Learning a language can, on one level, be compared to putting together
a rather large jigsaw puzzle. Imagine that somebody gives you a puzzle
that shows a panoramic view of the grand canyon - that is, if you ever
manage to put all the pieces together. For there are several thousand
of them, and many seem to look exacerbatingly similar. So how do you do
it? Little by little, with patience and perseverance. You know you
can't do it in a day, maybe not even in a week or a month, but if you
do something on a regular basis, connecting just a few pieces daily,
you know you'll finish sooner or later.
Admittedly, the analogy isn't perfect.
After all, the puzzle does have a limited number of pieces, and
depending on how many there are altogether, you can calculate exactly
how many days it'll take you to finish if you manage to put together,
say, 3 pieces a day. A language, on the other hand, is constantly
growing, developing, changing, evolving... Nobody in the world knows
everything there is to know about his or her native tongue, let alone a
But then, when you set out to learn a
foreign language, your goal isn't to know everything about it (since
you are aware that that isn't possible). It is instead to master a
vocabulary consisting of the most commonly used words, to learn to use
the grammar correctly, and, in the end, to be able to understand and to
make yourself understood in that language. This is an aim that can
indeed be divided up into a few thousand parts.
Working with a list of the 1500 most frequently encountered words in
your target language, as well as a good grammar book, you might
theoretically be able to determine, for instance, 2500 "elements" that
are to be learned: the 1500 vocabulary words, plus 1 thousand
grammatical units. (One grammatical unit being, for example, the
present tense of the verb "to be" in your target language; another one
being the past tense, yet another could be a rule concerning word
Now, if you learn 5 parts of this
"puzzle" every single day, you know you will have achieved your goal in
500 days, or about a year and a half (2500 "elements" divided by 5 =
500). That's not really so long, is it? Sure, you'll have to review
material already learned, but if your daily "quota" of new elements
isn't too large, you'll easily have enough time left over for review.
Working in such a way not only guarantees
but just as importantly, it serves to all but completely eliminate one
of the most formidable obstacles to learning any subject of wide scope:
the frustration you can feel when you think about all
you'll have to learn in order to reach your goal.
When you first begin to learn a
language, it can seem a bit overwhelming. Learning how to say "Buenos
días", or "Wie geht es Ihnen?" isn't so bad, but as soon as
you want to express just about anything else, you realize that you
don't know how to do so. Even after a couple of months, you still might
have trouble speaking in tenses other than the present, and this
severely limits your ability to communicate with others. It's as if you
were climbing a mountain: if you look down, you may be delighted to see
that you have already climbed the first few hundred meters, but when
you look up, the peak may still be very far away!
"dividing and conquering" - learning just a few little "pieces" at a
time, but on a consistent and regular basis, you will reach your goal,
with an absolute minimum of frustration.
For your daily goal will not be "to be able to speak this *!#* language
NOW!", but rather, to simply learn a few elements, and then do the same
thing tomorrow, the next day, and so on. Patience,
discipline, perseverance... and
before you know it, you will find that you can handle yourself quite
well in your new language, without ever having felt that your head was
going to explode!
A piece of practical advice: when you
are learning a language, be sure you have a book that fulfills these
1) It should teach the grammar in a clear, orderly fashion,
concentrating on the most important grammatical features, without
dwelling on useless information. By "useless", I mean elements of
grammar that are antiquated, extremely rare, etc. Once you have reached
an advanced level, you can always buy another book that go into such
details. But in the beginning, you should concentrate on useful
the goal of MASTERING
2) It doesn't give you a vocabulary of thousands of words. During my
years of teaching English here in Spain, I have often seen books used
for teaching English to Spanish high-school students that contain words
that even I have never used in my life. This is senseless. Get yourself
a list of the 1000 most common words (preferably ordered according to
frequency) in your target language, and use this as a basis for
vocabulary. In your grammar book, concentrate on memorizing the useful
vocabulary; if you see a word that you would seldom ever need, don't
bother with it!
3) It contains exercises as well as an answer key in the back. There's
nothing more frustrating than to do grammar exercises, and then to have
no way to check your answers. Of course, if you are working with a
teacher, he/she can correct your mistakes. Nonetheless, since you'll no
doubt be learning alone a lot, it is a comfort to know that when you
are finished the exercises, you can immediately see if and where you
Of course, languages cannot be learned
with books alone: you will also have to LISTEN
For this purpose. besides learning vocabulary and grammar, you must
learn good pronunciation, so that you will understand others when they
speak, and so that you yourself will be understood. This takes us to
our next subject, entitled...
"Be a parrot!"
move on to...
Be a parrot -