How to Teach Yourself a Language - The Complete Process
There are basically two ways you can learn a language: You can either have someone teach it to you or you can teach it to yourself.
For whatever reasons, it doesn't suit all people to have someone teach it to them. This is where the second option comes into play.
Although it has its own set of challenges, you can teach yourself a language successfully by using the right approach. This holds true whether or not you consider yourself good at learning languages.
And on this page, I'm offering you the complete process that I use myself and that you can also use to learn a language by yourself.
Quick Peek at the Self-Learning Process
Here's how the process of learning a language by yourself from scratch works (assuming you've already completed Steps 1-4 of the language learning method):
First, you'll start having conversations with potential practice partners and you'll do so by relying on Google Translate, initially.
When you have communication problems (this WILL happen using only Google Translate), you'll use some of the techniques taught on this page to resolve them.
Then, using samples of "correctly written/spoken language" coming from your practice partner, you'll create grammar rules in your mind.
Alright, let's begin!
Learning a Language By Using Google Translate the Right Way
Maybe you've heard that using Google Translate is a terrible way to learn a language.
And yes, if you've been using it for a while, you probably noticed that it can generate terrible translations.
It can, however, if used in a cautious way, be a powerful tool to learn a language.
But in order to do so, it is crucial that you use Google Translate mainly as a means of communication.
In other words, the translations Google Translate give you are to be used solely as means to maintain a back and forth communication with your language partner.
Now, you might be asking yourself:
"But how can you actually learn anything if you just use a translator?"
Well, here comes the important part.
You need to learn from how your partner uses the language.
For now, assume that he/she is using the language correctly.
As you get better, you'll probably have practiced with several people and you'll have learned to recognize mistakes and different language varieties.
Alright, now that you have an idea of how you'll use Google Translate, I'll show you how you can teach yourself a language with it.
The Process of Teaching Yourself a Language - Creating Grammar Rules
Since there will be no one else to teach you the language, YOU are the one who'll be in charge of teaching it to yourself.
As I mentioned earlier, you'll learn mostly from the language used by the people you practice with.
These people are there to provide you with the needed exposure to the language and you must respond to this exposure by actively absorbing the information you receive and processing it.
As you start practicing a language with someone, you'll create the grammar rules yourself which will be based on your observation.
How can you create these grammar rules?
Each time your partner tells you something, you first translate it, if you don't know what it means.
Could that translation be inaccurate? Sure.
But that's beyond the point; with the context, you should have a pretty good idea of what your partner is saying, although not 100% of the times (we'll see more details on how to solve communication problems later).
Also, I suggest you click on the audio icon to have an idea of the pronunciation:
After you've understood what your partner said comes the most important step:
You need to analyze it (the original text, not the translation).
Locate the subject, the verb and the object and notice where they're positioned in the sentence.
Note that, in the beginning, you may have to translate the individual words of the text to know what the subject, verb and object are, although you shouldn't need to do that for long.
Here are some questions you might want to ask yourself as you go along:
- "Are the subject, verb and object always in this order?"
- "If not, in which cases are they in different orders?"
- "Is the subject always written with a special ending?"
- "Does the ending vary?"
- "Is the verb always written the same way?"
- "If so, is there an extra word in the sentence to indicate the past tense and the future tense?"
- "Are you noticing any special features to this language?"
These are the types of questions you should ask yourself every time you're exposed to the language.
The answers to these questions are in fact the grammar rules you'll be creating in your mind which will allow you to understand and speak the language without using a translator.
And the more you'll have researched the features of the target language at Step #4, the more easily you'll be able to come up with such questions.
Then, when you'll have created a basic set of rules, put them into action and try to speak the language without using a translator.
Try to remember some of the words your practice partner used and try to express your own ideas with them.
You may make some mistakes at first, but as you observe how your partner speaks, you'll notice how to correctly say things and improve for the next time.
And most importantly:
Go for vocal conversations as soon as you've created a basic set of grammar rules.
Because having vocal conversations will increase your language skills faster than by just exchanging written messages. Trust me on this one.
Possible Communication Issues During Practice - How to Fix Them
Remember that Google Translate is a very imperfect tool.
So, when you're practicing with your partner in the target language, sometimes you'll say something that your partner won't understand at all.
Sometimes, the opposite will happen.
How can you avoid this?
You can do so by verifying the translations.
Next, I'll explain several techniques for checking your translations and, if they happen to be incorrect, I'll show you how to find the correct translation.
Back-Translations - Hacking Google Translate to Get Accurate Translations
One thing I often do when practicing are back-translations.
When I doubt one of Google Translate's translations in the language I'm practicing (quite a common occurrence, believe it or not), I translate it back to the language I originally translated it from, again with Google Translate. Here's an example of the process:
Step 1: Input what you want to translate and copy the translation.
Step 2: Change the direction of the translation by clicking on the 2 arrows pointing in opposite directions.
Step 3: Paste the translation obtained at Step 1 and see if it translates to what it was originally.
If it comes back a word with an entirely different meaning, I'll know that I have to keep searching to find the correct translation.
And if it's just a single word in a short sentence that's the issue, such as in the previous example, I'll isolate that word and put it back into Google Translate on its own.
But that's not all...
Below the translation box, there'll often be a list of possible translations for the word I just inputted (at the moment, the list is only available for translations involving English):
From that list, simply pick the most suitable word.
Translating To and From Another Language
If none of the possible translations suggested by Google Translate are suitable, you can try to translate from another language.
The best part about this?
You don't need to be fluent in that language to use this technique, you just need to know the word/term in question.
For example, I, knowing French and English, usually use Google Translate from English (by preference) to Portuguese when there's a word in Portuguese that I don't know.
However, it could be that the word in English I'm trying to translate has several possible meanings, so the output in Portuguese might be the incorrect one:
The solution? Translate that word from another language (French in my case).
Indeed, it could be that in French, there's one word only for that specific meaning, so inputting that word in French will give me the correct output in Portuguese. And it turns out that there's one word for each meaning of "driver" in French:
In the previous example, there's a simpler way to find the translation, which does not require the knowledge of French, but you should still understand how the technique works.
You can even use this technique in the opposite scenario in which your partner tells you a word in his/her language and its translation in Google Translate doesn't make any sense.
Just use Google Translate and translate this word into some other languages you are familiar with, in order to know what it means.
Verifying the Word in Google Images
If you're not familiar with another language and re-translating the word did not bring you success, then there are still options for you to check if a translation makes any sense.
If appropriate, what I do sometimes is I type a word or a sequence of words from the translation into the search field of the Google website and then I click the Images tab directly below the search field:
If the images generated in the results correspond to the translated word or sequence of words, then you know that the translation made sense.
Let's type the word cucaracha, in Spanish:
That's a cockroach alright!
You can do the same thing when you're not sure about the meaning of a word your partner tells you in his/her language.
In any case, the images generated should give you a good idea of what that word means.
Using Wikipedia to Translate a Technical Term
If I'm dealing with a technical term and I want to translate it into a language I don't know very well, I sometimes enter it into the search field of Wikipedia in the language I know and try to access an article that has the same name.
If I do find it, I then select the language (if available) I want to translate it to on the left-hand side of Wikipedia:
This changes the language of the article and in the title of the article in that other language, I find my translation.
Now, to double-check it, I enter it on Google Translate and translate it back to a language I know and if it translates back to more or less my original technical term, then I'll know that the translation was correct.
Taking it a Step Further, do a Google Search
The final technique I'll explain here involves doing a search on the Google search engine. This is mainly to check if a sequence of words is written correctly, whether it's a product of a translation or of your own mind.
Here's how you can use this:
Step #1: Translate a sequence of words
First, translate a sequence of words into the target language with Google Translate. Let's pretend that you're unsure about this translation.
Make sure that you translate a short sequence of words and not a whole sentence, since, when you'll use it to do a Google search thereafter, you might get too few search results, or perhaps none at all if you've used a whole sentence.
Here's an example of a short sequence of words that I want to translate into Portuguese:
"He quickly opened the door"
As you can see, Google Translate gave me Ele rapidamente abriu a porta as a translation, which I should definitely question.
Step #2: Put this translation in quotes on Google
In the search field on Google, type this translation in quotation marks and hit Enter. Take note of the number of results that this search yielded.
I inputted Google Translate's translation into the search field on the Google website and did a search which gave me 970 results.
Step #3: Put your next best guess in quotes on Google
Next, try to come up with what you think is the correct translation. Similarly, perform a search on Google with this sequence of words and take note of how many results you have obtained.
Your guess can be as simple as changing the word order if that's what you're not sure about.
My next best guess as to what the translation should be involved switching the word order up a bit. This is what I came up with: Ele abriu a porta rapidamente.
Step #4: Compare the number of results yielded by each
Finally, compare the number of results you obtained from your guess with the number of results you obtained from Google Translate's translation.
If both yielded a low number of results, you should keep searching for a suitable translation. However, if one of them yielded a significantly higher number of results than the other, then the translation with the higher number of results is likely to be the correct or more accepted translation.
As you can see above, my guess gave me 3090 results, which is over 3 times more results than the translation Google Translate gave me (970 results). Therefore, my guess is more likely the better of the two.
Speaking of which, a native speaker of Brazilian Portuguese confirmed that the translation "Ele abriu a porta rapidamente", with more results, is indeed the preferred one and that the other from Google Translate with less results isn't.
More About the Technique...
Also, every time you do a Google search, make sure that you look at the actual results you obtain below to ensure that they show exactly the translation, not only part of it and not in two different sentences.
Here's an example of what I mean:
Let's say I want to say "I stopped them" in Portuguese.
Google Translate gave me "eu parei", which I'm pretty sure is incorrect.
My best guess as to how to say this in Portuguese would be "eu parei eles", which is a word for word translation of "I stopped them".
So, I'm inputted "eu parei eles" on the Brazilian Google search engine and look at the results I got:
As you can see, sometimes it gives me results with a comma or even a hyphen such as "eu parei, eles" and "eu parei - eles" which suggest they're not apart of the same sentence construction and thus not what I'm looking for. There are even results where "eu parei" and "eles" are in two different sentences.
Therefore, in this case, the Google search engine doesn't give me a satisfactory verification and I have to think of something else.
Note also that you don't need to be able to guess what the translation should be; if you enter ANY sequence of words on Google that should be popular and it returns very few results, it is likely incorrect or unfavored.
When comparing translations, however, the translation with the higher number of results usually means (but not necessarily) that it's most likely the correct or preferred translation.
Apart from Google, there's a website called Linguee, which is simply amazing, if used carefully, at translating something into or from the target language correctly.
It's not as quick as Google Translate because you have to sort through a bunch of translations. Fortunately, though, you can get much higher quality translations out of it.
Linguee has many website extensions like .com, .fr, .jp, .com.br and so on. First, it's best to access the website with the extension that's specific to the language you're learning.
For example, if I want to translate something in Japanese, I'll go to http://www.linguee.jp and, from there, I'll be able to translate a word or a short sequence of words from Japanese to English or vice versa.
After you've entered your word or sequence of words and hit ENTER, you'll get a list of sentences containing this word or sequence of words. The sentences will be written in English on one side and on the other side, you'll have the corresponding sentence in the target language.
The results obtained are usually from authoritative sites which are written in at least two languages. This means that, in some instances, the translations are a product of qualified translators. That being said, however, some mistakes can be found.
Also, note that Linguee is limited in terms of languages, but if you use it to translate to or from English, then you'll have access to several languages.
Things to Keep in Mind While Practicing
Regardless of the results of any of the techniques I suggested so far, you should never assume with a 100% certainty that a translation or something you formulated in the target language is both accurate and grammatically correct.
The more you practice, however, the higher the degree of accuracy and grammaticality you will be able to achieve when speaking this language, and also, the less you'll need to use Google Translate to communicate.
Here are a few key things to keep in mind during your practice:
Don't just find one practice partner...
..and rely on him/her to be there to practice with you whenever you're available to do so.
In most cases, it's extremely easy to get in touch with someone to practice a language with.
Make an extensive use of language exchange and dating websites. Don't be content with messaging just a few potential practice partners; message tons of them.
Here's a couple of images illustrating this:
Try to get about 7 solid partners (one for every day of the week, if you want) and if one of them decides to bail on you, just replace this partner.
Don't be shy to have vocal conversations.
In fact, you should try to have vocal conversations as soon as possible.
Because you won't learn to speak a language by just writing, reading and listening, you have to put yourself out there and practice.
Trust me, I've studied German in school for several years, and although I knew the grammar very well, I could barely speak the language, because I had never dared to have conversations with people in German.
Don't be scared to make mistakes and look like a fool.
If you're scared, you shouldn't be. It's perfectly normal and expected for a language learner to make mistakes.
Tell yourself that every time you talk, you get better and that this is all that matters.
So, perhaps you'll have mispronounced many words on your first exchange with your partner, but don't let that bother you because, next time, you'll come back improved.
Besides, you may even be fortunate enough to stumble across someone who'll willingly correct your pronunciation and try to show you how to pronounce some sounds correctly.
And last but not least...
Don't rely on anyone but yourself to teach you the language...
Finally, we're going to conclude this final step of Creating a Foreign Language Immersion Environment as well as the language learning method.