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InsideOut OutsideIn: Long-Mileage Tips for Language Learning & Beyond

Spanish Scrabble

Spanish Scrabble (Photo credit: Arthaey)

Learning a language we’ve all heard “Don’t translate!” and, the cliché, “only immersion works.” Yet seemingly everyone struggles with “easy languages” like French or Spanish. Why and what can a learner do about it?

The same reason that translation cripples explains why immersion works so much better than traditional classroom methods. Let’s begin with pronunciation and acoustics, because they teach a lesson that touches every aspect of language learning.

There are two ways to talk about sounds. We can “look at,” listen to, a language from the inside out, or from the outside in. Being able to distinguish and switch between these perspectives can quadruple the speed of language acquisition. As luck would have it, this transfers to other domains, like learning a new discipline.


Phonemics is the study of the minimally distinct sound units in a language. For example English differentiates the “uh” and “oh” sounds, in “bull” and “bowl” respectively, while Arabic does not distinguish the analogous vowels in “qul” or “qol,” that it considers homophones. With the letter “l” Spanish speakers articulate the initial “l” in “lindo” differently than the final one in “chaval,” but they may not distinguish the “sh” and “ch” of English in “shy” and “cheat.”


Phonetics is the objective study of the articulation and acoustic properties of a language. It tells us that the long “eh” sound in the English “say” is NOT the same as the long “eh” in the French “aller,” that the first is a dipthong, the second a closed, pure vowel. Of course, no one learns to speak their native tongue according to the “objective,” pure, sounds it makes.

Rather, we learn by distinguishing groups of sounds from others in specific contexts. This is why phonemics is more important for language learning. Unfortunately, the outside perspective is how most high school or university language courses proceed, teaching students one sound at a time, one definition at a time.

The inside-out, “emic” for social anthropologists, perspective explains the effectiveness of immersion (and not translating) in language acquisition. But the outside-in, “etic,” perspective can sometimes be useful too.

So what then? How can I learn French faster?

Most humans are not musicians, and even musicians rarely have perfect pitch. We do not learn words as acoustic sounds in isolation, but always in a context of a dozen or so other sounds. When we learn sounds, we learn to tell them apart from others in our language not from random sounds whatever, as a computer learns speech.

An example from English illustrates a point about French. Anglophones, learn to distinguish “en” from “em”, and “el” from “ef”, but not “eñ” from “añ”, or “uñ” from “oñ”, because we have no reason to. French speakers must distinguish “añ” in “vent” from “eñ” in “vin” because otherwise they wouldn’t know whether someone just said “the wind is good” or “the wine tastes good.” Down to the level of letters, then, it pays to take the “emic” view.

This is in large part why studying a second language early can help with other languages. The more you learn to distinguish early on, the more easily you can hear, then speak, a new language later on.

In distinguishing sounds what’s important is what native speakers hear, in other words, what sounds are homophones to native ears. Spanish does not allow words to end in double consonants, or in any hard consonant for that matter, so when a native Hispanophone refers to “South Park,” she may say indiscriminately “Sow Par,” “Saf Paa” or even “So’ Paa.” Her ear doesn’t listen for double consonant endings, unless she’s been speaking Englsh for years.

On the other hand it sometimes pays to be aware of distinctions that a native speaker may not. For e.g., a Hispanophone wouldn’t likely be aware of the difference between her initial and final “l’s” or that her “d” changes if preceded by a vowel, but as a learner, it helps a great deal to know it. You can do so by listening to the new letter, “d”, in its various manifestations as an element related to other elements of the language, not as an analog of the English “d,” which it is not. This is the limited are where phonetics is useful in learning a new language.

Phonetics helps us with another crucial point. No two languages are “isomorphic.” There is no way to map even similar sounds from one language to another. “P” in Spanish, “p” in French, and “p” in English are not even close acoustically! It may be a surprise to some, but it is a fundamental linguistic fact, probably mentioned on the first day of “Phonology 101.” Keeping this in mind, you can avoid a lot of oral comprehension trouble–not to mention having a bad accent.

What does this mean for self learning without the luxury of immersion?

Learning a language, you can do two things to take the “emic” perspecive and play the amateur anthropologist. First, learn each word in the situations and contexts in which it is used. For ex., “bonjour” does not mean “good day,” “hello,” or “hi.” It is the word Francophones use “to greet one another the first time they meet on a given day, unless it is already dark out.”

Second, when you learn a new sound, learn the closest other sounds that you need to distinguish to be understood. For e.g., in French learn “oñ” “eñ” “añ” “uñ” at the same time, preferably with useful everyday words, in this case try the “bon” “fin” “ben” and “parfum.” This way you learn the range of acceptable pronunciations as you learn how to tell them apart. An e.g. for Spanish, learn that certain consonants are not allowed to end a word, for example “m.” That’s why “album” and “Islam” are the only two words in the Spanish language with a terminal “m,” pronounced “iz lawn” and “al bun” respectively, to Anglophone ears.

This approach means switching to a mono-lingual dictionary as soon as possible. It means accepting not completely understanding what is happening at first and embracing that uncertainty. It means periodically revising what you’ve learned in light of your ever-expanding knowledge of the system as a whole and how its parts fit together. It means using many audio-visual methods, focusing on the feeling and flavor of a language.

Don’t waste your time and energy learning one sound or word at a time. Learn them in groups, groups that can occur together and need to be distinguished. Thinking of words as tools used in certain settings will make your progress faster and easier, because you will be putting them in the right places in your brain and using them in practice right away. You’ll see what a difference this makes.

In summary, think context and differentiation as you study. To draw an anthropological moral, as you learn a culture (or discipline) pay attention to how the parts fit together and which notions (or concepts) are distinguished and which are not.

An added benefit of focusing on the internal perspective, with an awareness of the external one, is developing a skill transferable to any new discipline, field or culture. The skill entails how to provisionally make sense of elements as they fit into a greater whole, yet continually modifying their meaning, with the structure of the system, as you fill in your understanding of the whole. It amounts to expanding your comfort zone and embracing uncertainty.

In a world where “life-long learning” and “multiculturalism” are ever more vital, the mental preparation for them could be talking back at your daily French videos at the risk of sounding foolish.­

5 comments on “InsideOut OutsideIn: Long-Mileage Tips for Language Learning & Beyond

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  3. C. S. Spiers

    This articulates pretty clearly what I’ve always found to be true in my language studies. Embracing confusion is an especially difficult concept to accept, but it honestly speeds up language learning so much. One must pretend to be in the chaos-apprenticeship world of a child. Of course, this requires courage, namely in interactive situations. But that’s just another great benefit of language learning: it makes you braver! Talking back at audio experiences is key. One needs to do it reflexively, without shame. It is ok, and ideal, to NOT know how to translate a given foreign word, but only to know several different phrases in which you heard it used. If you learn vocabulary as part of poetry or songs or anything that touched you emotionally, it will stick better. Be a baby about it! Your head should be a delighted mess of silly little phrases. And composing is helpful: write a story, using just phrases you picked up from a newscast in the foreign language, modifying where you feel you can. As for mimicking sounds: it is incredibly useful in my experience to look at anatomical diagrams displaying the arrangement of the muscles around the mouth, the shape of the lips, the position of the tongue, and an arrow pointing to ‘where” the sound comes from. There have been so many times where I see people struggling with a sound because where they have the tongue makes it physically impossible to produce the sound, and all it takes is a mechanical demonstration of where to stick that thing to immediately obtain the correct sound. Example: in Indian languages the “t” or “d” must be pronounced with the tongue making contact with the teeth, and native English speakers tend to have persistant pronunciation issues in Indian languages because our “t” or “d” are with the tongue touching the roof of the mouth right before the top front teeth, and furthermore, since they don’t usually immediately perceive a difference between an Indian and an English “t” or “d”, English speakers are not even aware of the huge phonetic weirdness they are creating. But all it takes is knowing to physically stick the tongue against the teeth, awkward as it is at first (our muscles like habits!) to radically improve pronunciation.

  4. AhmedRTeleb

    Thanks for the excellent comment!
    You pointed out something very useful, point of articulation and tongue placement. Together with knowing the shape of the mouth for vowels, that can make pronunciation almost too easy, it may actually fool others into thinking you’re a native speakers–which can be a (nice) problem when your vocabulary and grammar are not quite there yet.
    Lastly, the emphasis on “the doing,” mimicking, playing, feeling the language in your mouth and on your lips, even playing it out in gesture, also agrees with my experience.

    • AhmedRTeleb

      Uncanny how most of this article can be summarized by Saussure:
      “In language there are only differences without positive terms.”

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