How to learn languages

Most people in technology, trade, research or education work in an international environment and need to use a foreign language which they learned at some earlier stage [1]. It is striking to see how awfully most of us perform. International conferences are a particular pain; many speakers are impossible to understand. You just want to go home and read the paper — or, often, not.

Teachers — English teachers in the case of the most commonly used international language — often get the blame, as in “They teach us Shakespeare’s English instead of what we need for today’s life“, but such complaints are  unfounded: look at any contemporary language textbook and you will see that it is all about some Svetlanas or Ulriches or Natsukos meeting or tweeting their friends Cathy and Bill.

It is true, though, that everyone teaches languages the wrong way.

There is only one way to teach languages right: start with the phonetics. Languages were spoken [2] millennia before they ever got written down. The basis of all natural languages is vocal. If you do not pronounce a language right you do not speak that language. It is unconscionable for example that most of us non-native speakers, when using English, still have an accent. We should have got rid of its last traces by age 12.

I cannot understand why people who are otherwise at the vanguard of intellectual achievement make a mess of their verbal expression, seemingly not even realizing there might be a problem. Some mistakes seem to be handed out from generation to generation. Most French speakers of English, for example, pronounce the “ow” of “allow” as in “low”, not “cow” (it took a long time before a compassionate colleague finally rid me of that particular mistake, and I don’t know how many more I may still be making); Italians seem to have a particular fondness for pronouncing as a “v” the “w” of “write”; an so on.

The only place I ever saw that taught languages right was a Soviet school for interpreters. Graduating students of French, having had no exposure to the language before their studies, spoke it like someone coming out of a Métro station. (Actually they spoke more like a grandmother coming out of the Métro, since they had little access to contemporary materials, but that would have been easy to fix.) The trick: they spent their entire first year doing phonetics, getting the “r”and the “u” and so on right, shedding the intonation of their native tongue. That year was entirely devoted to audio practice in a phonetics lab. At the end of it they did not know the meaning of what they were saying,but they said it perfectly. Then came a year of grammar, then a year of conversation. Then came the Métro result. (This is not an apology of the Soviet Union. Someone there just happened to get that particular thing right.)

We should teach everyone this way. There is no reason to tolerate phonetic deviations. If you do not get the sounds exactly as they should be, everything else will be flawed. Take, for example, the “r”. If, like me, you cannot roll your “r”s, then when you try to speak Russian or Italian, even if you think you can get the other sounds right you don’t because  your tongue or palate or teeth are in the wrong place. Another example is the “th” sound in English (two distinct sounds in fact) which I never got right. I can fake it but then something else comes out wrong and I still sound foreign. My high-school teachers — to whom I owe gratitude for so much else — should have tortured me until my “th”s were perfect. True, teaching time is a fixed-pie problem, but I am sure something else could have been sacrificed. Since, for example, I can answer in a blink that seven times nine is sixty-three, I must at some stage have taken the time to memorize it. In retrospect I would gladly sacrifice that element of knowledge, which I can reconstruct when needed, for the ability to roll my “r”s.

Age is indeed critical. While we humans can learn anything at any time, it is a well-known fact (although the reasons behind it remain mysterious) that until puberty we are malleable and can learn languages perfectly.  Witness bilingual and trilingual children; they do not have any accent. But around the time we develop new abilities and desires our brain shuts itself off to that particular skill; from then on we can only learn languages at great pain, with only remote hopes of reaching the proficiency of natives. The time to learn the phonetics of a foreign language, and learn it perfectly, is around the age of nine or ten at the latest. Then, at the age of reason, we should learn the structures — the grammar. Declensions in German, the use of tenses in English. Conversation — Svetlana greeting Cathy — can come later if there is time left. Once you have the basics wired into your head, the rest is trivial.

Focusing children on phonetics as the crucial part of learning a language will also help them shine. Like physical appearance, verbal clarity is an enormous advantage. I must not be the only one in conferences who pays far more attention to the content of an article if the speaker has impeccable pronunciation, innate or learned. Syntax and choice of words come next. Of course substance matters; we have all heard top scientists with accents thicker than a Humvee tire and grammar thinner than a summer dress.  Everyone else needs fluency.

Conceivably, someone might object that a year of phonetic drilling is not the most amusing pastime for a 10-year-old. Without even noting that it’s not worse than having to learn to play the violin — where did we ever get the idea that learning should be fun?

As to me, like those who before they die want to get into space, visit the capitals of all countries on earth or reach the top of Mount Everest, I have my dream; it has lesser impact on the environment and depends on me, not on the help of others: just once, I’d like to roll an “r” like a Polish plumber.


[1] Many native English speakers provide the exception to this observation, since they often do not learn any foreign language beyond “Buon giorno” and “melanzane alla parmigiana”, and hence will probably not see the point of this note.

[2] And motioned. Sign language as practiced by deaf people (informally before it was codified starting from the 17th century on) is also a potential teaching start.

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  1. nikita says:

    The problem with this approach is that if one learns (say) French as an adult, by starting with phonetics, it would be difficult to learn to spell afterwards, because French orthography captures the state of phonetics of XI. century.

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    • Peter Gummer says:

      Even more so for English, Nikita. English spelling is completely crazy, suffering from a mishmash of rules originating from French and Germanic languages, overlaid with the famous vowel shift right at the critical moment in history when orthography was getting fixed. And then there’s the question of which English are you learning? There are so many! Look at this chart:

      I’m impressed that so many non-native English speakers manage to speak or spell as well as they do. One thing I’ve often noticed, however, is that once a non-native speaker becomes functional in English, to the extent that those they know and work with can understand them perfectly, they never lose their peculiarities of speech. Out of politeness, or perhaps not wanting to disrupt the conversation, friends and colleagues don’t point out their mistakes to them.

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