A verb drill method to die for

With practice, you’ll remember verb forms quickly.

One challenge many people have in learning to speak a language fluently is having to pause and remember the correct verb forms. Beginners following the “speak from day one” approach can avoid the problem temporarily by talking like Tarzan (as suggested by Benny Lewis). But most people (myself included) prefer to delay speaking practice–and, in any case, we would like to be good at grammar eventually so we can speak at a high proficiency. Furthermore, many people are in classroom settings and have to take tests which emphasize grammar. 

There are many solutions: lots of writing practice (for example, a daily journal written in your target language), the sentence-forming-aloud method that I use (similar to Michel Thomas’ method), grammar exercises, Audiolingual drills (sometimes masked as communicative activities), sentence copying, memorizing by rote or with flashcards, and probably others that I’ve never heard of. 

One that intrigues me is verb drills. French Today publishes audio verb drills for French that interest me. After I improve my French pronunciation, I’d like to buy them and give them a try–though I’m strong in French grammar already and probably don’t need them. But I’d like to duplicate the same approach in other languages. This gave me a dilemma: What can replace audio verb drills?

Dice came to the rescue. Many board games come with 6-sided dice. There are 6 forms in a typical verb table. Perfect! 

For example, the Spanish verb “ser” (to be) in the present tense has these six forms (though not all forms are used in all Spanish-speaking countries): soy (I am), eres (you are–singular), él/ella es (he/she/it is), somos (we are), sois (you are–plural), son (they are). This is almost always the order you see them in tables (if all six forms are included): I, you–singular, he/she/it, we, you–plural, they. In Spanish, the “es” and “son” forms can also be used for “you are,” but that’s not true for most languages. 

Do you see where I’m going with this? On a die (singular: die; plural: dice–like mouse and mice), the number 1 can represent I, 2 you–singular, 3 he/she/it, 4 we, 5 you–plural, 6–they. Try it out for yourself. If you don’t have a 6-sided die handy, you can use a dice app instead, or use Uno cards or something. Feel free to be creative. 

Pick a language you’re studying that has these forms (Japanese doesn’t), then choose a tense you’re struggling with, and finally select a verb to practice. Look up its verb table online. For example, you can do a web search for Spanish verbs. Or, just to try out the method, use the example above: “ser” (to be) in Spanish. You might want to do the drill with just pronouns the first few times: 

1 – I 

2 – you–singular 

3 – he/she/it 

4 – we 

5 – you–plural 

6 – they 

(I can even do this while I work. I roll a die a few times, go back to work, roll the die a few times a little while later, etc.) 

See if your verbs get easier. 

And if you have to memorize case tables (for a language like Russian or Ancient Greek), there are 8-sided, 10-sided, and 12-sided dice you can use. They are sold in board game/roll playing game stores and online–and are probably in dice apps, too. 

This kind of drill is hard work mentally (which is why it can only be done for a few minutes at a time), but it might remind you of a game more than other kinds of grammar drills. And with practice, you’ll recall the verb forms quickly. Are you struggling with verbs in any of your languages? Give the method a try. 

My goals with French

French has turned out to be a lifelong enterprise for me, which will probably never end until I die.

I recently heard Kerstin Cable, in an interview by Géraldine Lepère, talk about the importance of specific long-term language goals as well as a plan to reach them. A goal to get “fluent” is way too vague. French has turned out to be a lifelong enterprise for me, which I started when I was a teenager and will probably never end until I die. After listening to Kerstin, I thought about French and realized that I have quite a few specific goals which I would like to meet in my lifetime. In case anyone is interested, here they are. Writing them down like this will help me to think about my goals for each of my other languages. Reading about them might help you to think about your own goals for each language and make them clear in your mind. 

First, I have several goals which I can group together. These are the ones I’ve been working on for the past several years. Essentially, when I graduated from the university (Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, USA) with a Bachelor of Arts in French, my French skills were actually rather weak. My teacher said I was only “moderately fluent.” (I could probably converse at a B1 level.) I didn’t like to practice conversation because I didn’t like hearing myself speak French: my own pronunciation sounded ugly to my ears (and I wasn’t yet able to pronounce the French “R”). Another problem I had was that I didn’t have interesting things to read (such as graded readers or LingQ). That means my vocabulary was too small to read the news or French literature. These are things I feel in hindsight that I should have been able to do when I graduated. After that, I didn’t use French for over two decades, but I started it up again a few years ago and have been learning it ever since. 

So, my first set of goals involves achieving skills I felt I should have had when I graduated. Over the last few years, I achieved two of them: I built up a strong vocabulary through reading novels and I built up my conversational skills to a high-intermediate (B2) level. 

These give me the foundation for my next goal, which I’m working on now and which I’ve come close to achieving: comprehending (audio) news broadcasts. I’ve been using LingQ and Fiverr to help me. I pay someone on Fiverr to transcribe short news videos from YouTube and then I use LingQ to help me read the transcripts, after which I rewatch the videos. The videos are about Francophone African news, so the journalists have a variety of French accents. Now that I’ve been introduced to a few different accents, Standard French sounds a lot easier! And for the past two weeks, I’ve been listening to live news audio broadcasts. I understand a lot, but there’s a lot I still don’t understand. At this rate, I should be able to understand most of it soon. 

My next goal will be to improve my pronunciation. For this, I purchased a Mimic Method course by Idahosa Ness, and I’ll also listen to YouTube videos about the differences between written French and spoken French. I’ve started learning German, and this has helped my French “R” tremendously, but I don’t pronounce it consistently yet. After that, I’ll start reading famous French literature, starting with Jules Verne and Molière. That will complete my first group of goals, after which I’ll have achieved what I had hoped to achieve when I finished college. To recap, those goals are: vocabulary, conversation, listening to the news, pronunciation, and reading French literature. 

I have four more goals after I complete these goals. They’re more like wishes, but certainly achievable. I can meet them in any order, but the following order seems to go from the easiest to the most difficult. 

(1.) I’ve been studying the French education system, and I’m impressed by it. The French study history and geography almost every year–from the beginning of elementary school through at least middle school. They also study a lot of math and science. Most students are required to study philosophy during their last year of high school. And all students in a general high school are required to select a study track: either languages and literature, or economics and social sciences, or physical sciences. And each year builds on intellectual skills learned the previous year. If a student is lazy or distracted one year, they will be at a disadvantage the following year. By graduation, French students in a general high school have achieved the broad liberal arts education that US students get in college. Some high school graduates are qualified for white collar or gray collar work, or so I’ve heard. I would love that kind of education! So, I bought some schoolbooks via Amazon France and plan to read them. I’ll probably choose the economics and social sciences track with a specialization in geography, if I can find all the schoolbooks I need. 

(2.) One of my dreams is to use at least one foreign language in a career. My current, tentative plan is to become a multilingual tour guide when I reach retirement age. Therefore, my goal is to make YouTube videos where I talk in French about the local history around where I live. I can probably try to do it now, but I think it will be easier after I’ve read some history schoolbooks in French. Some science schoolbooks can help me, too, if I talk about local geology in those videos. 

(3.) French is my most advanced foreign language. I’ve observed that the confidence I gain as I improve my French makes it easier to improve in my other languages. It’s like cutting a trail with my French that makes it easier for other languages to follow. French becomes a template for the other languages, like a prototype. Therefore, the more advanced I can get in French, the better. My goal, then, is to reach the C1 (low-advanced/moderately scholarly) proficiency level in French. Achieving all of the goals above might bring me up to C1 automatically. If not, I’ll be nearly there, I think. 

(4.) Finally, another dream is to take university classes in another language. Since they’re expensive, MOOC’s (free, non-credit university courses) will suffice. They’ll help me to maintain my C1 level and they’ll be easier to complete if I achieve C1 first. 

The goals I’m working on now will provide me a solid foundation for the final four goals. I’ve achieved two goals from the first set so far and I’m close to meeting the third. This makes me happy. I recommend you make long-term goals for each of your languages (or at least your most important language or two). Have you met any goals already? Are you close to meeting any others? Answering these questions can increase your confidence (maybe) and it will also give you clues about the skills you should work on now in order to meet your next goal. 

Three chapters at a time

I study textbooks and readers in groups of three chapters.

I’ve studied textbooks and readers that range from 9 to 25 or more chapters long. Unfortunately, I often don’t finish them. If I’m on chapter 5 and have 20 more chapters to go, the end of the book can feel like it’s a long way off. And if I keep studying and reviewing the same chapter, I can quickly get bored and stop studying it altogether. There are several solutions to these problems. Here is mine. 

Instead of studying one chapter until I know it well and then continuing to the next chapter, I study the book in groups of three chapters. I try to get through the first chapter relatively quickly and don’t care how well I remember the material, then quickly study the second and then the third. By the time I finish the third chapter, I’ve started forgetting the first and I start over. Each time through, I focus on something different: The first pass, I focus on vocabulary. This is when I use my paper flashcards, if needed. (I don’t need them for Spanish or German, but I need them for Japanese.) The second pass, grammar. The third pass, how well do I understand the reading passages without peeking at the glossary or grammar section of the textbook? Then, I move on to the next three chapters. I don’t do any grammar drills or exercises. 

If the text includes listening material, I can study the audio for chapters 1-3 while I’m studying the book for chapters 4-6. In this way, I know the written material well before I start the audio. (I like to separate listening from reading. When I listen, I don’t read, and when I read, I don’t listen. I think this heightens my listening skill, forcing me to pay more attention. In conversation, after all, I don’t have any transcript to help me to understand what the other person is saying.) The delay in listening practice also prevents me from staying too long in the first three chapters. It can be done at different times and places using an MP3 player and headphones, like when I’m in bed with the lights out. When my car stereo worked properly, I used to listen while driving. 

Three chapters is the number I settled on because if I wait until I’ve studied four or more chapters before I go back to the first, I’ve started to forget the vocabulary I’ve memorized. However, if you try this approach, you can experiment with different numbers of chapters to see what works well for you and what you want to focus on each time through. 

My goal this year is to complete three intermediate Japanese textbooks, and this is exactly the approach I’m taking. 

Why and how I use paper flashcards

For vocabulary to use in conversation, I primarily learn new words by using them in conversation

Some language learners rely heavily on memorization to acquire new vocabulary (such as Jan van der Aa and Olly Richards) while others don’t (such as Steve Kaufmann). I use flashcards, but not as my primary means for learning vocabulary. 

For vocabulary to use in conversation, I primarily learn new words by using them in conversation or while thinking aloud (talking to myself). I combine two approaches: (1.) I prepare for conversation practice by selecting a topic well in advance, looking for useful words in topical vocabulary books (especially those by Andrey Taranov and Barron’s), writing questions and answers on the topic in my target language, talking to myself on the topic for practice while looking up words in a dictionary as I need them, and then practicing conversation with tutors on Skype. (See my blog post “How I use italki” for details.) (2.) During our conversation sessions, the tutors type new words and error corrections for me. When I invest the time to study those new words between sessions (and I’m not consistent about doing this), I can use them during the next session. If I use a word a few times in conversation, I tend to remember it after that. 

For vocabulary in reading, I reread the same passages, read more novels by the same authors, or read more non-fiction on the same topic (such as several news articles on one topic). After I’ve read a word enough times, I eventually remember it for future reading. Sometimes I only have to read it a couple of times—sometimes many, many times—but it eventually becomes part of my known vocabulary. 

How can I learn words even more effectively using these methods (reading and conversation)? And how do I handle the difficulty of 2000-3000 Chinese characters encountered while reading Japanese? By supplementing my learning with paper flashcards. 

Since I learn words by using them (in reading or conversation), I don’t usually need to use mnemonics, Spaced Repetition Systems (such as Anki), memory palaces, the Goldlist Method, or other means. In fact, these approaches are too slow for my purposes. For example, Anki only reviews a word once a day, once every few days, or even once every few weeks. It won’t help me with the article or novel I’m reading now. I need something quicker. Also, with Anki, sometimes I skip a few days, and I eventually get tired of Anki and can’t bring myself to use it anymore. Both of these problems work against the SRS system of Anki. 

Paper flashcards come to the rescue. I can study them several times a day if I want, easily add and remove cards, have few decks or a lot, combine decks when they get small, and feel a sense of accomplishment as each deck gets smaller. If I’m distracted away from that language for a few days and don’t review my cards, I don’t feel guilty or penalized. Also, making my own cards helps me to learn them, and writing them by hand helps me to learn them. From the moment I write a card, I begin to learn it. 

I use half-size index cards or smaller. I either buy them at an office products store (or online–Oxford 10009 or similar, look it up) or I cut a regular index card into halves or thirds with scissors. They don’t need to be clean and neat because they’re only for my personal use. Remember, perfectionism is an enemy to language learners. 

When I started learning my first language independently (Spanish, when I was 17 years old), I cut up envelopes into small rectangles to make flashcards. If you’re a poor student, look for junk mail envelopes and other junk paper from the recycle bin with blank areas that you can cut up to make flashcards. If you must use an app instead of paper, look for an app that will let you have control, rather than an app like Anki that gives you limited control (such as the option to review a deck a second time in one day), but which isn’t designed for quick memorization. 

For my purposes, I actually memorize individual words out of context rather than memorizing sentences which contain the new words. If I used flashcards as my primary means of memorizing new words, I should definitely memorize whole sentences (or at least phrases)! I remember when I lived in South Korea and tried to learn Korean, after a while the Korean words started sounding alike and I couldn’t memorize them via flashcards anymore. Besides, the mind learns best in context. However, I already learn in context (through reading and conversation), so I don’t have to worry about that. I save time by memorizing individual words. 

My plan is to dash through many cards quickly and immediately use them rather than trying to learn them via flashcards. In fact, if I don’t use them within 48 hours after I remove them from my decks, I forget them. But since I am using them (and not just memorizing random lists of words from a textbook), there’s no problem. 

If I’m using the cards to help my reading (primarily to help me recognize new characters in Japanese which I encounter in my reading), I put the target language (Japanese) words on the blank side of the card and my native language (English) words on the lined side. The blank side is the front and the lined side is the back. I flip cards over from the bottom rather than left-to-right because that’s easier on the wrist. In other words, the words on the back are actually upside down. But after I flip the card, they’re right-side up again. The English side can be messy, with scribbled-out letters or extremely messy handwriting, but I try to make the Japanese side as clean and neat as I can. If I make a mistake while creating a card, I tear it in half and throw it on the floor or the desk, then later I put the pieces in the paper recycling box where the junk mail goes. 

If I’m using the cards for speaking, the lined side (with the English) becomes the front of the card and the blank side (with the target language, for example Korean) becomes the back. I still flip the card up from the bottom rather than left-to-right to preserve my wrist. The difference is, in this case, I try to make both sides somewhat clean and neat (without cross-outs)–but not perfect. The front should be clean-looking because it’s the clue I use for memorization. If I crossed out a wrong letter, the smudge of ink could become a mental clue to help me remember the word, and I don’t want that. Meanwhile, if there are smudges on the Korean side, the word won’t fix itself into my memory as easily. 

My cards are not there for completely learning words. They exist only to help me recognize them faster when I read or recall them faster when I speak. Therefore, as soon as a word seems easy to remember, I remove it from my deck. I either throw it into my recycling box or I put it in an index card storage box. The difference is, if I recycle it, I don’t plan to review it again ever but simply continue learning the word by using it. If I store it, I can review it again if I feel it’s necessary. For example, I stopped reading Japanese for a month, and when I returned to it, I had forgotten too many words. So I opened up the storage box and reviewed all those words, then put them back into storage. 

How do I know if I remember a word well enough to remove it? If I review a list of words without the flashcards and I still remember them, I don’t need those cards anymore. If I use one while speaking, I don’t need it anymore. Or if I read it with comprehension, I don’t need it anymore. Finally, if I recall it quickly and easily while studying the cards, it can remove it (but I’d better use it within 48 hours!). 

In Japan, they also use paper flashcards while learning languages. In fact, Japanese stores sell expensive, tiny, unlined flashcard decks on metal rings. I’ve also seen larger, lined card decks like small spiral notebooks where each card can optionally be removed via perforation. There are problems with this approach. First, if all of the cards are in a particular order, you can memorize them because of the order instead of the word on the front of the card. Second, it’s harder to remove cards when you’ve finished with them. 

I shuffle the cards as I study them. I actually use my pant thighs (or two piles on a table) to sort them. When I study a word and don’t remember it or get it wrong, I move it to the back of my deck. When I remember a word easily, I remove it from the deck. But when I remember it with difficulty or had to study the same card two or more times before I could remember it, I put it on my lap. The first word I remember goes on my left thigh, the second on my right, the third on my left, etc. When I finish studying the deck, I combine the piles and put the rubber band on them. Then, the next time I study that deck, the cards are in a different order than last time. It helps if I have a few small decks rather than one large one. Otherwise, the piles on my thighs get too thick and fall on the floor. Small decks also mean less delay before I see a word again, if I fail to remember it. 

In summary, I use flashcards to speed up my recognition or recall of words, not to learn words. Reading and conversation are my primary means of learning these same words. I only select words I want to use in conversation or words I encounter in my reading. Thus, it’s unusual for me to memorize a word and never use it. And when I get sick of flashcards for a few weeks, I can continue speaking and reading and learning words without guilt or penalty–other than the frustration of my recall being slower. 

Templates and Innovation in Language Learning

Now I had a template (French) which I could use to eventually bring other languages up to B2.

Generally speaking, the first language you learn on your own (not from a class or teacher) is one of the hardest because you don’t know what works for you yet. You need to experiment until you find materials and methods that you can sustain and persevere through (and preferably enjoy, at least a little). You also need to learn how to adapt the way you learn as you become more advanced in the language: What you listen to and read at the intermediate level is different than what you listened to and read as a beginner. And you need to learn how to manage your motivation and habits through a roller coaster of emotions until you achieve the proficiency level you want. But once you’ve been through it, you can use your first foreign language as a template for languages you learn afterward. 

In my case, I studied French and a little Spanish, Japanese, and Russian in high school and college. I was going to teach French, but then I changed my mind. I didn’t study French for over 20 years after that, but then I suddenly had a strong motivation to learn it. I had a Bachelor’s degree in French on my resume, but I had forgotten it and couldn’t use it. (Unfortunately, my teacher said I was only “moderately fluent” when I graduated: I could carry on basic conversations, but my vocabulary was still too small and I didn’t like to speak it because I thought my pronunciation was bad, especially the letter “r.”) My plan was not only to revive my French, but bring it up to a fairly high level, so that my resume could properly reflect my skills. 

When I returned to French, I was surprised to learn that I still remembered most of the grammar, but only the most basic vocabulary. I had studied a half-dozen languages on my own during those two decades, but only achieved a high-beginner level in them (partly because I kept changing my mind about which languages to learn, partly because I only had books and audio courses to work with—no conversation partners, etc.). My plan was to use reading and listening to build up my vocabulary, which would have the extra benefit of reviewing grammar without effort. I focused on meaning, not form, this time around. I started with graded readers, then graded readers with audio, then LingQ, and finally novels for older children (starting with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and building up to novels for children by French authors). 

Meanwhile, I discovered the online polyglot community and learned what other resources were available to me. I hired italki tutors for Skype conversation practice and took advice from Olly Richards about how to prepare for conversation. I quickly achieved B1 (low-intermediate) conversational proficiency–and eventually, after a lot of reading, B2 (high-intermediate). 

Now I had a template (French) which I could use to eventually bring other languages up to B2. And once I reach C1 (low-advanced/academic-level) in French, it will serve as a template for bringing other languages up to C1. 

My successful template for French was to work on form (grammar and pronunciation) first, then switch to meaning (reading, listening, and conversation practice). I used courses such as Michel Thomas to help me with the grammar. My goal as a beginner is not to make my grammar perfect, but to learn enough to express my ideas in conversation. Over the past two years, I brought my Spanish, Japanese, and (briefly) Russian up to B1–and Korean will likely reach B1 by the end of this year. Meanwhile, I’m slowly building my Japanese up to B2. Japanese is more difficult than French because of the complex writing system and different grammar, so it’s taking longer. 

What if the template is hard to apply? Then I innovate. I use trial-and-error, but eventually I sometimes have to create my own materials and find my own way to make them work. This was the case with Korean. I tried a wide variety of beginner materials (Pimsleur, FSI, textbooks, etc.) but couldn’t find anything I enjoyed enough to continue studying for very long. In fact, courses that were relaxing and fun in other languages were stressful to me in Korean. Finally, I discarded them all. 

Now I skim through textbooks and grammar reference books, looking for grammar which I’m likely to use frequently in conversation. I write grammatical constructions in notebooks and create my own sentences aloud in Korean. I skim through topical vocabulary books and create paper flashcards for words I think I’ll use frequently, then talk to myself in Korean. Meanwhile, I read just the dialogs in beginner textbooks and listen to the audio recordings of those dialogs over and over until I understand them easily. I prefer textbooks whose audio is recorded at native or near-native speed. 

This innovation has been working well for me in Korean. And lo and behold: Korean has become a second template which I can use for other languages, especially languages that have few irregularities (few apparent exceptions to the grammatical rules or few additional rules which are needed to account for the variations in word endings). I’ve been using my Korean study methods for  Japanese with a lot of success, and I think I can apply them to other Asian languages I might learn in the future. 

Russian was a source of frustration for me because of its many irregularities, because of the need to match prepositions with cases, and because occasionally a different case is used than I expect. I studied 13 or 14 Michel Thomas CD’s, and these gave me the confidence first to talk to myself and then to practice conversation with tutors. But then the tutors corrected seemingly every other sentence. I tried out many italki tutors and got rid of half of them who corrected me the most or who were not good at conversation. I finally achieved B1 conversational proficiency but was completely demoralized and worn out in the end. Now I don’t know when I’ll ever have the strength to return to Russian, even though I love the way the language sounds. If I do resume it or learn a similar language, I’ll need to use trial-and-error or even innovate in order to master enough grammar so that I will be willing to continue conversation practice again. Then Russian will become a template for other languages with complex, irregular grammars. 

Once I master kanji, I’ll be able to use Japanese (for learning kanji), Korean (for learning grammar), and French (for learning conversation) as templates for Mandarin Chinese, if I choose to learn it. (Yes, Mandarin does have grammar, it just doesn’t have word endings.) 

If you’re working on your first foreign language but plan to learn more, take heart: You can use your current language as a template for future ones, making the next ones easier. If you’ve studied several languages but are now struggling with one that you find too difficult, try different materials and methods and then, if needed, innovate. There’s a lot of frustration in language learning (sometimes with the language, sometimes with the available resources, and sometimes with yourself), but a lot of fun along the way–particularly as you find yourself able to use it in more and more situations. Templates and innovation will allow you to learn a wider and wider variety of languages, if you choose to do so. 

Learning pronunciation through Wikipedia

If you are an aspiring polyglot, I recommend you take the time sooner or later to learn phonetics and phonology.

In the area of language phonetics (i.e. what consonant and vowel sounds exist in a particular language), Wikipedia has become useful and maybe accurate enough for beginners. There can certainly be errors, but that’s true for any source of information. When I consider which language to dabble in next–or when I actually start dabbling–I turn to Wikipedia first. I used to go to About World Languages (AWL), but that website seemed to have been hacked a couple of years ago, so I stopped using it. I checked it again just now and it seems to be working. 

Look up a language on either website and scroll down to the “Phonology” (in Wikipedia) or “Sound system” (in AWL) section of the article. If there is no such section, you might have to look for another article. For example, I looked in Wikipedia for “Hindi language” and found an article, but it didn’t include a Phonology section. So I looked up “Hindustani language” and found a Phonology section there. Actually, it was just a link to another article called “Hindustani phonology.” 

Once you find that section, you should see two tables: one for consonants and one for vowels. They are arranged by the area of the mouth where your tongue is most prominent (relatively speaking). For example, you move your tongue forward (toward your teeth) to pronounce /i/ (as in sing) and back (away from the teeth) to pronounce /u/ (as in rule). Likewise, you move your tongue forward to pronounce /d/ but back to pronounce /g/. 

However, the column and row headings of the table use linguistic jargon. If you’ve studied phonetics or phonology before, you probably find that terminology helpful. If not, it won’t help you at all. (Phonetics studies the sounds themselves, and phonology studies the relationship between those sounds. For example, phonetics teaches how you move your mouth to pronounce an “n” in English, while phonology shows that “n” is usually pronounced “ng” before a “k” in English–as in the word “think.” Phonology courses might teach phonetics also, or might require phonetics as a prerequisite.) 

If you are an aspiring polyglot, I recommend you take the time sooner or later to learn phonetics and phonology. You can start with something simple such as a YouTube video series or a “Dummies” book. Likewise, the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) could be a useful tool for you sometimes. The IPA uses one letter of the alphabet (or even a “made-up” letter) to represent each possible sound that the mouth, nasal cavity, and throat can make, since practically all known sounds exist in one language or another. The letter “r,” for instance, is pronounced differently in different languages, so the IPA uses a different letter to represent each of those “r” sounds. Phonetics and phonology can be very dry subjects, but are a good time investment. On the other hand, if you only want to learn one or two foreign languages, you can easily get by without learning phonetics, phonology, or the IPA. 

I studied these subjects years ago while earning my TESL (Teaching English as a Second Language) certificate at Portland State University. Lately, I’ve had to relearn them and expand my knowledge beyond the basics, in order to use Wikipedia for this purpose. Here’s how: If the column or row header includes a word you don’t know or don’t remember (such as “alveolar” or “fricative”) and you can’t figure its meaning out for yourself, just click on the word you don’t know. Chances are that it has been made into a link that will take you to another page that explains its meaning. (A link in AWL will take you to a Wikipedia article.) Sometimes, the IPA symbol inside the table is a live link to an explanation of the sound. 

If not, you can combine the column and row header for the sound, type that phrase in, and look it up–for example, “voiceless labial fricative” (known as /f/ as in fish). You can even type the words out of order. Type them in the Wikipedia search box and it will describe the sound and how it’s made. Try to figure out what you can and ignore the parts that make no sense to you. Then click the audio link on the right side of the article to hear it pronounced. Listen to it many times and repeat after it a few times, until you figure out how to approximate the sound yourself. Voila: You can now pronounce it well enough to get started. 

Eventually, I recommend having your pronunciation checked by a native speaker or a tutor of that language who has studied phonology or linguistics or who specializes in teaching pronunciation or accent reduction. If necessary, schedule additional sessions to improve your pronunciation, if you want to speak it well and be understood by most native speakers in conversation. 

This Wikipedia approach is what I take. I did this for Vietnamese when I dabbled in it last year (but haven’t had my pronunciation checked yet). The b, d, and g letters are pronounced differently in Vietnamese than in any other language I’d studied. 

Good news for dabblers

After a few rounds of dabbling, either the commitment will come or your interest will disappear.

If you have trouble sticking with one language long enough to get good at it, it might not be as bad as it seems. Learning a language until mastery takes a long time–exactly how long depends on the language and other factors–and this requires commitment. The commitment usually isn’t sufficient in the beginning. Thus, it’s easy to find yourself changing languages frequently. This month you’re studying Italian, the next Russian, and the next Japanese. 

There are unusual individuals who can start a long enterprise from scratch and remain committed from day one, for as long as it takes. Others have a motivation so strong that the commitment comes easily. Yet others have outside support (from a school or parent, for example). But most of us don’t fit these descriptions. What do we do? 

If there’s a language you really want to learn but you are having trouble being committed to it, my advice is to dabble in it. Then dabble in other languages. After that, dabble in this language again, and try to stick with it longer. Then dabble in something else. Always return to this language. After a few rounds, either the commitment will come or your interest in it will disappear. Once the commitment finally arrives, make this language a priority and a habit. Make studying it even a little everyday a part of your life, like eating or sleeping. 

Each time you return to this one language, you’ll no doubt want to review what you studied before and then continue the same textbook, course, or app. By all means do that, but also study from a different course or app at the same time. Why? Because you need to make each round of study a new experience rather than trying to repeat an old one. Mere review is demotivating, but experiencing the language in a new way is invigorating. Furthermore, you might learn that you don’t like your previous course or app as much as you thought you did. 

It is my hope that your dabbling in various languages will lead you to fall in love with at least one of them, and then you’ll be on your way toward commitment. Even with a strong interest in a certain language, it might take several rounds of dabbling in it before you find the strength to maintain a habit and persevere until mastery.