A Complete Guide to Language Learning. Part 1: Learning Pronunciation.

The Perfect Video for Foreign Language Learning

I have always been passionate about language learning. Besides my native language, Russian, I speak English and French pretty well, and have experience with some other languages, including Japanese (passing the first level of the Japanese-Language Proficiency Test in 2006).

Ever since I started to learn my first foreign language, one question has presented itself to me – what is the best way to learn a foreign language? Is it a book, an audio recording, a video course on DVD, lessons with a native speaker? Well, we all agree that you can learn very fast with a professional teacher, especially if you take private lessons. Unfortunately, not all of us can afford such approach. By the way, if you take classes with a group, one major drawback is that very often you will be listening to the lame speech of your peer students.

If we want to learn a foreign language by ourselves, all learning materials can be roughly divided in 3 categories:

  1. text,
  2. audio + text,
  3. video + text.

Having experienced with these options, at some point, I realized that video combined with text is really the best material to learn a foreign language fast by yourself. I will discuss this further. However, there was a little problem – to find the right video. And when I say "right", I mean:

  • good quality sound and picture – the video shot on professional equipment,
  • slow pace of speech for beginners and moderate for intermediate and advanced students,
  • good articulation – each and every word should be pronounced very clearly,
  • all actors should be native speakers,
  • all dialogues should be in foreign language only – I don't want to be torn between two languages when it is not necessary,
  • subtitles matching the text of dialogues perfectly,
  • translation of all dialogues – ideally, subtitles in your native language,
  • phonetic transcription of the text – there are languages, such as English or Japanese, where you don't know how to pronounce a word when you see it for the first time in your life,
  • minimal background noise and no background music – both can be very distracting,
  • no voice dubbing – actors' voices should be recorded at the same time as the video, and
  • the course should contain the most popular words of the language – I want to be prepared for real communication situations very fast. What I do not want is to spend my time learning unusual words, especially if I am a beginner.

Honestly, I never saw a course that would meet all the above criteria. By the way, the purpose of my second website Project Modelino is to help you find good video materials. Ideally, for free.

Now, that we have discussed what to use for language learning, you might think, isn't it time to discuss how to learn a language? Nope, not yet. Before that, I would like to talk about something much more important. Something that for many people will be the determining factor in their success (or failure). Motivation...


Motivation + regular practice = success!

You might have seen this formula for success before. It is not a secret that with regular practice and good motivation you can achieve almost everything in any aspect of your life: business, sports, science, you name it. Language learning is no exception. The first part of the formula is motivation. So, before you start doing any of the exercises described below, I would like you to ask yourself the following questions:

  • "Why do I want to learn this language?"
  • "Is it really so important for me to learn this language?"
  • "What am I going to do when I achieve some fluency in the language I learn?"

If your answer starts with, "Well, I don't know...", then forget it – you don't really need a foreign language. There are plenty of other activities you can do. But if you can speak for at least five minutes answering these questions, and are able to convince your listener that you cannot live without this language – that's another story! Welcome to the club of foreign language lovers!

Another crucial part of the formula is regular practice. And the keyword here is regular. By regular, I mean at least one hour every, EVERY, EVERY DAY. Why is it so important? Well, any foreign language is a very unnatural substance for your brain. If you have already tried to learn a foreign language, you might have noticed how it is difficult to learn foreign words at the beginning. Believe me, your brain will be rejecting another language constantly unless you prove to it that this is something you really need, something you will be using on a regular basis. And that takes regular intensive practice.

I want you to always repeat this magical formula to yourself:

motivation + regular practice = success

This is an absolute prerequisite for everything that follows. By the way, that is why most of us failed with languages in school – at least one part of the formula was missing.


A Special State for Language Learning – The High Performance State

I think you will agree that if you want to do some activity and succeed, you should be mentally and physically prepared for that activity. Let's say you want to play a sport that requires fast reactions, such as basketball or tennis. For these activities, you should be alert, your muscles should be warmed up, your mind should be free and open to anything that could happen around you. Other activities may require a different set of body parameters. Each such set may be called a state.

For your studies, you will also need to get into a state that will help you learn foreign language easily and fast. Before I go any further I would like to quote John Grinder, one of the co-creators of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP):

So, when you learn another language... Strictly speaking, no two languages are translatable. You can't translate from another language into your own. You can certainly operate in one and in the other. But straight translation, no. It's not real. So if all you are offered is a cubicle and a pair of earphones, you are driven to translate. That's the most effective way to not learn.

What you need is a separate reality. What you need is a state which is so dissociated from English, or whatever languages you speak, that when you hear that language—your native language—spoken externally, or you trigger an internal auditory loop in yourself in English, it sounds like gibberish. If you can do that, then you can create a place for this new world to grow because initially it's very fragile.

There is a strong tendency, especially for us westerners, to fall back on understanding. Confusion is a state to be escaped from. I mean that's really a travesty. Confusion is an indication – you are about to learn something and to stay with it. I mean, if you weren't confused, you wouldn't be learning anything new. If all you were doing were pigeon-holing new experiences into old categories, all you are doing is making more concrete the perceptual biases—the distortions—which you have found useful in the past.

Now the questions you may ask are:

  1. what are the precise characteristics of this special state (by the way, in NLP they call it a high performance state), and
  2. how can you achieve this state?

The answer to the first question is quite simple. These characteristics are very similar to those described above in the case of playing sports. It means that, physically, you should feel comfortable, warmed up, relaxed, but not completely relaxed, just with no unnecessary tension. Mentally you should be self-confident, full of energy, enthusiastic about what you are doing, alert and open to anything you can hear or see. You should also be positive about any mistakes you may be making. Who cares if you are making mistakes? You are learning!

So how can we achieve this high performance state? Well, there are several options. First, you can actually go and play some sport. However, that can be inconvenient – most people do not have a tennis court in their backyard.

There is another option. There are special games – you might call them exercises – which will help you achieve this state very quickly. They do not require expensive equipment and can be easily performed at home. One of them is juggling. You can start by learning a three balls cascade. If you are a complete beginner, juggling with even one ball will soon bring you to the state we are looking for. You can also try the Alphabet Game, which is also quite simple to play at home.

To get the best results with the video you will be using, I recommend you do all the exercises described below in this high performance state. Believe me, it is a very powerful technique that will help you a great deal in your language learning and in other aspects of your life too!

Now that we have discussed what to use to learn a language and in which state you should do it, it is time to talk about where to start. In my opinion, you should start with pronunciation.


How to Learn Pronunciation?

I often compare language learning, especially learning pronunciation, to learning how to play a musical instrument or learning some physical activity, such as playing table tennis.

Let's take music first. Let's say someone wants to learn how to play the flute. First, the teacher shows him or her how to hold the flute, how to blow into the flute, how to form the lips to produce a sound and the student imitates all that. We could say that the teacher serves as a model for the student, and that the student copies the behavior of the model. And there is a lot of repetition here. With these repetitive movements the body (fingers, hands, lips) gets used to this unfamiliar activity and eventually the student produces a good sound.

Now let's take table tennis. The same principle applies here – the teacher demonstrates the right way to hold the racket, the right way to hit the ball, and the student copies the movements of the teacher. Again, repetition, and lots of it. Of course, in the beginning the student's movements will be awkward. But with time, practice and good motivation, the muscles and the brain will adapt to this activity, and the student will be able to hit the ball correctly.

Well, guess what, learning a foreign language is no different! You carefully watch how a native speaker, or your teacher, pronounces a sound or word, and you imitate him or her. You form your lips the same way the native speaker does, and you do your best to produce the same sound as he or she does. That's all there is to it!

Think about it – little children do not read descriptions of speech organs' movements, they do not watch animated parts of the head and yet they still somehow manage to learn how to pronounce all these sounds. In many ways, you are in a better position than little children. Your nervous system is developed; you know what you are doing; you can be more concentrated; you can use phonetic transcription to help you learn the strange or unfamiliar sounds of the new language, etc.


Sound – The Primary Substance of Any Language

When you start reading the description of the exercises below, please note one important principle. One should never try to learn new language patterns – whether sounds, words, or phrases – from the text alone. They should be learned either from video or audio, but never from text alone. Why? Well, think about learning a foreign language as like learning music.

In music, the primary substance we learn is sound. Its visual representation (notation) is secondary and should be treated as such. The same thing applies to languages. The spoken language appeared long before the written language, and this priority should be respected when you learn it.

If you are not completely convinced, let's make a little experiment. Please, say out loud the following phrase: "I say". Now watch these three little fragments from the British TV series "Jeeves and Wooster":

  • "I say"-1
  • "I say"-2
  • "I say"-3

Now compare how YOU pronounced this phrase and how Hugh Laurie pronounced it. I bet your intonation wasn't the same! In this particular example the same phrase has three different meanings:

  • "I say"-1 = "Wow! That's amazing!"
  • "I say"-2 = "Excuse me!"
  • "I say"-3 = "Come on! You don't really mean it!"

Imagine you were learning English language by textbook. You would never have guessed or learned these intonations correctly. You might say that we can use audio to learn intonations. Well, we can, but when we use audio, we are still missing a part of the picture. With video, you don't only hear how a word or phrase is pronounced. With video, you can also see in which situations a word or phrase may be used and how native speakers pronounce them, including their non-verbal behavior. That makes video the best material to learn a language. Every bit of linguistic information is preserved in its original form. You would never get as much information from audio recordings or text. It is just not possible!

So please, if you have a choice, always use video, or at least audio, when you learn something new in a language. This approach will save you a lot of time during your studies, because you will be learning the language the way it is really spoken by native speakers, not the way you think it is spoken when you read foreign text. This way, you will not have to relearn things in the future that you have learned incorrectly in the past.


Pronunciation Exercises

I have compiled a list of exercises that you can do while watching video materials. You do not have to do ALL of these exercises. I suggest you choose those that will help you progress faster. The set of exercises will be different for every student.

When you learn pronunciation, try to find videos in which you can see the movements of the speech organs in detail. The native speaker should speak very slowly, pronouncing one word or a small phrase at a time. I agree that for some languages, the right kind of video may be very hard to find. Project Modelino may help you with this problem. On the home page, choose the language that you want to learn. You will find a list of resources that you can use to learn pronunciation.

You will also need a media player to watch videos on your computer. I recommend VLC media player. It is very robust, supports various file formats and subtitle encodings.

The exercises described below have special numeration that I used in my book about language learning "Quick Learning of Foreign Language: From English to Japanese" (published in Russian). I will keep this numeration here. The most important exercises will be highlighted in yellow. By the way, what you are reading right now are modified excerpts from this book.


Exercises for Passive Learning of Foreign Language Patterns

The following three exercises enable passive learning. This means that you do not actively repeat what the native speaker says, neither externally, out loud, nor internally, with micro muscle movements of your speech organs. These exercises can be done if you do not have any experience at all in language learning or if some language pattern (word or phrase) is too complicated or fast for your level.

V1 – simple watching of the video without subtitles

If you have done the active learning exercises described below, you can do this exercise with audio only – it will be simple listening. In this case, you can do it while performing some daily activities that don't require much attention, such as housework. You may need software that can extract audio from video files.

V3 – listening to the video soundtrack + simultaneous scanning of phonetic transcription with your eyes

This exercise helps you make out some unfamiliar sounds of the language you learn, so it would be easier for you to copy these sounds while performing active learning exercises.

It is very rare that video courses have phonetic transcription of all dialogues. So what can we do about that? If your course has subtitles, some software allows you to convert these subtitles into a plain text format. You can then use my phonetic converters to convert the text to phonetic transcription.

V5 – listening to the video soundtrack + simultaneous scanning of foreign text with your eyes

With this exercise, you will start learning how to read in a foreign language.


Exercises for Active Learning of Foreign Language Patterns

If you have some experience with language learning and have learned how to achieve a high performance state, then you can skip passive learning and start with the following exercises.

V2 – watching the video without subtitles + simultaneous copying of the native speaker

This exercise, together with the exercise V6, is of the utmost importance. There are several options for how to perform this exercise. The first option that suits beginners well is to copy the native speaker during the pauses after each word.

Another way to perform this exercise is to start copying the native speaker as soon as he starts speaking. This means that there will be a delay (0.5-1 second) between your voice and the voice of the native speaker. You can speak either out loud, which is the preferred way, or quietly, without vibration of vocal cords. But your speech organs should still perform the same movements as if you were speaking out loud.

A crucial point here – you should not know which word will be pronounced when you start listening to the native speaker. All you should be pronouncing is a precise reproduction of what you have just heard.

Sometimes professional voice-over actors use this technique. Watch a demonstration by Mike Rowe:

V4 – listening to the video soundtrack + simultaneous scanning of phonetic transcription with your eyes + simultaneous copying of the native speaker

This exercise may help people with a less developed ear. Some people are able to reproduce sounds they hear easily, either by nature or because they had training in this area (musicians, for example). If this is your case, you can skip this exercise, especially if the phonetic structure of the language you learn is very similar to your native language.

V6 – listening to the video soundtrack + simultaneous scanning of foreign text with your eyes + simultaneous copying of the native speaker

This exercise is very important. It will help you learn to read in a foreign language. The same principle described in the exercise V2 applies here – you should not start reading the word yourself before the native speaker! When you read the word, you only reproduce precisely what you have just heard. And again, you can either read the words during the pauses or you can read them simultaneously with the native speaker with a little delay.


Exercises for Active Consolidation of Foreign Language Patterns

V8 – autonomous speaking

If you practice exercises V1-V6 regularly, at some point you may start noticing something. All of a sudden you will find yourself pronouncing the words or phrases you learned before, even when doing a completely different type of activity during the day.

The same thing happens when you learn some physical activity (dancing, sport). After a while, your body starts to reproduce the patterns that you learned during your lessons. That's a good sign of your progress.

By the way, you can do the same thing consciously. Remember which words or phrases you have been learning and start saying them out loud, imitating the native speaker. Do it as precisely as your memory allows. If you know the meaning of the words or phrases you learned, you can do the following. Imagine yourself in a situation where saying this word would be appropriate and practice saying it in this imaginary situation. You can also do this with your partner or teacher. This exercise is just as important as V2 and V6.

V9 – autonomous reading of phonetic transcription

In this exercise, you read out loud the phonetic transcription of the words you learned earlier. You can make a printout of this transcription or upload it to your mobile device to practice even when you do not have a computer nearby. Again, you do your best to imitate the native speaker as precisely as you can. This will help you to develop long-term memory of the sounds of the language you learn.

V10 – autonomous reading of foreign text

This exercise is also very important. You will be reading the foreign text by yourself, consolidating your reading skills that you began to develop with exercise V6.


What About Words' Meanings?

You might have noticed that no exercise from the above list requires you to learn words' meanings. How come? Does this mean you will be learning foreign words without knowing their meaning? Well, yes! That's the trick. Do you remember I was telling you about how language learning is similar to learning a musical instrument or a sport? These pronunciation exercises have analogs in those activities too.

If we are talking about sports games, these exercises are like stretching or general conditioning exercises. When you actually play basketball, you will not be lying on the floor stretching your thigh muscles. However, such exercises are very important if you want to succeed. All professional athletes include them in their training program.

If we take music, these pronunciation exercises are like learning scales or playing on mouthpiece in the case of some wind instruments. Nobody will ever play on mouthpiece in a band or orchestra. However, mouthpiece exercises are essential for beginners and even professional musicians use them sometimes.

The same thing goes when performing the pronunciation exercises. Yes, they may seem boring at first. They may look strange too – we are learning a language, but there is no communication whatsoever! But believe me, this apparent boredom will pay off later! I suggest you forget about words' meanings for now. Save your time and energy. The best way to learn the meaning of words is through watching real communication situations among native speakers. But this will be the next step on your journey of learning a new language...


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