Musings on language learning

Plato, in Socrates’s Apology, wrote “the unexamined life is not worth living”, and this holds true for learning new languages, as it does for constantly striving to expand one’s knowledge and erudition.

Learning a new language lets you embark in a journey of immersion into a different culture, enables you to view situations from unfamiliar viewpoints, and expands your mind’s horizons.

On a more practical note, imminent demographic shifts will grant multilingual persons an immense advantage over the decades to come – in the job market and social circles alike. A recent Economist article underlined the projected premium in the job market of knowing foreign languages. It also stated that “one optimistic estimate is that half the world’s people might speak English by 2050. That leaves billions who will not, and billions of others who remain happier (and more willing to spend money) in their own language.”

Without further ado, I share with you a few of the best ways to do it yourself:


  1. Live in a non-English-speaking country for a period of time: While this is the most quick, efficient and immersion-oriented way of learning a language, it is admittedly also the least practical. It simply isn’t a straightforward decision to move to a foreign country, and it needs to fit with your lifestyle or circumstances. If you are a college student, it may be as easy as visiting your Study Abroad office and inquiring about relevant short-term programs. For a working professional, it will require looking into relocation opportunities within your employer’s umbrella, or exploring a move to US companies with locations abroad (thus becoming an expat, and maintaining an English working environment).
  2. Immersion-oriented language software: Outside of living in a foreign country, use of certain types of language-learning software is an effective way of becoming acquainted with and conversant in your language(s) of choice within a few months. I found Rosetta Stone to be particularly effective, as it uses a method of  immersion. Ingeniously, it not only avoids the legacy learning practices of copiously taking you through complex grammar and syntax rules, but also never uses English during the learning, instead employing imagery, sound, and vocabulary matching tactics, all in the target language. This aims at making the learning experience similar to a baby growing up and learning to speak. While the price point of Rosetta Stone can be prohibitively high, they frequently offer very steep discounts or specials, so I suggest searching for those on the web, before completely dismissing the product.
  3. Language-learning podcasts: This differs from your traditional language-learning software in that most of the learning occurs via listening and speaking back. I deem this method much more immersive, and one closely resembling actually living in a foreign country. I have personally benefited from Pimsleur, which has a series of podcasts for each language, and uses the spaced repetition method to reinforce learning. The key with these podcasts is to listen to each chapter multiple times, until you feel comfortable with its content. Repetition is key.
  4. Foreign language news: This method is for when you already have an elementary familiarity with a language. It can be in the form of news podcasts, or simply reading articles in a given foreign country’s leading newspaper. Here are some best practices for getting the most out of it:
    • Read/Listen to news pieces whose content you are already familiar with in English. (Example: You have read the news about last week’s G8 Summit and are familiar with the details. Therefore, you should pick an article about that very piece of news in a foreign language.)This is a key differentiator, because you will find that, as you’re reading, your mind implicitly translates some, if not the entire piece, a result of your being familiar with the article’s context already.
    • Read at least one article a day. It does not need to be a long or complicated one – a few paragraphs will suffice. Over the long-term, the knowledge accumulates.
    • Use a translation plugin in your browser, so that you can quickly double-click and look up the translation of unknown words.
  5. Language-learning forums: These are web forums where speakers/teachers and students meet, exchange conversations, engage in exercises (essays, dialogs, etc.), and correct one another’s work. It is a fantastic grassroots approach to foster language learning and enables you to meet people from all around the world. My favorite one is Livemocha, because of its wide user base, constant improvement, and quick feedback to your inputs as a student.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the foremost philosophers on linguistics, said “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.”

Language is knowledge; it is culture; it is erudition. And it is easier than you think to embark on a journey to master it.

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