Can you teach yourself a language?

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By definition, language requires more than one party to be involved; it’s about communication and interaction between people, not a solo performance. So it might seem impossible to teach yourself a language. Don’t you need a class, or at least a teacher?

With the resources available to us today, though, you can come quite far without talking to an actual person. I’ve tried out several of these in my attempts to learn German and to brush up my French. Some work better for me than others, and the ones I like might not be suitable for you. But they do provide some exciting, and often inexpensive ways to improve your language skills.

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I made a big mistake when I spent a lot of money to buy a well-reviewed German course that turned out not to be for me. It was too boring and repetitive, although lots of people seem to love it. The presentations of grammar rules were pretty good, but there were no exercises to effectively practice the new learning, or any meaningful context, which for me is really important. Unfortunately the 30-day return date was past by the time I figured this out, so I will have to count it as another kind of learning experience.

Also somewhat costly, but much better for me have been the Pimsleur courses. These are 30-minute audio courses, sold in sets of 30 lessons, that work purely orally. You listen and repeat new language, and practice using it in different dialogues that are based on real-life contexts like traveling or talking about issues at work. The vocabulary is repeated at graded intervals that get it into your long-term memory if you pay attention and follow the program consistently.

It’s a slow method, but very effective. It really helped me to get a feeling for German word order and pronunciation. However, there are almost no explanations of grammar and that was frustrating. The program points out when to say “den” or “dem,” for example, but not why. This makes it hard to do anything but repeat the limited vocabulary and sentence structure of the programs themselves.

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When I found the free video course from Deutsche Welle called “Nico’s Weg,” I was very happy to find that through an ongoing story it presented grammar in context, with exercises, and in a sensibly built-up, sequential way. The videos are very well produced and quite fun to watch, even as they contain some absurdities (Nico is supposedly a young man from Spain who knows no German, but within a few lessons he’s talking like a native).

My downfall remains learning vocabulary. I just hate flashcards and rote learning! But at some point I have to buckle down and learn more words (including noun genders, ugh). A final resource I’ve been using is the Graded German Reader by Crossgrove and Hagboldt. I’m at the point where I’m able to read the simple fables in Part II, and figure out a lot of words from context. If I can’t, there are helpful footnotes so I don’t have to haul out a dictionary. Learning language through literature is my passion, so this is perfect for me.

In spite of all these aids, I do notice what a difference it makes to be in real-life situations where I have to struggle to understand and make myself understood, connect words with real things and actions, and sometimes just take in language that is over my head but still has an unconscious formative effect. Language is not just an intellectual code for transmitting thoughts; it is a spatial and movement activity. It embodies thoughts, and to learn a new language means to build a new body.

That is really hard, if not impossible, to do all by yourself. So I’ll keep looking for helpers, both real and virtual, as I continue with my learning.

Have you found any independent language learning resources that help you? How do they compare to real-life practice?

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13 thoughts on “Can you teach yourself a language?

  1. I studied Japanese some years ago and have started studying it again this year. Learning Japanese requires some different resources/strategies from learning Germanic/Romance languages (at least, for native English speakers such as ourselves). I am studying kanji right now, which I didn’t really do the first time around – it is a good thing that I don’t mind flashcards! My Japanese study began with an introductory university course and I think that really helped me give a good foundation from which to continue self-study. (As did living in Japan for a year, haha.) I am at a beginner stage and still building my basics to be able to engage again in real-life practice (which has to be done really intentionally if you’re not actually in Japan). I agree there is only so far you can get on independent self-study, if your goal is communication.

    I have been considering trying Pimsleur myself. I have been debating whether that’s where I want to spend my money, but I have heard many good things…

    1. Pimsleur has many good points. It’s too expensive but maybe you can find some deals – I think the downloadable version is now less costly than buying CDs. It gave me a feeling for the language, good training in pronunciation and intonation and sentence structure, and a certain amount of vocabulary, but for grammar and more vocab you need more resources.

      I also like that it’s very manageable — only one half hour per day, you can listen while doing other things (as long as you can really pay attention) — and you learn a little bit each time and make measurable progress day by day. I’ll be interested to hear if you try it and it works for you!

  2. I have been using the Babbel app for a couple of years. I am not consistent in my study, so I have to do a lot of review. While it’s marketed toward conversation, I have found I am able to read Spanish, though at a very superficial level as well as understand the Spanish language films and tv/web series I watch. While I hope to go to Spain someday (alas, I am also pulled to Chile), I really want to read books in Spanish so that’s what I concentrate on. One of the nice features about Babbel is that as you are learning the lessons, they always point out differences in vocabulary and grammar between the Spanish of Spain and that of South America and I find that fascinating.

    Like the program that works for you in German, the dialogs for the particular verb or grammar lesson are in everyday situations that is very useful. As far as vocabulary, one trick I heard once is to look at your everyday life: work, hobbies, family life and learn the vocabulary relative to those, which will be interesting to you and you’ll want to learn. I started teaching my dog commands in Spanish, for example!

    1. I looked at Babbel and it was a format that did not attract me. I know some people are able to use it for learning though. It’s good there are many options out there!

      I think that learning relevant and interesting vocabulary is really key, rather than random stuff from someone else’s list. I am thinking of making a project out of that soon.

  3. Exposure exposure exposure. That’s the big thing. Read, listen, and watch as often as possible, even if it doesn’t make much sense to start with. Look up words. In context, you will remember then better.
    My students who are improve the fastest (including in talking) are those who read a lot everyday in French.

    If you are more visual, you can create your own free flashcards using images on quizlet for instance.

    1. I agree, exposure is very important. With French that helped me a lot, since I already had the basic knowledge. With German, I still need a little bit of a push to get past the “cat sat on the mat” stage in terms of reading. But I’m getting there.

      Another thing I think of writing about at some point is how to deal with the discomfort of not understanding everything. That was a big handicap to me in language learning in my earlier years, but I’m getting better now, more able to let go of those anxieties and just grasp whatever I can. Any thoughts on this process from your experience are most welcome.

  4. My school subscribes to Mango Languages, which is kind of fun, but I haven’t done anything serious with it. I remember that in German, the prepositions nearly killed me….I hope you’re doing better with them! 🙂

    1. I’ve tried out Mango too. Those gamey type apps, like Duolingo as well, don’t hold my interest for long. But others seem to like them. I think it’s a personal preference. (But I do think you need to encounter larger chunks of content at point. Those are so chopped up.)

  5. I’ve been using Duolingo to learn Spanish – it’s going OK but I have to bend it to my learning style, writing out all the vocab and supplementing it with a dictionary and grammar book and buying magazines online and in Spain to work my way through very slowly. We’ve bought a book of dialogues with a download to listen to them too but haven’t engaged with that yet. I have found myself burbling around the house in Spanish so it’s working sort of, and we have improved every time we’ve been back to Spain, but I need to go there for a month of immersion at some stage.

    1. I think any type of learning tool takes work to make it your own. Kudos for the effort you’ve put in with Spanish, it sounds like you have definitely made progress!

  6. I started learning LSF (French sign language) via internet and books, it’s easier when you don’t have to pronounce it, Yet I would love to have some real life courses, which I applied to with my work but they have been rejected so far (I work in a library with no special adaptation for deaf people).
    I also started learning breton years ago (I’m from Brittany in France), the real life classes were not practical (too far, too late) but I found a good method that I had to give up when my children were born – no time. I’d love to pick these (different) languages now and will try to save myself time for it. I’m mostly on basic stuff, so I shouldn’t need classes in the near future 🙂

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