Fast-tracking Foreign Languages:
How to Meet the Linguistic Challenges of Working Abroad
by Philip Yaffe
Native English-speakers are increasingly exhorted to learn foreign languages
to play a more effective role in globalisation. However, we tend not to learn
foreign languages for three very valid reasons.
- Many other peoples in the world are not just exhorted to learn English,
they are required to do so. Thus, you can find English virtually everywhere
- The grammar of most other languages, certainly most European languages,
is much more complex than English. Thus, native anglophones often view language
learning as a daunting, and even demoralising task.
- Most native anglophones, especially in North America, live in almost
exclusively English-speaking environments. We virtually never hear other
languages spoken live, on radio or television, and virtually never see them
written in newspapers, magazines, books, etc. This is hardly motivating.
The fact is, the world conspires against anglophones learning other languages.
So if you speak only English, you have no reason to be ashamed.
Nevertheless, whilst these factors explain why so few anglophones know other
languages, they are not valid excuses for not learning them when the situation
calls for it. For example, you are sent to open or manage a foreign subsidiary,
you are assigned to negotiate or maintain working relationships with a foreign
How should you go about learning a foreign language with the least pain
and most gain? In my personal experience, the secret lies in changing your
I live in Brussels. I speak French fluently, understand and can more-or-less
get around in Dutch and German, and I am now rapidly acquiring Spanish. But
the first language I mastered was none of these. It was Swahili, which I learned
when I spent two-and-a-half years working in Tanzania.
Like many (probably most) Americans growing up in an essentially English-speaking
environment, I thought the ability to speak another language required superior
intelligence; only people endowed with this unique talent could actually achieve
it. Shortly after I got to Tanzania, I visited in a remote tribal area where
virtually everyone spoke three languages. Moreover, virtually none of them
had ever seen the inside of a school (there just weren't any schools), let
alone graduated from a prestigious university (UCLA).
I therefore had to radically rethink my attitude towards language learning.
This new mindset has significantly helped me master the languages I now regularly
use. I will illustrate with French, the language I know best. But remember,
these same ideas and techniques apply to virtually any language you may need
Some useful psychology
The good news is: Learning to speak a language is the easiest part of the
I know you may have thought that speaking would be the most difficult part.
However, I would argue that most people, with minimal effort, can learn to
speak a foreign language reasonably well really quite quickly.
Writing a language is a very different story. French, for example, is one
of the most complex written languages in the world. In fact, written French
and spoken French are almost two separate languages. Therefore, if your objective
is to speak, concentrate on the spoken language and leave the written language
to come along later.
I know this may sound like heresy, because the majority of language courses
try to teach both at the same time, particularly in public schools. They spend
a demoralising amount of time making you write a language (probably because
it is easier to grade students this way), although this is the last thing
you really need to know.
When I say that speaking is the easiest part of the job, I am not advocating
"total immersion". Few of us have the luxury of spending a week, or preferably
several weeks, totally concentrating on learning a language. What I am advocating
is doing things in the proper psychological order.
Most people can master enough of the fundamentals to be able to speak (poorly
but nevertheless coherently), and to understand what is being said to them,
within only 2 - 3 months. The trick is to recognise that the major obstacle
to acquiring foreign language is not grammar. It's vocabulary.
If you don't know the verb you need, it doesn't matter that you know how
to conjugate verbs; you still cannot speak. If you don't know the adjective
you need, it doesn't matter that you know how to decline adjectives; you still
cannot speak. And so on.
I therefore suggest that the most effective order for learning a language
- Basic grammar
The minimum necessary to put together an intelligible (if incorrect) sentence.
In my experience, this is most efficiently done self-taught. Sit down with
a grammar book for about 10-15 minutes each day until you begin to feel somewhat
comfortable with it.
- Basic vocabulary
The minimum necessary to begin using the basic grammar.
Again, in my experience this is most efficiently done self-taught, i.e. the
classic "learn five new words each day". It won't be very long before you
start seeing how different words are related, so you can begin to guess what
new words mean without resorting to the dictionary.
- Speaking the language
Putting basic grammar and vocabulary to work as soon as you can actually
begin using them.
This is the time to consider a language school or a personal tutor. With
the foundation of what you will have already learned by yourself, you will
certainly progress more easily and rapidly than if you had leaped into formal
language instruction at the very beginning.
- Writing the language
Tackling the daunting task of putting the language on paper.
You will almost certainly never need to do much writing. And what you do
write will certainly need to be revised and corrected by a native speaker.
Since vocabulary is crucial, then the largely unrecognised key to mastering
another language is: Learn to read it.
There is nothing like being able to sit down with a newspaper, magazine,
or even a novel in the language to reinforce both grammar and vocabulary.
The more you read, the more your vocabulary will expand. And the more some
of the language's apparently bizarre ways of doing things will become increasingly
For best results, the novel should contain a maximum of dialogue and a minimum
of description. With dialogue, you can frequently anticipate and interpret
what the characters are saying; with description you haven't a clue.
When I was learning French, I used novels by Agatha Christie and the adventures
of Tarzan by Edgar Rice Burroughs, because they are about 90% dialogue
and 10% description. Hardly my favourite literature, but they served the purpose.
I would also suggest Animal Farm by George Orwell and Candide
by Voltaire. However, any novel with a high ratio of dialogue to description
The purpose of reading in the language is to learn vocabulary automatically.
Constantly looking up unfamiliar words will break your reading rhythm and
damage your enjoyment. Consequently, keep use of a dictionary to an absolute
It isn't heresy to say this, just common sense.
In fiction, very few words are crucial for understanding the story line. Do
you really need to know precisely what a room looks like? It's enough to know
that is large and elegantly furnished. Do you really need to know precisely
what a landscape looks like? It is enough to know that it is isolated and
Moreover, words repeat. You will certainly see an unfamiliar word many more
times throughout the text. At least one of those times, the way it is used
will tell you exactly what it means, with no effort at all.
As a rule of thumb, if you are using a dictionary more than 2 - 3 times a
page, you are probably being too fastidious. Stop it. Just read and enjoy!
Once you arrive on site where the language is spoken, all the grammar and
vocabulary you have stored up in this way will rapidly show its worth.
In my case, this occurred only a very few weeks after landing in Tanzania.
At the beginning, I was speaking by translating through English. However,
one magic day I suddenly realised that I was no longer translating through
English. I was speaking in Swahili directly. It was like being released from
prison. Although this happened more than 40 years ago, the picture of my cell
door flying open and my mind flying free is as vivid now as the day it happened.
It's an experience not to be missed!
Having discovered that I could really speak a foreign language - and
that I didn't have to be a genius to do it - I tried to determine how
it had happened. I came to the conclusion that the single most important psychological
factor is resignation.
Different languages have different ways of doing things, some of which will
seem quite absurd. It is useless to keep moaning: "Why do they speak in this
ridiculous way when it is so much easier to do it the way we do it in English?"
Whatever it is you find so annoying: Don't fight it; accept it.
This is how children learn languages. They don't constantly question grammatical
structures, because it would just never occur to them to do so. And we all
know how much more easily and rapidly "naďve" children learn languages than
do we "sophisticated" adults!
Three fundamental principles
With Swahili as a basis, I also tried to determine the fundamental principles
of language learning that could help me go on to mastering others. I found
three to be particularly useful.
What you don't have to do is always
easier than what you do have to do.
In other words, the less you have to think about in learning a language,
the more rapidly you will learn it. And the fewer mistakes you will make.
As I will demonstrate below, French has certain features and characteristics
that make it dramatically easier than English. Take advantage of them.
Here is the second principle that can smooth your way.
Familiar habits and patterns of thought
are often hard to break.
Paradoxically, some of the aspects where another language is easier than
English at first glance appear unfamiliar - and therefore falsely difficult.
Although it may take you some time to accept them, once you begin to think
in the language, you will rapidly come to appreciate them and enjoy their
Here is an anecdote to illustrate the point.
One time I was talking with a Dutch-speaking friend. He agreed that English
is fundamentally simpler than his own language; nevertheless, he complained
that he just couldn't get used to English's simpler sentence structure. In
certain instances, Dutch grammar requires the order of the words in the sentence
to reverse; this never happens in English. Objectively, then, English sentence
structure should be easier than Dutch. But to him, not reversing the
word order just didn't seem natural.
Here is a third principle you will find extremely useful.
By themselves, words and sentences
have little meaning; often they can
be understood only in relation to
other words and sentences.
This is very reassuring. It means that even if you say something incorrectly,
in general people will still understand you because of the context in which
you say it. Likewise, even if people say something to you using unfamiliar
grammar or vocabulary, in general you will still be able to understand them
because of the context in which they say it.
In short, you don't have to approach perfection in a language in order
to use it effectively.
Focus on simplicities, not complexities
To conclude, let me fulfil the promise I made to demonstrate that French
has certain features and characteristics that make it dramatically easier
than English. This is equally true of most other languages, regardless of
how difficult they may see at first. The important thing is to focus
on the simplicities, not the complexities.
Here are just seven examples; I could cite many more.
- No tonic accent
Most people are largely unaware of how seriously difficult their own native
language could be to a foreigner. As a native speaker, you probably find
that English is quite easy to pronounce. But the fact is, French is even
What! With its nasalisation, trilled "r" and other difficult sounds? Absolutely!
First, it is important to understand that no sounds, in any language,
are inherently difficult to pronounce. If they were, they wouldn't
exist because the native speakers would never have accepted them in the first
Learning to pronounce unfamiliar foreign sounds is never easy. Francophones
learning English have a terrible time pronouncing the "th" sound in words
such as "the", "they", "through", "throw", etc., because there is no French
equivalent. But they do it reasonably well. Just as you may have difficulty
with certain French sounds that have no English equivalents. But you can
also do it.
Where French pronunciation has an undeniable advantage over English is its
virtual lack of a "tonic accent".
Tonic accent simply means that certain syllables are given more stress than
are others. For example, "difficult" is pronounced "dif-fi-cult";
the first syllable carries the tonic accent. It could just as easily be pronounced
dif-fi-cult, or even "dif-fi-cult".
Technically, the tonic accent does exist in French, but it is very hard to
hear it. For example, in English we say "rest-au-rant;
there is a distinct stress on the first syllable. In French, this is "rest-au-rant",
with no stress anywhere. Likewise, "un-i-ver-si-ty"
has a distinct stress on the third syllable. In French, this is simply "un-i-ver-si-té",
with no stress. And so on for every word in the language.
Thus, you never have to guess where the tonic accent should go, so
you can never make a mistake.
You have grown up with the tonic accent, so you might not immediately recognise
what a problem it really is, even between native speakers. Britons, for example,
like to say "con-tro-ver-sy" whilst Americans prefer
to say "con-tro-ver-sy". And sometimes they don't understand
each other because of this difference. Britons say "gar-age"
whilst Americans say gar-age", again with the possibility
of misunderstanding. And so on. In French, there is no tonic accent, so this
problem simply doesn't exist.
- Gallic Impersonality
A. Use of "on"
For anglophones, imbued with the idea that French is a very personal language
(the so-called "'language of love"), few things are more surprising than
the frequent use of the very impersonal "on" (pronounced ohn).
By contrast, francophones learning English are surprised to discover that
English has no equivalent of "on", so they have to search all over the place
Actually, this is not entirely true. English does have an equivalent, "one",
but it is seldom used. The Queen of England uses it: "One has considered
the matter carefully" rather than "I have considered the matter carefully".
Moralists use it: "One should not kill", "One should be ready to fight for
one's country", etc.
French uses "on" without the slightest embarrassment. In fact, using
it prevents a lot of embarrassment. For example, a key problem in English
is avoiding "genderism". This is the explanation for the very odd use of
the plural pronoun "they" as if it were a singular. Example: If someone studies
hard, they will succeed.
Why do we make the apparently illogical switch from the singular pronoun
"someone" and the singular verb "studies" to the plural pronoun "they'? Because
otherwise, it would have been necessary to say "he will succeed".
However, the sentence clearly is not directed only to males. Alternatively,
it would have been necessary to say "he or she
will succeed", or "he/she will succeed", which are cumbersome.
French has no such problem, because "on" (one) is the universal solution.
B. Use of possessive adjectives
Here is another example of how Gallic impersonality avoids genderism. Consider
the sentence: "Everyone who studies hard will see their effort
rapidly rewarded." We start the sentence with a singular subject and verb;
however, we finish it with a plural possessive adjective ("their"). In French,
the sentence remains singular all the way through, because there is no gender
distinction. "Son effort" can mean either "his effort" or "her effort",
according to the context.
Thus, the inherently impersonal nature of French grammar automatically precludes
a lot of "political incorrectness". In English, we can achieve this only
through some rather illogical and inelegant grammatical contortions.
- Use of infinitives
A major problem French speakers (and most other Europeans) face in English
is the correct use of infinitives. As a native speaker, you probably never
realised that infinitives can be a problem. After all, an infinitive is just
Well, not quite. English infinitives are in fact very unusual compared to
French infinitives. This is because French infinitives are unified, whilst
English infinitives are separable. For example:
- French: manger (-er marks the infinitive)
- English: to eat
The French infinitive is always a single word; however, the English infinitive
can be used with both parts or only the second part. The problem is, in many
cases this is not optional, but required. For example: "I need to eat something"
(both parts), but "I must eat something" (only second part). So what's the
difference? Why in the first example is the "to" necessary and in the second
not only isn't it necessary, using it would be quite incorrect?
In French, this problem never arises. "J'ai besoin de manger
quelque chose" (I need to eat something) and "Je dois manger
quelque chose" (I must eat something). Simple, isn't it. Just imagine if
French worked like English. You would constantly be making choices about
which form of the infinitive to use - and in many cases you would be wrong.
- Use of definite articles
Use of the definite article ("the") in English presents pretty much the same
problem as use of the infinitive. In other words, you must always be making
choices about when to use it and when not to use it. French is much simpler.
Really! Doesn't French have three definitive articles (le, la, les)
compared to only one in English? Absolutely! But the problem is not deciding
which definite article to use. Rather, it is deciding whether or not to use
any definitive article at all.
In French, you retain the definite article much more frequently than you
do in English. Thus, you have considerably fewer decisions to make, and therefore
considerably fewer opportunities to make a mistake.
- "I like cats" (cats in general)
- "I like the cats" (specific cats, not necessarily all cats)
In French, both statements are rendered "J'aime les chats",
so no decision about whether or not to use the definite article. You distinguish
the meanings of the two sentences from the context in which they are used,
not their grammatical form.
- No distinction between "a" and "one"
The words "a" and "one" are the equivalent of "un" in French. Fundamentally,
these two words mean the same thing; however, "one" is more precise, so it
adds emphasis. For example:
Both of these sentences are rendered in French as "J'ai mangé dans un
restaurant japonais." As with the definite article, you distinguish the meaning
from the context.
- I have eaten in a Japanese restaurant (at least one, perhaps more)
- I have eaten in one Japanese restaurant (only one, no more)
Many francophones speaking English frequently make the mistake of saying
"I have eaten in one Japanese restaurant" when they really mean "I have eaten
in a Japanese restaurant". As an anglophone speaking French, you will never
make this mistake, because it simply isn't possible!
- Simple & progressive (continuous) tenses
English makes frequent use of progressive (continuous) verb tenses, whilst
French almost never does.
The progressive tenses are formed by two verbs: the helper (auxiliary) "to
be" and the "present participle" (-ing form) of the other one. Example:
She is eating.
English uses progressive tenses to distinguish between the general time period
during which an action takes place and the exact moment that the action takes
place. French generally does not make this distinction. "Elle mange"
means either "she eats" or "she is eating". Once again, French leaves interpretation
of the correct meaning to context.
And once again, since there is only one grammatical form, there is no
possibility of error!
- Converting verbs into nouns
Because of its fondness for progressive verb tenses, English has a characteristic
way of converting verbs into nouns, i.e. using a verb as the subject or the
object of a sentence.
In French, and many other languages, you simply use the infinitive: Marcher
est bon pour la santé. You can do the same thing in English: To
walk is good for health. However, the preferred form is:
Walking is good for health. To anglophone ears,
"walking" is more dynamic than "to walk", i.e. it seems to give a better
picture of what is happening.
This may very well be the case - in English. But there is no such
distinction in French. So once again, there is no way of making a mistake!
Admittedly, learning another language is never easy; it takes time, energy
and dedication. However, as we have seen, there are three powerful strategies
you can use to make the job considerably easier.
- Focus on the simplicities of the other language rather than on
- Channel your energies according to the best psychological order:
- basic grammar,
- basic vocabulary,
- speaking the language,
- writing the language.
- Concentrate on reading the language to comfortably and automatically
master its grammar and vocabulary
Good luck! Bonne chance! Veel geluk! Viel Gelück! Buena suerte! Buona fortuna!
. . . .
Philip Yaffe is a former reporter/feature writer with The Wall Street
Journal and a marketing communication consultant. He currently teaches
a course and conducts one-day workshops in writing and public speaking in
In the 'I' of the Storm: the Simple Secrets of Writing & Speaking
(Almost) like a Professional, his recently published book, perceptively
and entertainingly explains the key principles and practices of persuasive
communication. True to its credo, it is "as long as necessary and as short
as possible". In fact, only 84 pages! In the 'I' of the Storm
is available either in a print version or electronic version from Story Publishers
in Ghent, Belgium (www.Storypublishers.be)
and Amazon (www.amazon.com).
Editor's note: For our review of this excellent little book, go to: http://www.refresher.com/reading.html.
For an article based on the book, go to: http://www.refresher.com/Archives/aplymath.html.
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