This post is written in response to the questions that many of my friends keep asking me over time, like "Rief, how to learn a language autodidactically?", "Rief, is it possible that we can learn a language by ourselves? Without attending formal courses?", and so on. The answer to the last question is of course "Yes". Remember that learning autodidactically DOESN'T mean that you don't have human teachers. You can have those teachers, anyway. You just don't have to attend formal classes. For this, you have to understand the method.
I devise my own method by planning on it and improving it over time since I started picking a 2nd foreign language to learn besides English after I graduated Junior High School, which was German. I learned German actively until the completion of my bachelor degree in Architecture, where I smoothly started shifting to learning Dutch. In between, there were also pauses, where, in order to get rid of boredom, I learned French for fun and unsystematically. For the same fun reason, I also studied (and still study) the history and grammar of a diversity of 41 different languages, including the extinct ones like Sumerian, Babilonian, Ancient Egyptian, Sanskrit, Aztecs (Nahuatl), and Mayan (Quechuan). Thus, in term of fluency, my fluency in the different languages that I learn can be ranked as follows: 1) British & American English, 2) German, 3) Dutch, 4) French.
A. CHOOSING THE LANGUAGE YOU WANT TO LEARN
The first step of learning a foreign language autodidactically is of course choosing the language that you want to learn. You may pick your language by considering its significance or impact in the international world. But you may as well abandon that and, instead, pick a language that sounds beautiful to your ears. The choice is yours and this is where the fun part is. But remember, once choise is made, you have to commit yourself to it. You are not advised to change languages during your learning period, as it will confuse your mind. You are also not advised to learn more than 1 language at 1 time. If perfection in a language mastery is what we aim for, time and devotion are required here.
B. BUILDING YOUR LINGUISTIC FOUNDATIONS
When you learn a foreign language, remember that there are at least 4 areas where you have to build your skills: 1) PRONUNCIATION, 2) GRAMMAR, 3) VOCABULARY, and 4) SET PHRASES.
Those areas have been ordered in term of importance and significance. It means that you need to have a good (NOT necessarily perfect) comprehension of Pronunciation, before you proceed to Grammar. I will explain on how to build your skills in those areas in the paragraphs below.
Pronunciation is listed first, because you have to know first how to pronounce words before you start learning them in point 3 (Vocabulary) and 4 (Set Phrases). Mastering the pronunciation since the first time will also give you much more joy when learning the language deeper later, as you can read loud the words that you learn.
To understand and improve the pronunciation techniques, you can buy casettes, audio CDs, and film DVDs of the given language in bookstores, DVD markets, or the formal cultural centre for the language of your choice. For British English, we have the Britisch Council. For German, it's the Goethe Institute. For Dutch, it's the Erasmus Taal Centrum. For French, it's the Centre Culturel Français. And for Italian, we have Istituto Italiano di Cultura.
To improve my pronunciation techniques, besides hunting for German films in DVD markets, I was also the first and only person in my boarding house when I studied in Bandung to install and subscribe to Cable TV, so that I might watch German broadcasts on my TV. Of course there was a price that I had to pay for this, but, yes, in term of learning something that I really want, I can say I'm quite ambitious and perfectionist.
When studying pronunciation, observe well, not only the pronunciation of words, but also the accent and the rhythm of the native speakers to sound their language. Later, you have to start emulating this.
Grammar is the construct of mind of the native speakers of the language you learn. They use this to think and convey their ideas to each other. To learn grammar, you'll have to pick a very good book on this in a bookstore. You don't need too many books; only 2 or 3, but the really good ones. Usually, good grammar books always require a serious investment of money. =)
How to know that a grammar book is good? You find this out by comparing the grammar book you pick with the rest that are available in the bookstore. Compare not only its content, but also its simplicity of look and explanations. I would go for a book that is not too complete in its content, but offers simplicity in its look and explanations. =)
Grammatical points in a grammar book have usually been ordered in term of difficulty. This means, Lesson 1 is usually concerned with the easiest part of the language and the final lesson is concerned with the hardest part. You can adopt this as a plan for your study. That means, proceed from Lesson 1, to 2, up to the last one. Never continue to the next chapter before you really master the topic of the chapter that you are learning. Also, never dive in another grammar book before you finish studying the grammar book in your hand. In between, alternate your learning of grammar with exercises on listening, vocabulary and set phrases, as what I will explain in point 3 & 4. Again, perfect mastery of a language always takes time. So just enjoy the process and have fun. =)
Without any knowledge of vocabulary, you cannot speak a language. And without a sufficient knowledge of vocabulary, you will not understand what native speakers say to you. Thus, vocabulary building is very important. =)
To start studying on vocabulary, you will need some very good dictionaries. How a good dictionary looks like? To me, it must fulfill 4 criteria: 1) It must contain a large number of vocabulary. I'm never interested in cheap dictionaries that only contain few words. 2) For a European language, it must include the gender for every noun. In almost all European languages, except English, there are genders for nouns (masculine, feminine, and neutral in German, Dutch, and Russian; masculine and feminine in French, Spanish, and Italian). 3) It's good if it also contains examples of usage for every word. In this way, we will understand the context to use every word. And 4) It's good if it includes the pronunciation for every word. But, somehow, only a few dictionaries have this feature.
Remember that the term "vocabulary" deals with 3 different things: nouns, adjectives, and verbs. So, these are the things that you have to study. When it comes to studying nouns, don't learn and memorise them arbitrarily. Try to do this thematically. For example, at 1 time, you learn all the vocabulary about the parts of house. The other time, you learn all vocabulary about family members. Never mix up different themes in 1 learning session! For me, it always takes more than 1 session to finish studying and memorising all the vocabulary for a given theme, e.g. Kinds of job ("architects", "businessman", etc).
How do we decide the themes that we have to study? Hehe, well no one does this, so you'll have to do this for yourself. But this also when the fun part comes in. =) After my experience, I myself have created a standard of 15 different themes to study. The diversity of the themes will give me a sufficient level of comfort to understand, to be understood, and to hold different conversations with different topics with any speaker of a language. The first theme that I study is usually about the theme that I most often deal with in my daily life, e.g. Stationeries ("book", "pencil", etc). Whereas the last themes I study deal with more specific, serious topics, such as Business, Politics, etc.
Another important thing to mention when you study nouns in a European language is that you have to study and memorise every noun altogether with its gender. For example, in German, memorise it as "der Besuch" instead of "Besuch" ("the visit"). I apply all the systems mentioned up to this point on the private course that I hold, where I teach German to the students of an international university near my house.
Linguists agree that you should at least memorise a minimum of 2000 vocabulary of daily life, so that you can conveniently deal with different situations in daily life by using that language you learn. But again, don't look at this number. Just enjoy the ride and have fun! =)
4) SET PHRASES
What is a set phrase? It is a tie of different words that conveys a meaning in a language. For example, it is "Comment ça va?" in French, which means "How are you doing?". Set phrases are put in a different category from Vocabulary, since they are quite different. You cannot analyse each part of a set phrase, since it will render an ambiguous meaning. You just have to learn it altogether as a string of words. I.e. If you try to translate "Comment ça va?" word by word, then it will actually mean "How does it go?", where "How are you doing?" is actually meant here.
Mastering a large number of set phrases is very important to make you sound as natural and as casual as possible, as many informal expressions come up in the form of set phrases. An example of this is "Aha, es ist doch so!" in German, which means "Oh, so it is like that?" in English. This set phrase is just difficult to be translated word by word. Learning only grammar and vocabulary will only make you sound rigid to the ears of the people who have proficiency in that language.
When studying set phrases, you'll need a different type of book from the one that you need when studying vocabulary. For studying vocabulary, it is dictionaries that you need. But for studying set phrases, you'll need Phrases Books. They are always available in bookstores near to you. Just look for them! =)
After explaining all the skills that you have to build when learning a foreign language, now I'll come to the last part.
C. FINDING AN ANSWERING EXPERT & TRAINING PARTNER
After learning many aspects of a foreign language for quite a long time, questions will naturally start appearing on your mind. You'll need an expert in the language who can answer all these for you. This is where Internet will come to help you. =) In Internet, there are many different language forums which are usually organised and administered by the native speakers or experts in those languages, who can answer the questions of other people learning their languages, like you! For German, French, Spanish, and Japanese, I always trust About.com (hence german.about.com, french.about.com, and so on). They are very dedicated language learning forums.
In those forums, you can post any questions you have regarding grammar, vocabulary, or set phrases. It is also in german.about.com where I found my private tutor. She was a native speaker of German. Apart from learning German by myself, I met my tutor virtually once a week for the total of 4 years during my college study period. With her I held different topics of conversations and discussed diverse grammatical subjects. A private tutor in About.com is provided after you post to the forum regularly and are able to show your serious interest in the given language. The administrators will then decide, whether you can have a private tutor or not.
As a language aficionado, my thirst for speaking a foreign language is only quenched after I can meet and speak with the native speakers of that language, where I can put my learning process so far in test. Perhaps you will also feel this after some time. If you want to locate the native speakers of the language you learn, try to visit the formal cultural centre of that language. Another option is to visit all the events involving that language or the countries where the language is used. I was quite lucky for not having to locate any native speakers of German. For 3 of the total 4 years of my study in Bandung, my Head of Department always trusted to place the German exchange students to my department in my boarding house. She was aware that I also spoke German. With them I practised my German 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. =)
If you want to study abroad, it's good to have an international certification for the language you learn. For every language, there have already been formal institutions that organise international certification tests. For English, for example, there is the ETS that organises the well known TOEFL. For German, there is the Goethe Institut that organises different international German tests based on different levels of German mastery.
After all that I try to share with you, finally I wish you a good luck in learning the foreign language of your choice! Should you have questions or a personal experience in learning a foreign language autodidactically, feel free to leave your comment.