.”

According to Saul McLeod (2015) operant condition “means roughly changing of behavior by the use of reinforcement which is given after the desired response.”

Operant conditioning has been used in SLA by rewarding “good behaviour” (i.e. saying a sentence in the second language correctly) with a stimulus (i.e. praise or a good grade) and punishing “bad behaviour” with a different stimulus (i.e. being corrected or a bad grade). The belief is that language is a completely learnt behaviour, which someone can be conditioned to do. Overtime the conditioning will create learning.

False (excuses not to learn another language):

1. One can get by fine just speaking ____: Sure, one can get by just fine, but that’s it. If one is content reading only things written in their language, watching television and movies only in that language, listening to music (with lyric understanding) in only that language, then one has no need to learn a new language. Of course, there is no reason to do anything new if one is content with what one has. No reason to learn mathematics, because one is content with only counting. No reason to learn to write or draw, because one is content without those things. For some that is all well and good, though for many a life lived like this would be BORING!

2. No time: This is probably the most common excuse not to learn a new language, or anything for that matter. However, unless one is running equations in one’s head or pondering a deep question whilst reading this, one has time to learn a new language. The internet is one of the greatest inventions in human history, it expands the possibilities for learning immensely. One can, even, use social media in the language one is learning. Time is no excuse!

3. No good at it: If one can read this, one can learn another language. If one learned one’s first language one can learn another. It isn’t a matter of skill, or “natural ability;” sure, those would be helpful, but learning anything is really a matter of practice and dedication. “Not being good at” learning language is no reason one cannot learn a new language. One might not be “good” at mathematics but give practice one may become good.

4. Too old: One is never too old to learn a new language, or skill. Sure, it is easier to pick up a language from simple exposure at a young age; however, some studies have found that being older actually makes you better at learning a new language.

5. No access to native speakers: Internet. Use it. Some are calling it the “information superhighway.” There is tell of instant access to native speakers all around the world by using the internet.

True (reasons to learn a new language):

1. Mental exercise: The brain is a muscle and like other muscles gets better with exercise. Learning a new language works out the mind in a very beneficial way. It can help seep up memorization, association, and general mental tasks. Languages are oft seen as illogical, but there is always a pattern (always, always, always, always, mostly [as this writer’s old chemistry teacher would say]). Finding this pattern and using it to craft sentences is a nice work out for the mind. It also improves analytic skills.

2.  Increase cultural understanding: Language and trade both do a marvelous thing, the make the individuals involved get along better. Of course there will be people that don’t  like each other no matter what tongue they speak; however, one is more like to be friends with someone that speaks the same language as them. Language opens the door to increased trade and understanding.

3. It helps with other skills: Learning a new language increases creativity. It also improves understanding and use of one’s first language. Furthermore, some studies have found learning a new language increases math skills.

4. Be less boring: Having another language increases the literature one can read, the films one can watch, the music one can understand, and the knowledge one can acquire. There are some things that are not translated and can only be used by people that know the original language.

5. Impress people: Knowing another language impresses people. If that is something one cares about then learning another language is great. Also, one needs only know a little of the language to impress a majority of people. Most people will be content and impressed by a simply greeting in a different language, especially if it is a “weird” one.

It is time: no more excuses!

Good luck in all language learning endeavours! 



















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