Learning a foreign language

I’m interested in foreign language learning. The primary reason is that a language is one of the first born sons of the human brain. Thus language learning can be (partially) used as a prototype for learning other subjects.

My question is how to learn a foreign language, as efficiently as possible.

According to Wittgenstein language learning happens through certain games (“language-games”) that are like those that children play in other realms of life. The primary motivation for learning a language is communication with other people. Either in real time (for instance face to face conversation) or non real time (for instance through books).

If Wittgenstein is correct, traditional classroom based language learning (learning complicated grammar rules, learning long lists of isolated words, and so on) might not be the best way. Maybe game-situations (or social situations) might be a better way. Anyone having some thoughts on this subject?

Get in touch with this guy.


Truly a renaissance man.


From what I’ve read, the strongest correlation with language learning is hours of exposure. Kids learn their first language quickly because they’re exposed to it all the time, literally thousands of hours per year. Adult language learners mostly aren’t – a standard non-immersion class would involve maybe 15-20 hours of exposure per week.

But given a choice, no one does anything for thousands of hours if they aren’t enjoying it. So whether game/social situations actually promote learning or not, they certainly raise interest and improve motivation.

And of course there’s also the question of how language is actually manipulated by the brain. Do you communicate in your first language by retrieving a sentence pattern and filling in the blanks from a vocabulary list? Probably not. Rather, you draw on a huge associative structure that you’ve been building since you were born. Construction of such a web in your second language seems likely to be a more effective route to fluency than effectively trying to memorize the dictionary.

I’m not sure I’d follow Wittgenstein’s lead on the topic, though. There’s been a lot of experimentally-grounded work on linguistics and language acquisition in the last 60 years.


Fascinating link, Thequietone, thanks for posting that. I haven’t done much more than skim it, but I’ve often wondered if a good way of going about learning a language is to decipher the why as much as the procedure. Why are the words in this order, what is the native speaker thinking like, when they say this particular phrase, rather than a top-down approach where you look for matches of phrases in your own language and attempt to memorise it. It seems to me that approaching a language from the bottom-up like that might take longer, but that you would benefit from a deeper understanding of it.

One of the disadvantages of being in Linguistics, I found, is that social occasions, apart from with close friends, had a very strong tendency to evolve in one of two ways: (1) one ended up having to spend the whole evening giving a lecture on linguistics; (2) — and worse — one spent the evening being lectured to by all and sundry on the nature of language. Since I have been living and working here in China, needless to say, the social burden has tended to take a very different direction!

I am in danger of sounding like a several-years-ago active participant of these forums who may still be a lurker for all I know, who could be very scathing of lay comments in her particular field, but it is a truth universally found that, because we all use language, we think we know about language. But as kewms says, there has been a mort of scientific research over many decades into language from all angles, syntax and structure, meaning in all its forms and levels, language and cognition, psycholinguistics, text and discourse …

And behind all that, there is this important issue which I have always had to be at pains to drum into all my students. Linguistics is normally defined as “The scientific study of language” but that begs two vital questions: (1) "How does a given approach, a given theory, define “Language?” and (2) “How do the proponents of that field define scientific?”

The former question to my mind is key, and there are fundamentally two answers: (1) Language is what happens between an utterer and a recipient, it is a recordable event in time and place; (2) Language is the property of our mental/cognitive system, a “faculty” (Chomsky) or “instinct” (Pinker) which enables us as human entities to take part in such communication. The theorists answer to the first question will largely determine what “empirical” should imply in relation to the process of studying and theorising about the defined object.

So, I will now bow out and leave you to your discussion. I may look in from time to time, but I will try to resist the temptation, lest I fall into emulation of our erstwhile fellow-forumite.



I know the urge. I am a lawyer. I practice in intellectual property and licensing among other things. Especially hearing people’s theories on such can be hard to avoid. I am avoiding the plagiarism post, for instance, because it should have been named infringement.

I am also bilingual, which does not make me a linguist, but appreciate what you say about depth. I find that I will cause people, especially Americans, distress if I think in Polish and write in English what I am thinking because in Polish you are expected to speak your mind and not worry about so many linguistic amenities geared towards other people’s sensitivities. Therein, is at least a layer beyond mere words. If I think in English, I dont tend to irritate people here as much.

I never had that feel with Latin, though. Perhaps because it is dead.

How is your calligraphy now that you work there? Was it tough to convert to Asian assembly of thoughts? I dabble in Japanese and at times marvel and other times am totally bewildered in how they process thoughts, that is when comparing it to what I know.

In his book, the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein introduced the concept of a “language game.” Wittgenstein wrote the Philosophical Investigations in numbered aphorisms, little short passages. Here’s an example

Observe that Wittgenstein says, “conceive of this as a complete primitive language”. No other words are permitted. Nearby where I live a family from Bosnia has recently moved in. They have a son, who is ten years old or something like that. He went out on the playground for children and there was a Swedish boy of the same age, maybe one or two years older. The Swedish boy said something to the Bosnian kid but he didn’t understand him so he answered something that the Swedish boy didn’t understand. I moved in little closer to listen to the conversation that went something like this (in Swedish not in English).

It was evident that the Bosnian boy had learned four words from this conversation: No, you, are and silly. He maybe didn’t know the exact meaning of them, but he grasped some kind of meaning. How did he pick up this meaning? When the Swedish boy first said “you are silly” he was making faces at the Bosnian boy. So even if the Bosnian boy didn’t understand the correct meaning of “you are silly”, he concluded that it was something bad, so he returned the same message to the Swedish boy. This conversation reminded me of Wittgenstein’s builder game, and that it is possible to learn a language in small bit sized game-like social situations.

I admit that the conversation above is trivial, but it’s often in trivial situations that we can find important principles. Like seeing that the force on a falling apple is the same as the one acting on the moon, or seeing that the force we feel in the elevator is indistinguishable from the one felt from gravitation. Or observing that all Japanese children speak Japanese.

Thank you Paul for the excellent link. I spent most of the morning looking through his site. There are many gems :smiley: . I actually ordered the book he recommends called “How to Learn any Language” by Barry M. Farber.

The link that Paul provided has a list of recommended books. One of them is “Adamitics” by A. De Velics written in 1914. If I understand it correctly Mr Velics argues that all words (in all languages) stem from only seven roots, which he calls the seven keys. If it’s true I would never have guessed it. Even if it’s not true, the mere thought that all languages originate from a very limited number of words is fascinating. I tried to find reviews of Mr Velics work, to see if he is charlatan or misunderstood genius but was not able to find any references.

In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are not.

Do you want to study the science of language acquisition, or do you want to actually learn a language?

If the latter, you might spend more time looking at practical resources – such as the materials available in your target language – and less looking at theoretical resources.


Both :smiley:

The best solution is a combination of the two. One of the challenges of learning a language as an adult is that we worry about being right, and that makes us less willing to speak up and risk making mistakes. Without taking those risks, however, one is never going to gain fluency.

My daughter attends a Spanish language-immersion summer camp every year. She’s learned a LOT of Spanish through the camp activities and day-to-day conversations there. She’s also taking a traditional Spanish class in high school. This is where she’s learning the nuances of the grammar, when to properly apply certain verb tenses and so on. Each complements the other – it’s easy for her to pick up the grammar because she’s already heard/used it in context, and she’s more confident speaking up at camp because she’s more grammatically correct and can apply that grammar knowledge to new words.


Find a native speaker (or speaker) that you can and will come in contact with on a regular basis.

Different methods work better for different people but in the end if you have no means of practicing what you learned with some frequency then the usage will be more difficult.

Here is one that some feel works

I’m reading a very good and funny book called “How to Learn any Language” by Barry M. Farber. Mr Farber is a polyglot and he seems to agree with you, because he says that a mix is the most effective way to learn :smiley:.

There’s an interesting discussion about myths of language learning at antimoon.com/other/myths.htm. Here are the myths

I work as an interpreter and the two languages I speak other than English were learned in two very different ways. If we include English, then there were three ways. I won’t extol on the many different theories of language acquisition as the majority of them have already been mentioned and the truth is that these concepts are esoterically masturbatory because not every human who is able to use language is a linguist. In other words, I do not need to know the molecular arrangement of the silica of which the chip that is the brain of my computer is composed in order to use my Mac.


I learned English organically in the way that all children exposed to language take in the code that is used in their little slice of the human experience. The avenue for language acquisition is open (years 3ish through 7ish) and the data is written in that area of the human hard drive designed for it. The language becomes part of the OS used by my brain and I do not have to think about the words that frame the thoughts they represent. The words just come. Automatically. I cannot really explain how it happened, because like anyone else, I was just a child and I was not trained in the language if linguistics. It was not like I was thinking, “Oh, this verb is transitive and the prepositions that accompany the verb are this, and this, and this. The nouns connected with those prepositions will be in the dative case in these situations and under a few special circumstances, the case will in fact be the genitive, and there are at least two orphan phrases using the verb where the instrumental is used.”


I learned Russian at the hands of Uncle Sam at The Presidio of Monterey Defense Language Institute, Monterey California, in the late 80’s. It was grueling. Huge lists of words had to be consumed daily and it was only after seven or eight months of attending six hours of class, five days a week, nothing but Russian, did I begin to dream in Russian and start having difficulty writing with Latin script. At the end of the year long course, I found it next to impossible to write a cheque without having the young lady working the cash register say to me, “English, sweetie. English.” It was a difficult manner in which to learn a language and the only saving grace was that we were, all of us, learning the same language at the same time; thus, we spoke Russian amongst ourselves and created a little Moscow enclave.


Though I am Puerto Rican by birth, I was not raised speaking Spanish. I understood it with a fair degree of fluency, but the understanding was passive, not active. I could take in the information and relate it to what it meant in English, but I was unable to produce it with any amount of fluency. This is a common phenomenon with second generation immigrants. Difficult to explain. I moved to Puerto Rico five years ago and was tossed into the deep end, so to speak. It was a sink or swim situation. Linguists will argue that after about age seven, the route for language acquisition is closed and no amount of force will reopen it. I disagree in the extreme. I find it amusing that most people who study applied linguistics are themselves rarely polyglots. In fact, they usually rankle when they mention being linguists and the response they get is, “Really? Wow. How many languages do you speak?” Anyway… After about three years, I noticed that my Spanish was coming with fluidity. I noticed that I was not translating in my mind from Code X to Code Y in order to speak it. Each code was coming from the same nebulous area I call Concept. Now I speak Spanish without thinking about it. The words just come. I used to say, “In English I say what I think. In Spanish I have to think about what I’m going to say.” That is no longer the case.

But none of this waxing answers the OP’s question. My answer to the actual question is: immersion therapy. Nothing beats the exclusion of other codes, and the inclusion of need-based use to hammer a language into the right place on the old hard drive.