How to learn a Language

By: Darragh Winkelman

With May exams quickly approaching even those IB students in an SL language are going to be expected to produce extended, coherent compositions in a language that is not their own. This can seem daunting – but it isn’t. In this article I will present several simple concepts which, when applied to language acquisition, make grasping a foreign language much easier.

Concept 1: Connections

This step will be much easier for students of languages related to English (in the case of our school French and Spanish). By making connections I don’t just mean finding what is obviously similar (like the French word ‘désirable’ and its English equivalent ‘desirable’). For students of French and Spanish it is important that we understand that the connection between French, Spanish and English is much more profound than we might have been led to think. In these three languages there is a consistent grammatical logic that is adhered to. Even in words that might seem completely different to us there are connections to be found. These include both semantic and grammatical connections.

A good example is the relation between the English word ‘stand’ and the French word ‘être’ (‘to be’). These two words might not seem to have anything to do with each other – but they come from the same ancestral word.

First let’s look at the two words for similarities:

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What I’ve circled might not seem like much, but if we look at the ancestries of these two words the similarity becomes clearer:

Modern English/French Middle English/French Proto-Germanic/Latin Proto-Indo European
Stand Standan Standaną Steh-
Être Ester Stare Steh-


The key to deciphering why these two words are really the same word that has evolved into two variations lies in just two consonants – ‘s’ and ‘t’. Through this, ‘être’ loses much of its foreignness. Just as studying evolution helps students of biology better understand why creatures function the way they do, and why they have taken the forms they have, studying how languages have evolved allows their modern forms to be demystified. This may seem convoluted and seem to cause more confusion than simplification – and at first it might. But when connections like these can be made, remembering words becomes much easier over time. The word ‘être’ has not appeared foreign to me for a long time not because I was in French immersion but because I followed this step. Whenever I see ‘être’ now, I no longer see it as something completely outside of my own linguistic reality.

Concept 2: The language of grammar

Learning a new language is greatly facilitated if you know the words that are used to describe different aspects of language. You must know, for example, what a verb is. But the language of grammar is much more complex than that. You have to know what a ‘clause’ is. Words like tense, aspect, person, number, mood are examples of basic concepts. It would be even better to go into greater detail: words like subjunctive, optative, indicative, imperative, realis mood, irrealis mood, dative, accusative etc. would render language learning even easier. The reason for this can be found in how we use language itself.

Concept 3: Irregularities aren’t Irregularities

Especially for students of French and Spanish, irregularities in verb conjugation, assigning of grammatical gender etc. probably have posed particularly cumbersome difficulties. But what is important is to understand that most things we perceive as irregularities really aren’t random. Aside from a very small number of irregularities all the idiosyncratic elements we encounter in language can be explained in a logical way. If we take the Spanish verb ir and the French verb aller, both of which mean to go, we can quickly see why these verbs appear irregular.

Looking at the conjugation tables:

French aller Spanish ir English to go
je vais voy I go
tu vas vas Thou goest
il va va He goes
nous allons vamos We go
vous allez vais You go
ils vont van They go


There is a reason the present tense forms of the Spanish and French verbs seem to have nothing to do with their corresponding infinitive. The French verb is a convergence of three separate verbs which in Latin had similar meanings which have now been blended. The infinitive aller comes from Latin ambulare (to walk – think ‘ambulatory’), the forms starting with v- come from vadare (to go, walk). For those who are in French the future tense root ir- comes from the Latin verb ire – the original verb for to go. The Spanish verb is also a convergence of three separate verbs: the infinitive from Latin ire, the v- forms also from vadare and the irregular preterite forms starting with f- coming from the Latin past tense of the copula (i.e. the verb corresponding to to be).

Again this process might seem tedious – but this is the case with any learning process. If you make a habit of acquiring deeper knowledge of a word it will become an easier and faster process. Because you will understand on a deeper level why aller in French is formed in the way it is, it will be much harder to forget. This technique is applicable to learners of Mandarin and Japanese, in that knowing the origin of a character with make it easier to remember its meaning.

If we take, for example, the Chinese character signifying horse: 馬

This character isn’t the result of a random number of strokes: it, like thousands of Chinese characters, was constructed specifically to represent the concept it signifies. We can look at the evolution of characters:

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This basic character evolved from a drawing of exactly what it means: a horse. This component was then used with other radicals to create other characters with a similar sound. This should facilitate the memorization of new characters: the strokes mean something more, just as the idiosyncrasies in the Spanish and French verbs have gained new meaning with a more in-depth study.

Concept 4: Practice is life

Practice is ultimately the only way to ensure proficiency. Extensive reading and writing is indispensable. This doesn’t just mean reading the workbooks that have been distributed in class. To get a good mark you need to read literature or academic texts, because it is in these that the authors genuinely try to make art out of language. The texts that appear in high school textbooks or IB textbooks are often contrived, and designed to specific learning needs. This is not conducive to improvement, because they are either deliberately simplified or rendered incomprehensible in order to emphasize certain grammatical features – they are not authentic. You need to dive into advanced texts and try your best to understand them. If you can imitate even slightly the exquisite prolixity of Foucault in French or the impeccable technique of Gabriel Garcia Marquez in Spanish this will be the greatest guarantor of a 7, not perfunctorily reading about somebody’s day at school or through remembering pointless vocabulary like the words for chicken, fork, or mansion. This last concept is by far the most important and also the simplest. By applying the principles of these four concepts a 7 should be easily within reach for HL’s and especially SL’s.