How To Learn A Foreign Language

Tips, Tricks and Resources to Learn A Foreign Language Faster

First let me briefly explain where my qualifications for this particular article come from. Way back when I went to school, I was terrible with languages. I went to a school in Germany where English was a compulsory subject, and as a second language one could either choose Latin or French. And I was absolutely useless! In fact, I had to repeat two grades because of my miserable grades in English and Latin. I threw in the towel when I was just about to repeat another grade and run the danger of ending up in the same class with kids that were three years younger than I.

Now, at the age of 52,  I speak a total of three languages fluently. In fact, it went almost up to four, but the first foreign language I learned to speak was Greek, and that I don’t speak right now, since it was at the beginning of the eighties that I spent a couple of years in Greece. If I would go back now it would take me probably three month to speak it again, since you never forget a language. They get stored away when not used continuously, and it’s like a file that has been hidden away somewhere on your computer.

I started developing myself as a language teacher in 1989 in Mexico-City, and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since. I work freelance, because that’s where I’m best. I don’t approve of most language teaching methods as applied by modern language schools, and it will become more transparent why in the course of this article.

Let’s start with the basics.

We don’t think in words, but in images or concepts. A toddler who gets too close to the kitchen stove and touches it will experience immediately the meaning of what is called in English ‘hot’. It’s through his physical pain that he learns that particular reality. And the concept of ‘heat’ has been literally burned into his mind.

A totally different, and at least in this context, secondary issue is his mother’s reaction to the approaching toddler. She cries out in panic ‘ Be careful, it’s hot!’ For the toddler the word ‘hot’ is nothing more than a sound that comes out of his mother’s mouth. Mind you, it’s not a word for him yet, he doesn’t understand at this stage what a word is. And it’s  this sound that he will henceforth associate with the physical pain he experienced. He knows what ‘hot’ means!

A German mother would have cried ‘heiss’, the Mexican mother ‘caliente’; it doesn’t really matter for the toddler, since again it’s just a sound to him. Our parents teach us our mother language through different sounds (words) that we learn to associate with certain aspects of our environment and our experiences.

I remember my and my siblings’ disbelief when our father told us that German was not the easiest language, that in fact it was one of the more difficult ones to learn. Of course we were young then, but it shows you the state of mind children have when dealing with language.

So it’s important to understand that we associate sounds with meaning, which might be an objective meaning (a table is a table is a table….) or a more subjective meaning when using the word ‘friend’ or ‘love’. Both words are  colored on the one hand by our culture (their  use in English is far more common as in German, for example, I’d think twice before I’d call somebody ‘friend’ in German, whereas in English or Spanish it’s far closer to the word ‘acquaintance’).

If you have already learned a foreign language, or you are in the process of it, you will inevitable feel that you are translating one language into the other. And that’s the fundamental mistake most people make. They confuse the process of taking the word ‘cold’, if English is their first language, then rummaging in their files for its meaning (which is obviously not necessary) and then allocating to that meaning the sound (word) that corresponds to it in the foreign language they are learning. An understandable process, but useless, it seems.

It’s precisely this process the language teaching technique of ‘total immersion’ tries to avoid. And it makes sense. Why use words of your mother tongue in a learning experience when you can just put a corresponding word to your concept or experience in the second language you are learning? In total immersion translation is to be avoided, students are confronted with the new language through real life situations.


  1. I agree, Georg. I speak English, German, Spanish, and Portuguese. There are thoughts I can think in one language that I cannot think in another. And the words 'freedom', 'freiheit', 'liberdad', and 'liberdade' are not equivalent. Nor is there a translation for the English word 'infatuation'.

  2. There are so many more words in English which you can use to describe and idea than in Dutch, Norwegian and Danish- though the languages have similar words, the impact is very different.