The following points concern fundamental questions of language awareness and language learning. Their knowledge contributes to the successful learning. It helps you adjust your learning accordingly.

How do I learn a foreign language best?
Mastering a foreign language
Mother tongue, native speaker, second and foreign language
Labelling other languages
Languages and dialects
Learning words
How many words do native speakers know?
How much must I learn to be able to communicate
My greatest trump: my previous knowledge
Intercultural or native speaker?
The Intercomprehension method – a good way to plurilingualism

How do I learn a foreign language best?

The question cannot be answered exactly, because each individual learns differently. In addition, learning encompasses too many relevant variables, so a clear general answer cannot be given. Find out what motivates you most when learning what language: What you would like to do with it? What are the steps generating successful learning? What are the main obstacles for successful learning? – However in general, it has long been known what makes a good learner, as Joan Rubin put it.

Important prerequisites for good language learning are sensitivity to one’s languages, to those one already masters, to the target language, to one’s own learning, and to intercultural communication.

What does “mastering a foreign language” mean?

The answer depends on the particular social environment in which you use the target language and the target group’s expectation concerning your communicative skills. As for proficiency in a language in which you are studying, working, and living your social life, this means that you can use the language in many expected nuances, depth and breadth. The required skills include sufficient command of speaking and writing, listening comprehension and reading. In society, a successful life depends not least on the communication and language skills.

The C2 competence level of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessing (CEFR) defines what such overall language skills mean. The CEFR explains the main features of the C2 level:

  • Can easily understand practically everything he/she reads or hears.
  • Can summarize information from various written and oral sources and thereby reproduce justifications and explanations in a coherent presentation.
  • Can express spontaneously, very fluently and precisely, and can also reveal finer meanings in more complex factual behavior.

In other words, do you understand in detail French TV shows (so that you can repeat them sentence by sentence, word by word [“shadowing”])? Can you follow a debate of Spanish journalists grasping all their arguments? … follow a football report on Italian TV? Can you say and write everything in Russian, you can say and write in your mother tongue? If so, you have a full C2 competence in the language concerned. In order to achieve such a high competence level, a big investment in time and nearly infinite social contacts with native/native like speakers is required. Under foreign language classroom conditions alone, the C2 level is not attainable. Answer only these questions: How many hours have you spent in your life using your mother tongue in comparison to the use of the foreign language X? How many competent language partners or interlocutors did you interact with?

What about the terms mother tongue, native speaker, second language, foreign language

The word mother tongue is not a scientific term; nor its synonymous notion of native speaker, which nevertheless is in frequent use in foreign language research. In regard to migrants, mother tongue often refers to the language usually spoken in a family. On the contrary, linguists frequently prefer distinguishing a first from a second and second from foreign languages. For some of them, the terms express different proficiency levels. Others refer it to a chronological order (in which the languages were acquired?). In so-called monolingual societies, mostly the mother tongue of the citizens’ overwhelming majority is the “official language” (that of of justice, business, schooling, etc.). In this sense, it can be said that the mother tongue of Germans is German. At the same time, many of them speak a German dialect, and parts of the population are speakers of non-German languages (Sorbian, Danish, Frisian) and, of course, there are clearly more than hundred migrant languages.

For migrants in Germany who continue using their language of origin, German is a second language, of which they often have an absolute native like command. In the German-speaking countries, languages like English, French or Russian are generally considered foreign languages, often taught as mandatory or voluntary school subjects.

Nor is the native speaker, which is similar to him, in international use.

From a linguistic point of view, all concepts of competence are problematic, because language skills as ability can only be observed individually and casuistically, i.e. in the concrete case of a communicative situation. A ‘complete language like English or Chinese as a whole’ could not even be represented in the most voluminous dictionaries. Thus, a person’s language always reflects individual experiences (knowledges, attitudes, ways of life, etc.), the dialect for example makes a statement about the regional origins, a sociolect refers to frequent social contacts, etc. Today’s competence descriptions are based on the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR).

Labelling other ‘languages’

…affects autochthonous languages. In Germany: Frisian, Sorbian and others, in France: Corsian, Catalan, Alsatian, in the UK: Welsh, in Spain: Basque, Galician and Catalan. These regional languages have an official political status as minority languages – such as German in South Tyrol, Danish in Schleswig-Holstein near to the German-Danish border.

The languages of origin or migration can count more speakers than some autochthonous varieties in a state’s territory. In Germany, this is the case for Turkish. Nevertheless, migrant languages do not necessarily benefit from special political support from the hosting state, although the Universal Declaration of Language Rights (Barcelona 1996) also protects these languages. (The declaration has not yet been adopted by UNESCO.)

What distinguishes a language from a dialect?

“A language is a dialect with a fleet and an army”, so the linguist Max Weinreich put it in his speech at the opening of the 19th Annual Meeting of the Institute for Jewish Research (YIVO) in 1945. All our national languages have evolved from dialects. “Languages” emerge when the underlying dialect gains a national (state’s) spread – in judiciary, government and administration, religion, universities, sciences, schools, or commerce. The basis for this was often linked to the language’s literacy status and the existance of a standard concerning orthography, pronunciation (orthoepy), vocabulary… within the given community. These features contributed to provide high prestige, which, in turn, explained why the “new” languages concerned were taught and learned as foreign languages. Often, states’ and languages’ growth go together, as the Spanish grammarian Antonio de Nebrija highlighted in 1492 in his Prólogo a la Gramática de la lengua castellana: “Siempre una lengua fue compañera del imperio”.

Generally, dialects transport locally bound, natural and in everyday life oral interaction. Dialects of one and the same language are more or less intercomprehensible. Often dialects and sociolects intertwine.

“Learning a word” – what does this mean?

According to the father of modern linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure, words can be modeled as composed of a meaning (signification, signified) and an external form (signifier). A signifier can transport one or more significations. Thus, a word can be monosemic (i.e. with only one meaning) or polysemic (with several meanings like German Flügel [1] ‘wing’ with references to [1a] bird, [1b] airplane, [1c] part of a door or window, or [2] ‘grand piano’). A word’s usage can be denotative, i.e. in its literal meaning, or connotative, i.e. in a figurative or an emotional shade (angel for ‘adorable person’, or dirtbag for ‘execrated coeval’). Knowing a word implies its spelling, pronunciation, significations, register, grammatical features (i.e. “the verb to like triggers a gerund: she likes looking tv), denotations and connotations, idiomatic features or collocations (to jump the lights/to run a light, brûler un feu, eine Ampel überfahren). Competent speakers know, for example, who uses a certain word for what purpose, how, with whom, with what effect, where, when; what is said, what is not (taboo words), how do women speak, how men, etc. Obviously, vocabularies are linked to their culture which can be defined as a “repertoire of themes” (as the German philosopher Niklas Luhman put it). Each culture develops its own cultural script, that is totally or partly different from that of another culture.

A word can be encoded/decoded. Speaking, listening, writing, and reading take place on different channels, each of which activates an own mental program. As to learning, this means in plain English: We learn to speak through speaking, listening comprehension through listening, reading comprehension through reading and writing through writing. – Unfortunately, the guidance of foreign language teaching has long disregarded this important rule.

How many words do native speakers know? How do they process words?

Jean Aitchison, a famous English linguist, reports on estimates about the word knowledge of British students in the 1930s. The result to be interpreted with caution is “that the average college student knew about 58,000 common »base words«, 1,700 rare »base words« and 96,000 derivatives and composites. The highest result was 200,000, and even the lowest was 100,000” (1997: 7). The estimate of 50,000 (…) “may be too low” (ibid.). The estimates must also be assessed in terms of what is counted: Although there are six different expressions – to make, made, doable, feasibility, going through, making something/away –, at least four of them are ‘connected’ by the signifier to make.

Counting and comparing words in languages (“Has English more words than Chinese?”) makes little sense unless it is clearly defined what a word actually is. The German composite and jaw crusher Donaudampfschifffahrtsgesellschaft would probably be described by most Germans as one word, because it seems limited by two blanks. In Europe, most people imagine words in their written form. The French and English translations of the German example, however, show more than one “between two white spaces”: La compagnie des bateaux-vapeurs sur le Danube / the Danube steam shipping company.

Of course, language proficiency requires much more than only declarative word knowledge. What does this mean? The mental lexicon organizes vocabularies such that recognizing and retrieving words is possible in a fraction of a second. Native speakers identify a word in 200 milliseconds or less. Aloud repeating spoken speech (i.e. articulating, experts use the term “shadowing”) allows to state how quickly a speech chain can be segmented and words be identified. Good achievers reproduce within 200 milliseconds (one fifth of a second), as they exploit recognized text passages to develop hypotheses about subsequent forms and contents. They improve their own “slip-forwards”. The prerequisite is that our word and cultural knowledge does not only comprise single words (pronunciation and meanings), but in combination with their frequent co-occurrents. The ability of slipping-forwards is due to the embedding of the words concerned in a broader knowledge.

How much must I learn to be able to communicate?

To find the answer, go to the further questions: why and what for? There is no doubt that you need the core vocabulary of the foreign language, because it allows you to understand most texts. Corresponding word lists comprise the most frequent words of the language (frequency rank below 5,000). But for deeper and broader understanding texts of a special issue or register, knowing the keywords or the special register words is necessary too.

How can I benefit from my already existing plurilingual knowledge?

“If I had to reduce all of educational psychology to just one principle, I would say this:
The most important single factor in influencing learning is what the learner already knows.”

(David Ausubel: Educational Psychology. A Cognitive View. New York 1968, p.vi)

To provide an example: An Italian who meets the English verb to continue (or the noun continuation) already knows the signification and the signifier from her/his native language (continuare, continuazione). The difference concerns the pronunciation, the orthography, some syntactical rules (continues to work/working, in contrast to Spanish continua trabajando, to Italian continua di lavorare), etc. Caution! The student needs to know the ‘rules’ affecting productive skills, much less for understanding.

In the case described, learning is reduced to “recognition, allocation, and organizing sustainability”. The learning model outlined here only works for learning languages in which a transfer base can be assigned to a transfer target. The model does not work between distant languages

In short, what you actually need to learn depends (a) on the relevant prior knowledge you already have and (b) of the competence profile you intend to achieve.

My plurilingual profile as an “intercultural speaker”

What are the languages you really need to what extent? As aforementioned, the answer depends on your current or future life situation. You certainly need the highest possible competence level in your local language (Polish in Poland…); a good command of English in the four skills will give significant advantages in international communication. In the eyes of the European Union, mastering a second foreign language is highly desirable. Apart from the ability to communicate in this language, it clearly fosters language learning competence considerably. – Maybe, you have a special relationship with a particular country and its people? The knowledge of the language concerned is advantageous. In addition, there are requirements in education, study and profession demanding special skills in further languages. Probably, many people will have to learn new ‘foreign languages’ in their future lives. This explains the importance of language learning competence. No doubt: Plurilingualism enriches your life.

Why does the intercomprehension approach improve language learning? Or: How can I profit from the method?

The example of to continue, continuare… has already indicated what intercomprehension means: to understand a foreign language without having learnt or acquired it in its natural environment. – Intercomprehension requires you to pay attention to the target language by identifying new forms, functions and meanings. Empirical studies repeatedly show the following steps:

  • Reading the target text.
  • First scanning of the text under the question: What do I understand, what does what mean, what meanings and functions do I recognize?
  • Again scanning under the question: Why is the recognized target language scheme identical with the scheme activated from my previous knowledge, why is it different.
  • Third scanning under the question: What do I not understand?
  • Clarification of unanswered questions, for example with the help of a dictionary, a corresponding grammar, the teacher.
  • Creating the ‘Hypothesis Grammar’ of the Target Language: Write down the rules you recognize while reading.
  • If you are interested in more than one target language, it is also beneficial to record the regularities that you can recognize between all the languages involved.
  • Draft your further learning plan.

You will see that in the second, third, fourth text, the decryption will become easier.


Aitchison, J. (1987): Words in the Mind. An introduction into the mental lexicon. Oxford/New York: Basil Blackwell.

[1] https://de.statista.com/statistik/daten/studie/170897/umfrage/einschaetzung-zu-eigenen-franzoesischkenntnissen/