More on learning a language
P.J.T. Glendening wrote a very helpful little book Teach Yourself to Learn a Language, now out of print but occasionally available through secondhand books sites. He provides excellent advice, including a core vocabulary that can take you far in any language (the essential words: man, woman, day, night, week, tomorrow, yesterday, bring, take, and so on). He also emphasizes the importance of learning both the ordinal numbers (first, second, third, and so on) as well as the cardinal numbers (one, two, three, and so on)—when you’re on the phone and get a phone number or an address or want to tell someone the time and date to meet, you’ll need those numbers.
One key skill, usually learned in the first foreign language one learns, is not to fixate on a particular set of words you want to say, but to think about the idea and communicate it in words that you know. If you want to say particular words, you can readily get “stuck” because you don’t know some word, but if you’re willing to paraphrase using the words you know, you can talk around the difficulty. This skill probably accounts for the success of a Finnish experiment: most students study three years of German, but an experimental group studied a year of Esperanto, followed by two years of German (with the Esperanto continued as the language in geography classes). The Esperanto group, at the end of the three years, knew German better than those who had three years of German: they were more fluent, for example, and they found it easier to communicate. The idea was that in learning Esperanto (which was specifically designed to be easy to learn), they also picked up all sorts of skills in language learning in general, which they then used in learning German.
These thoughts stimulated by Felicia Wong’s excellent advice on learning a language. And Ira Glass’s advice applies to this activity as well: at first you won’t be happy with your efforts, but if you spend time daily doing some work on the language (listening, talking, reading, and writing: four separate skills, all of which must be exercised), you’ll in time be happy with your performance.