Learning a new language without a formal class

1995 photo of the Brass Quintet of the Orquesta Sinfónica de Galicia. Petur Eriksson, bass trombone, Aigi Hurn, trumpet, Jon Etterbeek, trombone, Amy Schimmelman, horn. I am on the far right (everyone else in the photo is still in the OSG!). I had to learn Spanish on the job and on the street in La Coruña.
1995 photo of the Brass Quintet of the Orquesta Sinfónica de Galicia. Petur Eriksson, bass trombone, Aigi Hurn, trumpet, Jon Etterbeek, trombone, Amy Schimmelman, horn. I am on the far right (everyone else in the photo is still in the OSG!). I had to learn Spanish on the job and on the street in La Coruña.

Trumpeters, as most musicians, come up against other languages pretty frequently. We travel and perform in other parts of the world. We collaborate in our own country with people who speak Spanish, French, Japanese, Russian or some other language. We play music with notes and directions in other languages. And if we are in academia, we do research that needs language skills. Many doctoral masters programs in music require foreign language proficiency. At George Mason University, my doctoral students have reported to me that they are required to pass a language proficiency but they do not have a foreign language course requirement in their curriculum. If you want to study on a Fulbright scholarship, or some other exchange program, you will need to demonstrate language proficiency. What are some good ways to develop language proficiency without attending a formal class?

Computer applications: Although I have tried Rosetta Stone, the highly marketed and glossy language software, it is not my top recommendation. It is fairly expensive and does not give discounts if you are studying more than one language at a time. Try instead the mobile and web app Duolingo. It’s totally free and keeps reminding you to practice your language in little increments. You listen to and pronounce the exercises. Important for language proficiency for an academic degree, you work on grammar, spelling, vocabulary, and translation. Over time you move up in levels all the way to level 25 (this is an upper intermediate level), and you can compete with other friends. When you get something wrong (on the desktop web application), you can access comments from other users to see why you missed the answer. For English speakers, you can learn Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Dutch, Danish, and Irish. Soon, (volunteer) contributors will finish courses for Hungarian, Swedish, Russian, Turkish, Polish and Romanian. There are other courses for native speakers of other languages. I currently am enrolled in French (level 11), Spanish (level 11), Italian (level 9), and German (level 5). Although my French and Spanish levels are both the same, my ability to speak the languages in real life are not. I can actually talk to people in Spanish, because I lived in Spain for a few years (see the photo above), but I have quite a bit of difficulty having any verbal conversation in French. Duolingo is great for learning the nuts and bolts of a language, but it will not help you speak the language well, at least in the beginning. There is an impressive Deutsche Welle Interaktive free course for German, but my initial impression is that it is bogged down by complex-looking modules.

Books: You should have some books that address grammar and verb conjugation issues for reference. In addition, phrase books might be helpful to get a feeling of some quick answers at first. However, because reading about languages is pretty dull and boring work, I feel that these books are best thought of as supplements to a more interactive method.

Audio lessons: One of my favorite ways to supplement what I learn on Duolingo is through listening to podcasts. There are many out there. The “Coffee Break” series by the Radio Lingua Network is fantastic, in my opinion, if you can wrap your brain around a Scottish man teaching you French (or Spanish or German). Available for Spanish, French and German. The podcasts themselves are free, but, like most language podcasts, there is a lot of extra content available for premium subscribers (meaning that you will have to pay).

People: Finally, you might want to hire a tutor or engage a friend to talk with you and address your particular difficulties. There is nothing like a live person to make your language skills much better!

Bonne chance! Buena suerte! Viel Glück! Buona fortuna!






4 responses to “Learning a new language without a formal class”

  1. This is a terrific post, Stan, and so true! I’m looking forward to trying out Duolingo. What an excellent recommendation. By the way, in addition to your comments about books, I would also recommend news websites from different countries. I like checking the Frankfurter Allgemeine (http://www.faz.net/) regularly and skimming over headlines for German review (and cultural perspective). Congratulations on your outstanding blog!

    1. Stanley Avatar

      Thanks, Elisa. I realized that there were numerous omissions in my post. Thanks so much for that recommendation. There are so many ways to learn a language. I also failed to mention watching movies in a foreign language for the immersion effect.

  2. This is great, Stan. It’s important to keep practicing languages too…at one point I was near fluent in German, but that has gone away so quickly. I just recently this summer attempted to talk with someone in German, and found that I flat out couldn’t do it…it was a bit unnerving, to be honest. I’m thinking about brushing up! I’ve heard great things about Duolingo as well, and am looking forward to jumping back in.

    1. Stanley Avatar

      Louie, thanks for the comment. When I read your story about losing your German skills, I immediately thought how similar trumpet playing is. You can be amazing, but if you don’t keep practicing, then muscle tone, if not a whole lot of other things just go away. I played along side a Navy Band trumpet alumnus last night (at our alumni concert) who worked in the band from 1980 to 1988. He still practices every morning for 45 minutes, but mainly just performs on the organ at his church. I have to say that he sounded fantastic, and I think it is because of his daily ritual.

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