How to learn languages – General

This list of vocabulary items proved popular among a number of correspondents.


So I intend to run a trial series on Fridays on how best to learn other Western European languages – please participate (and correct me where appropriate)!

The idea is to give an absolutely basic grounding, from which you can develop knowledge in the ways I have suggested in the past. Remember, motivation is essential!

Here is one absolute essential: the trick to speaking a language is not to know everything, but to get around what you do not know. That is what this is about!


To speak any language, you will of course need to know how it is pronounced. You need only the basics to start with – most consonants are pronounced the same way in any language, so you will need to know the vowels, probably the diphthongs (two vowels pronounced together), and perhaps some awkward consonant clusters (consonants appearing together).

Over time, it pays to mimic the rhythm and intonation of the target language. To speak Italian like a Cockney or French with an Ulster accent is like trying to learn the words of a song without the tune. You will never get it absolutely perfect, but you want to get to the stage where you are not immediately identifiable as an English speaker (not least because that makes it hard to practise if the other person knows, or thinks they know, English).

As a quick tip: not all letters are entirely individual. Many are actually closely related to each other, and this can have an impact on how they change from language to language. For example, pairs such as /b/ and /p/, /v/ and /f/, /g/ and /k/ or /z/ and /s/ are in each case voiced and voiceless versions of what is otherwise the same letter; some languages may distinguish them, others may not.


Standardisation is an essential part of this – each modern Western European national language has a written standard. Such standards have developed in different ways – some gradually through time through constant updating, some based on deliberately conservative usage of a particular geographical dialect, some as deliberate mergers of dialects. Exactly how deliberately standards were developed and how widely accepted they are varies from case to case – but knowing something about how a standard developed will always help guide a learner to a general understanding of the interconnection between the spoken and written language. (Of course, some learners may specifically wish to focus on specifically on spoken or specifically on written – a decision worth making at the outset.)


Firstly, you will want to have a basic idea where most of the vocabulary comes from. This is often quite easy – most Italian words come from Latin. However, it can be tricky – English is a Germanic language, yet much of its vocabulary is directly or indirectly from Latin. Knowing this means you can take a reasonable guess even at vocabulary you do not know (remember – the trick is to get around what you do not know).

Secondly, you will want a reasonable list of pronouns/determiners (including articles) and prepositions – in English, such words include ‘that’, ‘the’ and ‘to’. Such words do not directly translate from language to language (remember, no vocabulary does!!), but it is absolutely necessary at least to recognise many of them at the outset, and then begin to use them by mimicking the patterns you hear.

Thirdly, you will want the above list. What is it? It is a list of what I have found to be “core vocabulary”; words which are essential to saying things. Remember, again, the key is to “work around” what we do not know – for example, we do not need to know the word ‘often’, provided we can say ‘nearly always’ or ‘sometimes’. The above list is the ultimate “work around”!


Unfortunately, you cannot get anywhere without grammar. This is often dreaded because it tends to be taught in too much detail. To start with, you need only the basics (and to know which quirks to watch out for); the detail can come freely once you are using the language.

Firstly, you will want to know how nouns work – they or the words around them may or may not be marked for number (in English, singular or plural), gender (masculine, feminine, neuter) or case (in English, direct ‘they’ versus oblique ‘them’; many languages have far more than this).

Secondly, you will want to know how verbs work – they may or may not be marked for (or supported by other words to mark) tense (in English, past or present), aspect (whether ongoing and/or relevant, e.g. ‘I have been’, ‘I am being’) or to “agree” with the subject (‘I like’, ‘she likes‘). They may also be marked directly for mood (in English, indicative or subjunctive) or voice (active or passive).

It is worth noting that tense is a peculiarly Indo-European thing; languages around the world often have verbal systems which indicate the evidential basis of the action (whether I felt it; saw it; heard about it first-hand; heard about it from other sources; etc), and some have no concept of time within their structure or vocabulary whatsoever. The comparative obsession with tense is itself a relatively recent innovation within Indo-European – originally, the focus was more on mood and aspect (essentially on relevance rather than particularly time).

Thirdly, you may want to know how adjectives work – they may or may not “agree” with nouns; and they may or may not take the same form as adverbs.

Fourthly, you will want to know at least basically how clauses are structured, including the main word order (English generally is “SVO” – subject, verb, object), negation, and connecting words (‘He came but you stayed’, ‘I like that she was here’, etc).

There will also be other particles to deal with – how to link things together, express questions or exclamations, and so on.

This seems like a lot, but you can do it in stages – work out how nouns work, then verbs (and put those together), then adjectives (and add those in), and then structure, picking up the particles as you go along.


Character? I think knowing a language’s character before you begin is as relevant as anything.

Firstly, you want to know the background to the language. Where does it come from? What influences are contained within it? For example, English is a Germanic language heavily influenced by Norman French, marked also by a significant sound shift from around 1350-1600. Knowing this means you can make sense of why the vocabulary is the way it is (with basic words generally Germanic, and high culture words French or Latin), why the spelling appears so odd, and even to some extent why the grammatical structure is relatively simple.

Secondly, you may want to know generally whether the language is predominantly nominal or verbal – in other words, does it build clauses predominantly around nouns (facts) or verbs (actions)? This is general, and no language is absolutely one way or the other, but knowing this gives you a real feeling for how the language is used.

Thirdly, languages are not standalone things – they are products of a culture. You will need to learn something about the character of those who speak them too. (However, steer clear of stereotypes, which are often unfair and unhelpful!)

What now?

So, let us try this with a few languages over the next few Fridays – we will go back in time to start with, to touch on this final “character” point (and also make us realise how lucky we are that languages simplify over time). Then we will try some modern Western European languages.


2 thoughts on “How to learn languages – General

  1. […] is important to emphasise that, in terms of learning, the story starts with this general vocabulary list and overall introduction. Without it, the other introductions to each individual language and language group make sense, but […]

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