Simple Psychological Tips for Learning Languages

by Philip Yaffe

Native English-speakers are increasingly exhorted to learn foreign languages to play a more effective role in globalization. However, we tend not to learn foreign languages for three very valid reasons.

1. Many other peoples in the world are not just exhorted to learn English, they are required to do so. Thus, you can find English virtually everywhere you go.

2. The grammar of most other languages, certainly most European languages, is much more complex than English. Thus, native Anglophones often view language learning as a daunting, and even demoralizing task.

3. Most native Anglophones, especially in North America, live in almost exclusively English-speaking environments. We virtually never hear other languages spoken live, on radio or television, and virtually never see them written in newspapers, magazines, books, etc. This is hardly motivating.

The fact is, the world conspires against Anglophones learning other languages. So if you speak only English, you have no reason to be ashamed.

Nevertheless, while these factors explain why so few Anglophones know other languages, they are not valid excuses for not learning them when the situation calls for it. For example, you are sent to open or manage a foreign subsidiary, you are assigned to negotiate or maintain working relationships with a foreign partner, etc.

How should you go about learning a foreign language with the least pain and most gain? In my experience, the secret lies in changing your mindset.

I live in Brussels, Belgium. I speak French fluently, understand and can more-or-less get around in Dutch and German, and I am now rapidly acquiring Spanish. But the first language I mastered was none of these. It was Swahili, which I learned when I spent two-and-a-half years working as a Peace Corps volunteer in Tanzania.

Like many (probably most) Americans growing up in an essentially English-speaking environment, I thought the ability to speak another language required superior intelligence; only people endowed with this unique talent could actually achieve it. Shortly after I got to Tanzania, I visited in a remote tribal area where virtually everyone spoke three languages. Moreover, virtually none of them had ever seen the inside of a school (there just weren’t any schools), let alone graduated from a prestigious university (UCLA).

I therefore had to radically rethink my attitude towards language learning. This new mindset has significantly helped me master the languages I now regularly use. I will illustrate with French, the language I know best. But remember, these same tips and techniques apply to learning virtually any language

Seeing Is Learning

If you are studying French, it is probably for one of two reasons. Either you are required to do so for school or for your job. Or because French is “a language of culture,” i.e. no properly educated person should be without it.

Whatever your reason, here is some good news. Learning to speak French is perhaps the easiest part of the task.


I know you may have thought that speaking is the most difficult part. However, I would argue that most people can learn to speak French reasonably well within 5-7 months.

Writing French is quite a different story. French is one of the most complex written languages in the world. In fact, written French and spoken French are almost two separate languages. If your objective is to speak French, you should first concentrate on speaking, then let the written language follow at a more leisurely pace.

In some quarters this may sound like heresy, because the majority of language courses try to teach both speaking and writing at the same time. I believe this is a mistake. Also, I am not advocating “total immersion.” Few of us have the luxury of spending a week, or preferably several weeks, totally concentrating on learning a language.

What I am advocating is doing things in the proper psychological order.

Most people can master enough basic grammar to be able to speak (poorly but nevertheless coherently), and to understand what is being said to them, really quite quickly. This is because the major obstacle to acquiring another language is not grammar; it’s vocabulary.

If you don’t know the verb you need, it doesn’t matter that you know how to conjugate French verbs; you still cannot speak. If you don’t know the adjective you need, it doesn’t matter that you know how to decline French adjectives; you still cannot speak. And so on. 

I therefore suggest that the most effective order for learning would be:

1. Basic French grammar — the minimum necessary to put together an intelligible (if incorrect) sentence

2. Basic French vocabulary — the minimum necessary to begin using the basic grammar

3. Elaborated French grammar and vocabulary — building on basic grammar and vocabulary as soon as you can actually use them

4. Writing in French — tackling the daunting task of putting French on paper.

If vocabulary is crucial, then the largely unrecognized key to learning to speak French is: Learn to read it.

There is nothing like being able to sit down with a French newspaper, magazine, or even a novel to reinforce both grammar and vocabulary. The more you read, the more your vocabulary will expand. And the more some of French’s apparently bizarre ways of doing things will seem increasingly normal.

For best results, the novel should contain a maximum of dialogue and a minimum of description. With dialogue, you can more or less anticipate and interpret what the characters are saying; with description you haven’t a clue. When I was learning French, I used mystery novels by Agatha Christie and Tarzan novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs because they are about 90 percent dialogue and 10 percent description. However, any novels with a strong emphasis of dialogue will do.

The problem is, as in English the words you see written in many, many cases will be spelled quite differently from how they are pronounced. So if you are going to improve your spoken vocabulary by reading, you will need some way of translating what is written into what is said.

You will find some important tips on how to do this at the end of the article (“How to Pronounce Silent Letters”). However, if you are lucky enough to know a native French speaker, don’t hesitate to ask him or her for help. Not to carry on a conversation, but to ensure that you are properly pronouncing what you are seeing in print. If you don’t have the luxury of a French-speaking friend, try the Internet. Put into any search engine French + audio to access an almost endless number of websites with audio examples to help you.

It’s All in the Mind

If French is your first foreign language, let me assure you that while learning it is not easy, it is far from impossible. And you don’t have to be either a genius or have a “natural talent” for languages to achieve it.

As noted above, most of the people I met in Tanzania spoke at least two languages and often three or more, even those in remote bush areas untouched by formal education. This was nothing exceptional. People in similar circumstances in virtually every country of the world speak two or more languages as a matter of course. Here in Belgium, around Brussels even burger-flippers at McDonald’s are expected to speak both Dutch and French, two of the countries three official national languages (German is the third), plus English.

If they can master other languages, certainly you can, too. Admittedly, it is never easy; however, it is far from impossible — and the rewards can be astounding.

When I first arrived in Tanzania, I was speaking in Swahili by translating through English. However, one magic day I suddenly realized that I was no longer translating through English. I was speaking in Swahili directly. It was like being released from prison. Although this happened more than 40 years ago, the picture of my cell door flying open and my mind flying free is as vivid now as the day it happened. It’s an experience not to be missed!

The process of learning another language is greatly facilitated by understanding and bearing in mind two key psychological principles.

1.   Facility Principle: What you don’t have to do is always easier than what you do have to do

In other words, the less you have to think about in learning French, the more rapidly you will learn it. And the fewer mistakes you will make. Believe it or not, French (both written and spoken) has certain features and characteristics that make it objectively easier than English. Pronunciation provides a perfect example.

Most people are largely unaware of how seriously difficult their own native language could be to a foreigner. As a native Anglophone, you probably find that English is quite easy to pronounce. But the fact is, French is even easier.

What! With its nasalization, trilled “r” and other difficult sounds? Yes, and I can prove it!

First, it is important to understand that no sounds, in any language, are inherently difficult to pronounce. If they were, they wouldn’t exist because the native speakers never would have accepted them into their language in the first place.

Learning foreign sounds is never easy; French speakers learning English have a terrible time with the “th” sound in words such as “the,” “they,” “through,” “throw,” etc. Because there is no equivalent sound in French, they have great difficulty in mastering it. But it certainly isn’t impossible. Just as it may be difficult, but certainly not impossible, for you to master unfamiliar sounds in French.

Where French pronunciation has an undeniable advantage over English (and most other European languages) is its virtual lack of a “tonic accent.”

Tonic accent simply means that certain syllables in a word are given more stress than are others. For example, “difficult” is pronounced “dif-fi-cult”; the first syllable carries the tonic accent. It could just as easily be pronounced dif-fi-cult,” which is what the Spanish prefer (dif--cil). Or even “dif-fi-cult.”

Technically, the tonic accent does exist in French, but it is very hard to hear it. For example, in English we say “un-i-ver-sal.” In French, this is “un-i-ver-sel,” with no apparent stress anywhere. Likewise with “restau-rant,which in French is “rest-au-rant.” And so on.Thus, you never have to guess where the tonic accent should go, so you can never make a mistake

As a native Anglophone, you have grown up with the tonic accent, so you might not immediately recognize what a blessing this is. However, if you have had any dealings with foreigners speaking English, you know that if they put the tonic accent on the wrong syllable, you might not understand the word at all. By foreigners, I don’t necessarily mean non-native English speakers. If you are American, try conversing with an Australian or an Englishman; you are likely to have the same problem. And vice versa.

2.   Familiarity Principle: Familiar habits and patterns of thought are often hard to break

Paradoxically, some of the aspects of French that are easier than English at first glance will appear to be strange — and therefore falsely difficult. Although it may take you some time to accept them, once you begin to think in French, you will rapidly come to appreciate them and enjoy their benefits. Here are a couple of anecdotes to illustrate the point.

  A.  Straight is more difficult than zigzag

One time I was talking with a Dutch-speaking friend. He agreed that English is fundamentally simpler than his own language; nevertheless, he complained that he just couldn’t get used to English’s simpler sentence structure. In certain instances, Dutch grammar requires the order of the words of the sentence to suddenly reverse; this never happens in English. Objectively, then, English sentence structure should be easier than Dutch. But to him, not reversing the word order just didn’t seem natural

B.  Never overlook the obvious

One day I was telling a French-speaking friend of mine about my experiences in Tanzania. I mentioned that Swahili has the interesting characteristic of forming plurals with a prefix rather than a suffix. For example, the Swahili word for book is kitabu; the plural is vitabu. So to go from the singular to the plural, you change the beginning of the word rather than the end. His reaction was swift and surprising.

He:  They can’t do that! They can’t form plurals with a prefix!

Me:  It’s their language. They can form plurals anyway they want.

He:  But it makes no sense. And I can prove it. Which is more important, what a word means or whether it is singular or plural?

Me:  What a word means.

He:  Then announcing that a word is plural before saying the word is illogical.

Me:  I agree. So why do you do the same thing in French?

He:  We don’t do that in French!

Me:  Of course you do. And I can prove it.

You need to understand that in French, as in many other languages, the definite article (“the”) has both a singular and plural form. Why? I don’t know, that’s just how it is. In French you say le livre to mean “the book,” but you say les livres to mean “the books.” The definite article le (pronounced “luh”) changes to les (pronounced “lay”). So just as in Swahili, French requires you first to announce whether the following word is singular or plural, then say what it is.

My friend was astounded. What he had found so strange, and even absurd, in another language turned out to be exactly what he was doing in his own. Suddenly Swahili no longer seemed quite so bizarre.

Context and Comprehension

Before proceeding, it is necessary to make a fundamental observation.

No amount of grammar and vocabulary can fully cover every situation that may arise in using a language, your native language or a foreign one.

Language is used to communicate meaning, but meaning often depends on context. Therefore, what you say may be grammatically correct, but still not communicate the meaning you have in mind.

The importance of context in communication can be demonstrated by a simple example. J’ai besoin d’un avocat / I need an avocat. How would you interpret this sentence? Avocat means both “avocado” and “lawyer,” so you could interpret it in two ways: 1) I am making a Mexican salad and I need this particular fruit, 2) I am having legal problems and I need professional help.

Without knowing what preceded the statement, there is no way of deciding which interpretation is correct. It is only within context that we can know.

According to the celebrated dictum, “Translation is treason.” In other words, when you go from one language to another, chances are you will fail to transfer some important nuances. I would like to propose a new dictum. Within the same language, “Context is comprehension.” In other words, many apparent problems of English or French (or any other language) tend to disappear within the context of their use.

Context is vital; it must always be taken into account.

How to Pronounce Silent Letters

If this sounds like a contradiction in terms, it really isn’t. Remember, you will be doing a lot of reading to improve your vocabulary and to get used to thinking in French. The problem is, the words you will see written in many, many cases will be spelled quite differently from how they are pronounced. So if you are going to improve your spoken vocabulary by reading, you will need some way of converting what is written into what is said. Fortunately, with many other languages (e.g. Dutch, German, Italian, Spanish, Swahili), this is much less of a problem.

The major part of the disconnection between spoken and written French has to do with silent letters. French is littered with them. However, there are some strategies you can use to help you pronounce what you see.

Silent letters that do Not affect pronunciation

Most silent letters come at the end of words. The two letters “s” and “x” almost never affect pronunciation.

The silent “s” is the ubiquitous ending for plural nouns, articles and adjectives. It is not pronounced. Neither is “x”, which also sometimes indicates a plural and is often the ending on masculine adjectives. For example: chien – chiens, grand – grands, élegant – élegants, pou – poux, jeu – jeux, peureux (adjective), fâcheux (adjective), etc.

The silent “s” is also often found at the end of words for no apparent reason other than to be decorative. For example: cas (kah), pas (pah), souris (sooree), tapis (tahpee), héros (eeroh), sans (sahn), moins (mwehn), pis (pee), etc. The words bus (bewss), as (ahss), fils (feess), non-sens (nahn-sahnss), sens (sahnss), tournevis (toornahveess), and vis (veess) are important exceptions.

The silent “x” is also often found at the end of words for no apparent reason: prix (pree), voix (vwah), noix (nwah),paix (pay), croix (krwah), taux (toh), toux (too),etc.

Words ending in a silent “s” or a silent “x” have the same pronunciations and spellings in both the singular and the plural. 

Silent letters that Do affect pronunciation

The silent “e”

The silent “e” is the ubiquitous ending indicating a feminine noun or adjective. It itself is never pronounced, but it may change the pronunciation of the syllable to which it is attached. For example: vrai – vraie, bleu – bleue, cru – crue(no change of pronunciation). But boulanger (masculine), pronounced boo-lahn-zhay; boulangère (feminine), pronounced boo-lahn-zhair. Caissier (masculine), pronounced kay-see-ay, caissière (feminine), pronounced kay-see-air. Port (masculine), pronounced por, porte (feminine), pronounced port.

Silent letters that affect pronunciation in verbs

Silent letters that change pronunciation occur mainly in conjugated verb forms, and specifically in the imperfect and conditional tenses.

Imperfect tense

Je parlais, tu parlais: The “s” itself is not pronounced. Without it, the ending “ai” would be pronounced “ay.” With it, the ending “ais” is pronounced “eh.”

Example:  parlai = par-lay. parlais = par-leh.

Il/elle parlait: The “t” itself is not pronounced. Without it, the ending “ai” would be pronounced “ay.” With it, the ending “ait” is pronounced “eh.”

Example:  parlai = par-lay. parlait = par-leh

Ils/elles parlaient:The “ent” itself is not pronounced. Without it, the ending “ai” would be pronounced “ay.” With it, the ending “aient” is pronounced “eh.”

Example:  parlai = par-lay.  parlaient = par-leh

Conditional tense

The conditional tense uses the same endings as the imperfect tense, so the effects of the silent letters are the same.

Je parlerais, tu parlerais: The “s” itself is not pronounced. Without it, the ending “ai” would be pronounced “ay.” With it, the ending “ais” is pronounced “eh.”

Example:  parlerai = par-ler-ay.  parlerais = par-ler-eh.

Il/elle parlerait: The “t” itself is not pronounced. Without it, the ending “ai” would be pronounced “ay.” With it, the ending “ait” is pronounced “eh.”

Example:  parlerai = par-ler-ay.  parlerait = par-ler-eh.

Ils/elles parleraient:The “ent” itself is not pronounced. Without it, the ending “ai” would be pronounced “ay.” With it, the ending “aient” is pronounced “eh.”

Example:  parlerai = par-ler-ay.  parleraient = par-ler-eh.

Pronouncing nouns and adjectives with silent endings

French writing is characterized by its enormous number of nouns and adjectives with silent endings that are pronounced nothing like how they are spelled. Therefore, in order to use reading as a basis for speaking, you must be able to determine their pronunciation. This is not always easy, but there are some generalizations that can help.

Words ending in a silent “t” 

Most nouns and adjectives with a silent ending other than “s” or “x” will end in a silent “t”. The combinations are:

a. ait: This combination is pronounced “ay.” Examples: attrait (ah-tray), fait (fay), lait (lay), portrait (por-tray).

b. art: This combination is pronounced “ahr.” Examples: art (ahr), part (pahr), rempart (rahm-pahr).

  1. at, ât: These are both pronounced “ah”; the accent circonflexe (^) has no effect on the pronunciation. Examples: dégât (day-gah), état (ay-tah), plat (plah), rat (rah).

d. ert: This combination is pronounced “air.” Examples: couvert (coo-vair), ouvert (oo-vair), pivert (pee-vair)

e. et, êt: This combination is pronounced “ay”; the accent circonflexe (^) has no effect on the pronunciation. Examples: billet (bee-yay), complet (com-play), filet (fee-lay), forêt (for-ay), intérêt (ehn-ter-ay).

  1. ort: This combination is pronounced “or.” Examples: fort (for), effort (eh-for), mort (mor), port (por), sort (sor), tort (tor).

g. ot: This combination is pronounced “oh.” Examples: boulot (boo-loh), complot (com-ploh), lot (loh), rigolot (ree-goh-loh)

  1. out, oût: These are both pronounced “oo”; the accent circonflexe (^) has no effect on the pronunciation. Examples: bout (boo), goût (goo), tout (too),
  1. ut: This combination is pronounced “ew” as in “few.” Examples: début (day-bew), rebut (reh-bew), statut (stah-tew), substitut (sub-stee-tew). The word but (goal, objective) is an important exception, being pronounced “bewt.” The word scorbut (scurvy), pronounced “skor-bewt” is also an exception, but you will probably have little use for it in normal conversation.



There is no equivalent of the French “u” sound in English. It comes close to the “u” sound in “few” if you tighten your lips while saying it, This book uses “ew” to indicate the sound in writing. However, the only way to really get the sound is to listen to a French speaker — and then practice. Free online French courses with sound files are excellent for this purpose.

Words ending in “er”

The ending “er” is extremely important. It is the infinitive ending on a major class of verbs, where it is pronounced “ay.” Examples: assister (ah-sees-tay), fermer (fehr-may), manger (mahn-zhay), participer (pahr-tee-see-pay), etc.

It is also the ending on numerous nouns and adjectives, where is it also pronounced “ay.”

Examples: chantier (shan-tee-ay), fermier (fehr-mee-ay), héritier (eer-it-ee-ay), premier (pray-mee-ay), etc.

Words ending in other silent letters 

Silent endings other than “s”, “x”, “r” or “t” are relatively rare. But some of these words are rather important, so you will need to know how to pronounce them when you see them written. Here are a few of the most common ones.

  • · accord (ah-cor): agreement
  • · corps (cor): body, as in the expression ésprit de corps
  • · coup (coo): hit, strike, or blow, as in coup d’état
  • · nez (nay): nose
  • · pied (pee-ay): foot
  • · riz (ree): rice
  • · trop (troh): too much

Je vous souhaite bonne chance et bon amusement (Zhe voo soo-ate bone shance ay bon ahmusmahn) / I wish you good luck and good fun.

This article is excerpted from the author’s book Gentle French: French grammar as native speakers really use it.


Philip Yaffe was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1942 and grew up in Los Angeles, where he graduated from the University of California with a degree in mathematics and physics. In his senior year, he was also editor-in-chief of the Daily Bruin, UCLA’s daily student newspaper.

He has more than 40 years of experience in journalism and international marketing communication. At various points in his career, he has been a teacher of journalism, a reporter/feature writer with The Wall Street Journal, an account executive with a major international press relations agency, European marketing communication director with two major international companies, and a founding partner of a specialized marketing communication agency in Brussels, Belgium, where he has lived since 1974.

Books by this Author

The Gettysburg Approach to Writing & Speaking like a Professional

The Gettysburg Collection:

A comprehensive companion to The Gettysburg Approach to Writing & Speaking like a Professional

Actual English: English grammar as native speakers really use it

Gentle French: French grammar as native speakers really use it

What’d You Say? / Que Dites-Vous?

Fun with homophones, proverbs, expressions, false friends, and other linguistic oddities in English and French

Science for the Concerned Citizen: What You Don’t Know CAN Hurt You.

The Little Book of BIG Mistakes

The Eighth Decade: Reflections on a Life

Major Achievements of Lesser-known Scientists: Human Biology

Books in “The Essential Ten Percent” Series

(at August 2012)

College-level Writing: The Essential Ten Percent

Logical Thinking: The Essential Ten Percent

Public Speaking: The Essential Ten Percent

The Human Body: The Essential Ten Percent

Wise Humor: The Essential Ten Percent

Word for Windows: The Essential Ten Percent

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