Getting started with your new language

by Suw on March 13, 2005

You've decided that you want to learn a new language, or maybe brush up on an old one that you've mostly forgotten, but where on earth do you start? Maybe you don't want to spend too much money to start with, so those swanky language courses on CD-ROM are out of the question, but don't worry, you can achieve a lot on a very small budget.
Essential items that you need to have are:

  1. A source of information
  2. A way of keeping notes organised
  3. People to practice with

1. A source of information
I would always recommend that you splash out on a good dictionary and, if at all possible, buy a dictionary designed for learners. This is the one thing you can't skimp on because without a good dictionary you'll find life much harder. If possible your dictionary should:

  • Explain nuances of meaning, rather than just give you a list of alternatives. If you are looking up 'row', for example, then you need to know which word you would use in 'row of houses', 'a blazing row', or 'row, row, row your boat'. The more examples your dictionary gives, the better.
  • Provide information on irregular nouns and or verbs. If plurals can be formed in a non-regular way, the dictionary should give you those plurals with each noun. In Welsh, for example, there are dozens of ways to form a plural – and the rules are so complex as to be useless – so each plural is given with the noun. If a verb is irregular, then the dictionary should give you the irregular forms.
  • Provide translations of common idioms or phrases, e.g. under 'course' you get 'of course' as well.
  • Provide the gender of nouns in languages which use gender. In English, we're so used to nouns not having gender that we forget they are essential in other languages. If your dictionary doesn't provide gender information, it'll be useless.

When searching for a dictionary, try to do so offline so that you can flick through it and 'test' it. Does it give you explanations and examples? If you look up a word in the English side first, then in the foreign side, how well does it translate back? Is it easy to use? Do you feel comfortable with it?
Grammar/course material
Total immersion learning is undoubtedly the best way to learn a new language, but it's an option for very few people.
An evening or day course is the next best way to learn a new language – the benefits of working with other students and an experience tutor are immense. You'll get to start speaking almost immediately, you'll have people around you to give you moral support, and you'll be able to ask questions of the tutor every time you don't understand something.
Sometimes, however, courses aren't available in the right language at the right price and in the right location. But that doesn't mean that you can't learn your target language perfectly adequately using other methods.
If you're really broke, then some intensive searching online will undoubtedly turn up some learning material that you can use for free. However, the caveat emptor here is that while there are many excellent sources of information online, there are also a lot of sites that provide flawed material, so be careful.
If you can, buy yourself a good course book, one which explains the grammar clearly in terms that you understand and which gives you lots of examples. Frequently course material is very shallow – short explanations and few examples, but whilst that gives you the illusion of making rapid progress it doesn't actually help you remember stuff in the long term. Your aim should always be to learn thoroughly, not quickly.
Again, it's a good job to search for your course book in shops rather than online, so that you can look through it and try to assess how well you will get on with it. If at all possible, get a book that comes with a CD or CD-ROM so that you have the opportunity to hear the language spoken – that will really help you to learn pronunciation.
Of course, if you have the money, have a look at language learning software too, but beware – some courses aren't worth the money they charge.
2. A way of keeping notes organised
One challenge for every learner is figuring out how best to organise their notes. For some people, it's an A4 folder and notepad, for others it's a word processor. For others it's a set of index cards. I'll cover this in a bit more detail in another post, but your best bet to start with is to start simple. For that you need just two things.
Full-length notes
Whether you prefer writing your notes by hand or in a word processor, you will need to find somewhere, such as an A4 notebooks, to keep some full-length notes and in which to do all the exercises from your course material. Although you may find it tedious, it's a good idea to write out each each exercise in full because it will help you remember it later on.
A great idea is to keep a small hardback notebook always to hand. The perfect size is A6 (148mm x 105mm). In it, keep concise grammar notes in the front and important vocabulary in the back.
A notebook of this size is perfect for lists of prepositions (like 'to', 'from', 'into'), conjugations of verbs (like amo – I love, amas – you love, amat – he, she, it loves, amamus – we love, amatis – you love, amant – they love – 'to love' in Latin), and declensions of nouns (like puella, puellae, puellae, puellam, puella, puellae, puellarum, puellis, puellas, puellis – 'girl' in Latin).
This gives you a quick and easy reference of the grammar that you've learnt and it will help you when you're constructing new, original sentences for yourself.
3. People to practice with
Most learners harbour a huge sense of embarrassment about their new language – they fear that they might sound stupid, or make an embarrassing mistake, or that people will laugh at them. Thus they say to themselves that they will start speaking or writing in their new language 'when they are good enough', but, of course, that day never comes because they never feel confident in what they have learnt.
The sooner you get over this, the faster you will learn. Use your new language from day one, regardless of how good or bad you think you are. Even if you just defnyddio isolated words in a sentence which is mostly written in Saesneg, you will be helping yourself to dysgu new vocabulary and will increase your confidence with the language.
There are plenty of places you can find other learners and penpals – here are just a few:
Yahoo Groups
Google Groups
MSN Groups
My Language Exchange
So, now you've collected together a dictionary, some course material, notebooks and penpals, you're ready to rock and roll!
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Anonymous March 14, 2005 at 3:41 am

While I was doing My Russian Language degree, my teacher Alica (from Russia) told this: The best place to learn the language is street, she meant people on street to converse with.

Anonymous March 14, 2005 at 3:42 am

This above comment is not by Anonymous. It is me Shirazi at

Anonymous March 14, 2005 at 7:56 am

there are a number of web-based courses where you can download lessons in mp3 format absolutely free. The ones I've used were the Deutsche Welle course (Deutsche Welle is the german equivalent of BBC World). Have a look at,1595,2469,00.html
for their german course.
Another alternative is to go and look at the Consulate websites of the country whose language you're trying to study. Often they will have an allied office, such as the British Council, that actively promotes study of their language and culture abroad, and will be able to advise you.
I came to Germany six years ago, not speaking a word of German, and so learnt the hard way : via instruction in the language itself. This has its faults, but has the advantage of forcing you to use the language.

Anonymous March 14, 2005 at 4:46 pm

OK, you probably know me well enough by now to know what I'm going to ask for: more information on Welsh plurals.

Anonymous March 14, 2005 at 5:57 pm

Honestly, plurals are a bugger – there are so many rules that you just can't memorise them. You really should learn them as you go. A few plurals are distincitive though, and you'll start to see patterns, but I really can't get into a comprehensive discussion of plurals without a massive great big post which, frankly, won't help you because by the time you've got to the end of it your brain will have melted. I know mine will if I try and write it. 😉
Get Gareth King's Modern Welsh and take a good look at his section on plurals – it'll explain it better than I can. In fact, I'd only be copying it, so best get it from the horse's mouth.
Oh and btw, not being a native speaker i'm not the best person to ask for advice on pronunciation, which is probably why i delayed responding to your earlier comment asking about 'Gwyl' which I pronounce something like 'gweeyl', but i might be saying it wrong. 😉

Anonymous March 15, 2005 at 6:53 pm

OK, thanks for the reference … though if I got a textbook it would remove my main excuse for fanboying you.
So it could be “gooyl”?

Anonymous March 15, 2005 at 6:54 pm

Oops, that was me, of course.

Anonymous March 15, 2005 at 11:29 pm

Suw, thanks so much for this helpful guide! Dunno if your software will decide I'm anonymous too, but in fact I'm Betsy Devine, struggling to learn Arabic at the moment. Imaging having four different forms for every consonant, plus a script that leaves out most vowels most of the time…

Anonymous March 16, 2005 at 3:09 pm

I'm sure the Welsh have some vowels to spare that you could have.

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