Derek Sivers

How to Learn a Foreign Language - by Paul Pimsleur

How to Learn a Foreign Language - by Paul Pimsleur

Go to the Amazon page for details and reviews.

Short, punchy, incredibly insightful and useful book about learning another language, especially for a first-timer. I've read a few books on the subject now, but this is the only one that spoke directly to my issues. Especially loved his points on the importance of sounds over words. Hint: a language that is written but not spoken is called a dead language.

my notes

Sounds, although invisible, have a substance and a character of their own.

Accept as your objective to learn the sounds rather than their written representation. When there is a conflict, when a word does not look the way it sounds, it is the sound you must believe in and cling to.

This man ended up with a list of words on the back of an envelope. The Greek was in his pocket, but not in his mind; he had a sword that would not draw. Like many people, this important executive lacked faith in the spoken word. He trusted only what he could see written down.

Many people, even many teachers, fall prey to the fallacy that the written form of a language is the language itself.

Know before starting exactly what you want to accomplish and why.

Language has three distinct components: pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary.

No known language is composed of fewer sounds than Hawaiian, which has fifteen, or more than certain languages of the Caucasus, which have up to sixty.

Learning grammar becomes easier after having mastered the first two languages.

All languages have devices for conveying whether an action is presently going on (she is dancing) or is finished (she danced); for relating people and things to each other (Jack’s wife; our car); for replacing a noun (the woman) by a pronoun (she).

Ingrid Bergman, who knew five languages, was asked which she preferred, she replied: “English for acting, Italian for romance, French for diplomacy, German for philosophy, and Swedish for secrecy, because so few people know it.”

Richard Burton said, “Simple grammar and vocabulary: marked out the forms and words that I knew were absolutely necessary, and learnt them by heart by carrying them in my pocket and looking over them at spare moments during the day. I never worked for more than a quarter of an hour at a time, for after that the brain lost its freshness. After learning some three hundred words, easily done in a week, I stumbled through some easy workbook (one of the Gospels is the most come-atable), and underlined every word that I wished to recollect. Then chose some other book whose subject most interested me. The neck of the language was now broken, and progress was rapid. Whenever I conversed with anybody in a language that I was learning, I took the trouble to repeat their words inaudibly after them, and so to learn the trick of pronunciation.”

It is fair to ask, at the end of a language lesson, be it the first or the fiftieth, “What did I learn today that would help me if I left immediately for the foreign country?”

One way to judge a teacher is to calculate the ratio of teacher-talk to student-talk. With a good teacher, it will be heavily in favor of student-talk.

No more than five minutes of a class ought to be spent talking English - just enough to get a tough grammar point across.

Grammar is best learned by using it, not by talking about it.

There is not a single point of grammar in an elementary course that cannot be explained in four minutes or less.

The music of a language, its intonation, strikes you even when you cannot comprehend a single word. It can also be the first thing you learn.

Absorb the new accent by listening to someone speak the language and imitating the sounds he makes.

Imitate the way the foreign person speaks English. A foreign accent is merely the transfer of speech habits from one language to another.

If you will trust your ear, you are almost certain to speak with a good accent.

The teacher’s function is to set day-to-day goals, encouraging his students to concentrate, not on the distant objective of total fluency, but on taking one more step.

Break the language down into manageable tasks.

Think Sounds, Not Letters: Probably the biggest impediment to good pronunciation is picturing how a word is written while saying it. These English sounds rise automatically to our lips instead of the foreign ones, and we must spend part of our energy in combatting this tendency.

Never Look at the Letter R: In English, r is pronounced differently from other languages. Our tongues curl up more than for a Spanish or Italian r, and in quite the opposite direction from a French or German r. Looking at the written word while saying it makes the tongue instinctively take the English r position and thereby makes learning the foreign sound more difficult.

The correct learning sequence is this: listen carefully to get the sound firmly planted in your ear; then gradually imitate it with your tongue. Do not use your eye till you have the pronunciation down pat.

Work with a Model: Check your pronunciation often until good speech habits are firmly established.

Practice sounds in a specific setting. The French r, reputedly a very difficult sound, is easier to pronounce in the word Paris than in rouge, and needs to be practiced in both.

Think in Sound-Clusters. J’en ai un (“I’ve got one”). You might say each word authentically and yet be unable to glide them together with a native-like accent. One must practice the glide as well as the sounds.

Practice Whole Phrases, Not Words: In real life, a string of words like “I don’t know” or “Not on your life” is said as though it were a single word. If you stop to take a breath in the middle of a foreign phrase that should be said in a single burst, you are not saying it correctly.

For mastering a really difficult foreign sound. I keep careful track of when my friends thought I was closer and when they thought I was further away from the correct pronunciation.

Listen very intently, trying to discover what gives it its distinctive quality. Good pronunciation begins not in the mouth but in the ear.

Invite a Friend to Make Fun of You: When you have trouble hearing the difference, ask an acquaintance to imitate your pronunciation followed by the right one. Don’t try saying it yourself prematurely; you risk becoming discouraged easily at this point. Keep listening until you feel the difference penetrating you.

One class learned French grammar by the rules while another learned it by listening to recordings. Students who worked with recordings acquired grammatical habits with unexpected ease.

The ear may find simple what the mind calls complicated.

Students who had spent only sixty minutes practicing in the lab did slightly better than those who had spent more than a week on it in class. The reason for their advantage is simple. They had heard and said a large number of correct French sentences, and their ears had become so attuned that only a correct sentence “sounded right” to them.

The best arrangement of material for learning, is:
(1) pose a challenge
(2) let the students try to respond
(3) provide the correct response

Novelty rather than repetition should become the primary law of learning.”

More than 50 percent of the grammar exercises in an elementary language course deal with just two features of grammar: pronouns and verbs.

Virtually any question one can ask will bring about the use of a pronoun or two in the answer.

Q: Hasn’t Mrs. Dexter lost a lot of weight lately?
A: Yes, she has.

Q: Didn’t your father lend his gold watch to the man next door?
A: Yes, he did lend it to him.

Make up cues that will force you to use pronouns in the answer.

Forget the old classroom bugaboo about answering in “complete sentences” and give natural answers instead.

Verbs are the only words in most languages that can assume many forms. In French, for example, a noun can have only two forms (singular and plural), and an adjective only four (masculine singular and plural, feminine singular and plural). But a verb...! I once counted the different written forms a French verb can take and was amazed to find over 130!

A dozen or so common verbs (be, do, go, etc.) account for a very high percentage of all verb occurrences. These few are almost all “irregular,” for, being on people’s tongues more often, they have evolved and changed form faster:

to be
to have
to be able
to come
to go
to know
to take
to want
to say or tell
to do or make
to see
to give

Make it one of your earliest jobs to find out how the language you are studying expresses these concepts.

Learn the Hardest Thing First: it appears to fly directly in the face of reason. Yet it has helped me more than almost any other. Learn the hardest thing first and the rest will then seem easy.

The sentence with several pronouns (“She gave it to him”) is as easy to learn as a sentence with only one pronoun. A sentence with two adverbs (“The horse ran exceptionally fast”)

Attack the hardest features at the beginning of each lesson, when one is most receptive.

The emotion surrounding a word helps impress it on our memories. During her stay in the hospital, she found herself learning vocabulary with an ease born of desperation. No need to say them over and over; their emotional impact made them stick in her mind after a single hearing. Inject a note of urgency into your attitude as you learn vocabulary.

Some things should be learned in random order. Because that is how we encounter them in life.

It is better to write a whole phrase on the flash cards than a single word. If you wish to learn a grammatical expression - let’s say jusqu’à (until) - put it down on a flash card in a sentence like Il est resté jusqu’au matin (He stayed until morning). The more striking or entertaining your sentence is, the better you are apt to recall it.

You do not want to pair up French words with English words lest you be able to recall la nuit only when thinking “night.” Rather, you want la nuit to occur to you when you are “thinking in French,” without having to go through English to remember it. For la nuit, you might make three cards, reading: English Side French Side I never go out at night. Je ne sors jamais la nuit. Good night. Bonne nuit. I slept badly last night. J’ai mal dormi cette nuit. Once you can deliver the French sentence in response to these three different stimuli, you “know” la nuit in a much richer sense than if you could say it only in response to the English word “night.”

One of the quickest and surest ways to pick up foreign vocabulary is through reading.

An acquaintance was studying Tagalog in preparation for a trip to the Philippines. I advised him to play the role of a Filipino to the hilt during his lesson by using Filipino gestures and expressions as well as words.

Letting yourself play the role will improve your performance.

When a strange reaction follows something you have said, always track down the reason. Never let a chance go by to correct a wrong habit.