How to Learn Any Language
Quickly, Easily, Inexpensively, Enjoyably and On Your Own
Founder of the Language Club/Nationally Syndicated Talk Show Host
To Bibi and Celia, for the pleasure of helping teach them
their first language, followed by the pleasure of having them
then teach me their second!
Part I: My Story
A Life of Language Learning
Part II: The System
Do As I Now Say, Not As I Then Did
French or Tagalog: Choosing a Language
Gathering Your Tools
The Multiple Track Attack
Harry Lorayne』s Magic Memory Aid
Language Power to the People
Back to Basics
Last Words Before the Wedding
Part III: Appendices
The Language Club
The Principal Languages of the World
Farber』s Language Reviews
I want to thank my editor, Bruce Shostak, without whose skill and patience much of
this book would have been intelligible only to others who』ve had a blinding passion for
foreign languages since 1944. I further thank my publisher, Steven Schragis, for
venturing into publishing territory heretofore officially listed as 「uninteresting」. Dr.
Henry Urbanski, Founder and Head of the New Paltz Language Immersion Institute, was
good enough to review key portions of the manuscript and offer toweringly helpful
amendments. Dr. Urbanski』s associate, Dr. Hans Weber, was supremely helpful in
safeguarding against error.
I further wish to thank all my fellow language lovers from around the world who
interrupted their conversations at practice parties of the Language Club to serve as
willing guinea pigs for my questions and experimentations in their native languages.
How to Learn Any Language
This may be the most frequently told joke in the world – it』s repeated every day in almost
「What do you call a person who speaks two languages?」
「What do you call a person who speaks three languages?」
「What do you call a person who speaks four languages?」
「What do you call a person who speaks only one language?」
With your help this book can wipe that smile off the world』s face.
The reason Americans have been such notoriously poor language learners up to
now is twofold:
1. We』ve never really had to learn other peoples』 languages before, and
2. Almost all foreign language instruction available to the average American has
been until now (one hates to be cruel) worthless. 「I took two years of high school French
and four more years in college and I couldn』t even order orange juice in Marseilles」 is
more than a self effacing exaggeration. It』s a fact, a shameful, culturally impoverishing,
economically dangerous, self defeating fact!
Modern commerce and communications have erased reason 1.
You and the method laid out in this book, working together, will erase reason 2.
It started for me when I learned that the Norwegian word for 「squirrel」 was acorn.
It may have been spelled ekorn, but it was pronounced acorn. Then I learned that
「Mickey Mouse」 in Swedish is Mussie Pig. Again, the Swedish spelling varied, but so
what? As delights like those continued to come my way, I realised I was being locked
tighter and tighter into the happy pursuit of language love and language learning.
My favourite music is the babble of strange tongues in the marketplace. No
painting, no art, no photograph in the world can excite me as much as a printed page of
text in a foreign language I can』t read – yet!
I embraced foreign language study as a hobby as a teenager in 1944. When I was
inducted into the army in 1952, I was tested and qualified for work in fourteen different
languages. Since then I』ve expanded my knowledge of those languages and taken up
others. Whether fluently or fragmentally, I can now express myself in twenty-five
That may sound like a boast, but it』s really a confession. Having spent so many
years with no other hobby, I should today be speaking every one of those languages
much better than I do. If you』re a beginner, you may be impressed to hear me order a
meal in Chinese or discuss the Tito-Stalin split in Serbo-Croatian, but only I know how
much time and effort I wasted over those years thinking I was doing the right thing to
increase my command of those and other languages.
This book, then, does not represent the tried and true formula I』ve been using since
1944. It presents the tried and true formula I』d use if I could go back to 1944 and start all
Common sense tells us we can』t have dessert before we finish the meal; we can』t
have a slim figure until we diet; we can』t have strong muscles until we exercise; we
won』t have a fortune until we make it. So far common sense is right.
Common sense also tells us, however, that we can』t enjoy communicating in a
foreign language until we learn it. This means years of brain benumbing conjugations,
declensions, idioms, exceptions, subjunctives, and irregular verbs. And here common
sense is wrong, completely wrong. When it comes to learning foreign languages, we can
start with the dessert and then use its sweetness to inspire us to back up and devour the
What six year old child ever heard of a conjugation? Wouldn』t you love to be able
to converse in a foreign language as well as all the children of that tongue who』ve not yet
heard of grammar? No, we』re not going to rise up as one throaty revolutionary mob,
depose grammar, drag it out of the palace by the heels, and burn it in the main square.
We』re just going to put grammar in its place. Up to now, grammar has been used by our
language educators to anesthetise us against progress. If it』s grammar versus fun, we』re
going to minimise grammar and maximise fun. We』re going to find more pleasant ways
to absorb grammar.
Unfortunately, there are a lot more 「self improvement」 books than there is self
improvement. Too many books whose titles are heavy with promise turn out to be all hat
and no cattle – not enough take home after you deduct the generalities and exhortations
to 「focus」 and 「visualise」 your goals. Extracting usable advice from high promising
books can be like trying to nail custard pies to the side of a barn.
Mindful of that danger, I will not leave you with nothing but a pep talk. Follow the
steps herein, and you will learn the language of your choice quickly, easily, inexpensively,
enjoyably and on your own.
And you』ll have fun en route, though not nearly as much fun as you』ll have once
you get that language in working order and take it out to the firing range of the real
The language learning system detailed in this book is the result of my own continuous,
laborious trial and error beginning in 1944. That which worked was kept, that which
failed was dropped, that which was kept was improved. Technology undreamed of when
I started studying languages, such as the audiocasette and the tape player small enough to
carry while walking or jogging, was instantly and eagerly incorporated.
The system combines:
.THE MULTIPLE TRACK ATTACK: Go to the language department of any bookstore
and you』ll see language books, grammars, hardcover and paperback workbooks,
readers, dictionaries, flash cards, and handsomely bound courses on cassette. Each
one of those products sits there on the shelf and says, 「Hey, Bud. You want to
learn this language? Here I am. Buy me!」 I say, buy them all, or at least one of
each! You may feel like you』re taking four or five different courses in the same
language simultaneously. That』s good. A marvellous synergistic energy sets you
soaring when all those tools are set together in symphony.
.HIDDEN MOMENTS: Dean Martin once chided a chorus girl, who was apathetically
sipping her cocktail, by saying, 「I spill more than you drink!」 All of us 「spill」
enough minutes every day to learn a whole new language a year! Just as the Dutch
steal land from the sea, you will learn to steal language learning time, even from a
life that seems completely filled or overflowing. What do you do, for example,
while you』re waiting for an elevator, standing in line at the bank, waiting for the
person you』re calling to answer the phone, holding the line, getting gas, waiting to
be ushered from the waiting room into somebody』s office, waiting for your date to
arrive, waiting for anything at any time?
You will learn to mobilise these precious scraps of time you』ve never even been
aware you』ve been wasting. Some of your most valuable study time will come in
mini lessons of fifteen, ten, and even five seconds throughout your normal (though
now usually fruitful) day.
.HARRY LORAYNE』S MAGIC MEMORY AID: An ingenious memory system developed
by memory master Harry Lorayne will help you glue a word to your recollection
the instant you encounter it. What would you do right now if I gave you a hundred
English words along with their foreign equivalents and told you to learn them?
Chances are you would look at the first English word, then look at the foreign
word, repeat it several times, then close your eyes and keep on repeating it, then
cover up the foreign word, look only at the English and see if you could remember
how to say it in the language you』re learning, then go on to the next word, then the
next, and the next, and then go back to the first to see if you remembered it, and so
on through the list.
Harry Lorayne』s simple memory trick based on sound and association will make
that rote attempt laughable. The words will take their place in your memory like
ornaments securely hung on a Christmas tree, one right after the other all the way
up to many times those hundred words.
.THE PLUNGE: You will escape the textbook incubator early and leap straightaway,
with almost no knowledge of the language, into that language』s 「real world」. A
textbook in your target language, no matter how advanced, is not the real world.
On the other hand, an advertisement in a foreign language magazine, no matter
how elementary and easy to read, is the real world. Everything about you,
conscious and subconscious, prefers real world to student world contact with the
An actor knows the difference between rehearsal and opening night; the football
player, between practice scrimmages and the kickoff in a crowded stadium. And
you will know the difference between your lessons in the target language and the
real world newspapers, magazines, novels, movies, radio, TV, and anything else
you can find to throw yourself into at a stage your high school French teacher
would have considered horrifyingly early!
There you have it: The Multiple Track Attack, Hidden Moments, Harry Lorayne』s
Magic Memory Aid, The Plunge. Visualise the target language as a huge piece of thin,
dry paper. This system will strike a match underneath the middle of that paper, and your
knowledge, like the flame, will eat its way unevenly but unerringly outward to the very
Just as food manufacturers like to label their products 「natural and organic」
whenever they can get away with it, many language courses like to promise that you will
learn 「the way a child learns.」
Why bother? Why should you learn another language the way a child learned his
first one? Why not learn as what you are – an adult with at least one language in hand,
eager to use that advantage to learn the next language in less time than it took to learn the
P A R T O N E
A Life of Language
A brief 「language autobiography」 may help readers whose language learning and
language loving careers began only a few moments ago with the opening of this book.
My favourite word – in any language – is the English word foreign. I remember
how it came to be my favourite word. At the age of four I attended a summer day camp.
Royalty develops even among children that young. There were already a camp 「king」
and a camp 「queen」, Arthur and Janet. I was sitting right beside Arthur on the bus one
morning, and I remember feeling honoured. Arthur reached into his little bag, pulled out
an envelope, and began to show Janet the most fascinating pieces of coloured paper I』d
「Look at these stamps, Janet,」 he said. 「They』re foreign!」 That word reverberated
through my bone marrow. Foreign, I figured, must mean beautiful, magnetic, impressive
– something only the finest people share with only the other finest people. From that
moment forward, the mere mention of the word foreign has flooded me with fantasy.
I thought everybody else felt the same, and I had a hard time realising they didn』t.
When a schoolmate told me he turned down his parents』 offer of a trip to Europe for a
trip out West instead, I thought he was crazy. When another told me he found local
politics more interesting than world politics, I thought he was nuts. Most kids are bored
with their parents』 friends who come to dinner. I was too, unless that friend happened to
have been to a foreign country – any foreign country – in which case I cross examined
him ruthlessly on every detail of his foreign visit.
Once a visitor who』d been through my interrogation to the point of brain blur said
to my mother upon leaving, 「What a kid! He was fascinated by every detail of every hour
I ever spent in another country, and the only other place I』ve ever been is Canada!』
How Latin Almost Ruined It
Walking into Miss Leslie』s Latin class on the first day of ninth grade was the culmination
of a lifelong dream. I could actually hear Roman background music in my mind. I didn』t
understand how the other students could be anything less than enthusiastic about the
prospect of beginning Latin. Electricity coursed through me as I opened the Latin book
Miss Leslie gave us. I was finally studying a foreign language!
The first day all we did was learn vocabulary. Miss Leslie wrote some Latin words
on the blackboard, and we wrote them down in our notebooks. I showed early promise as
the class whiz. I quickly mastered those new words, each then as precious as Arthur』s
foreign stamps had been eleven years earlier. When Miss Leslie had us close our books
and then asked 「Who remembers how to say 『farmer』 in Latin,」 I was the first to split the
air with the cry of 「Agricola!」 I soaked up those foreign words like the Arabian desert
soaks up spiled lemonade.
What happened thereupon for a short time crippled, but then enriched, my life
I was absent from school on day four. When I returned on day five, there were no
more Latin words on the blackboard. In their place were words like nominative, genitive,
dative, accusative. I didn』t know what those words meant and I didn』t like them. That
「nominative-genitive」 whatever-it-was was keeping me from my feast, and I resented it
like I resent the clergyman at the banquet whose invocation lasts too long.
The more Miss Leslie talked about these grammatical terms, the more bored I got.
Honeymooners would have more patience with a life insurance salesman who knocked
on their motel door at midnight than I had with Latin grammar. I clearly remember
believing languages were nothing but words. We have words. They have words. And all
you have to do is learn their words for our words and you』ve got it made. Therefore all
that 「ablative absolute」 stuff Miss Leslie was getting increasingly excited about was
unneeded and, to me, unwanted.
Miss Leslie, noting that I, her highly motivated superstar, was floundering with
elementary Latin grammar, kindly offered to assign another student to tutor me on what
I』d missed the day before, or even to sit down with me herself. I remember declining the
offer. I remember deciding, with the logic of a frustrated fifteen year old, that grammar
was just another of those barriers designed by grownups to keep kids from having too
much fun. I decided to wait it out.
I shut off my brain as the cascade of changing noun endings and mutating verb
forms muscled out the joy of my beloved vocabulary words. I longed for the good old
days of being the first in the class to know agricola. More and more that Miss Leslie said
made less and less sense. I was trapped in a Bermuda Triangle. My aura of classroom
celebrity disappeared, along with my self esteem, my motivation, and almost my
affection for things foreign.
I limped along, barely making passing grades; I only managed to pass thanks to the
vocabulary section on every test. My knowledge of vocabulary plus some good
grammatical guesswork and a little luck got me through Miss Leslie』s class with a low D.
Some of the other students seemed to be enjoying my lameness in Latin, after my
being the overpraised and preening star of the class for the first three days. To assuage
the hurt, I got hold of a self study book in Chinese. By the last few weeks of school, it
was apparent that there was no way I could make better than a weak D in Latin, but that
was enough to pass. I hid my humiliation behind that outrageously foreign looking book
with thick, black Chinese characters all over the cover. I buried all thoughts of Latin in
sour grapes and sat there and studied Chinese instead!
Chinese Sailors Don』t Speak Latin
Forsaking Latin for Chinese was my own form of juvenile defiance. However, I have
since used Chinese in some way almost every day. I confess to occasional curiosity as to
what all those A students from Miss Leslie』s Latin class are doing these days with their
During summer vacation we went to Miami Beach to visit my grandparents. On one
trip, as Uncle Bill drove us from the train station in Miami to Miami Beach, we passed a
large group of marching sailors. As we drew abreast of the last row I noticed that the
sailor on the end was Chinese. Then I noticed that the sailor beside him was also Chinese.
I blinked. The whole last row was Chinese. And the next whole row was Chinese too.
The entire contingent of marching sailors was Chinese!
I felt like a multimillion dollar lottery winner slowly realising he』d gotten all the
right numbers. I had no idea there were Chinese sailors in Miami, but why not? It was
during World War II, China was our ally, and Miami was a port. There they were,
hundreds of native speakers of the language I was trying to learn.
I couldn』t wait to fling myself into their midst sputtering my few phrases of Chinese
at machine gun velocity. I didn』t know what adventures were awaiting my Latin
classmates that summer, but I was confident none of them were about to approach an
entire contingent of sailors who spoke Latin!
When we got to my grandparents』 hotel, I gave them the quickest possible hug and
kiss, ran out, took the jitney back over the causeway to Miami, and started asking
strangers if they knew where the Chinese sailors were.
Everybody knew the Chinese sailors were billeted in the old Hotel Alcazar on
Biscayne Boulevard. After their training, I was told, they gathered in groups and strolled
around Bayfront Park.
I waited. Sure enough, in late afternoon the park filled with Chinese sailors. I
picked a clump of them at random and waded on in, greeting them in phrases I』d been
able to learn from the book my parents had bought me. I』d never heard Chinese spoken
before. No records, tapes, or cassettes. I could hit them only with the Chinese a D student
in Latin could assemble from an elementary self study book in Chinese conversation in
Greensboro, North Carolina.
It sounded extraplanetary to the Chinese sailors, but at least they understood enough
to get the point that here was no Chinese American, here was no child of missionary
parents who』d served in China. Here was essentially an American urchin hellbent on
learning Chinese without any help.
They decided to provide the help.
You don』t have to win a war to get a hero』s welcome. The Chinese naval units
stationed in Miami seemed suddenly to have two missions – to defeat the Japanese and to
help me learn Chinese! A great side benefit to learning foreign languages is the love and
respect you get from the native speakers when you set out to learn their language. You』re
far from an annoying foreigner to them. They spring to you with joy and gratitude.
The sailors adopted me as their mascot. We met every afternoon in Bayfront Park
for my daily immersion in conversational Chinese. A young teenager surrounded by
native speakers and eager to avenge a knockout by a language like Latin learns quickly.
There was something eerie about my rapid progress. I couldn』t believe I was actually
speaking Chinese with our military allies in the shadow of the American built destroyers
on which they would return to fight in the Far East. If only Miss Leslie could see me
Naturally my grandparents were disappointed that I didn』t spend much time with
them, but their bitterness was more than assuaged when I bought gangs of my Chinese
sailor friends over to Miami Beach and introduced them to my family. My grandparents
had the pleasure of introducing me to their friends as 「my grandson, the interpreter for
the Chinese navy.」
I exchanged addresses and correspondence with my main Chinese mentor, Fan
Tung-shi, for the next five years. Sadly, his letters stopped coming when the Chinese
Communists completed their conquest of the Mainland. (He and I were joyously reunited
exactly forty years later when a Taiwan newspaper interviewed me and asked me how I
learned Chinese. One of Fan』s friends saw his name in the article.)
That summer, in Will』s Bookstore on South Green Street back in Greensboro, I
walked past the foreign language section and spotted a book entitled Hugo』s Italian
Simplified. I opened it, and within ten or fifteen seconds the 「background music」 started
Italian, I discovered, was Latin with all the difficulty removed. Much as a skilled chef
fillets the whole skeleton out of a fish, some friendly folks somewhere had lifted all that
grammar (at least, most of it) out of Latin and called the remainder Italian!
There was no nominative-genitive-dative-accusative in Italian. Not a trace, except
in a few pronouns which I knew I could easily take prisoner because we had the same
thing in English (me is the accusative of I). Italian verbs did misbehave a little, but not to
the psychedelic extent of Latin verbs. And Italian verbs were a lot easier to look at.
I bought Hugo』s book and went through it like a hot knife through butter. I could
have conversed in Italian within a month if there』d been anybody around who could have
understood – a learning aid which the Greensboro of that day, alas, could not provide.
I was clearly a beaten boxer on the comeback trail. Why was I all of a sudden doing
so well in Italian after having done so poorly in Latin?
Was it my almost abnormal motivation? No. I』d had that in Latin, too. Was it that
Italian was a living language you could go someplace some day and actually speak,
whereas Latin was something you could only hope to go on studying? That』s a little
closer to the mark, but far from the real answer.
My blitz through Italian, after my unsuccessful siege of Latin, owed much to the
fact that in Italian I didn』t miss day four! I』m convinced that it was day four in ninth
grade Latin that did me in. No other day』s absence would have derailed me. When I left
on day three we were bathing in a warm sea of pleasant words. If only I』d been there on
day four when Miss Leslie explained the importance of grammar, I might have felt a bit
dampened, but I』d have put my head into the book, clapped my hands over my ears, and
After Italian I surged simultaneously into Spanish and French with self study books.
Though by no means fluent in either Spanish or French by summer』s end, I had amassed
an impressive payload of each. I was ready to stage my come from behind coup.
Regulations in my high school demanded that a student complete two years of Latin
with good grades before continuing with another language. After that, one could choose
Spanish or French. I had completed only one year of Latin with poor grades, and I
wanted to take both Spanish and French!
I had not yet learned the apt Spanish proverb that tells us 「regulations are for your
enemies.」 I learned the concept, however, by living it.
Miss Mitchell was the sole foreign language authority of the high school. She
taught Spanish and French. She was considered unbendable – in fact, unapproachable –
in matters of regulation fudging. I didn』t know that on the first day as classes were
forming. I』m glad I didn』t.
I went to her classroom and asked if I might talk something over with her. I told her
I was particularly interested in foreign languages, and even though I』d only had one year
of Latin and didn』t do well in it at all, I』d really like to move into Spanish and French. If
she could only see her way clear to let me, I』d appreciate it forever and try awfully hard.
She asked if I had a transcript of my grades from Miss Leslie』s Latin class. No, I
didn』t, I explained, but I had something more to the point. I』d bought books in Spanish
and French over the summer and gotten a good head start. I hoped a demonstration of my
zeal would win her favour.
Like a tough agent softening sufficiently to let a persistent unknown comic do part
of his routine, Miss Mitchell invited me to do my stuff.
I conversed, I read, I wrote, I recited, I conjugated, I even sang – first in Spanish,
then in French. Miss Mitchell gave no outward sign of emotion, but I knew the magic had
「I』ll have to talk it over with the principal,」 she said, 「but I don』t think there will be
a problem. We』ve never had a case anything like this before. If I can get approval, which
language, Spanish or French, would you like to take?」
In a fit of negotiatory skill I wish would visit me more often, I said, 「Please, Miss
Mitchell, let me take both!」
She frowned, but then relented. I got to take both.
From the ambitious boxer floored early in round one by Latin grammar, I was all of
a sudden the heavyweight language champ of the whole high school!
Ingrid Bergman Made Me Learn Norwegian
I did well in high school Spanish and French. When you』ve pumped heavy iron, lifting a
salad fork seems easy. When you』re thrown into a grammar as complex as Latin』s at the
age of fourteen, just about any other language seems easy. I never quit thanking Spanish,
French, German, Italian, Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, Romanian and Yiddish just for
not being Latin. I』ve always been particularly grateful to Chinese and Indonesian for
having nothing in their entire languages a Latin student would recognise as grammar.
It was so enjoyable building my knowledge of Spanish, French, Italian and Chinese,
I never thought of taking on any other languages. Then I saw an Ingrid Bergman movie
and came out in a daze. I』d never imagined a woman could be that attractive. I went
directly to the adjoining bookstore and told the clerk, 「I want a book in whatever
language it is she speaks.」
Miss Bergman』s native tongue, the clerk told me, was Swedish, and he bought forth
a copy of Hugo』s Swedish Simplified. It cost two dollars and fifty cents. I only had two
dollars with me.
「Do you have anything similar – cheaper?」 I asked.
He did indeed. He produced a volume entitled Hugo』s Norwegian Simplified for
only one dollar and fifty cents.
「Will she understand if I speak to her in this?」 I asked, pointing to the less
expensive Norwegian text. The clerk assured me that yes, any American speaking
Norwegian would be understood by any native Swede.
He was right. A lifetime later, at age thirty, I wheedled an exclusive radio interview
with Ingrid Bergman on the strength of my ability in her language. She was delighted
when I told her the story. Or at least she was a nice enough person and a good enough
actress to pretend.
Rumours of Russian
When I arrived at the University of North Carolina, I got my first real opportunity to
speak the European languages I was learning with native speakers. Students at the
university came from many different countries. The Cosmopolitan Club, a group of
foreign students and Americans who wanted to meet one another, gathered every Sunday
afternoon in the activities building. I felt like a bee flitting from blossom to blossom until
it is too heavy with pollen to fly or even buzz.
A rumour rippled across the campus in my senior year that seemed too good to be
true. The university, it was whispered, was planning to start a class in Russian.
Sure enough, the rumour was soon confirmed. It was a historic event. Not only was
the course the first in Russian ever offered by the University of North Carolina (or
possibly by any university in the South), it also represented the first time the university
had offered what one student called a 「funny looking」 language of any kind (he meant
languages that don』t use the Roman alphabet)!
The enrollment requirements were stiff. First you had to have completed at least
two years in a 「normal」 language (Spanish, French, Italian, Portugese) with good grades.
I qualified and was accepted.
For me the first day of Russian was a lot like the first day of school. I』d toyed with
one funny looking language already (Chinese), but I knew Russian was a different kind
of funny looking. Would I conquer it, as I had Spanish and Norwegian, or would Russian
swallow me whole, as Latin had?
There were forty-five of us in that Russian class thinking varying versions of the
same thing when the teacher, a rangy Alabaman named 「Tiger」 Titus, entered the room.
After a formal 「Good morning」 he went straight to the front of the room and wrote the
Russian (Cyrillic) alphabet on the blackboard.
You could feel the group』s spirit sink notch by notch as each of Russian』s 「funny
looking」 letters appeared. Students were allowed under university rules to abandon a
course and get themselves into another as long as they did it within three days after the
beginning of the term. We had defections from Russian class in mid-alphabet. By the
time Tiger Titus turned around to face us, he had fewer students than had entered the
「My soul!」 exclaimed one of the deserters when I caught up with him at the
cafeteria later that day. 「I』ve never seen anything like that Russian alphabet before in my
life. Why, they』ve got v』s that look like b』s, n』s that look like h』s, u』s that look like y』s,
r』s that look like p』s, and p』s that look like sawed off goal posts. They got a backwards n
that』s really an e and an x that sounds like you』re gagging on a bone. They got a vowel
that looks like the number sixty-one, a consonant that looks like a butterfly with its wings
all the way out, and damned if they don』t even have a B-flat!」
The next day there were no longer forty-five members of the university』s first
Russian class. There were five.
I was one of the intrepid who hung in.
A Lucky Bounce to the Balkans
Writer/columnist Robert Ruark, a talented North Carolinian and drinking buddy of Ava
Gardner, once wrote boastfully about a college weekend that began someplace like
Philadelphia and got out of hand and wound up in Montreal. I topped him. I went to a
college football game right outside Washington, D.C., one weekend and wound up in
Yugoslavia for six weeks!
The previous summer I』d been named a delegate from the university to the national
convention of the National Student Association. I came back as chairman for the
Virginia-Carolinas region of NSA. In October I was in College Park, Maryland, for the
Carolina-Maryland game. At half time, at the hot dog stand, who should be reaching for
the same mustard squirter as I but National NSA president, Bill Dentzer.
「Who can believe this?」 he said. 「We』ve been looking for you for three days!」
I explained it was our big senior out of town football weekend and College Park,
Maryland was a long way from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and there was a lot going on
and I was sorry he couldn』t reach me. 「Why were you looking for me?」 I asked.
「We wanted you to go represent us in Yugoslavia,」 he said. I told him I』d love to.
「It』s too late now,」 he said. 「The plane leaves Monday from New York, and it』s
already Saturday afternoon and the State Department』s closed, so there』s no way to get
you a passport…」
「Bill,」 I interrupted, 「I have a passport. I can easily get back to Chapel Hill and
pick it up in time to fly from New York on Monday.」
By Wednesday I was attending sessions of a spirited Tito propaganda fiesta called
the Zagreb Peace Conference and enjoying my first immersion in a language the mere
mention of which impresses people even more than Chinese: Serbo-Croatian!
To my delight, I understood entire phrases from it from my university Russian. I
became aware of 「families」 of foreign languages, something that doesn』t occur
automatically to Americans because English doesn』t resemble its cousins very closely.
It』s something of a black sheep in the Germanic language family. They say the closest
language to English is Dutch. Dutch is about as close to English as Betelgeuse is to
I』d noticed the summer before that Norwegian is usefully close to Swedish and
Danish. Serbo-Croatian sounded to me like a jazzier, more 「fun」 kind of Russian. They
use the Roman alphabet in western Yugoslavia, Croatia, and Slovenia, and in Serbia to
the east they use the Cyrillic alphabet, with even more interesting letters in it than
Some of the mystique I』d always imputed to multilingual people began to fade. If
you meet somebody who speaks, say, ten languages, your instinct is to be impressed to
the tune of ten languages worth. If, however, you later learn that six of those languages
are Russian, Czech, Slovak, Serbo-Croatian, Polish and Ukrianian – I』m not suggesting
that you dismiss him as illiterate, but you ought to be aware that he got six of those
languages for the price of about two and three fourths! They』re all members of the Slavic
The Yugoslav university students, my hosts, sent me back home aboard a Yugoslav
ship, leaving me sixteen days with nothing to do but practice Serbo-Croatian with the
other passengers. When I got back to school after a solid eight weeks』 absence, I wasn』t
even behind in my German. German is widely spoken in central Europe and I』d spoken it
widely enough during the adventure to float almost even with the class.
Exotics – Hard and Easy
Expertise is a narcotic. As knowledge grows, it throws off pleasure to its possessor, much
like an interest bearing account throws off money. A pathologist who can instantly spot
the difference between normal and abnormal X-rays grows incapable of believing that
there are those of us who can』t. I find it hard to believe there are Americans who can』t
even tell the difference between printed pages of Spanish and French or of Polish,
Danish, or anything else written in the Roman alphabet. Too bad. If you can』t distinguish
the easier languages from the harder ones, you miss the higher joys of confronting your
first samples of written Finnish.
Finland has been called the only beautiful country in the world where the language
is the major tourist attraction. It』s utterly unfamiliar to you no matter where you come
from, unless you happen to come from Estonia, in which case Finnish is only half
unfamiliar to you. There』s always a general knowledge heavyweight around who says,
「Wait a minute. Finnish is related to Hungarian too!」
Oh, yeah! True, Finnish, Hungarian and Estonian are indeed all members of the
Finno-Ugric language family, but try to find more than six words even remotely similar
in each. As you learn more and more about foreign languages, you』re able to laugh at
more and more jokes about languages. No Las Vegas comic will even knock socks off, or
even loosen them, by standing up and saying, 「You know, Finnish and Hungarian are
cousin languages, but Finnish took all the vowels!」 Look at the two languages side by
side, however, and you』ll grudgingly accord at least minor wit status to whoever thought
that one up.
You may have experienced the difficulties of tackling Latin and Russian with their
half dozen or so noun cases. Finnish has fifteen noun cases in the singular and sixteen in
the plural! Every word in the entire language is accented on the first syllable, which gives
Finnish something of the sounds of a pneumatic jackhammer breaking up a sidewalk.
I covered the Olympic Games in Helsinki but wisely decided not to try to learn
Finnish. It was the wisdom of the young boxer who』s eager to get in there with the champ
and trade punches, but who nonetheless summons up the cool to decline and wait until
he』s more prepared. I found a much softer opponent on the ship back to the United States.
A summer tradition that vanished after the 1950』s with far too little poetic
lamentation was the 「student ship to Europe.」 They were almost always Dutch ships
offering unbelievably low fares, hearty food, cramped but clean accommodations, cheap
beer, and always a bearded guitar player who drew the crowd back to the ship』s fantail
after dinner and led the kids of ten or twelve nations in throaty renditions of 「I』ve Been
Working on the Railroad.」 The singing, the flirting, the joy of heading over or heading
home, and especially the learning of all the other countries』 「Railroads」 in all the other
languages made the summer student ship a delight unimaginable to today』s jet lagged
young Dutch airmen about my age. They were all headed for the United States to take
their jet fighter training at various American air bases, and we became old friends at
once. There seemed to be dozens (I later realised hundreds) of Indonesian servants on
board. After four hundred years of Dutch rule, Indonesia had won its independence from
Holland only four years earlier. The thousands of Indonesians who chose to remain loyal
to Holland had to go to Holland, and that meant that virtually the entire Dutch service
class was Indonesian.
I was sitting on the deck talking to one of the Dutch pilots, Hans van Haastert. He
called one of the Indonesians over and said something to him in fluent Indonesian. My
romance with Dutch would begin (in a very unusual way) a few years later, but my
romance with Indonesian was born in the lightning and thunder of Hans ordering a beer
from that deck chair.
If I had never been drawn to foreign languages earlier, that moment alone would
have done it. To me at that time, it was the white suited bwana speaking something pure
「jungle」 to one of his water carriers in any one of a hundred and eighteen safari movies
I』d seen. It was Humphrey Bogart melting a glamourous woman』s kneecaps with a burst
of bush talk she had no idea he even knew.
「Where did you learn that?」 I asked. It turned out that Hans, like many of his
Dutch confreres, had been born in Java of mixed parents. His Indonesian was just as good
as his Dutch. 「Will you teach me some?」 I asked.
For the next eight days, until we were interrupted by the New York City skyline,
Hans patiently taught me the Indonesian language. When we parted, I was able to
converse with the Indonesian crewmen, just as Hans had that first day on deck. Lest this
come across as a boast, let me hasten to point out that Indonesian is the easiest language
in the world – no hedging, no 「almost」, no 「among the easiest」. In my experience,
Indonesian is the easiest. The grammar is minimal, regular, and simple. Once I began to
learn it, Indonesian didn』t seem 「jungle」 anymore. The Indonesians obligingly use the
Roman alphabet, and they get along with fewer letters of it than we do. And their tongue
has an instant charm. The Indonesian word for 「sun」, mata hari (the famous female spy
was known as the 「sun」 of Asia) literally means 「eye of the day」. When they make a
singular noun plural in Indonesia, they merely say it twice. 「Man,」 for example, is orang.
「Men」 is orang orang. And when they write it, they just write one orang and put a 2 after
it, like an exponent in algebra (Orang 2). Orang hutan, the ape name pronounced by
many Americans as if it were 「orang-u-tang,」 is an Indonesian term meaning 「man of the
My Toughest Opponent
For the next four years I avoided taking up any new languages. I had nothing against any
of them (except one). It was just that there were too many gaps in the tongues I』d already
entertained and I wanted to plug them up.
The language I had something against was Hungarian. Before a summer weekend
with army buddies in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, I went to the post library and checked
out an army phrase book in Hungarian to look at over the weekend. The introduction
bluntly warned, 「Hungarian is perhaps the hardest language in the world, and it is spoken
by only about ten million people.」 I resolved I』d never get any closer to it.
Hungarian was the next language I studied.
When Hungary rebelled against Soviet oppression in 1956, I was invited by the
U.S. Air Force to join a team of reporters covering Operation Safe Haven, the airlift of all
Hungarian refugees who were to receive asylum in the United States. That was far from
enough to make me want to study Hungarian – yet.
Every child is treated to fantasies like Buck Rogers and his invincible ray gun,
Superman, Batman, or, in my case, Jack Armstrong and his 「mystery eye」, a power
imparted to him by a friendly Hindu who, merely by concentrating and holding his palms
straight out, could stop every oncoming object from a fist to a bullet to a bull to an
express train. By this time I began to note that similar powers – offensive and defensive –
could unexpectedly and delightfully accompany the mastery of languages.
No Iron Curtains for Language
Many reporters got to the Hungarian border with Austria during the outpouring of
refugees that followed the Soviet oppression of the Hungarian freedom fighters. They
went to the Red Cross shelters on the Austrian side, interviewed some refugees and relief
workers, and went home. I was invited to join a secret team of volunteer international
「commandos」 who actually slipped into Hungary by night to ferry refugees across the
border canal on a rubber raft.
The centre of the refugee operation was the Austrian border village of Andau. I
asked a local policeman in German where the refugee headquarters was. It was Christmas
night. It was dark. It was cold. There were no tour bus operators on the streets hawking
tickets to the Hungarian border. He told me to go to Pieck』s Inn. At Pieck』s Inn the
bartender said, 「Room nineteen.」 The fact that I was getting all this in German without
looking around for somebody who spoke English was a convenience, but that』s not what
I mean by the power of another language. That came next.
I went upstairs to room nineteen and knocked on the door. 「Who』s there?」 shouted
a voice in interestingly accented English.
「I』m an American newspaper reporter,」 I yelled back. 「I understand you might help
me get to the Hungarian border.」
He opened the door cussing. 「I』ll never take another American to the border with us
again,」 he said before the door even opened. 「No more Americans! One of you bastards
damned near got us all captured night before last.」
He turned out to be a pleasant looking young man with blonde hair. When I
knocked, he was busy adjusting heavy duty combat boots. He continued his tirade as we
faced each other. 「That American knew damned good and well that flashlights,
flashbulbs, even matches were forbidden.」 He went on in rougher language than I』ll here
repeat to tell how an American with a camera broke his promise and popped off a
flashbulb while a raft load of refugees was in the middle of the canal, causing the
refugees and the rescuers on both sides of the canal to scatter. That burst of light, of
course, let the Communists know exactly where the escape operation was taking place.
He described in valiant but not native English exactly how much ice would have to form
around the shell of hell before any other American reporter or any reporter of any kind
would ever be invited to join the operation again.
As he railed on, I noticed a Norwegian flag tacked to the wall behind him. 「Snakker
De norsk?」 I asked (「Do you speak Norwegian?」).
He stopped, said nothing for a few seconds. Then, like a Hollywood comic of the
1940』s pulling an absurd reversal, he said, 「You』ve got big feet, but there』s a pair of
boots on the other side of the bed that might fit you. Try 『em on!」
All night long we stood there waiting for the shadows to tell us that another group
of refugees had arrived on the far bank of the canal. Then we』d push the raft into the
water and play out the rope as our two boatmen paddled across. One would get out and
help four or five Hungarians into the raft. When the raft was loaded, the boatman still in
the raft would tug on the rope and we』d pull it back over. Then the lone boatman would
paddle over again and repeat the process until all the refugees were on the Austrian side.
The second boatman came back with the last load.
We had to wait at least an hour to an hour and a half between refugee clusters. I was
the coldest I』d ever been in my life, and there was no place to huddle behind or curl up
inside. All we could do was stand there and wait. Light wasn』t the only thing prohibited.
So was talk. Normal speech travels surprisingly far over frozen flatland, and it was
important not to betray our position to the Communist patrols. We were only allowed to
whisper softly to the person immediately ahead of us on the rope and the person
I tried to remember what day it was. It was Thursday. It had only been the previous
Saturday night when I』d taken a Norwegian girl, Meta Heiberg, from Woman』s College
to the Carolina Theatre in Greensboro, North Carolina, where we saw newsreels of
almost the very spot where I was now standing. When the screen showed Hungarian
refugees pouring into Austria, Meta had said, 「My sister Karen』s over there somewhere
helping those people.」 That was all.
The next day I got the call inviting me to fly over with the air force. On Monday I
flew. And here I was, freezing and waiting and marvelling at the courage of the boatmen
who voluntarily put themselves into jeopardy every time they crossed to the other side of
Eventually I decided to avail myself of whispering rights. The figure in front of me
was so roundly bundled against the cold I couldn』t tell if it was male or female. I leaned
forward and said, 「My name is Barry Farber and I』m from America.」
A woman』s voice replied, 「My name is Karen Heiberg and I』m from Norway.」
The cold, the power of the coincidence, and the tension of the border all combined
to keep me from maximising that opportunity. All I managed to do was flatfootedly utter
the obvious: 「I took your sister Meta to the Carolina Theatre in Greensboro, North
Carolina, five nights ago.」
The effect on Karen was powerful. I can』t complain, but I wish I』d been quick
enough to add, 「She sent me over here to find out why you never write Uncle Olaf!」
How I Married Hungarian
You don』t launch into the study of a new language casually, but it』s not quite as solemn a
decision as an American man proposing to his girlfriend after an evening of wine and
light jazz. It is, however, something like an Ottoman sultan deciding to take on another
wife. It really is like a marriage. Something in you actually says, 「I do!」 and you decide
to give it time and commitment that would ordinarily be invested elsewhere.
My pledge never to try to learn Hungarian was shattered by Hungarian heroism,
Soviet tanks, and my agreeing to help Hungarian refugees resettle in Greensboro. I
wasn』t the only journalist who stayed on that story long after history moved on. Every
journalist I know who got involved in any part of the Hungarian Revolution became
attached to it.
I started in Munich in the transit refugee camp for those fleeing Hungarians who
were destined to go to America. I buzzed from one refugee to another like a bee to
blossoms, drawing as many words and phrases as I could from each and writing them
The U.S. Air Force gave its Luitpol barracks over to the Hungarians, who promptly
plastered their own signs right on top of the English signs on all the doors. The door that
once said 「Doctor」 suddenly said 「Orvos.」 The door that once said 「Clothing」 suddenly
said 「Ruha.」 And so on. It was easy to tell who among the Americans and Germans at
Luitpol were genuine language lovers. They were the ones who were not annoyed.
The Hungarian relabelling of everything at Luitpol actually gave me my most
explosive language learning thrill. When I went searching for a men』s room, I found
myself for the first time in my life not knowing where to go. You don』t need Charles
Berlitz to take you by the hand to the right one when the doors read 「Mesdames」 and
「Messieurs,」 「Damen」 and 「Herren,」 「Se.oras」 and 「Se.ores,」 or even the rural
Norwegain 「Kvinnor」 and 「Menn.」
No such luck prevailed at Luitpol. The two doors were labelled 「N..k」 and
「Ferfiak.」 I looked at those two words, trying not to let my language lover』s enthusiasm
distract from the pragmatic need to decipher which one was which relatively soon.
My thinking went like this. The k at the end of both words probably just made them
plural. That left N.. and Ferfia, or possibly Ferfi. Something came to me. I remembered
reading that Hungarian was not originally a European language. It had been in Asia. The
Chinese word for 「woman」, 「lady」, or anything female was n. – not no and not nu, but
that precise umlaut sound that two dots over anything foreign almost always represents.
(I lose patience with language textbooks that spend a page and a half telling you to purse
your lips as though you』re going to say oo as in 「rude」 and then tell you instead to say ee
as in 「tree.」 If you simply say the e sound in 「nervous」 or 「Gertrude,」 you』ll be close
Following that hunch I entered the door marked 「F.rfiak.」 The joy that came next
should arise in tabernacles, not men』s rooms. To my satisfaction and relief I walked in
and found five or six other ferfiak inside!
Back in America I went looking for some books and records (there were no cassette
tapes in those days) to help me in Hungarian. There were none. Communist rule has so
completely cut Hungary off from the West that when you went looking for a Hungarian
book, the shelves of even the biggest bookstores leapfrogged Hungarian, jumping right
from Hebrew to Indonesian. There was one Hungarian-English phrase book published by
a New York Hungarian delicatessen and general store named Paprikas Weiss. To
accommodate the wave of Hungarian immigrants who had come to America in the
1930』s, they had published their own little phrase book, which was distinguished by its
utter failure to offer a single phrase of any practical use whatsoever to those of us
working with the refugees. It was loaded with sentences like Almomban egy bet..r..vel
viaskodtom,」 which means, 「In my dream I had a fight with a burglar」!
Finally, like supplies that lag far behind the need for them in wartime, some decent
English-Hungarian/Hungarian-English dictionaries arrived – no grammar books yet, just
dictionaries. An explorer named Vilhjalmur Stefansson went to Greenland one time and
proved you could live for eighteen months on nothing but meat. I proved it was possible,
with nothing but that dictionary, to resettle half a dozen Hungarian refugees who spoke
no English at all in Greensboro, North Carolina, to care for all their needs, and have a
good deal of fun without one single bit of grammar!
Hungarian has one of the most complex grammars in the world, but grammar is like
classical music and good table manners. It』s perfectly possible to live without either if
you』re willing to shock strangers, scare children, and be viewed by the world as a
rampaging boor. We had no choice. Hungarians had to be talked to about homes, jobs,
training, money, driver』s licenses, and the education of their children.
「Tomorrow we』ll go to the butcher』s,」 for instance, had to do without the thirty-
nine grammatical inflections a Hungarian sentence of that length would properly entail.
We did it with nothing but the translation of essential words: 「Tomorrow go meat
fellow.」 「A charitable woman is coming by to help you with your furniture needs」
became 「Nice lady come soon give tables chairs.」
I learned Hungarian fluently – and badly. Many years later I decided to return to
Hungarian and learn it properly and grammatically. It』s a little like being back in Latin
class, but this time I have a much better attitude.
For the next thirty-five years I stood my ground and resisted taking up any new language.
The languages I』d studied up to that point included Spanish, French, Italian, German,
Portugese, Dutch, Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Chinese
(Mandarin dialect), Indonesian, Hungarian, Finnish, Yiddish and Hebrew. I happily
applied myself to building competence in those languages and turning a deaf ear to all
It was tempting to tackle Greek; so many Greeks I could have practiced with were
popping up in my daily travels, but I clung to my policy of 「No more languages, thank
you!」 That policy was misguided; in fact, swine headed. I was like the waiter standing
there with arms folded who gets asked by a diner if he knows what time it is and
brusquely replies 「Sorry. That』s not my table!」
I could have easily and profitably picked up a few words and phrases every time I
went to the Greek coffee shop and in the process learned another major language. But I
didn』t. In the 1980』s immigrants to New York, where I lived, began to pour in from
unaccustomed corners of the world, adding languages like Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, Farsi,
Bengali, Pashtu, Twi, Fanti, Wollof, Albanian, and Dagumbi to our already rich
inventory of Spanish, Chinese, Italian, Yiddish, Portugese, Greek, Polish, and Hebrew. I
abandoned the policy. Now I want to learn them all – not completely, just enough to
delight the heart of an Indian or African cab driver who never before in his entire life met
an American who tried to learn his language.
P A R T T W O
Do as I Now Say,
Not as I Then Did
A wise man once said, 「I wish I had all the time I』ve ever wasted, so I could waste it all
over again.」 Others may look at me and see someone who can, indeed, carry on a
creditable conversation in about eighteen languages. I』m the only one who knows how
much of my language learning time has been wasted, how little I』ve got to show for all
those years of study, considering the huge hunks of time I』ve put into it. In fact, I feel
like one of those hardened convicts who』s occasionally let out of jail under armed guard
to lecture the sophomore class on the importance of going straight.
If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn』t do it at all the way I did then. I』d do it the
way I』m doing it now, the way I will detail in this book. It』s the way I』ve finally grown
into and the way I hope you will proceed in order to get the absolute most out of your
language learning dollar and your language learning minute.
Here are some of the myths I held dear in the years when I thought I knew how to
study languages, myths I now want to trample before you get the slightest bit seduced by
I』ll put on my language cassettes while I work around the house and learn the
language as easily as I learn the lyrics to popular songs.
Great image. It just doesn』t work. You can』t just push a button and let the language
you want to learn roll over you. Expecting to learn a language by laid back listening is
like expecting to build a magnificent body by going to the gym, sitting in the steam room,
chugging a glass of carrot juice, and then bragging about your 「workout!」
You』re going to have to study the material on that cassette, capture every word,
learn it, review it, master it, and then check challenge yourself after every piece of
English. (We』ll consider a 「piece」 to be whatever the speaker on the cassette says in
English before you hear the target language. It may be a word, a phrase, a whole
Abandon all images of language learning that resemble lying on a tropical beach
and letting the warm surf splash over you. Pretend, instead, as you listen to your cassette,
that you』re a contestant on a TV game show. After each piece of English, ask yourself,
「For one thousand dollars now, quick, how do I say that in the language I』m trying to
Since I』m not in school anymore, time isn』t important. I』ll take my time, skip a day,
skip two days; the language will still be there when I get back to it.
Spoken like a true linguaphony. A language has a lot in common with a military
foe. Don』t let it rest. Don』t let it regroup and devise fresh ways to foil your attack. Keep
up the rhythm of your offensive. Keep your momentum going. (This is only an
illustration of tactics, of course; no language is an enemy.) A programme that features
disciplined effort will convince you that you』re serious and generate fresh inspiration and
The chapter I』m studying now is hard and probably not too important. I』ll skip it
and get back to it later on.
That』s a giant killer. The declension of the numbers in Russian. The subjunctive in
the Romance languages. The double infinitive in German. The enclitics in Serbo-
Croatian. The noun cases in Finnish. Almost every language has formidable mountains to
climb. Don』t walk around them. Climb them! Take one step at a time. Just be careful
never to surrender to the temptation to beg off the hard stuff and learn only those parts of
the language you find congenial.
It will seem masochistic, but I want you to learn the names of the letters of the
alphabet in your target language and the grammatical terms too, so that when you ask a
native how a certain word is spelled, you can bandy the letters back and forth in the
language. When you ask a native for the past tense of this verb or the negative plural of
that noun, do your asking in the target language.
I』m never going to pose as a native speaker of their language, and I』d never be able
to pull it off even if I tried, so why bother to develop the right accent?
Nobody is arrested for indecent exposure just because he dresses poorly. On the
other hand, a person unconcerned about dress will never impress us with his appearance.
It』s the same with the proper accent. As long as you』re going to go to the trouble of
learning a language, why not try – at very little extra cost – to mimic the genuine accent.
A poor accent will still get you what you want. A good accent will get you much
If you can put on a foreign accent to tell ethnic jokes, you can put one on when you
speak another language. If you think you can』t, try! A lot of Americans believe they』re
unable to capture a foreign accent when subconsciously they』re merely reluctant to try.
We』re all taught that it』s rude to make fun of foreigners. That childhood etiquette is
hereby countermanded. 「Make fun」 of the foreigner』s accent as effectively as you can as
you learn his language.
Your 「infancy」 in a foreign language is spent learning to grope with incomplete
phrases made up of incorrect words to mash your meaning across. 「Babyhood」 comes
when some of the phrases are complete and more of the words are correct.
「Childhood」 arrives when you can deal rather fluently with concepts involving
bread, bed, buttons, and buses, even though you can』t yet discuss glassblowing in
「Adulthood」 is being able to discuss absolutely anything, but with a pronounced
American accent. With 「maturity」 you acquire a creditable accent in the language. You』ll
know you』ve achieved maturity when you become annoyed at other Americans you hear
plodding through the language with no effort to 「foreignise」 their accent to approximate
the correct one.
Be content with partial victories. I rejoiced the moment I learned I could speak
Swedish well enough to convince a Norwegian I was a Finn. I celebrated when I realised
I could speak Serbo-Croatian well enough to convince an Italian I was a Czech!
There will come a moment when I will cross a border and earn the right to say,
「Yes, I speak your language」!
There』s no such border. Learning a language is a process of encroachment into the
unknown. When can you say you 「speak a language」? The famous ophthalmologist Dr.
Peter Halberg of New York refuses to consider that he speaks a language unless and until
he can conduct a medical lecture in the language and then take hostile questioning from
his peers. By his standards, he only speaks five languages!
My standards are less exacting. I』ll confess to 「speaking a language」 if, after
engaging in deep conversation with a charming woman from a country whose language
I』m studying, I have difficulty the next morning recalling which language it was we were
The Language Club, about which I will say more later, has a valuable guideline.
When anybody asks a Language Clubber, 「How many languages do you speak?」 he
gives the only safe answer, 「One. I speak my native language.」 He lets a breath go by to
let that 「one」 sink in, after which he may then add, 「However, I am a student of…」 and
mentions as many languages as he likes.
To the question, 「Do you speak such and such a language?」 the all class response is
a James Bond smile and three words: 「Yes, a little.」 It』s much better to let people
gradually realise that your 「little」 is really quite a bit than to have them realise that your
「Yes, I speak such and such」 is a fraud.
Say you』ve been studying Indonesian, far from a commonplace language, and to
your amazement (and delight) one of the other guests for dinner is from Indonesia.
Repress the instinct to yelp at your good fortune. Act at first as though you know nothing
of Indonesian. Don』t even say 「Pleased to meet you」 in Indonesian. There will be time.
At the right point, much later in the proceedings, you』ll have the opening to remark,
「That』s what the merchants of Djakarta would call…」 and then let go your best burst of
wit – in Indonesian.
For you to actually speak Indonesian and allow so much time to elapse before
claiming your applause is downright noble. Beware flying socks when you lean over to
your new Indonesian friend and, lowering your voice so as not to appear to be calling
attention to yourself, finally unleash your evening』s first volley of Indonesian.
Americans have grown up believing learning languages is hard. It is not hard! It merely
seems hard because language instruction in American schools and colleges has until
lately been so exasperatingly dull and unrewarding.
Grammar, I again protest, is usually presented in American classrooms as a kind of
obstacle course designed to leave you gasping face down on the Astroturf somewhere
between the pluperfect and the subjunctive. Grammar can do that to you if you insist on
attacking it the old way: frontally, rule by rule, exception by exception, with no fun en
route and never feeling the joy of progress.
You』re going to learn grammar, all right, but the conquest will never give you pain.
You will waft through the thickest walls of grammar like a cartoon ghost and continue
your journey onward through the language. Every time you look backward that wall will
be lower, thinner, full of increasingly wider openings, and eventually it will disappear
entirely. Contrary to centuries of American superstition, you don』t have to conquer the
grammar to possess the language. Conquer the language and you』ll possess the grammar!
I』ve long entertained the fantasy of putting the old orthodox grammarians on trial
for war crimes, the specific charge being assassination of the fun that flows from gaining
command of another language. Their defense will predictably be 「Bah, humbug. You
can』t immerse, converse, rehearse, or even play around with a foreign language without a
good foundation in the grammar!」
They』re right in insisting on the importance of grammar, but who says you』ve got to
have it first, as some kind of brutal initiation? Where is it written that you must wrap
cold, wet blankets of grammar around your eagerness to learn another language until it
disappears? (Your eagerness, that is. The grammar never does.)
A six year old in America doesn』t know what the word grammar means, but he
knows to say 「he does」 and not 「he do.」 How does he know? 「He do」 just doesn』t sound
That』s all! And that』s enough!
Years later he will be taught that the English verb in the third person singular of the
present tense adds an s or es to the infinitive form, which serves uninflected for all other
persons singular and plural.
You don』t have to know grammar to obey grammar. If you obey grammar from the
outset, when you turn around later and learn why you should say things the way you』re
already saying them, each grammatical rule will then become not an instrument of
abstract torture disconnected from anything you』ve experienced but rather an old friend
who now wants you to have his home address and private phone number.
When the grammatical rule come first, followed by its pitiful two or three examples
in the textbook, it seems to the student like an artificially confected bit of perversity
rolled down upon his head like a boulder.
When the grammatical rule comes after you』ve got some of the language in you, it
becomes a gift flashlight that makes you smile and say, 「Now I understand why they say
it that way!」
So, you are right now and forevermore warned not to bridle or to question, 「Why is
the word for 『go』 in this French sentence vais and in the very next sentence aller?」
Simply embrace the faith that both sentences are correct and learn them like Catholic
children in strict parochial schools learn the Baltimore Catechism.
The more shaken you become by grammatical storms, the more tightly you must
hug the faith. I vow it will all become clear. And in this world. You won』t have to wait
for any other.
It』s easy to reason, 「Who am I trying to kid? They』ll always know I』m a foreigner.
They』ll excuse my mistakes. So forget about all those rules. I just want to get by. Gimme
some words and phrases and get out of my way. As long as they understand!」
That』s an attitude to be resisted. When you learn another language, you will be
accepted as an honoured volunteer into the culture of another people. Do you want to be
accorded a low rank or a high rank? Learn the language properly, which means
(eventual) conquest of the grammar. Don』t be a buck private when, for a few minutes of
extra concentration, you can be a general.
Look at it this way. Grammar is not a marathon run in which, if you tire, falter, or
fall, you fail. Grammar is an edifice you must build on your property. But it doesn』t have
to be done all at once. At the appointed moment in your studies, I will advise you to
master the first five lessons in your grammar book. (Some call it a textbook or a
workbook – it』s the book they』ll give you at the bookstore if you ask, 「Have you got
anything that teaches you French?」) After that, you will advance through reading,
conversation, comprehension, and real world contact with the languages in addition to the
As I grappled with the complexities of grammar in Russian, Finnish, Hungarian,
and, to a lesser extent, German, I had visions of those people way back when they were
wandering tribes. I imagined the tribal elders squatting around campfires consulting with
soothsayers who warned them, 「In the mid twentieth century a child will be born to the
Farber family in a place they』ll call America. He will try to learn our language. At
present it』s too simple. Get back to work and come up with some more grammar. Let our
noun endings mire him up to his hips. Let the felsh of his face feel the thorns of our
verbs. Flay his back with exceptions to our rules and let his hair get caught in our
inflecting negatives and perfective aspects.
「Hurry!」 the soothsayer concludes. 「We haven』t got a century to waste. Get in there
right now and mess our language up so that poor guy will never get it!」
Now let the adult mind enter and make peace. Obviously, no language tries to be
hard just to keep you out. Whatever rules you find perplexing in your target language,
that language came by them naturally and organically. Grammar does change, but so
slowly you』ll never have to worry about it. Approach the grammar with a smile and your
hand extended. That which you understand, take and keep. That which is confusing,
return to again and again. That which seems impossible, return to again and again and
again, until it becomes merely confusing. It will ultimately become clear. Meanwhile,
however, you will be speeding ahead in your command of the language as you keep
returning to those stubborn fortresses of grammatical resistance.
I can honestly say I came to like the study of grammar. Once you finally approach
grammar with the right attitude, it becomes both a map that shows you the pathways
through a language and a rocket that takes you there faster.
A paleontologist can find lifetime fascination with a fossil a child might ignore,
kick, or toss into the lake just to hear the splash. Likewise, the grammar of various
languages throws off some laughs and insights nonlinguists never get a chance to marvel
In German, for example, a woman doesn』t achieve feminine gender until she gets
married. The word for 「girl」 (M.dchen) and 「miss」 (Fr.ulein) are both neuter gender. In
Russian, the past tense of verbs acts like an adjective; it doesn』t shift forms according to
person and number as verbs normally do, but shift according to gender and number as
adjectives do. In Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish the definite article (「the」) follows the
noun and is attached to it. Therefore, 「a field」 in Norwegian is en mark. 「The field,」,
however, is marken. Romanian and Albanian, completely unrelated to the Scandinavian
languages, do the same thing.
In Finnish, the word for 「not」 is a verb. (At least it behaves like a verb.) Finnish,
alone in all the world, has an inflecting negative. In every other language in which verbs
conjugate, the form of the verb changes according to person and number, whether the
verb is positive or negative. Thus, in Spanish the verb meaning 「to want」 goes yo quiero,
tu quieres, el quiere. If you wish to say 「I don』t want」, you keep the verb forms the same
and throw the word for 「not」, no, in front of it (yo no quiero, tu no quieres, el no quiere).
In Finnish, and this is pure believe-it-or-not to anyone who』s looked at a lot of
different languages, it』s the word for not that does the changing! Thus, 「I want,」 「you
want,」 「he wants」 in Finnish goes, (min.) haluan, (sin.) haluat, (h.n) halua. In the
negative, however, the verb for 「want」 becomes halua in all persons and the word for
「not」 changes from person to person. Thus, 「I don』t want,」 「you don』t want,」 「he
doesn』t want」 becomes (min.) en halua, (sin.) et halua, (h.n) ei halua.
I think my most impossible to top discovery is the fact that in Hindi and Urdu
「tomorrow」 and 「yesterday」 are translated by the same word. Once, a Pakistani cab
driver actually seemed irked that I found that to be at all strange. 「We have verb tenses to
tell us which is which」 was his testy explanation.
American feminists have mounted crusades to convert sexist terms that have over
the years insinuated themselves deep into the language. We』ve all abandoned chairman,
for example, for the cumbersome but less provocative chairperson, manhole for
maintenance hole, and so on.
It』s strange that the most blazing example of language sexism has gone unreformed,
even though it occurs in some countries with active and successful feminist movements.
Maybe it』s because, unlike manhole, this sexism is more than just a word or a term. It』s
gone through the bone into the marrow, through the words of the language into the
You may remember it from Spanish 1. You may have gotten it right on the tests and
not thought of it since. I refer to the Romance language 「gender surrender」 from
feminine to masculine.
Let』s say two women are having lunch. If you want to refer to them in Spanish, the
word is ellas, the feminine 「they」 or 「them.」 If they should be joined by a man, however,
the ellas becomes ellos, masculine for 「they」 or 「them.」 And no matter how many more
women show up and crowd around the table, the Spanish language can never put that
humpty dumpty ellas back into play – unless the lone man leaves!
Theoretically, a million women can be rallying in the main square of the capital.
The newspapers will report that ellas rallied, made demands, did thus and so. If, however,
one man wanders into the square to join in, the proper pronoun is ellos! And that same
rule goes for French, Italian, Portugese, Romanian, and a few other languages.
You may never come to love grammar, but work with it. Although sometimes
annoying and thick in disguise, it』s your friend.
French or Tagalog:
Choosing a Language
What are your language objectives?
This is not merely one of those abstract questions universities and fitness centres
like to annoy you with before they accept your application.
Are you planning to marry a German and live in Germany? Then the language you
want to learn in German. You should stick to German and learn it well. Do you own a
hardware store in a neighbourhood of a growing American city where your customers
represent eighteen different language groups, including Tagalog and Punjabi? Then you
want to learn greetings, key business expressions like 「invoice」 and 「charge account,」
and the names of as many items in your inventory as you can in eighteen different
languages, including Tagalog and Punjabi.
The way you』re going to spend your language learning hours depends on your
We』re going to presume here that whatever language you choose to learn, you want
to learn well. If you merely want to learn a smattering of greetings and phrases in a lot of
languages, great. You』re in for a lot of fun, particularly when you see, if you haven』t
already, how far even a few words can carry you. In that case, the departure from the
method outlined here is obvious. You don』t need mastery of the grammar. Most big
bookstores offer racks of phrase books for travellers in up to twenty-five different
languages. Buy all you want and study your favourite ten or fifteen of the first hundred
phrases in each.
Don』t feel frivolous if you feel you want to learn a language but don』t know which
one. You』re part of a movement to correct a weakness that has bedevilled America since
the founding of our nation. Do you like opera? Try Italian. Diamonds? Try Dutch.
Commercial advantage? German or Japanese. Cutting edge positioning for the world
down the road? Chinese or Arabic. East-West barrier breaking and door opening?
French is second only to English as an international language, spoken far beyond
the borders of France itself. Spanish enables Americans to become more complete
citizens of the Western Hemisphere, while a resurgent Spain itself becomes an
increasingly important part of Europe.
If willingness of subject peoples to learn the language of the conqueror is any
indication of the conqueror』s popularity, then the winning conqueror is England and the
loser is Russia. Those forced into Moscow』s postwar empire had an aversion to learning
Russian, but in spite of Communism』s failure, the Russian language remains the most
widely spoken of the Slavic languages. It can be your key to the dozen or so related
languages (Polish, Czech, etc.).
Maybe you want to learn a difficult language, like Finnish; an easy language, like
Indonesian; a useful language, like French; or an obscure language, like Albanian.
My motives for learning various languages have ranged from chance and youthful
energy (Norwegian) to wanting a vital tool for my work (Spanish) to processing refugees
(Hungarian) to getting dates with women whose looks I liked (Swedish) to proving I
wasn』t an idiot for almost flunking Latin (Chinese).
Nobody who sells language learning books and devices will ever frown in
disappointment at your choice of a language. Don』t feel you have to apologise or explain
that you want to learn Czech – or Catalan or Yoruba or Urdu or Kurdish – for no other
reason than you』re tired of walking around a world as exciting as this one speaking only
Gathering Your Tools
You』ve decided which language you』re going to learn, and you』ve made a deal with the
grammar of that language: you agree to learn it, and in return it agrees not to rush you,
bore you, discourage you, or hurt you.
Now it』s time to go shopping. Find a bookstore that offers a broad selection of
language learning materials. Don』t settle for one where the clerk is not sure but says,
「We might have something in French and Spanish over in 『Language.』」
Find a basic book (textbook, workbook) that gives you a good grounding in the grammar
of the language. Never mind if it seems to give you grammar and little else. Never mind
if it reminds you of the books that depressed you back in high school and college. We』ll
find all the excitement – reading and conversation – elsewhere. Grammar is all you need
from this one.
Most language dictionaries are two way: English-French (or whatever) and French-
English. Make sure the dictionary you buy at least lives up to that. (I have walked out of
bookstores with dictionaries I assumed were two way that turned out to be only one way,
and the way I wasn』t looking for!)
A lot of dictionaries are infuriatingly inadequate. They don』t even have words like
negotiate and proprietor. Spend a little time making sure you』re getting something
substantial. It』s a good idea to look through a newspaper and make a list of some of the
more complicated words in the news columns. Those are the words you』ll soon be
looking up. Does that dictionary have them? Price, colour, and the neatness with which
the dictionary fits into your pocket, brief case, or handbag are a lot less important than
finding a dictionary that can deliver.
Buy a phrase book for travellers. Berlitz publishes a series in eighteen languages, and
others keep popping up in bookstores and the racks of airport newsstands. They』re
inexpensive and easy to use. These books, smaller than a piece of toast, offer little or no
grammar, but they bristle with practical words and phrases, listing the English followed
by the foreign language and then a transliteration that guides the rankest beginner to an
understandable, usually a creditable, pronunciation.
Don』t be put off by the na.vete, inexpensiveness, superficiality, and comparative
weightlessness of these travellers』 phrase books when laid alongside your impressive
dictionary and your complex grammar book. Good zoos need hummingbirds as well as
NEWSPAPER OR MAGAZINE
Find a newspaper or magazine in your target language. Most big cities have newsstands
where you can buy publications in a dazzling variety of different languages. Otherwise,
call the nearest consulate or embassy of the country whose language you』re out to learn.
Usually they』re proud and pleased to help you. If you have a choice, go for a publication
from that country itself, rather than one published by immigrants from that country in
America. Certainly no foreign language publication printed in America is likely to
contain language more authentic than publications printed in the home country, and it
may very well be less authentic.
A friend of mine who set out to learn French immediately bought a subscription to
Le Monde, a popular Paris daily. That』s overkill. If he were to learn every word in any
one issue of Le Monde, it would be 「mission accomplished.」 One issue of one
publication in your target language at this point is all you need.
It may be difficult, but if possible see if you can locate a schoolbook or some reading
material from the country at about a sixth grade level. Such books are obviously excellent
bridges from the rudiments to the real world. If you can』t find one, never mind. Your
newspaper or magazine will seem elementary to you soon enough.
PORTABLE TAPE PLAYER
The invention of the handy portable cassette tape player catapults language learners from
the ox cart to the supersonic jet. You can now inhale a foreign language through your
ears. 「You can』t expect me to do two things at once!」 is a bygone complaint. Listening to
foreign language cassettes as you go about your daily deeds is a high form of doing two
things at once.
The Walkman (or any such tape player) is an electronic can opener for whatever
language you』re learning. Formerly we had to chew through the tin.
There are many cassette courses in many foreign languages. They range from 「travel」
cassettes, really simple tourist phrase books set to sound and costing between ten and
twenty dollars, clear up to multicassette study courses that carry the student into
advanced levels and cost between one and two hundred dollars, or more.
Don』t dismiss the least expensive ones as 「superficial little travel cassettes.」 If you
master every word, every phrase, every pronunciation, and every grammatical point
contained in even the simplest of those cassettes, you can consider yourself advanced.
There are basically four kinds of cassettes for the study of foreign languages. We』ll
call them flat single rep, flat double rep, formatted, and cultural.
The flat single rep cassettes, usually the least expensive, give you the English word
or phrase followed by the foreign equivalent uttered only one time.
The flat double rep cassettes are the same, except the foreign phrase is repeated
twice. (When you begin making your own study cassettes, you』ll repeat the foreign piece
The formatted cassette puts theories of instruction into practice and follows systems
that some highly successful language teachers have found effective. For example the
Pimsleur method, named after the late Dr. Paul Pimsleur, takes the student by the ear and
guides him through the language as though it were a Disneyland exhibit. Unfortunately
Dr. Pimsleur died before he could personally develop courses in a large variety of
languages to advanced levels. His techniques, however, are being applied to more
courses in more languages by Dr. Charles A. S. Heinle of the Cassette Learning Centre in
The Pimsleur method provides the best minute by minute 「learning through
listening,」 thanks to several strokes of Dr. Pimsleur』s innovative genius.
First of all, you become a participant. Pimsleur doesn』t let you merely listen in
hopes your lazy mind will help itself to some of the new words being offered on the
smorgasbord. After five minutes with any Pimsleur course you will always harbour a
certain disdain for all cassette courses that merely give you a voice saying something in
English followed by the equivalent in the target language. Pimsleur pricks your
wandering mind to attention by asking, for example, 「Do you remember the Greek word
Theoretically, that little trick shouldn』t make a spectacular difference. After all, you
bought the course. You want to learn the language. Why should the teacher on cassette
have to find ways to constantly recover your attention? The unfortunate truth is that the
average mind plays hooky whenever possible. The difference between Pimsleur asking,
「Do you remember the Greek word for 『wine』?」 and a voice simply saying 「wine」 is, as
Mark Twain once put it, 「the difference between lightning and the lightning bug!」
Nor does Pimsleur always settle for the simple verbal prompt. A typical Pimsleur
tactic is to demand, 「You accidentally bump into a man getting on the bus. What do you
say?」 That ingrains the foreign phrases for 「excuse me」 far more than a rote recitation of
the words themselves.
Pimsleur』s 「graduated interval recall」 achieves what I call the 「pinball effect.」
When the steel ball in the pinball machine nears the bottom, you can manipulate the
flippers to catch the ball and send it all the way back to the top again. Likewise, at the
very instant when your mind is about to let a new word or phrase 「fall to the bottom」,
Pimsleur zings it in again, sending it back to the top of your awareness. This time it
doesn』t sink so fast. When it does, Pimsleur hits it again.
Pimsleur gives you a pause on the cassette after each question he asks you. In the
early going there』s a temptation to stop the machine while you flounder for the answer.
Don』t! Learn to try to come up with the answer during the pause provided. That will
more than teach you the word. It will train you to have that word ready for action at all
times. It』s marvellous to feel your growth as you relisten to your Pimsleur lessons,
succeeding more and more each time at delivering the required word before the teacher』s
voice rolls over you with the next question.
Berlitz is the most famous name in language instruction, and except for the Berlitz
Travel Cassettes, which are flat single rep, all their cassette courses are formatted. The
Berlitz Basic Courses, available in French, Spanish, German, and Italian, feature
ingenious conversations between teacher and students, and their top of the line Berlitz
Comprehensive Courses are really dazzling soap opera-like sagas filled with romance,
treachery, suspense, and drama. Both the basic and the comprehensive courses sneak
massive payloads of grammar and vocabulary into the student』s repertoire.
Cultural cassettes aren』t really language learning cassettes at all, but many people
suppose they are and buy and sell them as such. Songs, plays, readings, stories, and
poems in foreign languages are indeed helpful, but shouldn』t be mistaken for the 「high
protein」 intake needed to build command of a foreign language. They』re great relaxers,
tests of how far you』ve come, adjunctive exercises, and ways of letting the foreigner
know that you view his language as more than just a briar patch of irregular verbs.
The cultural cassettes are the condiments. The others are the entrees.
We have do it yourself gasoline pumps. We do not have do it yourself eye surgery. It may
seem strange to some (and wildly objectionable to others) to recommend do it yourself
language cassettes starring you in the language you are trying to learn. Orthodox
language teachers are likely to consider that something akin to doing your own eye
I』ve found it extremely helpful. At some point you will have gotten the hang of
pronunciation sufficiently to push the record button of your cassette player and recite
your own words and phrases onto a blank cassette. Your pronunciation will not be good.
It may be bad. But the value of being able to listen to a cassette with the words you need
and want at the moment – rather than a cassette prepared by somebody with no
knowledge of you, your desires, or your needs – much more than outweighs the
disadvantage of your imperfections.
So, get blank cassettes – the shortest possible – so you can start building a cassette
library of the words and phrases you want to know to supplement those the educators
who produced all the standard cassettes decided to teach you first.
It』s better to know the word – its meaning, its spelling, its use in sentences – even if
you have to listen to it in your unskilled accent, than not to know the word at all.
Printed flash cards are available in the major languages. They』re about the size of
business cards and usually provide a vocabulary of a thousand words. Flash cards are the
most underrated language learning tool of all. They』ve been around for decades and go
widely unused, even by those who own them.
Flash cards commonly list the English word (plus related words) on one side of the
card and their foreign equivalents on the other. Some sets of flash cards give you a little
grammar at no extra cost, adding to the word itself the forms of that word a student of the
language should know.
The language student should reach for a fresh stack of flash cards before he leaves
home in the morning as instinctively as a policeman reaches for his badge. The flash
cards, more than any other tool, can help the student take advantage of the day』s 「hidden
moments,」 the secret weapon upon which the promise and the premise of this method is
Learn how to keep your flash cards handy. Whip them out and flash test yourself
the instant you find yourself with the time. (The person you』re walking with stops to look
at a shop window. You』ve read the menu, finished the newspaper, and the waiter hasn』t
come yet. The clerk has to validate your credit card. There』s a line at the bank or at the
ticket counter. The elevator seems to be stopping at all floors.) Learn how to draw those
cards out and start flashing even if all you』ll have is five seconds. If the person you』re
telephoning doesn』t answer until the fifth ring, he』s given you time to go through two or
three entries. Learn to be quick. I』ve learned how to master a whole new Chinese
character between the time I dial the last digit and the time my party says hello.
BLANK FLASH CARDS
Whether you can locate prepared flash cards in your target language or not, go to your
nearest stationery store and get a hefty supply of blanks. As you travel through the
language you』ll constantly come across new words, modern slang, special phrases you』d
like to know, cute sayings a native speaker teaches you at a party, and the like. Capture
them immediately on your blank flash cards and carry a stack with you at all times. In
later chapters when we learn how all these tools interrelate, you』ll realise the importance
of your own homemade flash cards. Purists may quarrel about recording your own
foreign language vocabulary building cassettes. Nobody can quarrel with you preparing
your own flash cards.
Sturdikleers are the handy celluloid or plastic packets that protect passports, driver』s
licenses, etc. Find the size that best accommodates a stack of flash cards and pick up as
many as you need, or more.
FELT HIGHLIGHTER PEN
You』ll need a felt pen to mark all the words in your newspaper or magazine that you
don』t know. Choose a colour that highlights but doesn』t obscure the word when you mark
Those are the tools. Now let』s go do the job!
The Multiple Track
So is there really a magic way to make learning a foreign language painless?
Yes and no. We have some magic, all right, tricks and tactics that literally shovel
the language into your head, as opposed to your high school Spanish class that
teaspooned it in or didn』t bother getting it in at all. The system, however, won』t work
unless you do. There』s going to be pain, but you will have something – plenty – to show
The promise here is not gain without pain. It』s the most gain for the least pain.
If you suddenly decide to get physically fit (just as you』ve decided to learn another
language) you wouldn』t sit around and wonder, 「Let』s see. We』ve got aerobic exercises,
free weights, stretching, high tech gym machines, jogging, swimming, vitamins, and
sensible nutrition. Which one shall I use?」
Obviously, you』re going to use a mix of some or all of the above. And that』s the
way to approach learning another language. The multiple track attack simply parts from
the absurd notion that you should choose a grammar book or a cassette course or a reader
or a phrase book; instead, it sets you up with all of the above – and more –
You will fail or you will succeed. If you fail, your books, cassettes, dictionaries,
and scattered flash cards will litter your drawers and closets like so many unlifted
barbells, unswallowed vitamins, unsoiled workout suits, and unused jogging shoes. They
will mock you every time your embarrassed eye falls upon them.
Succeed, and you』ll be the proud owner of another language.
Charles Berlitz says that saying a word or phrase aloud ten to twenty times is more
effective a learning technique than merely reading the same item fifty to one hundred
times. Likewise, seeing a word or phrase in your grammar book fifty times does not
secure it in your memory as effectively as seeing it two or three times and them coming
across that same word or phrase by surprise in a newspaper or magazine or hearing it on
a cassette or in a radio broadcast or a movie or in conversation with a native speaker.
It may be hard to explain why the multiple track attack works, but it』s easy to prove
that it does. It』s somehow related to the excitement of running into someone from your
hometown on the other side of the world. You might have ignored him back home or
dismissed him with a 「howdy,」 but you』ll be flung into each other』s arms by the power of
meeting unexpectedly far from home.
The rub off effect kicks in nicely almost from the beginning of your effort as words
you learned from a flash card or cassette pop up in your workbook or newspaper. Sure,
you will eventually conquer the word even if it occurs only in your grammar book or
your phrase book or on your cassette, but that learning involves repeated frontal assault
on a highly resistant unknown. Let that same word come at you, however, in a real life
newspaper article and your mind embraces it as an old friend.
Attempting to master a language with a grammar book alone is too boring; with
phrase books alone, too superficial; with cassettes alone, too fruitless (except with
Pimsleur!); and with dictionary and newspaper alone, impossible. The multiple track
attack makes your work pay off.
Open your grammar to the first lesson. Do you understand the first paragraph? If so,
proceed to paragraph two. If not, reread paragraph one. Can you determine precisely
what it is that』s blocking you from comprehension? If so, take a pencil (not pen) and
underline the word or words that are tripping you up. Run a wavy pencil line down the
left hand margin of whatever confuses you. That paragraph will never change. The
grammatical point that the confusing paragraph seeks to make will remain as immutable
as Gibraltar until your mind decides to open up to it. Comprehension frequently clicks on
like a light switch. No rush.
Try to summarise what you don』t understand. Pretend you』re writing a letter to your
aunt complaining about this ridiculous new language you』re trying to learn and, using as
few words as possible, encapsulate your confusion in writing. Take that note and put it in
a Sturdikleer holder and carry it with you in your pocket or bag. Get into the habit of
writing down everything that confuses with you and carrying it with you. You will try to
find informants or mentors – either native speakers or others who』ve learned your target
language well enough to answer your questions. Befriend the Korean grocer, the Italian
waiter, the Albanian at the pizzaria, your dentist』s Romanian secretary. You don』t need
such people, but they』re extremely helpful and easier to locate than you might think, and
getting easier all the time as America becomes an international mixture of peoples. Your
informants will usually love being asked to help you learn their language.
Let』s suppose you』ve stubbed your venturesome toe on paragraph one or two or
three or whichever, and no comprehension clicks on. At this point you must consciously
overturn the rules of misdirected American language teaching and do something radical.
You must wave goodbye to your unsolved puzzle and keep moving ahead.
If you don』t understand it, skip it for the time being. Chances are excellent your
confusion will clear itself up as you progress through more and more concepts that you
do understand. You will have the pleasure of looking back on earlier lesssons in the
grammar, seeing your wavy pencil lines beside a now clear paragraph, and saying to
yourself, 「How could I have ever been derailed by this?」 It』s fun erasing those wavy
Continue through five lessons of the grammar before you so much as glance at any
of your other tools. Leave the cassettes wrapped in their packaging. Don』t be tempted to
look at the newspaper or magazine in your target language. The more of a language lover
you are, the tougher it will be. Plodding through grammar while friendly cassettes and
real life newspapers await will make you feel like a child who has to finish his homework
before he runs out and plays baseball. And that』s exactly the point. You are a child in
that new language, and like all children, you have to learn to put first things first.
Grammar comes first. Build a little character by slogging through five chapters of it. You
will build up a head of steam that will send you charging headlong into more pleasant
Cassettes, newspapers, flash cards, and phrase books will cut the boredom out of
waiting for buses and replace it with growth in another language; these will be your
reward after you make an honest beginning in the grammar. Sustain your spirit during the
grammar study by reminding yourself how soon you』re going to be allowed to go out and
Into the Real World
When you』ve served out your sentence of five lessons of grammar, spread out all your
other tools (you should regard them as 「toys」) and prepare to use them all
Take the newspaper or magazine. Go to the upper left hand corner of page one. (In
languages like Arabic and Hebrew, that will be the upper right hand corner of the 「back」
page, which is their front.) That article is your assignment. It will easily be the toughest
newspaper article you』ve ever read. And it will just as certainly do you more good than
Take your highlighter and highlight all the words you don』t know in the first
paragraph. You may very well end up with a coloured line through every single word in
that paragraph. After all, this is no schoolhouse text that dips to your beginner』s level.
This is as real life and real world as an exercise can get. And all you』ve had so far is five
lessons of elementary grammar. Never mind. Play the game and dutifully mark through
every word you don』t know, even if it be every last word in that first paragraph!
Then reach for your dictionary and your blank flash cards. Go to the first word and
look it up. One of four things will happen: (1) You』ll find the word exactly as it appears
in the newspaper. (2) You』ll find a word that starts out the same but seems to go haywire
halfway through or at the end. (3) The word will not be in your dictionary (even though
you gave that dictionary a 「sophistication」 test before you bought it.) (4) You will think
that word is not in the dictionary because the word has done crazy things with itself. It』s
altogether possible, owing to rules of that language you haven』t learned yet, that the role
of the word as it appears in the newspaper demands it be written differently from the base
form, which is the one listed in the dictionary. (The word vaya in Spanish, for example,
won』t be in the dictionary. It』s the singular imperative form of the verb ir meaning 「to
In case 1, the word is in the dictionary spelled exactly the way it is in your
newspaper (from now on we』ll say 「text」 – it could be a magazine or even a book). Take
a blank flash card and write the English on one side; then flip it over and write the
foreign word on the other. Write in block letters so your flash cards will always be easy
to read. I hesitate to labour the procedure for making your own flash cards. There is a
preferred procedure, however, and I herewith present it in case you don』t already know it.
Single words and entire phrases are best handled differently. When you write
individual words on your flash card, you only need a 「short runway,」 so treat the card in
its 「tall」 (vertical) form rather than its 「fat」 (horizontal) form and enter your words one
under the other down the length of the card. Write the English word across the
「forehead」 of the card, then flip it, not sideways, but head over heels, and write the
foreign word across the opposite forehead.
Then turn the card back over to the English side and write your next word directly
underneath, turn it over and write in the foreign word, and keep repeating until the card is
filled. That head over heels lengthwise flip makes the card easier to manipulate in a
crowded bus or elevator and less likely to fall out of your hand.
When you graduate to writing entire phrases on your blank flash cards, it』s
obviously better to treat the card in its fat form. Continue to flip head over heels.
Now, case 2: You find a word in the dictionary that seems as though it』s trying to
be the word in your text but it falls off track: the ending changes spelling. You』ve
probably found your base word, all right, but the word in the text, for reasons you don』t
yet comprehend, has taken another form. Is it a verb? Then the dictionary will give you
the infinitive form (to be, to do, etc.), whereas the form in your text could be one of many
variations, depending on person, number, tense, or, in some languages, aspect.
If that riff of grammatical terms makes you feel like I felt on my fifth day of Latin
class, fear not. Language teachers would prefer to assume that such grammatical jargon is
familiar to every graduate of an American high school English class. Alas, that
assumption is grossly misguided. But help is here. The 「Back to Basics」 chapter later in
this book will explain all necessary grammatical terms in friendly, nonthreatening
language that requires no prior understanding of grammar.
Write the base form – the dictionary form, that is – on your flash card and try to
decipher the meaning of the text with that base form as a clue.
If the meaning is clear, don』t worry yet about why the word in the text differs from
the base form. Part of the fun of this process is having that knowledge surrender itself to
you as you proceed through your grammar book. If the meaning is not clear, make a
「question card,」 spelling the confusing word the way it appears in the text. Keep your
Sturdikleer with question cards with you at all times. When you meet your informant, or
anybody who can explain your confusion away, pull out the question card and your
miasma of confusion will become windshield wiper clear.
List no more than six unknown words per flash card. Don』t clutter the card. It』s a
good idea to draw a line under both the English and the foreign word, giving each entry
its own 「cubicle」 on the card. Also, check carefully to make sure you don』t omit either
the English or the foreign word, giving you a situation in which English word number
three on the card fails to correspond to foreign word number three. (I once went around
for almost a year thinking the Russian word for 「prince」 meant 「raspberry jam」!)
In cases 3 and 4, either the word』s not in the dictionary or it』s not there in any form
recognisable to you. Enter the word on a question card.
You may have four or five complete cards, eighteen or twenty words defined and
ready to be learned, from the first paragraph in your text alone. Put those cards in clear
plastic and carry them with you at all times. Don』t mix them up with the question cards.
Keep them separate. The cards with the dictionary forms of the foreign words from the
text you didn』t know, with their English equivalents on the reverse side, are the
beginning of your collection of linguistic growth protein.
Now you』re ready for paragraph two. Between paragraphs one and two, you』ve been
glancing at those flash cards during your hidden moments – waiting in line, on elevators,
etc. With highlighter poised like a sword, you now sally forth into the second paragraph.
The going will probably be noticeably easier, because paragraph two will likely be
dealing with much the same subject matter as paragraph one and many of the words will
be repeats. Step back and note how many fewer coloured lines marking unknown words
there are in paragraph two. Never mind that those are repeat words. If you knew them
from flashing your cards in the interval between tackling paragraph one and tackling
paragraph two, then it』s clean conquest. Bask in it, and move on to paragraph three.
No cheating! Don』t let your possible lack of interest in the subject matter of the text
tempt you into junking it and jumping across the page to another article that looks like
it』s about something that interests you more. No soldier fighting in the arctic would dare
ask his commanding officer if he might be excused to go fight in the tropics. Advance!
Charge! Slog through it one step – one word – at a time.
By the time you reach the end of page one, if it』s a newspaper, you will note with
glee that the coloured markings indicating words you didn』t know, almost solid in the
early paragraphs, will have diminished precipitously by the end of the page. That page is
a progress chart.
And you』ll have what seems like a ton of flash cards loaded with words in varying
degrees of surrender to you. Carry as many flash cards with you as possible, and rotate
them regularly so your attention is evenly parcelled out among them.
Tradition bound teachers would have problems with that kind of 「ice plunge,」 a
naked leap into a foreign language newspaper after only five lessons of grammar with
nothing for help but a dictionary, which in many cases can』t help because you won』t
know the various disguises (changing forms) of many of the words. What』s the point?
There are several. America is a nation of people who make straight A』s in
intermediate French and then get to Paris and realise they don』t speak intermediate
French! The knowledge that the text – newspaper, book, magazine, whatever – is a real
world document that does not condescend to a student』s level is a tremendous confidence
builder and energiser for your assault upon your target language. The awareness that
you』re making progress, albeit slowly, through typical text, genuine text, the kind the
natives buy off their newsstands and read in their coffee shops, gives even the rank
beginner something of the pride of a battle toughened marine.
Memorise Your Part
You are now, let』s say, beginning chapter six of your grammar book and fighting your
way valiantly down the first column of your text. Keep going on both these fronts, and
pick up another tool.
Open your phrase book and read the introduction carefully, paying particularly
close attention to the rules of transliteration. All such books will have three columns: the
English word or phrase, the foreign language translation, and then the transliteration,
which is your guide to proper pronunciation using the English alphabet.
When you get the hang of the language, you won』t need the transliteration crutch.
Until you do, you need it totally. But note that there is no recognised standard system of
transliteration. The International Phonetic Alphabet is supposed to be, but nobody uses it
because learning it is almost as hard as learning another language itself.
There are at least half a dozen ways to transliterate the capital of China. The
Chinese communists prefer Beijing. The Chinese nationalists prefer Peking. If that were
the only word you wanted to learn and there were no need for you to learn transliteration
systems, we could write it Bay-jing, adding that the Bay is pronounced like the English
word for the body of water and the jing like the first syllable of 「jingle.」
Your phrase book will take mercifully little space to tell you how to pronounce the
words according to their chosen system of transliteration. Usually in less than a page
you』ll be told to pronounce ai like the y in 「sky」; ei like the eigh in 「weigh」 and so on
through all the needed sounds. Some phrase books indicate which syllable gets the stress
by placing an accent mark on top of it, others by capitalising every letter in the syllable.
Don』t be impatient because you suddenly feel you』re called upon to learn another written
language which is neither English nor the language you』re trying to learn. Look upon the
transliteration guide as your opportunity to learn the combination to a safe that will let
you help yourself to the correct pronunciation of every word in that book!
Advance now to the first page of phrases in the phrase book. Your newspaper didn』t
teach you how to say 「How are you?」 and it』s a good bet the first five lessons of your
grammar didn』t either. Here it comes! This is your first chance to learn how to actually
「Yes.」 「No.」 「Please.」 「Thank you.」 「You』re welcome.」 「Good morning.」 「Good
afternoon.」 「Good evening.」 」I』m very pleased to meet you.」 「How are you?」 「Very
well, thanks; and you?」 「Fine.」
You』ll master these precious nuggets of real life communication quickly. But don』t
stop with merely mastering them. Use that phrase book and plot a conversational pattern,
a routine you go into when you meet someone who speaks your target language. Treat it
as though you』re memorising your part in a play.
」How do you do?」 「My name is _______.」 「What』s your name?」 「Where are you
from?」 「How long have you been here?」 「I don』t speak your language well.」 「How do
you say that in your language?」 「May I get you something to drink?」 「I don』t
understand.」 「Would you please repeat?」
Here again, traditionalists would frown. 「That』s not learning a language,」 they』d
protest. 「That』s just learning how to parrot a few phrases!」
And right they』d be, if that were all you were doing. But you are now accumulating
flash cards with vocabulary and moving through lesson seven or eight of the grammar, so
don』t feel you have to apologise for learning how to parrot a few handy phrases.
Your ability to bandy some useful phrases is a motivator. There you are, speaking
the language! Isn』t that what you started all this for? Admittedly you』re not debating the
economic consequences of his government』s latest reversal on tariff agreements, but you
are asking someone if he』s too cold and telling him you hope to meet him again.
More magic happens when you』re at that peak motivation. You find yourself
acquiring more material, more conversational gems gleaned from his end of the
conversation. Remember, you』re a confessed beginner. When you don』t understand
something, you』re excused for asking him to repeat it, spell it, write it down on one of
your blank flash cards. (Always carry some.)
It』s gratifying, in fact, enthralling, to enter your next conversation with your powers
to converse enhanced by the previous encounter.
A note of caution, however. Eventually you may find yourself about to small talk so
fluently you』ll mistake that ability for having arrived. Back to the newspaper and the
grammar with you before such thoughts corrupt!
For most of the history of the world, there was no way the self taught language student
could hear the language spoken. He had to rely on printed rules, grossly inadequate, to
guide him in pronunciation of his target language.
Then came the phonograph record, which seemed like ideal deliverance from
darkness, until the tape recorder came along, followed quickly by the portable cassette
tape recorder, which allowed language learners to pick up ear phones and listen to a wide
variety of foreign language fare as they jogged, shopped, ran errands, or walked to work.
As is the case with many technological breakthroughs, disappointment followed.
The closets of many fine, otherwise strong willed people are littered with the wreckage of
once beautifully packaged foreign language cassette courses. They thought technology
had replaced study. They thought all you had to do was pop a cassette into the machine,
press a button, and take in the language like a car takes in gasoline.
Remove that inflated expectation, resolve to do your part, and the invention of the
portable cassette tape player will indeed fulfill its promise to the language lover
endeavouring to become a language learner.
Are you presently armed with the right cassette course?
Unless your cassette was mislabelled and carries lessons in a language other than
the one you』d like to learn, it』s a good learning aid. It may not be the best. It may be far
behind the best, but so what? It will offer you words and phrases in your target language
with native accuracy in pronunciation.
You no more want to limit your hearing of the language to one cassette course than
you』d want to confine your tennis playing to one partner. The ideal cassette library is one
in which the student can pull down a cassette for review in rotation and not quite
remember how the dialogue goes or what』s coming next. A little mystery, rather than rote
familiarity, aids the student ear in its difficult mission of paying attention.
Within certain obvious limits, you can buy literally every course in your target
language that』s commercially available and still describe your adventure with the
language as 「inexpensive.」
In your beginning stages you should insist on cassettes that come with a written
transcript of everything recorded. (The Pimsleur courses are an exception. Their
integration of written word exercises and their back and forth interaction between teacher
and student more than excuse the absence of word for word transcription.)
It』s a good idea to follow the text visually as you listen to the cassette the first few
times. As you get a little bit familiar with the target material, divorce the two. Take the
cassette and the tape player with you. Listen even when you can』t follow the written text.
Read the text even when you can』t listen. You』ll find the two excellent reinforcers for
If your cassette course is flat single rep or flat double rep, keep listening over and
over and try to capture as many words and phrases as you can.
When you』re ready – actually, long before you』re ready – challenge the cassette to a
duel. Start at the beginning and see how many words and phrases you know. After the
English, stop the cassette recorder with the pause button and ask yourself, 「Do I know it
in the target language? Do I almost know it? Do I know any part of it – how the word or
phrase begins, how it ends, what major sound characterises it? Do I know enough to give
myself credit for at least partial conquest?」
Don』t be in a rush to release the pause button and see how well you did. Make a
teasing game of it. Make yourself wait for the fulfillment of hearing the term in the target
language. That will make a stronger hit into your memory. Drop a weighty object from a
higher tower than previously and it will sink deeper into the mud.
Then move on to the next term. It』s a little like playing solitaire; no matter how you
write your own rules, it still retains the arresting power of a game. Maybe you』ll ask
yourself if you can score one out of five correct; later, one out of four. It』s hard to
imagine it in the early going, but you will eventually play the game by seeing if you can
get every term on the cassette correct from beginning to end. But that』s not quite total
victory. Total victory is seeing if you can do it without stopping to think.
And then, if your machine has the mechanism, try it at accelerated speed!
They taught us in the fable of the tortoise and the hare so early, most of us dismissed it as
a children』s tale and ignored the powerful lesson it contains: Others may be brighter.
Others may learn quicker and retain more. Yet whosoever keeps on plodding relentlessly
toward the goal of mastering another language, though his gifts be dim, stands a better
chance than the unmotivated genius whose dazzle ignited so much envy in high school
Harnessing your hidden moments, those otherwise meaningless scraps of time
you』d normally never think of putting to any practical use, and using them for language
study – even if it』s no more than fifteen, ten, or five seconds at a time – can turn you into
a triumphant tortoise.
By now you』re slogging your way through the grammar and enjoying it more (or
suffering it less) than you did in college because you no longer feel obliged to dwell upon
a knotty point until you understand it before moving forward. You will not fail a test or
risk a bad grade if you abandon some grammatical black hole that tries to swallow you,
and move on ahead.
You』re battling your way through the foreign language newspaper, your slow
progress mitigated by the awareness that this is the real world and the daily language
won』t get any tougher than that text.
You』re cherry picking through your phrase book, learning how to say practical
things in your target language and rehearsing all those precious phrases as though they
were your part in a play.
Your cassettes are beginning to bore you without teaching you a great deal (yet).
You』re amassing a flash card collection.
By now you』ve probably met someone from the country whose language you』re
learning and, like a rookie cop about to make his first collar, you risked your ego by
attempting a greeting. He laughed appreciatively – and answered you in English.
Hidden moments will heal your deficiencies soon enough, but first let』s talk about
the unhidden moments, the study time you』ve arranged to commit to your endeavour.
This book is written for those who can』t or don』t want to expend the time or money
required to attend formal classes. Successful self teaching is our objective. If you can
take a whole hour every day and devote it to your studies, you』re in excellent position to
make satisfying, even dramatic, progress. If you can devote a half hour a day, you』re still
poised for success.
If you can』t commit a regular block of time, if the best you can do is an hour here, a
half hour there, and maybe a three hour block of time over the weekend, that』s
satisfactory, provided you keep it up and maintain momentum.
Gardens unattained go to weed. Apples bitten into and abandoned turn brown.
Likewise, your collection of language data – words, phrases, rules, and idioms – will
dissolve into a useless mass if not kept up.
Apportion as much time as you reasonably can and as regularly as you can, and
then enjoy the magic as the hidden moments kick in.
A professional financial advisor on radio once urged people to take careful
inventory of their financial assets, promising that overlooked and forgotten riches were to
be revealed at every hand. Her credibility disappeared for me at that moment. I honestly
think I』ve never been at a point in my economic life where I was likely to underestimate
my holdings by as much as seventy-five cents!
When it comes to time, however, that』s a much more lucrative matter!
You can learn a language in twelve months using only those moments you didn』t
realise you had.
We』ve already mentioned a few corners in which hidden moments lurk awaiting
liberation. Let』s review them and add some more.
Moments we instinctively bid goodbyes to include those spent waiting for and
riding in elevators, waiting for the person you』re dialing to answer, waiting while he puts
you on hold, waiting for a long outgoing message from someone』s answering machine to
reach its conclusion. There are those moments when you』re helplessly trapped – when
someone who』s too good a friend to hang up on delivers an unending narrative requiring
no verbal participation on your part beyond an occasional grunt, groan, 「dear me,」 「gee
whiz,」 or other appropriate interjection to let him know you』re still there. It』s usually safe
to divert some of your attention from your friend to your flash cards.
There』s a major payload of hidden moments right there, and we haven』t even gone
beyond the elevator and the telephone! We can take time back from our days just like the
Dutch took land back from the sea and put it to work.
What do you normally do when you』re waiting in line at the bank, the post office,
the airline counter, the bus or train station, or the supermarket checkout counter?
What do you do while you brush your teeth? You could be listening to a language
cassette. What plans have you made for the time you』re going to spend waiting behind
your steering wheel at the gas pump? Or waiting for the rinse cycle? Waiting for the
You get the point. An honest, thorough scrutiny of your normal week will yield
dozens, even hundreds, of minutes that can be put to work learning your target language.
And don』t forget, a scrap of time need be no longer than five seconds to advance you
closer to your goal.
Arrange your life so you will never be caught without something to study in your
target language. If you carry a briefcase or a pocketbook, your grammar book or
newspaper, even your dictionary, can be your companion. Phrase books are usually so
thin they easily fit into a coat pocket. There』s nothing holy about your foreign language
newspaper. Cut off a page and fold it up and carry it with you, along with your
Certainly we can all agree there』s no excuse ever to get caught without flash cards.
The instant you get stymied – in line at the cash machine, waiting for a store clerk, etc. –
pull out your deck of flash cards and get to work.
If your hidden moment only lasts five seconds, giving you time for only one flash
card, give that flash card five seconds of the right kind of effort. Look at the English.
Suppose it says 「shoe.」 Say to yourself something like, 「What a great moment in my life.
I presently do not know the word for 『shoe』 in my target language. Within seconds that
infirmity will be erased! I will get a look at the word and, though it may not lodge in my
memory after one single flash, that word will eventually be mine.」 Make a big deal out of
it. Indeed, it is a big deal when you expand your vocabulary. Now flip the card. If your
target language is Spanish, the other side of the card will reveal the word for shoe as
zapato. Once we hand you the ultimate vocabulary memory weapon, the one developed
by Harry Lorayne, you will put that word through a mental process that will make it
easier to retrieve. Right now, just try to remember it any way you can, even by rote.
Proceed to the next card, or the next word on that card. You should have enough
cards with you so the same word doesn』t pop up so quickly that you haven』t really tested
your retention, but not so many cards that you don』t meet the same word for another two
or three days.
The fun comes when you meet the word again. Imagine the word is your opponent
in a duel. Is it going to be you or he? Look only at the English. Try to remember. Don』t
flip the card until you』re certain you』re defeated and cannot possibly come up with the
Even grizzled multilingual veterans who』ve used this system successfully will find
themselves letting their guard down and moving from the English word on the flash card
to the foreign word too quickly. No challenge, no effort, no gain.
There』s no memory glue better than standing there, in the line at a bank or
wherever, looking at the English side of a flash card, not knowing the word immediately,
trying hard to bring it back, fearing you can』t, and refusing to give up. Suddenly you
think you have it. You flip the card over and see that you were, indeed, correct!
That word has no more chance of escaping you than your middle name.
Eye-Ear and Ear Only Moments
So far your hidden moments have been those that could be utilised either for reading
(flash cards) or listening (cassettes). Let』s call them eye-ear moments. When you』re
walking through town or through the park, jogging, riding in a bus or train too crowded
for reading, or driving or riding in a car at night, obviously you can』t play with flash
cards. These are, however, also hidden moments that offer exquisite opportunities for
foreign language infusion.
Let』s call them ear only moments.
A good rule is to use eye-ear moments for eye functions (flash cards, grammar
book, newspaper) leaving ear functions (cassette listening) for those moments when you
couldn』t be reading anyhow. More simply, when you can listen or read, read. Save your
listening for when you can only listen.
Cassettes En Route
When I dramatize this system of language learning at seminars for the Learning Annex in
New York and other educational organisations, displeasure clouds the brows of the
students when I urge them to 「wrap the university around their heads」 (put on their
headphones) and study their cassettes as they walk, run, amble, or do errands around the
neighbourhood. There』s an attitude of 「Enough, already. I』ve done my language workout
for the day. Let me enjoy my walk or my run and take in nature and the landscape.」
This claim may sound inflated until you test it, but leisurely strolls and nature
walks, far from being dampened, are actually enhanced by cassette learning en route.
You can invent little listening games that make it fun. I, for instance, may start the
cassette and listen until I reach the first word in the target language I don』t already know.
I』ll then stop the cassette player and concentrate on capturing that word for the remainder
of the city block. When I reach the curb of the next block, I』ll start the tape until I reach
another word I don』t know and repeat the process.
There』s a happy kind of synergy when you realise you』re exercising and you』re
learning; you』re enjoying the beauty of the surroundings and you』re growing. You can
slow down. You can settle for 「collecting a few new words」 as you might collect a few
blossoms a few seashells. You can turn off the tape for a while and throw the headphones
back over your neck and inhale and enjoy. Don』t separate your life into 「fun」 and
「study.」 Harmonise language study with your activities.
Get your cassettes into action when you wake up, stretch, make the bed, fix
breakfast, brush teeth, dry off after a bath or shower, wash dishes, and so on through all
the moments when those less ambitious turn on the radio or TV. Don』t forget, passive
listening is better than nothing, but not by much! Engage the English mentally and try to
beat the voice on the cassette to the foreign word.
「Harnessing hidden moments」 is a three word course in language learning all by
itself. It offers a side benefit that has nothing to do with learning languages but has a lot
to do with enjoying life.
Look at those other people, those unfortunates who, unlike you, have no intention
of harnessing their hidden moments to learn languages or anything else. Look how they
wait like zombies in line, their faces masks of boredom and pain. Your boredom and pain
will vanish the instant you get into line and whip out your flash cards.
Learning languages can become incidental to daily life. It』s often fulfilling enough
just having something useful to do! Remember what Dean Martin said to the slowly
sipping starlet: 「I spill more than you drink!」 Just by using the minutes you』d otherwise
spill, you can learn another language.
Magic Memory Aid
How does a farmhand feel the day the tractor arrives, after he』s plowed by hand for
thirty-one years? Undoubtedly the way I felt when, after decades of memorising foreign
vocabulary the old way, I suddenly discovered Harry Lorayne and his methods.
Harry Lorayne became well known some years ago as the world』s leading 「memory
magician.」 His feats of memory for names and faces, complex numbers, and hundreds of
objects he could repeat forward, backward, or in scrambled order enlivened many a late
night TV show.
Harry Lorayne was to be a guest on my WOR radio show one night to talk about his
book on improving memory. It was his seventeenth or eighteenth book on memory and,
as I was looking it over, I saw a short, almost hidden chapter entitled 「Memorising
Foreign Language Vocabulary.」
I sped to that chapter and my language learning life changed completely from that
moment forward. I think I actually cried in rage at all the time I』d wasted attempting rote
memory of foreign words during the thirty-one years I had studied languages before I met
Let me invite you now to pay one last visit to the old way of learning foreign
language vocabulary before we wave it an untearful goodbye. Imagine facing a page
containing a hundred words in a foreign language. You only know eight or nine of them,
you have a test tomorrow morning at eight o』clock, and your roommate is playing the
radio too loud.
You sit there with your palms pressed over your ears repeating those unrelenting
syllables over and over, hoping enough of them will stick by dawn to give you a passing
Did you enjoy that kind of learning? Are you nostalgic for it? If so, enjoy the
recollection now. After the following pages you will never tackle new vocabulary that
In the fourth or fifth grade, when Miss Hobbs was teaching us the rudiments of
music, my class accomplished an amazing feat of memory in one flash (many of you
probably had the same experience). The notes on the five line music staff, E, G, B, D, and
F, could easily be remembered with the help of a simple phrase, 「Every Good Boy Does
Fine.」 What』s more, we learned that the notes in the spaces between the lines were F, A,
C, and E, or, as we ten year olds guessed, the word 「face.」 Who could ask for anything
Harry Lorayne teaches us we can ask for everything more! He teaches a system of
association – called mnemonics – that allows you to almost always bring forth any word
in conversation whenever you want it.
The way to capture and retain a new word in a foreign language is to sling a vivid
association around the word that makes it impossible to forget. Lasso the unfamiliar with
a lariat woven from the familiar.
We』ll now take a random assortment of words in various languages and
demonstrate how it works.
The Spanish word for 「old」 is viejo, pronounced vee-A-ho, the middle syllable
rhyming with 「hay.」 Imagine a Veterans Administration hospital – a VA hospital – that』s
so old and decrepit they have to tear it down and build a new one. Before they lay the
dynamite the crew foreman calls the contractor and tells him, 「We don』t have to waste
dynamite on this VA hospital. It』s so old we can knock it over with a hoe!」
Got it? A VA hospital so old you can knock it over with a hoe. And that gives us
viejo. (Viejo is stressed on the next to last syllable: vi-E-jo; in our code, v-A-hoe.)
Readers of much skepticism and little faith will worry that spinning such an
involved yarn to capture one word is less productive than spending that same amount of
time simply repeating the word to yourself over and over again. Wrong. The yarn, like a
dream, takes much longer to tell or read than it does to imagine. And you』ll quickly see
for yourself how helpful the yarn is when it comes time to retrieve the word and use it.
As you continue now through further demonstrations of this technique, try to
challenge the examples. See if you can think of better ones. A 「better」 one is simply one
that works better for you.
We』re going to swing headlong now into dozens of sample 「lassos,」 associations
designed to rope your target word and bring it obediently to your feet, never again to part.
Ignore the fact that many of the examples that follow teach words in languages you』re not
trying to learn. Never mind, I tell you, never mind! Learn the system and you will use it
happily and effectively ever after in the language of your choice.
The French word for 「anger」 is colere, pronounced cole-AIR.
Strange, we associate anger with heat. We say 「in the heat of anger」, but when
someone is angry at us, we say he』s 「cold,」 「chilly,」 「giving us the cold shoulder.」 It』s
not too much of a leap to imagine an angry person radiating his anger, spilling it off in all
directions, in the form of cold air. You hope he』s not angry, but when you enter his
office, you know your hopes were in vain because you can feel the colere, the 「col』 air」
The Russian word for 「house」 is dom, pronounced dome. Imagine your amazement
upon landing in Moscow and seeing all the houses with dome type roofs. Or imagine
marveling at how domestic the Russian men are.
The Italian word for 「chicken」 is pollo, pronounced exactly like the English 「polo」
(PO-lo). Imagine your Italian host urging you to join him for an unbelievable spectacle.
An Italian impresario with a gift for animal training has staged the world』s first polo
match between teams of chickens! You』re thrilled that you』re going to be able to go back
to Gaffney, South Carolina, and tell your friends you saw chickens playing polo!
The Italian word for 「wife」 is moglie, pronounced MOLE-yay. Imagine you』re a man
about to get married and you get a friendly tip from an indiscreet clergyman that your
bride to be is known to have a strange animal as a pet and fully intends to bring that
animal into your home after the nuptials.
You』re torn! It』s too late to call off the marriage. All the relatives have been invited
and the paperwork is all in. Besides, you love her. You decide to barrel forward and hope
for the best.
As the organ plays and the preacher intones the vows, all you can think of is, 「What
kind of animal is it? Is it a lion? Is it a tiger? Is it a slick and sneaky snake? A giraffe?」
When the two of you arrive at your threshold after the honeymoon, the suspense
ends. She brings forth a pleasant little cage containing a cute, furry little creature.
「This is my pet mole,」 she says. 「He』s going to live with us.」
You cry forth your relief. 「Hooray!」 you shout. 「It』s only a mole. It』s only a mole!」
you cheer, 「Yay!」
It』s only a mole-yay. Your wife』s secret animal is nothing more than a mole,
therefore, 「Yay!」 「Wife」 equals MOLE-yay.
WAIT A MINUTE!
An enemy, a skeptic, even a queasy ally at this point could say, 「Wait a minute. I』m
trying to learn a language. I』m not sure I want to walk around with a headful of images of
wives who keep moles, chickens that play polo, angry people emitting cold air, and VA
hospitals you can knock over with a hoe!」
You won』t! One beauty of the system is, the association that helps you capture the
word falls away and disintegrates. Once you』ve learned the words, the 「crutch」
A common form of the verb 「to speak」 in Hebrew is medaber, pronounced meda-
BEAR. There it is: you were walking through the newly planted forests of Israel and
suddenly you 「med」 a bear who could speak!
In Indonesian, 「movie screen」 is lajar, pronounced almost exactly like 「liar」 (LI-
ar). Easy. The man is rapidly winning the woman』s heart in the movie, but you don』t
wish him well because he』s such a lajar!
「Horse」 in Russian, transliterated into English script, is lo-shod, pronounced almost
exactly like LAW-shod. You try to bring your own horse with you into the Soviet Union,
but at the border the Soviet customs officer tells you Sorry, he』d like to accommodate
you, but your horse doesn』t have horseshoes and, according to Soviet law, all horses must
「Horse」 equals LAW-shod.
The Greek word for 「grape」 in English transliteration is stafilya, pronounced sta-
You』re in a Greek vineyard in the mountains near Albania. You see the most
luscious grape you』ve ever laid eyes on. As you reach for it, the air is split with a squeaky
voice screaming 「Don』t touch me!」
「I』m sorry,」 you sputter, retreating in shock and shame. 「I wasn』t going to eat you.
It was just to FEEL you (jus』 sta-FEEL-ya).」
Grape equals sta-FEEL-ya.
The Serbo-Croatian word for 「lunch」 is ru..ak, pronounced almost exactly like RUE-
chuck. You』re having lunch in a restaurant in Yugoslavia. The waiter overhears you
making a political remark he doesn』t appreciate, so he throws you out bodily. Never one
to go quietly, you pick yourself up out of the gutter, dust yourself off, and, just before
you head for the American Embassy to protest, you shake your first at the waiter through
the window and vow he』ll rue the day he chucked you out while you were having lunch.
「Lunch」 equals RUE-chuck.
「Plate」 in Indonesian is piring, pronounced exactly like the English 「peering」
Your Indonesian restaurant experience is a bit more pleasant than the one in
Yugoslavia. You walk in and find yourself suddenly becalmed by the serenity of the
dining room. All the Indonesians seem to have their heads bowed in prayer. You ask the
headwaiter if you』ve interrupted some sort of religious service.
「Not at all,」 he assures you. 「They』re not praying. We just got our new plates with
mirrored surfaces and they』re all peering at themselves to see how they look!」
「Plate」 equals PEER-ing.
The Farsi word for 「cheaper」 transliterated into English is arzontar, pronounced
The hotel in Tehran is filled, but the clerk tells you it』s a warm night and he』d be
happy to rent you sleeping space on the roof. You』re delighted to learn you』re paying
only half what the other roof sleepers are paying, until you get to your designated spot on
the roof, at which point you exclaim to your spouse, 「Now I see why our spot is cheaper.
All the other tourists are sleeping on those nice ceramic tiles. Our zone, the spot assigned
to us, however, is tar!」
「Cheaper」 equals our-zone-TAR.
「Potato」 in German is kartoffel, pronounced exactly like cart-AW-ful.
You buy potatoes from a cart and they turn out to be awful. 「Potato」 equals cart-
Stop right here! Do you remember the Spanish word for 「old?」 Or the French word
for 「anger,」 the Italian word for 「wife,」 the Serbo-Croatian word for 「lunch,」 or the
Indonesian word for 「movie screen?」
When we display this system of word capturing at seminars for the Learning
Annex, there』s a collective gasp when, after spelling out an association to capture the
tenth word, we suddenly stop and ask how many can recall word number one, four, and
so on. At no point did we suggest that the students try to recall the words used as
examples as we laid out the system. When they see that almost everybody recalls every
single one of them anyhow, the students realise this system contrasts well with the kind
of rote learning they』d tried earlier. One grateful participant exclaimed, 「This system
teaches you words you』re not even trying to learn. The old way doesn』t teach you no
matter how hard you try!」
The skeptic has one shot left before he』s wiped out by the power of the method. He can,
at this point, say, 「Hold it! Every word you』ve used to demonstrate the system so far falls
much too neatly into our lap – liar, mole-yay. It』s a setup. It』s not real. Very few words
will cooperate with the system once you tackle the real world!」
And he』s right! The words we』ve been subjecting to the memory system so far are
automatics. They fall right into your lap with self suggesting images. Only a small
percentage of words will fall into the system as facilely as the automatics. More, many
more than you imagine, will fit automatically into the system, but far from enough to
conquer another language. Never mind! Behind the words that fit neatly into the system
are many times that number of words that, while fitting nowhere nearly as neatly, can
nonetheless take you so close to the target word that true memory can easily complete the
job. We call those words almosters. Of our four groups – automatics, almosters,
toughies, and impossibles – the almosters make up by far the single biggest category.
The Chinese word for 「lobster」 is transliterated as low-shah, pronounced very
much like LOAN-shark. If you imagine that lobster is so expensive you need a loan shark
to negotiate a lobster lunch, true memory will easily putt you from loan-shark to low-
Shrimp in Indonesian is gambiri, pronounced gam to rhyme with 「Tom」 followed
by 「beery」 (gam-BI-ri). You complain to your waiter in Indonesia that the chewing gum
he served you tastes awfully beery. He advises you it』s not chewing gum, it』s shrimp.
Your putt will take you from GUM-beery to GAM-beery.
The Serbo-Croatian word for 「spoon」 is kasika, pronounced KASH (to rhyme with
You want to get a spoon in Belgrade. They send you outside the hotel to a cash-
and-carry to get a spoon if you want one.
Or if you』re familiar with the Eastern grain called kasha (buckwheat groats), you
can imagine dipping you spoon into a bowl of kasha in the back seat of your car. True
memory will carry you from kasha-car to KASH-ee-ka.
「Spoon,」 then, equals KASH-ee-ka.
The Italian word for 「day」 is giorno, pronounced JUR (as in 「jury」)-no. You』re
eagerly awaiting the outcome of a legal action, but the jury has been tied up all day with
no verdict. Even stronger would be the notion of eagerly awaiting the outcome of the trial
and learning that the whole day went by without the jury even showing up! All day and
「Day」 equals JUR-no.
「Humid」 in Farsi is martoob, pronounced mar (as in 「marshal」)-TOOB (as in
「tube」). It』s so dry in Central Iran that in order to provide comfortable humidity in your
room, the maritime authorities arranged to bring water in through a tube.
True memory will easily let you lop off all but the first syllable of 「maritime」 and
change the vowel from the a as in 「maritime」 to a as in 「marshal」 so that humidity equals
「Banana」 in Indonesian is pisang, pronounced PEA-song, the second syllable
rhyming with the cong in 「conga」. You』d long heard of jungle magic in the outer islands
of Indonesia, but you never really believed it until you went to the local grocer looking
for bananas. You don』t see bananas anywhere. You ask if he has any bananas. Sure, he
says, plenty. 「Excuse me,」 you say, 「I don』t see any.」 Be patient, he begs you, until he
finishes with a customer.
When it』s your turn he asks you how many bananas you want. You reply, half a
dozen. He then takes six peas and sings them a mysterious little song. Before your
bewildered eyes, they turn into bananas! The peas that were sung to became bananas.
Your only putt is to make the final vowel sound like the o in 「conga.」
So 「banana」 equals PEA-song.
The Spanish word for 「to iron」 is planchar, pronounced plan (to rhyme with
「Don」)-CHAR (as in 「charcoal」). The hotel in Madrid has an excellent reputation, with
only a single and rather bizarre lapse. Apparently a maid with too much seniority to be
fired has a habit of leaving the iron on the backside of the trousers so long it leaves burn
marks the size of the iron itself smack across both buttocks.
You have no choice. Your pants need ironing and you』ve got to take your chances.
To improve your odds you gingerly approach the concierge and say, 「 Excuse me, sir.
Could you please find out if the maid plans to iron these pants correctly or if she plans to
char them?」 Your putt is to carry the plan sound from one rhyming with 「tan」 over to
one rhyming with 「Don.」
「To iron」 equals plan-CHAR.
The Indonesian word for 「donkey」 is keledai, pronounced almost exactly like 「call
it a day」 without the it. That』s what donkeys in hot climates are reputed to want to do
after carrying their loads, and that』s what we』ll do now with this particular series of
So far we』ve shied away from words containing sounds that don』t exist in English. The
real world won』t be so protective.
「Un-American」 sounds are exaggerated as an obstacle to progress in most
languages. I say that not because it』s unimportant to master the sounds correctly, but
because most of them will enter your repertoire automatically with practice. The trilled r
in Spanish, the French r that sounds as though it issues from inside the pituitary gland,
the half-sh half-guttural in German, the double consonant in Finnish, the many umlauted
u』s and a』s and o』s in the various European languages will all be explained in your
grammars, and better than explained on your cassettes: they』ll be pronounced.
Many languages carry so many markings and so many different kinds of markings
over and under certain of their letters you may be intimidated. Almost all of them are
empty threats; despite their sinister looking foreignness, they don』t convey any sounds
we don』t have in English.
The two dots over certain a』s in Swedish simply tell you that particular letter is
pronounced as the first a in 「accurate.」 Without the dots, it』s the a in 「father.」 There』s no
need to run from the Norwegian o with a line slicing diagonally down through it: the first
e sound in 「Gertrude」 is close enough. Languages with the double consonant spend far
too much time warning us Americans that this is something strange to us. It is not
strange. We have double consonants too, maybe not inside the same word, but definitely
inside the same phrase.
We pronounce the last sound of the first word and the first sound of the last word in
「late train.」 We don』t say 「lay train.」 So much for the frightening double consonant.
We』ll make no attempt here to teach you the 「click」 sounds of some of the
languages in South Africa or the larynx twisting sounds of the Georgian language spoken
in Soviet Georgia that actually sounds like paper ripping inside the speaker』s throat.
Those sounds are unrepeatable for most Americans and the languages in which they
appear are mercifully obscure.
There is really only one sound that doesn』t exist in English that we』re obliged to
learn well, and that』s the guttural common in Hebrew, Arabic, Russian, Dutch, and
several other languages.
Most textbooks are notoriously weak in conveying that sound. They know they』re
committing consumer fraud when, as they frequently do, they merely advise the
American student to 「approximate the ch sound in the German name 『Bach』 or the final
sound in the Scottish word 『Loch.』」
However, 「Bach」 is not pronounced bak. 「Loch」 is not pronounced lock.
「Chanukah」 is not pronounced Ha-na-ka. The trick is to learn how to make the real
The best method, though perhaps inelegant, is to imagine that you』re about to say
the plain old h sound, and suddenly you feel a terrible tickle in the middle of your throat.
The original h sound then becomes lost in all the other powerful things you now do.
Clear your throat violently to eject the irritant causing that tickle. You will then have the
「Chanukah」 sound, the 「Bach」 sound, the 「Loch」 sound, the 「chutzpah」 sound.
That sound has no natural parents in the English language. It』s up for adoption.
Stop and think what image comes easily to your mind that can make you hear that sound.
Don』t be afraid to exaggerate it. Then tone it down. Dry it out. It will soon be as
serviceable and comfortable as the sounds you grew up with.
The Harry Lorayne method of remembering the gender of nouns in foreign languages
makes you feel downright foolish for not having thought of it yourself!
In some languages you have to remember the gender of nouns in order to adjust the
articles or the endings of the adjectives that go with them. All the Romance languages –
Spanish, French, Italian, Protugese, Romanian, etc. – have masculine and feminine
gender. Usually, but far from always, you can figure which is which by the word』s
ending: o for masculine, a for feminine. French, however, conceals gender clues with
noun endings as unrevealing as battlefield camouflage. German and Russian have
masculine, feminine, and neuter nouns. The Scandinavian languages call their two noun
genders 「common」 and 「neuter,」 as does Dutch. Chinese, Japanese, Indonesian,
Hungarian, and Finnish, like English, have no noun genders.
How do we remember whether the French noun for 「train,」 also spelled train, is le
train (masculine) or la train (feminine)? It happens to be masculine, le train. Imagine not
merely a train that has no women passengers, but a train that doesn』t allow women
passengers! The men prefer it that way. In hot weather, when the air conditioning fails,
they sit around in their underwear. Feminists are outraged, but the Supreme court keeps
postponing the case. Men』s magazines litter the aisles. There are twice as many men』s
rooms as necessary because there are no ladies』 rooms. Once the train screeched to a halt
between stations and an alarm sounded. It seems a band of militant women tried to board
the train and hijack it. They were eventually beaten back, before the men in the club car
even had to put their pants back on.
Le train; masculine.
The French word for 「cafe」 is le cafe; masculine. You could either confect another
all male scenario for a cafe similar to the one you did for the train. Or imagine a
masculine name emblazoned over the entrance – something like the Macho Cafe or the
Le cafe; masculine.
「Hour」 in French is l』heure; feminine. Occasionally you get a gift like this one.
Heure is pronounced very much like her without the h.
「Nose」 in French is le nez; masculine.
The members of which sex break their noses playing football and hockey, boxing,
wrestling, and fighting with wise guys who insult their dates?
Le nez; masculine.
「Night」 in French is la nuit; feminine.
Who ever heard of a 「man of the night?」
La nuit; feminine.
「Ticket」 in French is le billet; masculine.
Always look for opportunities to incorporate a memory hook for the gender as you
capture the word itself. Billet is pronounced bee-yay, almost exactly like the letters B.A.
as in Bachelor of Arts. If 「bachelor」 doesn』t have a sufficiently strong male connotation
to you, imagine a giant male bumble bee buzzing around.
Le billet; masculine.
「Train station」 in French is la gare; feminine.
Shall we imagine women waiting for their homebound commuting husbands at the
train station? Not a good idea. You may forget whether the waiting women or the
expected husbands are the star of the association. How about hundreds of women waiting
for one man, pouncing upon him and fighting over him as he unsuspectingly steps off the
La gare; feminine.
「Church」 in French is l』eglise; feminine.
Imagine an angry mob of French women storming a church in France, demanding
that women be allowed into the Catholic priesthood.
Let this one be a lesson to you. 「Mustache」 in French is la moustache; feminine!
Imagine the circus lady with a mustache, or a new French wine that causes women
to grow mustaches, or a little girl asking her mother if she can ever have a mustache.
La moustache; feminine.
Some languages have neuter gender too. Try to come up with associations that
suggest icy impersonality.
「House」 in German is das Haus; neuter.
Imagine a house so cold and unappealing it couldn』t have possibly been graced by
man or woman for years. No one lives there or would ever conceivably want to.
Das Haus; neuter.
「Pen」 in Russian is pero, pronounced pee-RAW. What could be more sexless than a
pea that』s raw?
You now have a brand new 「closet,」 a foreign language vocabulary memory system that
lets you hang up new words as if they were new clothes. The system just presented will
work even better for you if you keep a few tips in mind.
Every example given above is clean in word, deed, and thought. Every one could
have been presented from the stage in Yadkinville, North Carolina, YMCA during
Foreign Language Week. I refuse to do any dirty writing, so you have to do some dirty
thinking (if you will) to get maximum benefit from the system.
The more vivid, in fact, the more vulgar, your associations are, the more readily
they will probably come to mind. Feel free, in your mental imagery, to take clothes off.
Get people naked. Get everybody into bed, in the tub, swinging from vines, or making
nominating speeches immersed in bubbling Romanian mud. Get them wherever you need
them so that the association you want is readily retrievable. X-rated images come readily
to mind, even to the minds of nice people. Make your associative images lurid and
We』ve refrained in our model examples from using names and places to buttress our
associations. In a book or a class, we can』t. Except for famous figures and places we all
know in common, names and places don』t mean the same things to everybody. As
individuals, however, we can haul off and use any and every proper name we know,
whether from our personal lives or from stage, screen, radio, video, song, literature, and
Does the foreign word demand the sound – or any part of the sound – of a Harry, an
Edna, a Philip, an Art, a Harold, a Doreen, a Billy, a Lance? If that name belongs to
someone you actually know, your associations will come to you more rapidly and last
Did you grow up around a Reidsville, a Colfax, a Burlington, a Charlotte, a Haw
River, or a Mt. Pisgah? Your associations with the foreign words can be enriched by
place names that sounds like or almost like your target words. You don』t actually have to
have those places in your biography, so long as you know them and can visualise them
and use them as lassos to haul in and hog tie similar sounding words. I』ve never been to
Nantucket, but when attacking the Indonesian word for 「tired」 (NAN-tuk), I imagine
getting so tired on my initial visit to Nantucket that I collapse into bed exhausted shortly
Yet another asset to you is the body of words you already know in another foreign
language, or even in the language you』re learning. Those who know many languages may
conquer a four syllable word by bringing in sounds from four different languages. This is
a classic case of the rich getting richer. Every new word you learn is one more potential
hook for grabbing still newer words.
Don』t fight to forge a winning association. If at first you don』t succeed, try, try
again. Then give up! Not all words can be forced into the system, and you』re better off
not wasting good language learning time trying to mash an ill fitting shoe onto
Cinderella』s sister』s foot. Over ninety percent will fit, automatically, neatly, or after some
effort. The others, the holdouts, will have to be learned by old familiar rote learning.
Don』t forget: make your associations vivid, even if that means making them vulgar.
You』ll find that so many truly comical cartoons will dance through your head as
you craft your associative images, you』ll find yourself constantly having to explain
「What』s so funny?」 to native speakers who wonder what』s so hilarious about those
ordinary words they』re teaching you in their language!
Americans feel, with justification, that we』re handicapped when it come to learning other
languages. Smaller countries with lots of borders and lots of strange languages on the
other side offer more opportunities to absorb other languages than a gigantic United
States bounded by the world』s two largest oceans and only two land neighbours, the
larger one speaking, for the most part, the same language we do.
Admittedly, it』s hard to find a Dutchman who doesn』t speak four or five languages,
a Swiss who doesn』t speak at least three, or a Finn, a Belgian, or a Hong Kong Chinese
who doesn』t speak at least two. Norwegians, Swedes, and Danes subject us to the
humiliation of speaking fluent English ot each other just to be polite when Americans are
Those peoples are not kissed by tongues of flame that render them more intelligent
than Americans. They』re simply positioned better by geography and history when it
comes to acquiring more than one language.
Americans, however, hold one high card that too frequently goes unplayed. We』re
gregarious. We』re extroverts. Some say it contemptuously. Some say it admiringly. But
those who know us best agree that we Americans are the only people in the world who
enjoy speaking another language badly!
The typical European would sooner invite you to inspect his bedroom fifty seconds
after waking up than speak a language he doesn』t speak well. Most people in the world
are shy, embarrassed, even paralysed when it comes to letting themselves be heard in
languages they speak less than fluently. An American may master a foreign language to
the point where he considers himself fluent. A European, however, who speaks a
language equally well and no better will often deny he speaks it at all!
Give an American a word in another language and he』s in action. Give him a phrase
and he』s in deeper action. Give him five phrases and he』s dangerous. Take that American
trait and exemplify it.
Talk. Go ahead and talk!
Head into your target language like a moth to the flame, like a politician to the vote.
Is the gentleman you』ve just been introduced to from France? And is French the language
you happen to be studying? Then attack.
Don』t you dare offer a lame chuckle as you explain in English that you』re trying to
learn French but you』re sorry, you』re not very good at it yet. That』s like giggling and
telling the mugger who ambushes you in an alley that you』re learning karate but sorry,
you』re not very good at it yet.
It』s okay to tell him you』re just a beginner, but tell him in French. Learn enough
utility phrases in whatever language you』re studying to profit from every encounter.
Comb through your phrase book (the Berlitz For Travellers series is excellent) and make
it your priority to learn phrases such as 「I don』t speak your language well,」 「Do you
understand me?」, 「Please speak more slowly,」 「Please repeat,」 「How do you say that in
your language?」, 「Sorry, I don』t understand,」 and others that together can serve as your
cornerstone and launching pad.
Most phrase books offer too few of these 「crutch」 phrases. When you meet your
first encounter, pull out pen and pad and fatten your crutch collection. Learn how to say
things such as, 「I』m only a beginner in your language but I』m determined to become
fluent,」 「Do you have enough patience to talk with a foreigner who』s trying to learn your
language?」 「I wonder if I』ll ever be as fluent in your language as you are in English,」 「I
wish your language were as easy as your people are polite,」 and 「Where in your country
do you think your language is spoken the best?」 Roll your own alternatives. You』ll soon
find yourself developing what comedians call a 「routine,」 a pattern of conversation that
actually gives you a feeling of fluency along with the inspiration to nurture that feeling
Hauling off and speaking the language you』re studying versus merely sitting there
knowing it makes the difference between being a business administration professor and a
It』s time to apply the parable of the Parrot.
A man looking for an anniversary present for his wife after fourteen years of
marriage found himself in front of a pet shop. In the window was a parrot, not
particularly distinguished in size or plumage, but the price tag on that parrot was a
whopping seven thousand dollars because that parrot spoke, unbelieveably, fourteen
That was more than the man intended to spend but he figured, 「Fourteen years,
fourteen languages!」 So he bought it.
He went home, mounted the parrot』s perch in the kitchen, and then realised he』d
forgotten the birdseed. He ran back to the pet shop, bought the birdseed, and then ran
back home, hoping to have everything in readiness before his wife got home.
Alas, she』d already returned, and when he appeared she flung herself upon him in
sizzling affection, shouting, 「Darling! What a marvellous anniversary present! You
remembered how much I love pheasant. I』ve got him plucked. I』ve got him slit. I』ve got
him stuffed. He』s in the oven and he』ll be ready in about fifty minutes.」
「You』ve got him what?」 cried he. 「You』ve got him where? That was no pheasant,」
stormed the husband. 「That was a parrot, and that parrot cost seven thousand dollars
because that parrot spoke fourteen languages!」
「So,」 replied his wife, 「why didn』t he say something?」
And indeed, why don』t you?
Put it in Writing
We don』t know if a peacock is impressed when he sees himself in full display in a mirror.
We do know that you and I are impressed with ourselves when we behold something
we』ve written in a foreign language.
Try it. If you do nothing more than copy an exercise from your grammar book onto
a piece of paper in your own handwriting, you』ll enjoy looking at it. You become like a
kindergarten child so enraptured with his paint smearings that he can』t wait to take them
home to Mommy and Daddy.
That』s strange, childish, egotistic – and supremely helpful when you』re learning
another language. Go ahead and write. If you can write letters and cards to someone who
speaks that language, so much the better. If you can write your dinner preferences for the
waiter in an ethnic restaurant, do so. As soon as you feel sufficiently advanced, write a
note to the editor of the foreign publication you』re learning to read and tell him how
helpful it is. Write a letter to the ambassador of a country that speaks your target
language and congratulate him on representing a culture sufficiently appealing to make
you want to learn his language.
Carry a special little notebook with you at all times so you can jot down your new
verbal acquisitions if you happen to meet native speakers of your target language.
As a student of Chinese I used to experience a high energy lift by writing the
Chinese characters I』d learned on a blank piece of paper, preferably in red ink. I still get a
kick doodling Chinese characters, randomly or in coherent sentences, on the margins of
the newspaper I』m carrying or in the blank spaces on the display ads.
Write! Conquer and consolidate by writing. The ability to understand a word when
it』s spoken or written, to use that word correctly with good pronunciation, and to write it
correctly makes you the battlefield commander of that word.
Jack Benny was one comic who remained beloved, even by his peers, despite his well
known inability to come up with original material.
Once at a Hollywood roast when another comic laced into him with a devastating
salvo that demanded a retort in kind, Benny won the moment by pausing and then saying,
「You』d never get away with that if my writers were here.」
Cute for Jack Benny at a roast, but not really anything we can borrow. When you』re
in language action and you stumble and lapse into uhs and ahs while the native speaker is
patiently hoping you』ll come through, it doesn』t do to say, 「I』d never be in this fix if I
had my dictionary and phrase book with me.」
Everybody who』s ever tried to master a foreign language knows the frustration of
needing the right word or phrase, knowing that you know it, but being utterly unable to
come up with it at the moment. Just as golfers sometimes break their clubs in frustration,
at some point you』ll want to smash your cassette player and throw your books into a
shredder. You』ve mastered a neat set of phrases; they flow glibly off your tongue; you
sing them in the shower, repeat them as you dress, review them as you put on your coat –
and suddenly all recollection vanishes in a poof when you run into a friend five minutes
later who happens to be with a native speaker of the language you』re learning and you try
to remember how to say 「Pleased to meet you.」
Having the revolver is one thing. Drawing it quickly is quite another. To take set
piece knowledge you』ve acquired and have it pop up automatically as instinct under real
game conditions calls for a whole separate discipline.
Coaches stage scrimmages that simulate real game conditions as closely as possible.
Pilots can now train in complex simulators that use some elements of computer games to
achieve the effect of genuine flight. You, the language learner, can play little discipline
games that will make your knowledge more readily retrievable in live language action.
First of all, why wait for the real life foreign language encounter to spring into
retrieval practice? As you go through the motions of daily life, ask yourself, 「What
would I be saying here in the language I』m studying?」 How would you greet the person
headed toward you? What would you say to the friend she introduces you to? How would
you thank her? How would you tell her 「You』re welcome」 or not to bother or would she
please hand you the fork? It』s fun and helpful to dub everyday situations in the language
If you come up short in your practice with words and phrases you』ve already
learned, jot them down on a pad and look them up when you get back to your books.
As you review your cassettes, try to come up with the foreign word during the
pause before the next piece of English. Put artificial pressure on yourself: 「Can I come up
with the expression before I hear the next word on the cassette?」 Or if you』re listening as
you』re walking, 「Can I come up with it before I get to that sign, that lamppost, the
corner, the curb?」 Victory is being able to take an entire cassette of what were recently
nonsense syllables to you and throw back the foreign equivalents without hesitation.
You』ll be glad you didn』t smash your tools when your friend approaches you by
surprise to introduce you to her friend from a country that speaks the language you』re
learning and you respond with a crisp, correct 「Pleased to meet you」 in that language!
Commit Language Larceny
There are interesting lessons coiled up inside ordinary greetings in different languages.
The Estonian greeting Kuidas (k.si k.ib) literally means 「How does your hand
walk?」 An old Chinese greeting is Chr bao le, mei lo? which means, 「Have you had food
yet?」 – no small achievement in the China of some periods. A charming greeting in
Yiddish is 「Zug mir a shtikel Toireh,」 which means 「Teach me a piece of Torah,」 the
Torah being the five books of Moses and the holiest document in the Jewish religion.
Language learners can use the spirit of that last one to good advantage.
When you encounter a native speaker of your target language, and when you start a
conversation in that language, three things are certain. You will be stuck for words you
need but don』t know. He will use words you don』t understand. And you will make
mistakes. Get into the habit of exploiting those moments to the hilt!
When you don』t know a word, ask him for it. When you don』t understand a word he
uses, ask him what it means. Ask him to do you the favour of correcting your mistakes.
You may not have much luck with that latter request; he may be too polite or too
impressed that you』re making an effort in his language to criticise you. If you feel he』s
letting your mistakes slide by, pick a fairly long sentence and ask him to help you
hammer out your mistakes in just that one sentence. Write that sentence down on one of
your blank flash cards. Ask him to check it again. Milk the moment. As the Latin goes,
Don』t ever enter into anything as precious as a conversation in your target language
with a native speaker and leave knowing no more than when you started. You』ve got a
repertoire in that language. He has a larger one. Reach in and help yourself.
At No Extra Cost
You may think you have a good idea precisely how your life will improve once you』ve
mastered your target language. You』re wrong. It will be much better than you think.
Unexpected good things happen to you when you learn even a little of the other
guy』s language. A chapter detailing some of those things may seem like preaching to the
choir, when you consider that anybody likely to be reading this has already decided he
wants to learn. So what? Who more than the members of the choir deserve the
All the case histories that follow were culled and corroborated by members of the
Language Club who were asked to be alert to all the nice little extras that come your way
when you speak another language. Many of them happened to me personally and
continue to happen almost daily.
In New York and some other major cities a huge percentage of the cab drivers are
from Haiti. Try this, just to get a taste of the power of another language. If your driver is
Haitian, lean forward and say (phonetically), 「Sa (rhymes with 「ma」) pass (「pasta」
without the 「ta」) SAY (as in the English 「say」), pa-PA (「papa,」 but accented on the last
syllable). Sort those sounds out and try it. 「Sa paSAY paPA?」 It means something like the
French Comment .a va? (「How are you?」), but it』s not French. It』s his native Haitian
Creole slang and he may never before have heard that utterance from the lips of a non-
That one line is guaranteed to get you reactions ranging from a long, slow smile to a
cheery 「Where did you learn that?」 to loud and joyous laughter to the exclamation, 「You
must know Haiti well!」
Don』t get the idea that Haitians are the only ones susceptible to the charm of
hearing a few words of their language. They just may be more demonstrative than most
in showing it. Romanian cab drivers have turned off the metre and given me a free ride in
return for my 「Good morning」 in Romanian. A Soviet Georgian cab driver refused to
take my money and invited me to Sunday dinner at his home, one of the tastiest treats and
most interesting evenings I』ve ever enjoyed. An Indonesian cab driver screamed – that』s
all, just screamed – upon hearing 「Thank you」 in his language.
I』ve long suspected there』s a memo posted in the kitchen of every Chinese
restaurant in America instructing all personnel not to let any American who exhibits any
knowledge of Chinese go unrewarded. Try this experience, just to taste the power.
The Chinese term for 「chopsticks」 is kwai dze. The first word is pronounced like
the Asian river the American war prisoners built the bridge over. The second word
sounds like the ds in 「suds.」
The next time you』re in a Chinese restaurant, smile at the waiter and say 「Kwai
dze.」 When he brings the chopsticks, smile again and say, 「Shieh, shieh」 (「Thank
you」). Pronounce that as you should 「she expects,」 making sure you never get as far as
the x and accentuating the 「she」. The immediate payoffs on this one can range from a
free plum brandy cocktail at the end of the meal clear over to a stubborn refusal to let you
pay. The more subtle, and satisfying, payoff is that they will assume you know not only
the rest of the Chinese language but the Chinese cuisine as well, and they』ll probably
give you no less than the absolute finest the house can produce every time they see you
Your rewards for knowing even a paltry few words of a language vary in inverse
proportion to the likelihood that you』ll know any at all. A German baker isn』t likely to
endorse his whole day』s profit on strudel over to your favourite charity merely because
you enter his shop with a big 「Guten Tag」 (「Good day」), but an Albanian baker might if
you enter with 「Tungjatjeta.」 You won』t knock French socks off with a 「Comment
allez-vous?」 (「How are you?」), but you may set winter gloves flying in Helsinki with a
correctly pronounced 「(Hyv.. P.iv..)」 (「Good morning」).
Don』t overdo it. I』ve known cab drivers from obscure countries almost drive off the
road when they』re surprised with a burst of their native tongue from an American
passenger, and once I had a Chinese waitress in a Jewish delicatessen (honest!) get so
rattled when I ordered for our party in Chinese that she messed up our order beyond
I have many times ignited what looked like spontaneous street festivals by hailing
groups of people on the sidewalk in the language I heard them speaking. They frequently
stop, return the greeting, and then start hobnobbing with the people in my group, leading
to laughs, the exchange of addresses, dates for later on, and, I suspect, even more! I』ve
never understood the joy of bagging a bird or a deer and watching it fall to the ground.
My joy is bagging strangers from other countries with the right greeting in the right
language and watching them come to a halt and become old friends at once.
The material payoffs of learning foreign languages are many and predictable,
though perhaps a bit surprising in their scope. In early 1990 a friend told me he was
looking to fill a job paying $650,000 a year; qualifications: attorney, knowledge of
Russian, and willingness to relocate to Moscow. I prefer the psychological payoffs of
studying foreign languages – pleasures so keep you could almost call them spiritual.
They joy of a true mathematician escalates as he moves from algebra to
trigonometry to calculus. Likewise, the joy of the true language lover escalates as he
advances from what I call 「Foreign 1」 to 「Foreign 2.」 Foreign 1 is interpreting or
translating (interpreters speak, translators write) from your native language to a foreign
one. Foreign 2 is doing it from one language that』s foreign to you to another one that』s
foreign to you.
You are permitted to feel like Superman when you pull off such a feat. You are not
permitted to act like Superman, nor are you permitted to let on that you feel like
Superman. You mien should approximate that of a bored New York commuter telling a
stranger how many stops there are between Grand Central Station and New Rochelle.
The best Foreign 2 feeling I ever had was interpreting for Finns trying to
communicate with Hungarians. Finnish and Hungarian are widely hailed as the most
difficult languages in the world. They』re related to each other, but not in any way that』s
helpful or even apparent. There aren』t five words remotely similar in the two languages,
and a Hungarian and a Finn can no more understand each other than can a Japanese and a
I long nurtured a dream of house lights coming up in the theatre. The theatre
manager comes to centre stage and says, 「Is there a Finnish-Hungarian interpreter in the
house?」 I wait until he repeats his request louder so that everyone in the theatre will get a
load of those qualifications. I then, in the fantasy, grudgingly make my presence and, by
implication, my suitability for the assignment known. I rise and approach whatever
emergency it is that requires my linguistic talents, while those hundreds of theatre goers
gasp at their relative inadequacies.
Something like that actually did light up my life for an evening and then some. I
was invited by a well known woman broadcaster to join another couple who had invited
her and a guest to a Madison Square Garden horse show. I』d never dated her before. I felt
outclassed in the glamour department, and I was uncomfortable as we four wound our
way through that upper crust crowd looking for our places.
Suddenly I was spotted by Anna Sosenko, lyricist, writer, theatre producer, and
dealer in the memorabilia of show business worldwide and down through the ages. Anna
wrote, among other biggies, the song 「Darling, Je Vous Aime Beaucoup.」
「Hey, Barry,」 Anna yelled out over the crowd from about twenty rows away. 「Can
you come by my studio next week? I need you to translate some Ibsen!」
Remember what that sudden spinach infusion did for Popeye』s biceps in the
animated cartoons? That』s exactly what happened to my standing in the foursome after
Anna』s outcry. My date and her friends turned to me. 「Ibsen? You translate Ibsen?
Where did you learn to translate Ibsen?」
They may very well not have known what language Henrik Ibsen wrote in. Never
mind! You don』t have to be absolutely sure which country a prince is a prince of in order
to show respect, as long as you』re sure he』s a real prince. Likewise, with Anna Sosenko
doing the yelling, everybody was convinced I could bring Ibsen to life in English.
The ads for self study language courses stress the business, travel, cultural, and literary
advantages of acquiring another language. But what about meeting girls? Or women? Or
boys? Or men? Why let an old fashioned propriety quash that thoroughly proper, in fact
praiseworthy, reason to learn another language, namely to enlarge your range of social
opportunities, to meet people?
Learning another language to enlarge your opportunity for making new connections
is fun and rewarding. Financial and professional success have helped people live their
dreams. So has learning another language!
There are blonde languages, by the way, and brunette languages. Why be bashful?
Those partial to blondes are advised to learn Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Finnish,
German, Dutch, and Hungarian. A good brunette list would include Spanish, French,
Portuguese, Italian, Serbo-Croatian, Greek, Turkish, Hebrew, and Arabic.
This advice is not offered flippantly. I find the social motive to learn other
languages as valid as the commercial, the cultural, or any other. If your motives for
learning another language are social, I would steer you to the language of a people you
find maximally attractive with every bit as straight a face as I』d advise those interested in
importing from Asia to learn Japanese and opera lovers to learn Italian. I would steer you
to the language of a people you find maximally attractive with every bit as straight a face
as I』d advise those interested in importing from Asia to learn Japanese and opera lovers
to learn Italian.
You are not guaranteed love forevermore, but you are guaranteed novelty status.
You』ll attract attention in your target community as 「the one who went to the trouble of
learning our language.」 You』ll be invited, introduced around, and questioned thoroughly
as to your reasons for studying their particular language. The less popular the language,
the greater a celebrity you』ll be among its speakers. French is very popular, so you won』t
have Paris at your feet, we』ve already agreed, even after your best rendered 「Comment
allez-vous?」, but Norwegians will want to burn arctic moss at your altar when after a
meal you say 「Takk for maten.」 That means 「Thanks for the food,」 which non-
Norwegians not only generally don』t know how to say, but also don』t realise it』s
traditionally said as you leave the table of your host in Norway.
Native English speakers have more to gain from studying other languages than
anybody else. Honour, love, cooperation, respect, advantage – they all shower down
upon people in inverse proportion to their need to learn a language.
English is the most prominent language in the world. The Dutch, as one example,
all seem to know four or five languages well upon graduation from high school, but (I am
not trying to diminish their achievement) they have to learn other languages, beginning
with English, to make their way in the commercial world. You can』t play that game with
Dutch alone. Languages find their fair rate of exchange as currencies do. We who speak
English get a lot more credit from the Dutch if we learn Dutch than they get from us just
because they learned English. And so on around the world.
Learn that other language now, while there』s still time to enjoy the honours due
those who don』t have to learn the other guy』s language but choose to do so anyhow. That
time is rapidly running out. For the very first time in our history Americans are learning
other languages not out of courtesy but out of necessity. That fact of life is so new that
it』s not yet apparent to America or the world, so we still have a little more time to bask in
the admiration of those who had to learn our language and who still believe we simply
chose to learn theirs.
Something ennobling happens when you learn to communicate in more than one
language. And it』s fun to watch the magic flash as you touch your word wand to the ears
of those who』d never suspect you speak their language. It』s one more way of making
friends. In big cities you』ll have many chances to find people who speak foreign
But you can』t sally in and ambush strangers in their language even if their accent
and appearance make it a sure bet. They』re probably proud of their accent free (or nearly
accent free) English. The best way to avoid insulting them – so they can concentrate on
loving you when you speak their language – is to say, before you venture one word of
their language, 「Your accent is beautiful. Are you from England?」
They will then proudly say, 「No, I』m from Poland」 (or wherever), and they will
thereupon welcome your overtures.
Get to Know the Family
Languages have their own happy surprises. For example, Serbo-Croatian and Bulgarian
overlap. Learn either one, and at no extra cost you get seventy percent of the other. You
may want to select a language to learn according to how much bounce it has beyond its
borders. Languages come in families, and it pays to know which relations might work for
Let』s pursue the Serbo-Croatian-Bulgarian connection. They』re related in
diminishing degrees to all the Slavic languages, which include Russian, Byelorussian,
Polish, Ukranian, Czech, Slovak, Slovenian, Macedonian, and Ruthenian. They』re not all
seventy percent overlapping, but so what? What if they』re only forty, thirty, twenty
percent overlapping? That』s still like having the shopkeeper hand you extra cloth on a
second bolt when you thought you』d only bought one bolt of cloth.
You learn so much Italian when you learn Spanish that it』s a shame not to switch
over and pursue Italian once your Spanish is adequate. Portugese isn』t far behind, and
even French, the Romance language least like any of the others, has enough similar
grammatical features and vocabulary to help you conquer all of the other Romance
Hindi and Urdu, the principal languages of India and Pakistan, are virtually the
same spoken language.
Dutch is far more than the language of a tiny nation between Germany and the
English Channel. It』s almost identical to Flemish, which along with French is one of the
two principal languages of Belgium. Dutch is the foundation of Afrikaans, which along
with English is a major language of South Africa. And you』ll have no trouble finding
Dutch speakers all over Indonesia, the old 「Spice Islands」 ruled by Holland for four
Get to know the family of the language you』re learning – where it fits in, what other
languages it will make easier for you to learn later. What doors in what industries will it
open (for example, Flemish and Yiddish for diamonds, Arabic for oil, Swedish for
crystal, Italian for fashion)? Over how wide an area is your target language spoken (more
Chinese speak Chinese outside China than Frenchmen speak French in France)?
Knowing where your language fits into the world mosaic will offer you countless
advantages and rewards, and almost certainly the motivation to learn more.
to the People
The many who crave language knowledge in America have risen in rebellion against the
many who have failed (we could even say refused) to give it.
Language teaching used to be in the control of 「the faculty,」 a Prussian guard of
grammarians who taught that after all the conjugations, declensions, irregularities, and
exceptions were mastered, surely fluency would follow. What followed instead was a
parade of hapless Americans who, after eight years of good grades, could not go to the
desk clerk at a hotel in a country whose language they』d studied and ask if they had any
「The faculty」 taught rigidly by the book, the grammar book, and all our desire to
learn to say useful things and converse were dashed.
Today foreign languages are no longer 「electives.」 Those suddenly faced with their
first need to command another language are besieging Berlitz and other commercial
language schools and buying the Pimsleur cassettes and other self study courses. We, the
laymen, are picking up our tools – language workbooks, cassette courses, phrase books,
flash cards – to try to make up for our failure to learn, while all those incredible
Europeans were learning English in their public schools!
Two, four, six, eight years of high school and college study in a foreign language,
and still our American graduates can』t tell whether the man on the radio speaking the
language they 「learned」 is declaring war or recommending a restaurant!
Has one single American graduate ever stepped into a job that called for a foreign
language with nothing more than the language he learned in high school or college? It』s
not a cruel question. Most Americans can get by on the reading they learned in school.
And the math. And the history. Why is that when it come to foreign languages our
graduates have to rush into expensive private instruction to start all over again?
One hero of language learning in the United States is Dr. Henry Urbanski, professor
of Russian, former chairman of the department of Foreign Languages of the State
University of New York at New Paltz, and now director of the Language Immersion
Institute. Once upon a time Dr. Urbanski』s 「immersion」 heresy would probably have
resulted in his getting banned from university life. Today Urbanski is showered with
praise and honour.
His immersion programme defies the language teaching tradition of rote
regimentation and grammar worship. There are no charts to learn, no homework, no
drudgery, and no tests. It』s all fun, it emphasises real conversation between teacher and
students, and it all takes place over a weekend. If Henry Urbanski could have thought of
any more rules to break, he would have.
Urbanski』s immersion programme is open to everybody. Those with no educational
background in languages whatever join with people with graduate degrees in languages
and men and women of all levels of qualification in between. The programme begins at
seven P.M. on a Friday for an hour of introduction and orientation. The students then
break up into small groups in separate rooms and jump into the foreign language under
the command of dynamic, enthusiastic instructors who keep a high energy Ping-Pong of
basic conversation going back and forth with all students participating. At ten P.M. Friday
the classes break and the wise ones go straight to bed without food, wine, or small talk,
knowing that the routine resumes early Saturday morning.
Even when classes break for lunch Saturday afternoon there』s no break in the
language. The groups have lunch together in the language they』re learning. Then they
return to class and keep on going.
On Saturday at dusk some of the students begin to report phenomena resembling
out of body experiences. Urbanski jokes, 「Only when this constant bombardment
collapses your resistance can the new language come surging in like an angry sea through
a broken dike.」
Even the students who were suggesting wine and talk the night before hasten to bed
in order to meet the dawn on Sunday, the final day. Sessions continue clear up to a late
lunch, after which there』s a 「graduation」 exercise, whereupon everybody vows to return
at the next opportunity for immersion in the next highest level of their language.
Dr. Urbanski wants his immersion students to have fun. Walk down the corridors
during teaching hours (or follow a group on a 「language hike」 through the mountains
around New Paltz) and you』ll hear laughter, clapping, singing, and what sound like pep
rallies in Spanish, French, German, Italian, Russian, and the other languages of the
「Why make students suffer unnecessarily?」 Urbanski asks. 「Learning a language
doesn』t have to bring pain and suffering. We believe in providing a nonthreatening
environment in which students are rewarded for their progress but not punished for their
errors.」 An immersion graduate added, 「The festival spirit wakes us up, keeps us sharp,
lubricates the flow of new words, and anesthetises us against the pain of grammar.」
Urbanski never promises you can go straight from a weekend of foreign language
immersion to a booth at the United Nations and simultaneously interpret a foreign
minister』s address. What immersion promises is a more than elementary introduction to
the language, a good grounding in its words and melodies, the ability to 「defend」
yourself in that language without help, and a solid base from which you can grow, either
through self study or more courses. No claim is made that students will be fluent by the
end of one immersion weekend. 「We teach linguistic survival,」 says Urbanski. 「After a
few immersion weekends our students can manage in the language.」
The New Paltz Language Immersion Institute has grown from immersion weekends
on campus to weekends at the nearby Mohonk Mountain House resort and in Manhattan.
A programme is now under way in Washington, D.C. Anyone desiring information – no
qualifications necessary – may call the New Paltz Language Immersion Institute at 1-
Tuition for the weekend ranges from $175 to $250, depending on location. The two
week summer programme at the New Paltz campus costs $400.
In the words of one satisfied institute graduate, 「I learned enough to continue to
Back to Basics
「Send the manager to this table immediately,」 demanded the diner in the restaurant.
When the manager appeared, the diner railed, 「This is the worst vanilla ice cream I』ve
「I』m sorry, sir,」 said the manager. 「That』s not vanilla ice cream. That』s butter
「Oh,」 said the customer, suddenly placated. 「For butter pecan, it』s okay.」
This chapter on the basics of grammar should be read in that spirit.
「French verb changes are inaudible through the singular of the present tense.」
「The Spanish auxiliary verb 『to have』 is completely different from the verb 『to
have』 implying possession.」
「The Scandinavian languages, Romanian, and Albanian are among the languages
that place the definitive article after the noun.」
「Chinese has no case endings or verb inflections, and adjectives do not have to
agree with nouns.」
Do you understand all of the above, or most of it? If so, you don』t need this chapter,
though some of it may come as a welcome refresher. This chapter is offered as catch-up
for all of you who didn』t pay attention in English class. Now you want to learn another
language and you realise suddenly that your teacher was right, you were wrong, and here
you are unable to understand the English you need to take command of another language.
I, like you, sat smugly through grade school English convinced that ignorance of all
those silly terms that went zipping by me would never interfere with any of my future
endeavours. Nothing reforms the student who』s apathetic towards English like a sudden
desire to learn other languages. I could have learned foreign languages more easily from
the outset had I sat down to learn just these bare bones I serve you now.
What follows is a rundown of some of the terms you』ll need to know to advance
easily through another language. The synopsis may be misprioritised and incomplete, but
on the other hand it is friendly, nonjudgmental, brief, blunt, and, I hope, helpful.
A noun is a person, place, or thing – either a tangible thing, like a block of ice or a head
of cattle or your mother in law, or an intangible thing, like a concept or an emotion.
The dictionary tells us that pronouns are words that serve as substitutes for nouns. If
that』s confusing, ignore it and let』s get right down to the pronouns. In English they are I,
you, he, she, it, we, they, me, him, her, us, them, my, mine, your, yours, his, hers, its, our,
ours, their and theirs.
In addition, we have INTERROGATIVE pronouns (who, what, which) for asking
We also have RELATIVE pronouns (who, whose, which, that) for explaining and
describing the nouns we use.
In the sentence 「Who owns that house?」 the pronoun who is used in interrogative
form. It』s asking a question. In the sentence 「The man who owns that house is nice,」 the
pronoun who is used in its relative sense. You』re not asking anybody a question, you』re
identifying the man. 「The man whose house…,」 「The house, which I visited…,」 and
「The house that I visited…」 all demonstrate the use of relative pronouns.
A verb is an action word – to do, to go, to want, to think. Chances are that any word that
sounds right after the word to (provided the to doesn』t mean 「toward」 or 「in the direction
of」) is a verb. English verbs are so consistent (unchanging), it』s easy for the English
speaker to get overwhelmed when tackling a language whose verbs INFLECT (change
forms), as all the Romance, the Slavic, and many other languages』 verbs do. When we
follow a verb through all its forms (I go, you go, he goes, we go, they go, in the present
tense, past tense, future tense, etc.) we are CONJUGATING that verb. You』ll feel less
bewildered if you stop to realise that our own English verbs inflect just enough to give
you the idea of changing forms. The present tense, third person singular form of the
English verb (the he form) usually adds an s (I give, you give, but he gives).
An infinitive is a verb in neutral gear. In English the infinitive is the form we talked
about above – to go, to do, etc. The infinitive form of the verb go is therefore to go. That
doesn』t tell you who』s going or when he』s going or, in case he』s already gone, when he
went. The infinitive is just hanging there, ready to express any and all of the above
possibilities when the proper INFLECTIONS, changes, are applied.
The gears that neutral infinitives can shift into involve PERSON, NUMBER, and TENSE.
We』ll tackle them in that order.
I am FIRST PERSON. You are SECOND PERSON. He, she, or it is THIRD PERSON. The fussbudget
grammarian wants to blow the whistle right here and remind us that we, you, and they are
also first, second, and third person. Don』t rush me. We』re getting to it.
Number, in English and most other languages, is either SINGULAR or PLURAL. (In Russian
and other Slavic languages there』s a third one. They have singular, plural, and really
plural. Be grateful!) I, the first person, am only one individual. Therefore I am first
person singular. You, by yourself, are second person singular. He, she, and it are third
We are more than one person; therefore we are first person plural. You, meaning two
or more of you, are second person plural. Second person singular and second person
plural in English happen to look and sound identical. That』s not so in all languages. They
are third person plural. The one English word they covers as many he』s, she』s and it』s as
anybody can possibly throw at you. Again, not all languages are so obliging!
Even those who didn』t pay much attention in school shouldn』t have difficulty with tenses.
I am is PRESENT tense. (To give it its full name and rank we』d have to say I am is the
present tense, first person singular of the verb to be.)
You were is PAST tense, or, more fully, the past tense, second person singular (in this
case it could be plural too) of the verb to be.
He will be is FUTURE tense, or the future tense, third person singular of the verb to
The PERFECT tense is another form of the past tense that expresses not I was but
rather I have been. (Perfect here just means 「finished.」) This tense is more important in
English than in many other languages, and more important in French than in English.
The PAST PERFECT (also called PLUPERFECT) tense is I had been. It takes place before
the 「regular」 past.
The IMPERFECT (「unfinished」) tense is I was being, I was walking, I was going,
The CONDITIONAL tense is I would be.
There are more tenses, and they may vary from language to language, but that』s
enough to give you the hang of what tenses are.
As the name suggests, auxiliaries are words that help you accomplish something. In
English, the verb to have serves as the auxiliary that helps us form the perfect tenses (I
have been, I had been). The verb to be serves as the auxiliary that helps us form the
imperfect tense (I was going).
Just as ice, water, and steam are merely different forms of the same thing, I, me, my, and
mine are merely different forms of the same word. You pick the form according to what
CASE you need. (Yes! You already do this in English.) Let』s advance on case now and
destroy its mystery before it destroys your enthusiasm.
Noun (and pronoun) cases turn more people away from learning languages than
boot camp turns away from joining the marines. And the same reason underlies both.
Those who』ve been there enjoy boosting their own glory by exaggerating the difficulties
involved to the intimidated uninitiated.
「Wait until those drill instructors at Parris Island get a hold of you!」 is essentially
the same comment as 「Wait until you run into all those noun cases!」 You may recall with
distaste the trouble you had with Latin』s six noun cases. Russian also has six noun cases.
Serbo-Croatian has seven. Other languages have even more.
Anyone studying a language bristling with noun cases knows the sinking feeling of
leaving warm, shallow water and running into wave after wave of charts showing nouns
that change their endings for no apparent reason!
You can ride those waves. Those nouns, in fact, change for very good reasons,
reasons that are easy to catch on to provided you』re not labouring under the spell of a
showoff know-it-all who tells you, 「Finnish! Forget it. They have fifteen noun cases in
the singular and sixteen in the plural!」
Fortunately, English has just enough of what we call noun cases to prove they』re
nothing to fear.
Let』s play with the word house. 「The house is large.」 「The exterior of the house us
green.」 「Let』s go to the house.」 「I see the house.」 In all of those sentences, the form of
house remains mercifully (for anybody learning English) the same. If there were any
reason to strain a point and prove that plain English nouns can have case too, we could
confect the sentence 「The house』s exterior is green,」 and point out that house』s is the
genitive case of house.
To get a fuller example of case, we have to go to our English pronouns. 「I have a
pen.」 「My pen is good.」 「Give the pen to me.」 「Do you hear me?」
Look what happened to I as it changed roles in the various sentences. In the
sentence 「I have a pen,」 I is the subject of the sentence. In the sentence 「My pen is
good,」 I has changed to my to express the concept of possession. In the sentence 「Give
the pen to me,」 I becomes the indirect object of the giving, and in the sentence 「Do you
hear me?」 I becomes the direct object of the verb hear.
If I wanted to discourage you instead of inspire you, I would say, 「We have now
met the NOMINATIVE case, the GENITIVE case, the DATIVE case, and the ACCUSATIVE case,
and we』re all going to stay right here and not come up for air until you can decline (give
me the lineup of) 189 nouns in all those cases in the language you』d like to learn!」
Instead I say let』s move forward and learn how to say things and read things and
understand things in the language. You can learn about noun cases and other grammatical
complexities exactly the way you learned your uncles and aunts when you were a baby –
one hug, one kiss, one lollipop at a time.
When we carry the noun through all its cases we say we』re DECLINING that noun.
Noun cases tip you off to the role of the noun or pronoun in a sentence. Many languages
need them to tell you who is doing what to whom. Approach them with a good attitude
and you will feel the wisdom of Mark Twain』s little sermon, 「Fear knocked at the door.
Faith answered. No one was there.」
Adjectives are words that describe nouns. In the phrase 「the green pen,」 green is the
adjective that describes pen. You』ll encounter some fuss about them because in many
languages adjectives have to AGREE WITH (appear in the same form as) the nouns they
MODIFY (refer to). In those languages adjectives must agree with the nouns in gender and
number (and sometimes case).
A little Spanish will quickly make it clear. El libro es rojo (「The book is red」)
shows the adjective rojo (「red」) in masculine singular form to agree with libro (「book」).
La pluma es roja (「The pen is red」) shows the adjective roja (「red」) in feminine singular
form to agree with pluma (「pen」). Los libros son rojos (「The books are red」) shows the
adjective rojos (「red」) in masculine plural form to agree with libros (「books」). Finally,
Las plumas son rojas (「The pens are red」) shows the adjective rojas (「red」) in feminine
plural form to agree with plumas (「pens」).
Adverbs describe verbs – they tell how. 「He mastered the easy parts of the language
easily.」 Easily is the adverb telling how he mastered the easy parts (Easy, of couse, is the
Prepositions are words that precede nouns and pronouns to form phrases (groups of
words) that can act as adjectives or adverbs. Prepositions show relationships among
nouns; they often indicate position or direction, and they are often short words: to, at, by,
for, with, from, toward, on, over, behind, between, etc.
The definite article in English is the word the.
The indefinite article in English is the word a or an. English has both the definite and
indefinite article. Some other languages also have both. Some have one but not the other.
Some have neither.
Words like these symbolise the grade school 「nerve gas」 which deadens the desire to
proceed through grammar and parts of speech, and diagramming sentences, and all
related yawn provokers that once seemed to float too far over our heads ever to zoom
down and give us discomfort. Those concepts may have seemed like distant enemies in
the eighth grade when you had no intention of becoming an English teacher, but they』re
close friends and necessary allies when you』re learning another language.
Briefly, in the sentence 「He hits the ball,」 the word he is the SUBJECT, hits is the
VERB, ball is the OBJECT, the DIRECT OBJECT. If we lengthen the sentence to 「He hits the
ball to him,」 then him is the INDIRECT OBJECT.
The verb is ACTIVE or in the ACTIVE VOICE if the subject is performing the verb action. In
「He hits the ball,」 the verb hits is in the active voice because the subject he is the one
(the AGENT) doing the hitting.
The verb is PASSIVE or in the PASSIVE VOICE if the subject receives or is subject to the
action of the verb. Thus in 「The ball is hit by him」, the subject ball doesn』t do any
hitting. Rather, it gets hit. Therefore, we say that the verb hit is in the passive voice
because the subject ball is not performing the action of the verb but is rather having that
action performed upon it.
The verb is reflexive when its action bounces back upon itself. In the sentence 「I dress
myself,」 the subject I both performs the action and has it performed on itself.
The imperative is the command form of the verb. The imperative of the verb to go is go!
The imperative of the verb to watch is Watch!
COMPARATIVE AND SUPERLATIVE
Though not as flighty and volatile as verbs and nouns, English adjectives and adverbs
can』t sit entirely still.
Good, better, and best are really the same word in escalating degrees. Good is the
simple, the base form of the adjective. Better is the comparative form. Best is the
superlative form. Good-better-best is an example of an irregular comparative-superlative
construction. If it were regular, it would be good, gooder and goodest, like the regular
neat, neater and neatest.
The comparative and superlative of adverbs in English is formed with more and
most: 「He progressed rapidly. He progressed more rapidly. He progressed most rapidly.」
CARDINAL AND ORDINAL NUMBERS
Cardinal numbers are one, two, three, four, etc. Ordinal numbers are first, second, third,
FORMS OF ADDRESS
English is deceptively easy in forms of address. Everybody in second person singular and
plural is you. Your spouse is you. Your four year old child is you. Your interior decorator
is you. The President of the United States is you. Your cocker spaniel is you. In almost
every other language, speakers differentiate, sometimes sharply, between the FAMILIAR
form of address (French tu, German du) and the FORMAL form (French vous, German Sie).
The usual rule is that you use the familiar form of address only when addressing (talking
to) intimates, children, and animals. All others take the formal form.
There comes a moment in the affairs of humans when someone who started out
formally as a stranger or casual acquaintance becomes, with time and congeniality, so
familiar that the formal form of address seems almost stilted and even offish or insulting.
In some countries – Norway, for instance – the tension is broken by the suggestion Skal
vi drikke dus? (「Shall we drink to a new era in our friendship?」 one in which we』ll
address each other as the familiar du rather than the formal De?) That』s a speak-now-or-
forever-hold-your-peace moment in the relationship. If there』s no objection, the two
friends take a glass and toast their graduation from formal to familiar with their drinking
A charming trick almost every language has is this 「shrinking」 of someone or something
you like by the use of diminutives. The diminutive of Charles is Charlie. The diminutive
of William is Billy. The diminutive of star is starlet. The diminutive of pig is piglet or
piggy. The Olympics of diminutives is won hands down by the Italians, who have
literally dozens of different forms of the diminutive, each conveying its own special
nuance of feeling for the noun undergoing the shrinking.
Idioms are expressions that may not make sense but have clear and specific meanings
anyhow because the speakers of the language have 「agreed」 that, rules notwithstanding,
those particular words shall have a particular meaning. An idiom has a meaning that
cannot be derived from the conjoined meaning of its elements.
In English, we say 「Let』s take a walk!」 What are you taking? In Spanish, that
becomes 「Damos un paseo,」 which literally means 「Let』s give a walk!」 What are you
giving? Neither makes much sense but both are correct. Both are idioms.
Some English idioms, at random, are: at first blush, at one』s wits end, axe to grind,
beat around the bush, break the ice, chip off the old block, crack a joke, fit as a fiddle,
forty winks, get in one』s hair, give a piece of one』s mind, keep the wolf from the door, red
tape, and with flying colours.
All languages have idioms. They』re fun and enriching and they illustrate
differences and similarities among cultures. How philosophically distant is the
Norwegian who says about a dim witted person, 「Han er darlig utstyrt i oeverst etasje」
(「He』s poorly equipped on the top floor」), from the American Southerner who says,
「He』s three pickles shy of a barrel」?
Learn to diagnose idioms in English and make sure you never try to translate them
literally into any other language. If you try to tell a Spanish friend, 「I』m on a roll,」 do not
say 「Estoy en un panecillo.」 He will look under your feet for signs of crumbs without
any comprehension that what you really meant to express is that things are going
extremely well for you at the moment.
Likewise, be attentive to idioms as they come at you in other languages. The
German who tells you to 「break your neck and your leg」 is really wishing you luck. So is
the Italian who seems to be sending you 「into the mouth of the wolf」!
The foregoing is by no means the whole of the mechanical vocabulary you』ll need
to conquer every other language on earth. You』ve got some dandies waiting for you
inside whatever language you choose to tackle. In French and other languages you』ll
meet the double negative. In Finnish, it』s worse: you』ll meet the inflecting negative!
German will be watching to see if you can handle its double infinitive. Russian can』t wait
to hit you with its perfective and imperfective verb aspects. Gender in Hebrew is so
complex you have to know the sex of a dog before you can command it to quit biting
These are not monsters in the woods. The lovely people who speak all those
languages descend from people who found every single one of those Bermuda Triangles
of grammar utterly logical and useful, and they』ve never felt the need to change.
The old school grammarians, the ones who assassinated the desire of young
Americans to learn foreign languages, were right in their insistence that knowledge of
grammar is vital.
They were wrong, however, to insist that all grammar must be learned here and now
before we take our first step into conversation and the fun of learning another language.
Again, grammar is best attacked from the rear. When you read the rule in your
grammar book you may say to yourself, 「Oh, so that』s the reason I』ve been saying it that
way all along, the way I learned from my phrase book, my cassettes, my newspaper, and
my Italian friend at the pizzaria!」
When you come upon an explanation of a grammatical wrinkle and you don』t
understand all the terms in English, pick up a dictionary (not a language dictionary, but
an English only dictionary). You』ve got to know something of your own language before
you can efficiently learn another.
Last Words Before
It is my hope that this volume will help those who』ve never yet dared to make the
commitment, march to the altar, and 「marry」 another language. If you』ve already studied
other languages, perhaps tried for years with disappointing results, let』s look at your next
effort as a second marriage, fortified, this time, with the foregoing advice.
Best men and bridesmaids traditionally utter inanities to grooms and brides before
they march down the aisle. As your avuncular advisor, who at this writing has studied
foreign languages as a hobby for forty-six years, let me use this precious final
opportunity to hammer home some points – some repeats and some leftovers – that will
ensure your success and ensure that you enjoy yourself as you succeed.
When an interviewer asked the famed bank robber Willy Sutton why he robbed banks, he
replied, 「Because that』s where the money is.」 Using the language is where the real
learning is. There』s a direct analogy to sports and war. Ask any ball player to give his
views on the difference between watching the coach diagramme plays on a blackboard
and facing the opponents in a real game. Ask any soldier the difference between basic
training and actual combat.
The same difference exists between language study and language use. Try recalling
the words and phrases you』ve learned most recently the next time you meet by surprise a
speaker of the language. Your mind is likely to be a frustrating blank. Once you』ve used
your knowledge in real life, however, your chances of recall are much greater.
Go out, then, and 「pick」 conversations in the language you』re learning, like a
belligerent drunk picks fights.
Certain words, phrases, idioms, and grammatical constructions will remain
unmeltable lumps. They will defeat your best efforts to learn them. Many students accept
such unscalable heights as proof that 「I don』t have an ear for languages!」 (That, by the
way, is the most pernicious myth of all. If you have the motivation and discipline to
proceed through the system, it doesn』t matter what kind of 「ear」 you have, so long as it
Once you score your first victory over one of those 「unconquerable」 fortresses, an
emotional momentum is released that will carry you forward. Grab hold of the nearest
holdout word and beat the hell out of it. Bite at it one syllable at a time or even one letter
at a time. Throw fits of irrational energy against it until it』s yours.
There is something truly serene about encountering a word that used to be a hideous
holdout – and is now as familiar to you as your middle name!
Point of sale is to good a term to be limited to disposable razors and other sundries
arrayed near the cash register at convenience stores. Let』s apply it to getting ahead in a
The quickest and easiest time I ever had learning a phrase in a foreign language was
Molim za ples, which is Serbo-Croatian for 「May I have this dance?」 I was a college
student visiting Yugoslavia. An unforgivably attractive young woman smiled at me
across the gym floor at a student dance. I asked Darko, my interpreter companion, how to
say, 「May I have this dance?」
「Molim za ples,」 he replied.
I had no idea whether the mo or the lim or the za or the ples meant 「May」 or 「I」 or
「have」 or 「this」 or 「dance.」 Nor did I waste time worrying about it. I simply strode
across the floor, said 「Molim za ples,」 and enjoyed my first dance in Yugoslavia!
Darko was giving me point of sale instruction.
Use it! When you know you』re going to a restaurant the day after tomorrow where
the waiters speak the language you』re trying to learn, don』t use your hidden moments in
the meantime on general vocabulary. Sit down and compile a restaurant vocabulary of
food items and utensils and let that be your focus from that moment until you leave the
restaurant after the meal.
Are you headed for a party over the weekend where you』re fairly sure at least one
guest speaks your target language? Start carrying your phrase book as well as your flash
cards and review the 「getting to know you」 phrases, such as 「Where are you from?」
「How long do you intend to stay in America?」 etc.
Whenever you see an impending opportunity to speak the language, get a head start
by sizing up the news of the day and going into your dictionary for the terms you』ll need
that you don』t yet know. (「Election,」 「proposal,」 「tariff,」 「amend,」 「hostage,」 「coup,」
etc.) Focus your learning effort opportunistically to make the best possible showing when
you reach the point of sale – the conversation you can anticipate.
The 「show,」 by the way, is not to impress others. It』s to impress that part of you
that, when you hear yourself doing so well, will inspire you to proceed with your broad
front general advance through the language.
A policeman is a policeman twenty-four hours a day. So is a fireman, a spy, a
marine, and a language learner. Learn to catch yourself several times a day, indoors or
outdoors, and look around. What are the first five things you see that you don』t know
how to say in your target language? Write the English down on a blank flash card and fill
in the target language words when you get home to your dictionary.
At least once a day pretend you』re a United Nations interpreter simultaneously
interpreting what somebody is saying to you in your target language. When he gets to the
fifth word that you wouldn』t know how to say in your target language, abandon the
exercise and write those words down, again, on a blank flash card. Fill in the foreign side
of the flash card as soon as you get back to your dictionary.
There is a clever way to speed learning. Impose little discipline games on yourself geared
to bringing you back to the language often throughout the day for short periods that can』t
possibly get in your way. Don』t let yourself have the first cup of coffee until you review
ten of the words you learned yesterday. Permit yourself dessert if you can go through ten
whole flash cards without a mistake. Say yes to the extra glass of wine if you can name
any five objects in the room in the foreign language while you hold your breath. Let
yourself take off and go see the movie once you』re able to beat the speaker on the
cassette to the foreign word or phrase for a solid minute. Or, as you advance, two or three
Roll your own rules. It』s painless. It』s fun. It』s character building. And it rushes you
forward to quicker results.
Profanity and Vulgarity
Forget it. Whoever uses foul language even in English among people he doesn』t know
well loses standing. When you go out of your way to use bad language in a foreign
language, it』s much worse.
One night in a blockhouse on the Austrian side of the Hungarian border waiting for
refugees to come across, our all male crowd represented three languages: English,
German, and Hungarian. A brisk discussion in comparative obscenity broke out and a
fascinating pattern emerged. Whatever we had three or four dirty words for in English,
German always had sixteen or seventeen and Hungarian never less than thirty-five!
Sure, the other guy』s garbage is fun to know, but it』s tacky, so leave it alone. It』s all
right to get command of their unacceptable terms for defensive purposes only – so you』ll
know what not to say and be able to exercise caution when using words dangerously
similar to the no-no words.
It』s a good idea to follow Maimonides on this one: 「What is lofty may be said in
any language. What is mean should be said in none.」
Your Second Foreign Language, Your Third, and So On
It』s said that once you master one foreign language, all others come much more easily.
That』s not a myth. Your first foreign language, in a major way, is the first olive dislodged
from the bottle. The rest flow obligingly forth.
Moreover, your second foreign language need have no connection to your first.
Chinese will be easier if you』ve first mastered Italian. Greek will be easier if you』ve
mastered Japanese. You pick up the principles of how language works with your first
conquest. I once asked a man who commanded easily a dozen languages how he did it.
「I started out studying languages when I was young,」 he said, 「and I was just too
lazy to quit!
He was kidding, of course, but a lot of true words are spoken through
The Right Word
Don』t settle for being merely understood. Some of the least intelligent and most
unspectacular people on earth can be understood in languages other than their own. Keep
pressing forward toward perfection. 「He think he』s a big shot」 gets the notion across, but
that shouldn』t satisfy the learner of English searching for the word 「megalomaniac」.
It』s a marvellous feeling of unfolding and growth when you learn more and more
words that take you closer and closer to the bull』s eye of what you want to express.
Saying It Right
One of the most maddening things about language learning – you』ll encounter it time and
time again – is having the face of the native you』re speaking with suddenly go blank.
You』ve used a word he doesn』t understand. He asks you to repeat it. You do. He still
doesn』t understand. You repeat it again. Slower. Louder. Finally, in frustration,
desperation, and humiliation, you write the word down or show it to him in your book.
Then he gets it. 「Ahh,」 the native speaker says, the black night of your spoken error
suddenly pierced by the flashbulb of print. And then – here』s the payoff – he proceeds to
repeat exactly what you』ve been saying to him a dozen or so times without his
That syndrome is particularly prevalent in Chinese, though you risk it in every
language. Be a sport. Eat crow. And even though you』re far from the mood at that
moment, try to catch something in what he says that』s at least slightly different from what
you』ve been saying. If the next native speaker understands your revised pronunciation
without an argument, then that crow you were forced to eat will retroactively taste like
Every language student has good days and bad days with the language for no
apparent reason. On bad days you can』t seem to unleash a simple greeting without
monumental phumphering. On good days you actually feel supernaturally propelled. A
rising tide lifts all boats. Keep working. The bad days as well as the good days will both
To Speak or Not to Speak
Be neither too boorish nor too reticent with your new knowledge. Don』t go barrelling in
with scant command of a language if doing so causes ungainly delays in a busy
restaurant. Neither should you let shyness deny you a good opportunity to send a few
volleys of conversation across the net.
Don』t be like the beginner who took his party into a French restaurant in New York
and insisted on trying to order for everybody in French. The waiter, himself French,
quickly abandoning any hope of understanding the poor wretch, pulled a diplomatic coup
worthy of a medal and a kiss on both cheeks.
「I』m sorry,」 he said, with an accent French enough to draw the truffles up out of the
underbrush of Alsace, 「I don』t speak French.」
「You don』t speak French!」 thundered the hapless showoff.
「Non, monsieur,」 said the waiter.
「Well, then,」 said he, 「send me somebody who does!」
Speaking of Peace
Does knowledge of other languages lead to peace? One witness says 「No. Knowing the
other guy』s language merely enables you to get into more arguments of greater depth and
intensity.」 Another witness says, 「Of course, language knowledge breeds peace. How
could I pull a trigger and shoot a man when what I really want is a chance to sit down
with him and learn his irregular verbs?」 Put me solidly in the latter category. It』s
impossible to learn a language and not learn a great deal about the country and its people,
and usually those who learn about a country and its people develop a certain empathy and
advocacy for that nation.
When Serb fights Croat in Yugoslavia, I don』t ignore it. Neither do I choose sides.
They were both so helpful to me when I was learning Serbo-Croatian. I want them all to
work together and get along.
A little knowledge of a language, then of a people, can convert even a rabid partisan
into a one man peace movement!
Stay with it. Keep pressing ahead with all of the tools in all of the ways suggested, plus
whatever other ways you discover en route that seem to work for you. Keep pursuing
opportunities to use what you learn, not just in exercises and self simulation, but in
genuine, real life conversation, reading, writing and comprehension.
When will you 「arrive」? When will you no longer 「be studying」 but 「have learned」
Never! At least, pretend never. Your linguistic infancy will lead to babyhood,
childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, and so on. Your fragments of knowledge will
lead to competence. Your competence will lead to fluency. Your fluency will intensify to
higher and higher levels of fluency.
The best attitude, however, is that your attempt to master the foreign language
should remain perpetually unfinished business.
You』ll succeed if you make sure you never go to bed knowing no more of your
target language that you did when you woke up!
P A R T T H R E E
The Language Club
In 1984 some of us language lovers decided that, although there were plenty of places in
New York to learn foreign languages, there were no places to go to practice foreign
Sure, you can let fly a greeting in Italian and a request for red pepper at the pizzaria
and practice similar performances at even the busiest French restaurant, but there was no
place to sit down, have a glass of wine, open books, converse with others, and consult
with native speakers for two or three hours at a time.
So we started the Language Club with 「practice parties」 every Monday night at La
Maganette, a restaurant in Manhattan at the corner of Third Avenue and Fiftieth Street.
That remains our 「mother club,」 though we』ve extended our practice parties to other
evenings and other restaurants – even a Sunday brunch at Victor』s on Columbus Avenue
at Seventy-first Street.
Our mission is to enable men and women to practice conversation in other
languages in a pleasant, non-threatening atmosphere at fine restaurants at a minimum
price. The restaurants understand the uniqueness of the Language Club and enjoy
catering to such a high minded endeavour.
The questions callers most frequently ask about the Language Club are 「What night
is French?」 and 「What』s your age group?」
We explain that every night is French night – all languages are welcome at all
practice parties. When you enter you go to the French table, the Italian table, the Spanish
table, the German table, the Russian table, etc. Many visitors grasshopper from table to
table, practicing three, four, or more different languages at the same practice party.
When they ask about age group, we immediately understand that their agenda is
broader than mere language practice! We first explain we』re a language club, not a
「social」 club or a 「singles」 club. We emphasise that age is irrelevant, since someone five
years old can provide good language practice for someone ninety-five years old.
Having made that point, we then relent a bit and explain that indeed many of our
members are single, and if two single language lovers should enter our practice party
separately and leave together, we don』t blow a whistle and pull a citizen』s arrest. In fact,
we have several 「language marriages」 to our credit and at least one confirmed birth!
All we ask is your sincere interest in language practice. All your other interests will
be tolerated provided they do not result in any infringement of the law!
All those wishing more information about the Language Club may write:
The Language Club
P.O. Box 121
New York, NY 10108
Our telephone number is (212) 787-2110.
The Language Club has no official handshake, club song, club motto, or club dues.
(You come when you feel like it and you pay for your own meal.)
We do, however, have an official club joke. Once you know this joke, you』re as
much a member of the Language Club as anybody else.
Two mice were hopelessly trapped. A hungry cat was poised to pounce. There was
At the last instant, one of the mice put his little paws up to his lips and yelled, 「Bow
The cat turned around and ran away, whereupon that mouse turned to the other
mouse and said, 「You see, that』s the advantage of knowing a second language!」
The Principal Languages
of the World
Source: Sidney S. Culbert, University of Washington, Seattle, Wash. 98195
Total number of speakers (native plus nonnative) of languages spoken by at least
one million persons (midyear 1989)
Achinese (N. Sumatra, Indonesia) ………………………………………….. 3
Afrikaans (South Africa) …………………………………………………… 10
Akan (or Twi-Fante) (Ghana) ……………………………………………… 7
Albanian (Albania; Yugoslavia) ……………………………………………. 5
Amharic (Ethiopia) …………………………………………………………. 17
Arabic ………………………………………………………………………. 197
Armenian (USSR) …………………………………………………………… 5
Assamese (Assam, India; Bangladesh) ……………………………………… 22
Aymara (Bolivia; Peru) ……………………………………………………… 2
Azerbaijani (Iran; USSR) …………………………………………………… 14
Balinese (Indonesia) ………………………………………………………… 3
Baluchi (Bakuchistan, Pakistan) ……………………………………………. 4
Bashkir (USSR) …………………………………………………………….. 1
Batak Toda (including Anakola) (Indonesia) (see also karo-Dain) ………….. 4
Baule (Cote d』Ivoire) ……………………………………………………….. 2
Beja (Kassala, Sudan; Ethiopia) ……………………………………………. 1
Bemba (Zambia) ……………………………………………………………. 2
Bengali1/Berber2 (Bengal, India; Bangladesh) ……………………………… 184
Beti (Cameroon; Gabon; Eq. Guinea) ………………………………………. 2
Bhili (India) …………………………………………………………………. 3
Bikol (SE Luzon, Philippines) ………………………………………………. 4
Brahui (Pakistan; Afghanistan; Iran) ………………………………………… 1
Bugis (Indonesia; Malaysia) …………………………………………………. 4
Bulgarian (Bulgaria) ………………………………………………………… 9
Burmese (Burma) ……………………………………………………………. 30
Buyi (S Guizhou, S China) …………………………………………………… 2
Byelorussian (USSR) ………………………………………………………… 10
Cantonese (or Yue) (China; Hong Kong) …………………………………….. 63
Catalan (NE Spain; S France; Andorra) ……………………………………… 9
Cebuano (Bohol Sea area, Philippines) ………………………………………. 12
Chagga (Kilimanjaro area, Tanzania) ………………………………………… 1
Chiga (Ankole, Uganda) ……………………………………………………… 1
Chuvash (USSR) ……………………………………………………………… 2
Czech (Czechoslovakia) ………………………………………………………. 12
Danish (Denmark) …………………………………………………………….. 5
Dimli (EC Turkey) ……………………………………………………………. 1
Dogri (Jammu-Kashmir, C and E India) ………………………………………. 1
Dong (Guizhou, Hunan, Guangxi, China) …………………………………….. 2
Dutch-Flemish (Netherlands; Belgium) ……………………………………….. 21
Dyerma (SW Niger) …………………………………………………………… 2
Edo (Bendel, S Nigeria) ……………………………………………………….. 1
Efik (incl. Ibido) (SE Nigeria; W Cameroon) …………………………………. 6
English ………………………………………………………………………… 443
Esperanto ……………………………………………………………………… 2
Estonian (Estonia) …………………………………………………………….. 1
Ewe (SE Ghana; S Togo) ……………………………………………………… 3
Fang-Bulu (Dialects of Beti, q.v.)
Farsi (Iranian form of Persian, q.v.)
Finnish (Finland; Sweden) …………………………………………………….. 6
Flemish (see Dutch-Flemish)
Fon (SC Benin; S Togo) ………………………………………………………. 1
French (France, Switzerland) …………………………………………………. 121
Fula (or Peulh) (Cameroon; Nigeria) …………………………………………. 13
Fulakunda (Senegambia; Guinea Bissau) …………………………………….. 2
Futa Jalon (NW Guinea; Sierra Leone) ……………………………………….. 3
Galician (Galicia, NW Spain) …………………………………………………. 3
Galla (see Oromo)
Ganda (or Luganda) (S Uganda) ………………………………………………. 3
Georgian (USSR) ……………………………………………………………… 4
German (Germany; Austria; Switzerland) …………………………………….. 118
Gilaki (Gilan, NW Iran) ……………………………………………………….. 2
Gogo (Riff Valley, Tanzania) ………………………………………………….. 1
Gondi (Central India) ………………………………………………………….. 2
Greek (Greece) ………………………………………………………………… 12
Guarani (Paraguay) ……………………………………………………………. 4
Gujarati (W and C India; S Pakistan) ………………………………………….. 38
Gusii (Kisii District, Nyanza, Kenya) ………………………………………….. 2
Hadiyya (Arusi, Ethiopia) ……………………………………………………… 2
Hakka (or Kejia) (SE China) …………………………………………………… 32
Hani (S China) …………………………………………………………………. 1
Hausa (N Nigeria; Niger; Cameroon) ………………………………………….. 34
Haya (Kagera, NW Tanzania) …………………………………………………. 1
Henrew (Israel) …………………………………………………………………. 4
Hindi4 …………………………………………………………………………… 352
Ho (Buhar and Orissa states, India) …………………………………………….. 1
Hungarian (or Magyar) (Hungary) ……………………………………………… 14
Iban (Kalimantan, Indonesia; Malaysia) ……………………………………….. 1
Ibidio (see Efik)
Igbo (or Ibo) (Lower Niger R., Nigeria) ………………………………………… 16
Ijaw (Niger River Delta, Nigeria) ………………………………………………. 2
Ilocano (NW Luzon, Philippines) ……………………………………………….. 7
Indonesian (see Malay-Indonesian)
Italian (Italy) ……………………………………………………………………. 63
Japanese (Japan) ………………………………………………………………… 125
Javanese (Java, Indonesia) ……………………………………………………… 58
Kabyle (W Kabylia, N Algeria) ………………………………………………… 3
Kamba (E Kenya) ………………………………………………………………. 3
Kannada1 (S India) ……………………………………………………………… 3
Kanuri (Nigeria; Niger; Chad; Cameroon) ……………………………………… 4
Karen (see Sgaw)
Karo-Dairi (N Sumatra, Indonesia) …………………………………………….. 2
Kashmiri1 (N India; NE Pakistan) ……………………………………………… 4
Kazakh (USSR) ……………………………………………………………….. 8
Kenuzi-Dongola (S Egypt; Sudan) ……………………………………………. 1
Khalka (see Mongolian)
Khmer (Kampuchea; Vietnam; Thailand) ……………………………………… 7
Khmer, Northern (Thailand) …………………………………………………… 1
Kikuyu (or Gekoyo) (W and C Kenya) ……………………………………….. 5
Kirghiz (USSR) ……………………………………………………………….. 2
Kituba (Bas-Zaire, Bandundu, Zaire) …………………………………………. 4
Kongo (W Zaire; S Congo; NW Angola) ……………………………………… 3
Konkani (Maharashita and SW India) ………………………………………… 4
Korean (North and South Korea; China; Japan) ………………………………. 71
Kurdish (south-west of Caspian Sea) …………………………………………. 9
Kurukh (or Oraon) (C and E India) …………………………………………… 2
Lao5 (Laos) …………………………………………………………………… 4
Lampung (Sumatra, Indonesia) ………………………………………………. 1
Latvian (Latvia) ………………………………………………………………. 2
Lingala (incl. Bangala) (Zaire) ……………………………………………….. 6
Lithuanian (Lithuania) ……………………………………………………….. 2
Luba-Lulua (or Chiluba) (Kasai, Zaire) ………………………………………. 6
Luba-Shaba (Shaba, Zaire) …………………………………………………… 1
Lubu (E Sumatra, Indonesia) …………………………………………………. 1
Luhya (W Kenya) …………………………………………………………….. 3
Luo (Kenya; Nyanza, Tanzania) ……………………………………………… 3
Luri (SW Iran; Iraq) ………………………………………………………….. 3
Lwena (E Angola; W Zambia) ……………………………………………….. 1
Macedonian (Macedonia, Yugoslavia) ……………………………………….. 2
Madurese (Madura, Indonesia) ……………………………………………….. 10
Magindanaon (Moro Gulf, S Philippines) …………………………………….. 1
Makassar (S Sulawesi, Indonesia) …………………………………………….. 2
Makua (S Tanzania; N Mozambique) ………………………………………… 3
Malagasy (Madagascar) ………………………………………………………. 11
Malay-Indonesian …………………………………………………………….. 142
Malay, Pattani (SE peninsular Thailand) ……………………………………… 1
Malayalam1 (Kerala, India) …………………………………………………… 34
Malinke-Bambara-Dyula (W Africa) …………………………………………. 9
Mandarin (China, Taiwan, Singapore) ………………………………………… 864
Marathi1 (Maharashtra, India) ………………………………………………… 64
Mazandarani (S Mazandaran, N Iran) ………………………………………… 2
Mbundu (or Umbundu) (Benguela, Angola) ………………………………….. 3
Mbundu (or Kimbundu) (Luanda, Angola) …………………………………… 3
Meithei (NE India; Bangladesh) ………………………………………………. 1
Mende (S and E Sierra Leone) ………………………………………………… 2
Meru (Eastern Province, C Tanzania) …………………………………………. 1
Miao (or Hmong) (S China; SE Asia) …………………………………………. 5
Mien (China; Vietnam; Laos; Thailand) ………………………………………. 2
Min (SE China; Taiwan; Malaysia) …………………………………………… 48
Minangkabau (W Sumatra, Indonesia) ……………………………………….. 6
Moldavian (included with Romanian)
Mongolian (Mongolia; NE China) …………………………………………….. 5
Mordvin (USSR) ………………………………………………………………. 1
More (central part of Burkina Faso) …………………………………………… 4
Nepali (Nepal, NE India; Bhutan) …………………………………………….. 13
Ngulu (Zambezia, Mozambique Malawi) …………………………………….. 2
Nkole (Western Province, Uganda) …………………………………………… 1
Norwegian (Norway) …………………………………………………………. 5
Nung (NE of Hanoi, Vietnam; China) ………………………………………… 1
Nupe (Kwara, Niger States, Nigeria) ………………………………………….. 1
Nyamwezi-Sukuma (NW Tanzania) ………………………………………….. 4
Nyanja (Malawi; Zambia; N Zimbabwe) ……………………………………… 4
Oriya1 (E India) ……………………………………………………………….. 30
Oromo (W Ethiopia; N Kenya) ……………………………………………….. 10
Pampangan (NW of Manila, Philippines) …………………………………….. 2
Panay-Hiligaynon (Philippines) ………………………………………………. 6
Pangasinan (Philippines) ……………………………………………………… 2
Pashtu (Pakistan; Afghanistan; Iran) …………………………………………. 21
Pedi (see Sotho, Northern)
Persian (Iran; Afghanistan) …………………………………………………… 32
Polish (Poland) ……………………………………………………………….. 43
Portugese (Portugal, Brazil) ………………………………………………….. 173
Proven.al (S France) …………………………………………………………. 4
Punjabi1 (Punjab, Pakistan; NW India) ……………………………………….. 84
Pushto (see Pashtu – many spellings)
Quechua (Peru; Bolivia; Ecuador; Argentina) ………………………………… 8
Rejang (SW Sumatra, Indonesia) ……………………………………………… 1
Riff (N Morocco; Algerian Coast) …………………………………………….. 1
Romanian (Romania; Moldavia, USSR) ……………………………………… 25
Romany (Vlach only) (Europe; America) …………………………………….. 1
Ruanda (Rwanda; S Uganda; E Zaire) ………………………………………… 8
Rundi (Burundi) ………………………………………………………………. 6
Russian (USSR) ……………………………………………………………….. 293
Samar-Leyte (Central E Philippines) ………………………………………….. 3
Sango (Central African Republic) …………………………………………….. 3
Santali (E India; Nepal) ………………………………………………………. 5
Sasak (Lombok, Alas Strait, Indonesia) ………………………………………. 1
Serbo-Croatian (Yugoslavia) …………………………………………………. 20
Sgaw (SW, W, N of Rangoon, Burma) ……………………………………….. 1
Shan (Shan, E Burma) ………………………………………………………… 3
Shilha (W Algeria; S Morocco) ……………………………………………….. 3
Shona (Zimbabwe) ……………………………………………………………. 7
Sidamo (Sidamo, S Ethiopia) …………………………………………………. 1
Sindhi1 (SE Pakistan; W India) ……………………………………………….. 16
Sinhalese (Sri Lanka) …………………………………………………………. 13
Slovak (Czechoslovakia) ……………………………………………………… 5
Slovene (Slovenia, NW Yugoslavia) ………………………………………….. 2
Soga (Busoga, Uganda) ……………………………………………………….. 1
Somali (Somalia; Ethiopia; Kenya; Djbouti) ………………………………….. 7
Songye (Kasia Or., NW Shala, Zaire) …………………………………………. 1
Soninke (Mali; countries to W, S, E) ………………………………………….. 1
Sotho, Northern (South Africa) ……………………………………………….. 3
Sotho, Southern (South Africa; Lesotho) ……………………………………… 4
Spanish (Spain; Central and South America; Caribbean) ……………………… 341
Sundanese (Sunda Strait, Indonesia) ………………………………………….. 24
Swahili (Kenya; Tanzania; Zaire; Uganda) …………………………………… 43
Swati (Swaziland; South Africa) ……………………………………………… 1
Swedish (Sweden; Finland) …………………………………………………… 9
Sylhetti (Bangladesh) …………………………………………………………. 5
Tagalog (Philippines) …………………………………………………………. 36
Tajiki (USSR) ………………………………………………………………… 4
Tamazight (N Morocco; W Algeria) ………………………………………….. 3
Tamil1 (Tamil Nadu, India; Sri Lanka) ……………………………………….. 65
Tatar (USSR) ………………………………………………………………….. 7
Tausug (Philippines; Malaysia) ……………………………………………….. 1
Telugu1 (Andhra Pradesh, SE India) ………………………………………….. 68
Temne (C Sierra Leone) ………………………………………………………. 1
Thai5 (Thailand) ………………………………………………………………. 48
Tho (N Vietnam; S China) …………………………………………………….. 1
Thonga (Mozambique; South Africa) …………………………………………. 3
Tibetan (SW China; N India; Nepal) ………………………………………….. 5
Tigrinya (S Eritrea, Tigre, Ethiopia) ………………………………………….. 4
Tiv (SE Nigeria; Cameroon) ………………………………………………….. 2
Tong (see Dong)
Tonga (SW Zambia; NW Zimbabwe) ………………………………………… 2
Tswana (Botswana; South Africa) ……………………………………………. 3
Tudza (N Vietnam; S China) …………………………………………………. 1
Tulu (S India) ………………………………………………………………… 2
Tumbuka (N Malawi; NE Zambia) …………………………………………… 2
Turkish (Turkey) ……………………………………………………………… 55
Turkmen (S USSR; NE Iran; Afghanistan) …………………………………… 3
Twi-Fante (see Akan)
Uighur (Xinjang, NW China; SC USSR) ……………………………………… 7
Ukranian (USSR; Poland) …………………………………………………….. 45
Urdu4 (Pakistan; India) ……………………………………………………….. 92
Uzbek (USSR) ………………………………………………………………… 13
Vietnamese (Vietnam) ………………………………………………………… 57
Wolaytta (SW Ethiopia) ………………………………………………………. 2
Wolof (Senegal) ………………………………………………………………. 6
Wu (Shanghai and nearby provinces, China) …………………………………. 62
Xhosa (SW Cape Province, South Africa) …………………………………….. 7
Yao (see Mien) (Malawi; Tanzania; Mozambique)
Yi (S and SW China) ………………………………………………………….. 6
Yoruba (SW Nigeria; Zou, Benin) …………………………………………….. 18
Zande (NE Zaire; SW Sudan) …………………………………………………. 1
Zhuang (S China) ……………………………………………………………… 14
Zulu (N Natal, South Africa; Lesotho) ………………………………………… 7
(1) One of the fifteen languages of the Constitution of India. (2) See Kabyle, Riff,
Shilha, and Tamazight. (3) See Mandarin, Cantonese, Wu, Min, and Hakka. The
「common speech」 (Putonghua) or the 「national language」 (Guoyu) is a standardised
form of Mandarin as spoken in the area of Beijing. (4) Hindi and Urdu are essentially the
same language, Hindustani. As the official language of Pakistan it is written in a
modified Arabic script and called Urdu. As the official language of India it is written in
the Devanagari script and called Hindi. (5) The distinction between some Thai dialects
and Lao is political rather than linguistic. (6) Yiddish is usually considered a variant of
German, though it has its own standard grammar, dictionaries, a highly developed
literature, and is written in Hebrew characters.
We have such things as theatre reviews, movie reviews, books reviews, and restaurant
reviews to help trusting readers decide which plays, movies, books, and restaurants are
worth their time and money.
So here』s a series of language reviews – thumbnail sketches of some of the major
languages of the world with comments on their prevalence, their usefulness, the difficulty
or ease with which each may be learned, and special characteristics the potential learner
After English, French is the world』s most popular second language. Several other
languages are spoken by more people: Chinese, English, Hindustani (the spoken form of
Hindi and Urdu), Russian, Spanish, Japanese, German, Indonesian, and even Portugese
count more speakers than French. But French can be heard in practically every corner of
the world and is often spoken by the most influential segments of a given population. The
old French empire, though not as vast as the British, was nonetheless vast. French is
therefore spoken in what you may find a surprising number of countries. So is Chinese,
but the French spoken by the educated classes and government officials in Canada,
Africa, Lebanon and throughout the Middle East, Asia, the Caribbean, and the South
Pacific outweighs in cultural influence the Chinese spoken in the Chinatowns of
America, Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, Burma, Vietnam, London, and
French no longer deserves its reputation as 「the language of diplomacy」 (during
how many summit meetings since World War II have the chiefs of state been able to
communicate even one simple thought to each other in French?), but never mind. French
is still respected and revered as a language of cultured people the world over.
Fully sixty percent of all those who come to practice parties at the Language Club
in New York come seeking practice in French. Efforts to convince Americans shopping
around for a language to learn to shift their attentions from French to currently more
advantageous languages like Japanese, Chinese, Russian, and Arabic are usually
unavailing. It』s French they want!
French lies in the middle range of difficulty to learn. The grammar is mercifully
simple, but correct pronunciation with a decent French accent is hard to achieve. And for
some reason, bad French comes across as much worse than bad German, bad Italian, bad
Spanish, or bad anything else. The native French ear and French attitude are unforgiving.
There are no noun cases, but verbs inflect and adjectives must agree with nouns.
There』s a subjunctive mood you』re strongly urged to learn even though the younger
French themselves increasingly ignore it.
If you』re planning to study French along with other languages, make sure you learn
French best of all. You will be judged in the world by your French, and no matter how
well you handle Dutch, Hungarian, Norwegian, or Indonesian, you will not be regarded
as a person of language accomplishment if your French is poor.
Spanish seems to be the 「natural」 second language for Americans, owing to our
proximity to the Spanish-speaking centres of North, Central, and South America and the
growing prevalence of Spanish in our country. It』s easier for Americans to speak good
Spanish than good French. It』s a more phonetic language and you don』t have the problem
of the last few letters of a word being silent – as you often do in French. Also, correct
Spanish pronunciation is less difficult than correct French pronunciation.
Spanish grammar is similar to French (as is that of all other Romance languages),
and the subjunctive tense waits to test your character.
There are some happy surprises in store for Spanish learners. Of course you expect
Spanish to carry you through Latin America and Spain, but you may not expect to be able
to communicate with the older generation in the Philippines and even with Sephardic
Jews in Israel (as well as Greece, Turkey, Yugoslavia, and Bulgaria) whose vernacular is
a language known as Ladino, a fifteenth and sixteenth century Spanish with a Hebrew
admixture that is written in the Hebrew alphabet. Spanish offers perhaps the grandest of
good deal opportunities. Whoever learns Spanish holds an option to acquire Portugese at
Don』t dismiss Portugese as some kind of slurring, overnasalised cousin of Spanish.
The lightning population growth of Portugese speaking Brazil alone makes
Portugese a major world language. Ancient Portugese navigators carried the language to
the mid-Atlantic, the African countries of Angola and Mozambique, the enclave of Goa
in India, and even the Indonesian island of Timor.
Portugese is the ninth most widely spoken language in the world, after Chinese,
English, Hindi-Urdu, Russian, Spanish, Japanese, German, and Indonesian. Thus,
Portugese is an intelligent choice for the language 「shopper」 who wants to be different
without abandoning the mainstream.
Portugese nasal sounds are easier than the French and the grammar is only slightly
more difficult than Spanish. Because I learned Spanish first, Portugese will always sound
to me like Spanish that』s been damaged on delivery. (That』s just a smile, not an insult.
Dutch sounds the same way to anyone who』s first studied German, Danish sounds that
way to anyone who』s first studied Norwegian, and Serbo-Croatian definitely fits the
description to anyone who』s first studied Russian.)
Germany didn』t leave us a world of colonies where people still speak German, but they
may as well have. In addition to being the principal language of Germany, Austria, and
one of the three main languages of Switzerland, German is, surprisingly, the language
most natives will try first on foreigners when they come visiting in Hungary, Yugoslavia,
Czechoslovakia, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia – in fact all the way from Germany』s
eastern border with Poland as far east as Moscow and from the Baltic Sea in the north
clear down to the Mediterranean. English may edge German out by the time of the next
scientific poll in Eastern Europe, but that leaves a tremendous number of German
speakers across Europe and elsewhere. Germany』s reunification, reestablishing Germany
as the central European power, can only intensify the German language』s importance.
German grammar is far from the most difficult, though you』ll be hard to convince
when you find yourself trapped in one of German』s unending dependent clauses. You can
wait through lunch for the German noun after a loop-the-loop adjectival clause that might
translate literally as 「the never- having- definitively- researched- the- mating- habits- of-
the- Asian- armadillo- Dr. Schultz,」 and you can wait even longer for the German verb.
It』s something you get the hang of, though, and remember, German is family. Its kinship
with English will be a boon throughout.
There are three genders in German and officially four noun cases, but they』re easy.
In only one case does the noun itself change endings, the rest being taken care of by the
preceding article, adjective, or other modifier.
German offers dividends to those interested in science, philosophy, opera, and
getting a good job in international commerce.
Everybody who』s ever wrestled with Latin deserves to pick up an Italian grammar book
just to relax. Italian is easy Latin, a delight to plunge into. There are three different types
of verbs, but noun cases have been eliminated. Unlike French, Italian pronunciation is
church bell clear, and you can read Italian off the page and be understood after mastering
the regular rules governing the sounds of letters. There are no orthographical booby traps
such as the English tough, weigh, night, though, and the dozens of other deceptive
spellings we Americans can be grateful we never had to learn as foreigners.
Opera, art, wine, cuisine, history, and archaeology are some of the motivators for
learning Italian. Italians are nicer to foreigners trying to learn their language than any
other people whose language is a major one. A passable attempt to speak French in
France is likely to bring little but grudging comprehension from the French. A passable
attempt to speak Italian in Italy will likely lead to an explosive exclamation, 「Ahh, you
speak our language!」 followed by an offer of a free espresso.
It』s easy to dismiss Dutch as a slim shadow of its big language neighbour, German, and
of possible interest only to those Americans eager to ingratiate themselves with an aging
aunt in Amsterdam with a valuable art collection. Not so fast. In addition to the Dutch
spoken in Holland, there are millions of Belgians whose language may be officially
called Flemish but is actually nothing but Dutch going under an assumed name. You』ve
also got millions of educated Indonesians who speak Dutch as a historical echo from the
four hundred years of Dutch colonial rule. Moreover, Dutch is the mother tongue of
Afrikaans, the language of those white South Africans whose ancestors were the Boers
(boer is the Dutch word for 「farmer」). Afrikaaners not only understand Dutch but look
up to Dutch much as an Alabaman looks up to someone who speaks British English.
Dutch is much simpler for Americans to learn than German. There are only two
genders (oddly enough, not mascuine and feminine, but common and neuter). Verb
endings don』t change as much in Dutch as in German, and its word order is more like
English than German』s is.
You need not pretend Dutch is a beautiful language. The Dutch themselves joke
about the coarseness of their language. It』s got more of a guttural sound than Arabic,
Hebrew, Russian, and Farsi. If you want a concert in Dutch guttural, ask the next person
who speaks Dutch to say, 「Misschien is Uw scheermesje niet scherp genoeg.」 It means
「Perhaps your razor blade is not sharp enough,」 but that』s irrelevant. That short sentence
explodes with five gutturals that cause the speaker to sound like the exhaust pipe of a
Greyhound bus through a full set of gear changes!
When you learn Dutch, you can cash in on at least forty percent credit when you
decide to take up German.
Russian is the world』s fourth language in number of speakers after Chinese, English, and
Hindustani. It is extremely difficult to learn to speak Russian correctly, but the Russians
have learned to be patient with foreigners who speak incorrect Russian. Journalists and
others fascinated by discussing recent history with Soviet citizens suddenly free to talk to
foreigners get a lot of joy out of knowing Russian. The much touted commercial
advantages of learning Russian, however, have so far fallen far short of expectation.
The jobs with gargantuan salaries promised to Russian speakers as a fruit of the
resurgence of free enterprise in the Soviet Union are few and shaky as the early
enthusiasm of foreign investors gives way to wait and see attitudes. Long range, Russian
remains a good bet for those willing to learn a language for career advantage. And in the
meantime you can enjoy reading Chekhov and Dostoyevski in the original.
The Russian alphabet may look formidable, but it』s a false alarm. It can be learned
in twenty minutes, but then you』ve got to face the real obstacles, such as three genders;
six noun cases with wave upon wave of noun groups that decline differently; a past tense
that behaves like an adjective; and verbs that have not just person, number, and tense, but
also something called 「aspect」 – perfective or imperfective.
Knowing Russian yields a lot of satisfaction. You want to pinch yourself as you
find yourself gliding through a printed page of a language you may have grown up
suspecting and fearing. Russian, like German, crackles with good, gutsy sounds that
please you as they leap from your tongue. Russian is a high gratitude language. The new
immigrants from the Soviet Union, though they speak one of the major languages of the
world, don』t expect Americans to know it. They』ll be overjoyed to hear their language
One advantage of choosing Russian is the head start it offers in almost a dozen
other Slavic languages, should you suddenly want or need one.
Chinese is actually more of a life involvement than a language you choose to study.
When you』re in your easy chair studying, Chinese has more power to make you forget
it』s dinner time than any other language. It has more power to draw you out of bed earlier
than necessary to sneak in a few more moments of study. There』s simply more there.
More people speak Chinese than any other language on earth. There』s hardly a
community in the world that doesn』t have someone who speaks Chinese as a native. Even
in the 1940』s, when I first began studying Chinese, there was a Chinese restaurant and a
Chinese laundry even in our small town of Greensboro, North Carolina. You can count
on conversation practice in Chinese from the Chinese laundries of Costa Rica to the
Chinese restaurants of Israel.
The Chinese Communists on the mainland and the Chinese Nationalists in Taiwan
agree that the national language of Chinese is the northern Chinese dialect of Mandarin.
Accept no substitute. Be sure you know what you』re doing if you set out to learn any
Chinese dialect other than Mandarin! It was almost impossible to find a Chinese person
in a Chinese restaurant in America who spoke Mandarin forty years ago. They all spoke a
subdialect of Cantonese, being descendants of the Chinese labourers who came to build
America』s transcontinental railroad in the 1800』s. Today it』s almost impossible to find a
Chinese restaurant in America where the waiters don』t speak Mandarin.
Don』t let yourself be drawn into Cantonese merely because your Chinese friends
happen to be of Cantonese descent or because your new employees are from Cantonese
speaking Hong Kong. Even the Cantonese themselves are now trying to learn Mandarin!
Spoken Chinese is enthrallingly easy. There』s nothing we could call 「grammar」 in
Chinese. Verbs, nouns, and adjectives never change endings for any reason. I once
caught a showoff student of Chinese trying to intimidate new students by warning them
that Chinese had a different word for 「yes」 and 「no」 for each question! That』s largely
true, but not the slightest bit difficult.
The closest thing Chinese has to what we think of as grammar is what we』ll call
「interesting ways.」 When you pose a question in Chinese you present both alternatives.
Thus, 「Are you going?」 becomes 「You go not go?」 or 「Are you going or not?」 If you
are going, the word for 「yes」 to that question is 「go.」 If you』re not going, you say 「Not
go.」 Likewise, 「Are you going to play?」 becomes, literally translated, 「You play not
play?」 To answer 「yes,」 you say 「Play.」 「No」 is 「Not play.」
You』ve already learned some of the 「middle language」 essential to the mastery of
Chinese. Don』t fear that, because there』s a middle language, you』re being called upon to
learn two languages to acquire just one! It』s a shortcut. The middle language is English –
the way a Chinese person would say it if all he could do were to come up with the
English words literally and nothing more. Thus, 「Do you have my pencil?」 in middle
language is 『You have I-belong pencil, no have?」 「The man who lives in the white
house」 becomes 「Live in white house-belong man.」
I find it helpful to look for the middle language no matter what language I』m
studying. In Russian, 「The vase is on the table」 becomes 「Vase on table.」 「Do you have
a pen?」 becomes 「Is by you pen?」 「I like the cake」 in Spanish is 「To me is pleasing the
cake.」 「Where have you studied German?」 in German is 「Where have you German
studied?」 「Do you want me to help?」 in Yiddish is 「Do you want I should help?」 – a
construction that should come as no surprise to anyone with immigrant Jewish
The middle language helps you get the hang of things. Once you see the structure as
revealed by the middle language, it』s easier for you to climb inside the targt language.
Learning the 「interesting ways」 through middle language is especially important in
Chinese has no alphabet. Each ideogram or character is complete unto itself and
each must be learned. There are said to be as many as eighty thousand Chinese
characters. Fear not. You can carry on fairly sophisticated conversations with knowledge
of a few hundred characters and you can carry on like a Ming orator once you compile a
couple of thousand. You can read a Chinese newspaper with fewer than six thousand.
Though lacking an alphabet, Chinese nonetheless has 214 radicals, the elements that
make up the building blocks for almost every Chinese character. The fact that there are
clusters of Chinese characters that surrender to you by the family group makes the going
quicker and easier.
One problem: the pronunciation of each Chinese character is always one syllable
and one syllable only. Therefore, the same sound has to represent a lot of different things.
We have a slight touch of that in English – a pier has nothing to do with a peer – but
imagine how much utterance duplication you』d have if each word in the language were
limited to one syllable only. (Beginners who learn that the Chinese word for 「chopsticks」
is kwai dze and 「bus」 is gung gung chee chuh may object. I simply mean that the term for
「chopsticks」 is two separate words [characters] in Chinese and the term for 「bus」 is
four!) A Chinese textbook for Americans that makes no pretense of being complete lists
seventy-five different meanings for the sound shih alone!
Chinese differentiates among the various possibilities of meaning by the use of
tones. Each Chinese word is assigned a specific tone, like a musical note. Mandarin
Chinese has four tones, Cantonese has nine.
The word wu in Mandarin』s first tone means 「room,」 in tone two it means 「vulgar,」
in tone three it means 「five,」 and in tone four wu means 「disobedient.」
Take the sentence 「Mother is scolding the horse.」 The spoken Chinese transliterates
as ma ma ma ma. If we want to make it a question and ask 「Is mother scolding the
horse?」 just add a fifth ma. Without the tones a Chinese person would hear an
unintelligible babble. With the correct tones, however, it would be as clear to him as
「Peering at a pair of pairs on the pier」 is to us.
Ideally you should know the tone of each word and the circumstances under which
words shifts tones, but until you attain that lofty peak, you』ll be okay if you do your best
to imitate the tonality of the native Chinese speaker on your cassettes.
Much is made of our ability to read the Chinese soul through the Chinese language.
「Tomorrow」 in Chinese is ming tien, which literally means 「bright day.」 The character
for 「good』 literally depicts woman with child, suggesting that a mother and child are
emblematic of everything good. The character meaning 「peace」 depicts a woman under a
roof. The character for 「discord,」 however, is three women under one roof!
All that is indeed fun but hardly a cryptanalysis of the Chinese soul. After all, how
much can you tell about the English soul by noting that the word breakfast really means
「breaking」 the 「fast」 you』ve engaged in since your last bite the night before?
Like Chinese, Japanese conversation is fairly easy, but the written language is
complicated. In wartime, America turned out interpreters in Japanese and Chinese at a
satisfactory rate by going straight for the spoken language and ignoring the written
language completely. You may be tempted to do the same.
Certainly you can prioritise the ability to speak and understand over the ability to
read and write, but I urge you to undertake serious study of the written language and
continue steadily. If speech is to be your 「hare,」 let writing at least be your 「tortoise.」
Written Japanese is not as difficult as you might fear. Japanese uses several
thousand characters borrowed from the Chinese, but it uses them in a different and more
limited way that makes them easy to learn. The characters are used along with two
syllabaries, sets of simple written symbols, each of which represents not one single letter
but a complete syllable.
Japanese has no tones to worry about, and Japanese grammar involves the learning
of certain speech patterns more than changes in verbs, nouns, and adjectives.
Japanese has a clarity missing from Chinese. Learn a Japanese word from your
book or cassette and your Japanese friend will understand it at your first attempt to use it.
The commercial advantages of learning Japanese are obvious and on the rise. But
even if your Japanese never reaches a level of proficiency enabling you to do business in
Japanese, your Japanese host and associates will appreciate your efforts. They, after all,
had to learn English. You did not have to learn Japanese. Yet.
Arabic is elusive, guttural, and rewarding. Arabic script, written from right to left, writes
each letter differently depending upon whether it occurs at the beginning, the middle, or
the end of a word. Learn it, however, and you』ll be welcome from the North Atlantic
coast of Africa clear through the Middle East to the borders of Iran and Pakistan. Arabic
is also the religious language studied by millions of Muslims around the world whose
native languages are not Arabic. The Arab population of the United States is growing
rapidly. You can hear Arabic on the streets and deal in Arabic in the shops of places like
Dearborn, Michigan, where there is a substantial Arab population.
Your investment in Arabic is likely to gain in value when Israel and the Arab states
achieve a settlement allowing for commerce and development to replace a half century of
Hebrew is one of the more difficult languages, and the numerical incentives for tackling
it are not great because Hebrew is spoken only in Israel and in small communities of
Israelis in America and other Western countries. Until recently the teaching of Hebrew
was illegal in the Soviet Union, but classrooms are overflowing now across the country
as Jews prepare to emigrate to Israel or assert their Jewishness inside the Soviet Union.
Hebrew is spoken wherever Jews worship around the world, and there is a surge of
interest in learning Hebrew among young Americans who were born Jewish even though
they may not have had a strong Jewish upbringing.
If you』re not Jewish and choose to learn Hebrew anyhow, you will set loose waves
of appreciation among Jews grateful to outsiders willing to go to that much trouble.
Once you learn the Hebrew alphabet, you』ll be in command of virtually the same
alphabet used by Yiddish, a language based on fifteenth century low German that was
spoken by millions of East European Jews before Hitler』s extermination and is still
understood in a surprising number of places. It』s also the alphabet used by Ladino, the
「Spanish of Cervantes」 that became the 「Yiddish」 of the Jews of Spanish origin who
scattered throughout the eastern Mediterranean after the beginning of the Spanish
Inquisition. There are few language thrills that can match that of an American who
learned the Hebrew alphabet in Hebrew school looking at a printed page in a language he
didn』t know existed (many Jews themselves are totally unaware of the existence of
Ladino) and discovering he can read it and understand it with his high school Spanish!
Modern Greek has a grammar slightly less glorious than that of its ancient civilisation. In
difficulty, Greek falls somewhere between French and Russian. Each verb has two forms
and verbs change according to person, number, and tense. The future tense is almost as
easy as it is in English – the word tha serving the role of our will. Adjectives agree with
their nouns according to gender (three of them) and number.
Greek enjoys a leftover prestige, not only from ancient times but from the not long
vanished tradition of the scholar who prided himself on being at home in Latin and
Ancient Greek. Every five minutes during your study of Greek you』ll be reminded of our
debt to the Greek language. Zestos means 「hot」 (「zesty」), chronos means 「time」 or
「year,」 「number」 is arithmo, when you want your cheque in a restaurant you ask for the
logariazmo (as in 「logarithm」), the Greek word for 「clear」 describing weather is
katharos (as in 「catharsis」), 「season」 is epohi (「epoch」), and so on.
Greek may be the language of one small European country only, but there are
thriving Greek communities throughout the Middle East, Egypt, and other parts of Africa,
and the United States. Enterprising Greeks have carried the language around the world.
Swedish, Danish, Norwegian
The Scandinavian languages are lumped together because of their similarity and the
reliability with which natives of one Scandinavian country can deal with the languages of
the others. That similarity is something for you to know and enjoy, not something for you
to mention to the Scandinavians themselves. They』re horrified when outsiders say, 「Gee,
Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian are all alike!」 They prefer to dwell upon the
differences. There was a popular movement in Norwegian early in the twentieth century
to change the language for no apparent reason other than to make it less like Danish.
If your aim is to communicate in all three countries, learn Norwegian first. It』s the
linguistic centre of Scandinavia. A Dane can deal comfortably with Norwegian, but much
less so with Swedish. A Swede can deal comfortably with Norwegian, but much less so
with Danish. A Norwegian can deal comfortably with both Swedish and Danish.
The Scandinavian languages are relatively easy for Americans to learn. They』re
Germanic languages, related to English, but vastly easier to learn than German. The verbs
don』t change for person and number, and only slightly for tense. The word order follows
English obligingly most of the way. Like Dutch, the Scandinavian languages have two
genders – common and neuter – and the definite article follows the noun and becomes
one word. (For example, 「a pen」 in Norwegian is en penn, 「the pen」 is pennen.)
Holland is said to be the non-English speaking country with the highest percentage
of people fluent in English. The three Scandinavian countries are close behind. You may
never need their language no matter where you go or who you deal with in Scandinavia,
but Scandinavians are among the most appreciative people on earth if you know their
Polish, Croatian, Czech, Slovak, Slovenian
These western Slavic languages use the Roman alphabet. The eastern Slavic languages
use the Cyrillic (sometimes mistakenly called the Russian) alphabet. Don』t suggest it
after a few drinks in Warsaw, but Polish might be better off using the Cyrillic alphabet. A
Polish sound resembling the sh combined with the following ch in push charlie is spelled
szcz in Polish. That sound, which requires four letters in the Roman alphabet, needs only
one in the Cyrillic! Romanising Slavic languages leads to orthographical madness. A
newspaper reporter in a small Southern town went into his editor』s office and said,
「There』s been an earthquake in the Polish city of Pszczyna.」 He showed the editor the
story off the wire. After a momentary frown the editor looked up and said, 「Find out
what the name of the place was before the earthquake!」
Except for Polish, none of these languages has much bounce beyond its borders, but
if your reason for wanting to learn them involves family, love, or business, that won』t
matter. All Slavic languages are grammatically complex. Verbs change for reasons that
leave even those who speak Romance languages weeping over their wine and wondering
why. There are at least six noun cases in every Slavic language, sometimes seven.
The big payoff in learning any of these Slavic languages is the automatic down
payment you』re making on Russian itself. Russian will be a breeze if you already know
another Slavic language, and conversely, the other Slavic languages will come more
easily if you already know Russian.
Serbian, Bulgarian, Macedonian, Ukranian,
Everything stated above about the western Slavic languages applies to these eastern
Slavic languages with one exception – they use the Cyrillic alphabet, with slight
variations from language to language.
The similarities between Serbian and Croatian, the main languages of Yugoslavia,
are so striking the languages are usually lumped together as Serbo-Croatian.
If you know any two Slavic languages, you can make yourself understood in any of
the other Slavic languages. That may be challenged by Slavic scholars, but it works well
in real life between the western border of Poland and the Ural Mountains and from the
arctic tip of Russia to the Black Sea beaches of Bulgaria.
Indonesia is the world』s most populous Muslim nation. Consisting of hundreds of islands
spread out over a South Pacific area the size of the United States, Indonesia is easily the
largest country in the world about which the most other people in the world know the
least. With enough mineral wealth in the ground to make it an economic superpower,
Indonesia is still frequently confused with India or Polynesia.
Indonesian is the easiest major language in the world for a foreigner to learn. It was
called Pasar Malay (「Bazaar Malay」) by the colonial Dutch who looked upon the
Indonesian language as a kind of baby talk for servants and merchants. When Indonesia
won independence in 1948, the ruler, Sukarno, did his best to take that unstructured
language and graft some sophisticated grammar onto it to make it more regimented and
thus difficult. He failed.
Indonesian still has nothing that will be regarded as grammar by anybody who』s
done battle with Latin or Russian. There are suffixes and prefixes aplenty, neat and
regular, that convert verbs into nouns and give verbs additional meanings and the like,
but no inflections according to person, number, tense, aspect, or anything else.
Indonesian uses the Roman alphabet and is delightfully easy to pronounce. If
you』ve ever studied any other language, you』ll marvel at how quickly and clearly you』ll
understand and be understood.
Indonesian is closely related to Malayan, the language of Malaysia and Singapore,
and gives you a head start in Tagalog, the major language of the Philippines.
Hindi and Urdu
The spoken languages of India and Pakistan, Hindi and Urdu, are so close that the true
language lover is tempted to take the plunge even though both languages use different
and, to us, unfamiliar scripts (Devanagari, and a mixture of Persian and Arabic). Though
other languages abound on the Indian subcontinent, Hindi-Urdu united their respective
nations and whoever jumps in (despite the current lack of good learning materials) will
be able to communicate with a population second only to that of China.
Hungarian, Finnish, Estonian
Despite the grammatical complexity and the relatively small pool of native speakers, an
occasional adventurer is drawn almost masochistically to the three Finno-Ugric
languages. If you were the hated kid in ninth grade who stayed after algebra class to beg
the teacher to introduce you to calculus, they might want to try one of these.
Every word in all three languages is accented on the first syllable – every single
word, names and all, giving those languages the sound of a pneumatic jackhammer
breaking up a sidewalk. There are, in Finnish, fifteen noun cases in the singular and
sixteen in the plural. Hungarian and Estonian aren』t far behind. And that』s the easy part!
People whose language you choose to learn often ask polite questions about why
you wanted to learn their language. Let on to a Finn, a Hungarian, or an Estonian that you
know a little bit of their language and you will not merely be questioned. You』ll be cross
Swahili enjoyed a surge of support beginning in the late 1960』s among young American
blacks who wanted to reconnect to their African roots. Anyone who pressed on and
mastered Swahili would today speak a language spoken by fifty million people living in
central and eastern Africa, including the nations of Kenya and Tanzania in which Swahili
is the national language. Swahili is a Bantu language, and once you learn it you can
expect easy going when you decide to learn Kiganda, Kikamba, Kikuyu, Kinyanja,
Kichaga, Kiluba, Kishona, Kizulu, Kikongo, and Kiduala, all of which are spoken over
smaller areas in Africa south of the Sahara.
Swahili uses the Roman alphabet. The Say It In Swahili phrase book advises us not
to be discouraged by words like kitakachonisahilishia, because Swahili grammar is
mercifully regular and logical!
The mere fact that you』re reading these words right now calls for self congratulations. It
means you』re fluent in the winner, the international language, the number one language
of all time!
When a Soviet plane approaches the airport in China, the pilot and the control tower
don』t speak Russian to each other. They don』t speak Chinese. They speak English. If an
Italian plane is about to land in another part of Italy, the Italian pilot and the Italian traffic
control person also speak English.
When the Israeli general and the Egyptian general met in Sinai in October 1973 to
talk truce in the Yom Kippur War, they didn』t speak Hebrew. They didn』t speak Arabic.
They spoke English.
When Norwegian whaling ships put into the port of Capetown, South Africa, to hire
Zulu seamen, the interviewing is not done in Norwegian or Zulu. It』s done in English.
The parliaments of Sweden, Denmark, and Norway send delegates to a body called
the Nordic Council. Their official meetings are conducted – at great expense in
interpreters and simultaneous interpretation equipment – in Swedish, Danish and
Norwegian. When the meetings end, however, and the delegates from the three
neighbouring countries adjourn to the bar and the dining room, they all start speaking
English with each other!
Haven』t you noticed something odd about protestors you have seen on TV
demonstrating in Lithuania, Estonia, Korea, Iraq, Mexico, and other countries where
neither the protestors, the ones they』re protesting against, nor the local media speak
native English? In addition to the signs and banners in their own languages, they always
carry signs and banners in English. And for good reason. They want their message to
reverberate around the world.
On a map of Africa, Nigeria seems a tiny patch where the bulge of that gigantic
continent meets the body. Inside that patch, however, live between 100 and 120 million
people speaking 250 different languages, with names like Yoruba, Ibo, Hausa, Nupe, and
Oyo. From their first day of school, the children of Nigeria are taught English. Without
English, not only could Nigeria not talk to the world, Nigerians couldn』t even talk to each
When a Nigerian educator, Aliu Babtunde Fafunwa, proposed in early 1991 that
Nigerian children begin their education in their 250 respective mother tongues, the
government newspaper itself wrote in an editorial, 「The least luxury we can afford in the
last decade of the twentieth century is an idealistic experiment in linguistic nationalism
which could cut our children off from the main current of human development.」 That』s
hardly a hate filled denunciation of former colonial masters.
Every attempt to launch an artificial international language has so far failed.
Esperanto, Idiom Neutral, Kosmos, Monoglottica, Universalsprache, Neo-Latine,
Vertparl, Mundolingue, Dil, Volapuk, even an international language based on the notes
of the musical scale, all started out weak and gradually tapered off. My guess is they
always will. You can no more 「vote」 a language into being the international language
than you can vote warmth into a blizzard.
Languages attain prominence something the way individuals and countries do,
through all kinds of force, including war. There』s an added element in prominence,
however. Brute force is not enough. The winning language must have a degree of
acceptability to the losers.
Russian emerged from World War II as a mighty language, but it failed to bluster
beyond the bounds of the Communist empire. Russian even failed to inspire people to
learn it inside their empire. Students in Hungary, Romania, and East Germany knew no
more Russian after eight years of schooling than Americans know French after similar
English, on the other hand, was welcomed. Africans and Asians may not have
rejoiced at being forcibly incorporated into the British Empire, but they recognised that
the English language, if learned by all, was a unifying tool that enabled different tribes
who lived five miles apart to communicate for the first time, in a language brought down
upon them from thousands of miles away.
A wolf will lift his neck to let a larger wolf know that he accepts the other』s
dominant role as leader. The entire world has lifted its neck to acknowledge English as
the language of choice in the modern world. It wasn』t all military and commercial power,
either. American movies, songs, comic strips, TV series, even T-shirts all helped make
English the international language of the earth by acclaim.
But only the shortsighted will consider the dominance of English reason to return
foreign language materials to the bookstore and forget the whole thing. It』s precisely
because the peoples of the world honour our language that we get so much more
appreciation when we go out of our way to honour theirs.
||<<How to Learn Any Language>> 〔完〕