The ‘total approach’ to learning French – the Institute de Français

The Institute de Français is a French language school in Villefranche-sur-Mer on the French Rivera. A few years ago I attended a 4-week course there. It was excellent.

The school is set up to immerse student in the French language to the greatest degree possible (shy of holding them completely captive). It is what the Institute calls the ‘Total Approach’ and it is highly effective. They achieve immersion through various means:

  • A ‘French only’ policy is strictly enforced on campus. And most students also try to speak only French off campus in the evenings and on weekends.
  • Most students are there for a full 4-week course which is long enough to really get deeply into the language.
  • Instruction is in French only – even at the absolute beginner levels.
  • The French-only days are long – 8 1/2 hours.
  • The day includes breakfast and lunch. Students sit at tables of eight and each table includes a teacher who is there to ensure that the meal is accompanied by conversion – in French of course.
  • In the class-room the focus is very much on functional French that gets the student speaking as much as possible. Rather than focusing on grammar theory, the emphasis is on providing patterns that can be used in conversion.

For me the Institute was an inflection point. Prior to attending I had lived in Paris for 6 years but both my personal/social and work environments had been very much Anglophone. So while my French was sufficient to get me into the top class at the Institute, it was embarrassingly inadequate considering I’d already lived in France for an extended period.

It is not cheap – 5,800 € for the 4-week course. But the month I invested at Villefranche-sur-Mer changed everything. On returning to Paris I found myself speaking French comfortably – of course not perfectly – and without hesitation. The most important benefit of my time at the Institute was that it forced me to get over any hang-ups I had about making mistakes and embarrassing myself.

Here is a link to the Institute website.

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Learning Japanese – what does Dōgen say?

Hmmm… before we get started I have a confession – I don’t know where the pitch accent is for Dōgen… Oh well – anyway, let’s plough ahead.

Firstly, who is Dōgen (道元)? Well it turns out that he is a 13th century monk who makes humorous Youtube videos in Japanese, mostly making fun of foreigners in Japan, including himself. It is very Zen.

Here are Dōgen’s top tips for learning Japanese

  1. Only ever watch the Japanese dubbed versions of Western films and TV shows.
    • 100% immersion is the only way.
  2. Switch your computer and phone OS to Japanese. You’ll see – there is no going back. And once you do know how to go back you won’t have to.
    • 100% immersion is the only way.
  3. Talk to everyone in Japanese – including other foreigners who are learning Japanese. Including your mother even if she is not learning Japanese.
    • 100% confusion is the only way.
  4. Mutter to yourself in Japanese.
    • 100% institutionalisation is the only way.
  5. Focus only on phonetics – especially pitch accent. Everything else is of secondary importance. You won’t be able to say anything but at least you will be spared the humiliation of putting the pitch on the wrong syllable of that nothing.
    • 101% precision is the only way.

Source :

Is Korean hard to learn?

Korean is hard to learn for English speakers. Indeed, the United States Foreign Service Institute ranks Korean in its most difficult tier of languages to learn -in the same tier as Japanese, Chinese and Arabic.

While it is true that many of the grammatically concepts that determine how the Korean language works are completely foreign to an English speaker, it is not the language itself that presents the biggest hurdle, but culture inherent in the language that is most difficult for foreigners to grasp.

Why is Korean easy?

  1. The Korean “Hangul” writing system is brilliant. And part of that brilliance is that it is easy to learn.
  2. While the grammar certainly is different, it is in fact not that difficult once certain concepts have been mastered. For instance the use of particles or markers attached to nouns to signify the grammatical function of a word is completely different to European languages. A big part of learning Korean is memorising grammatical patterns – in much the same way as a student learns vocabulary.
  3. Pronunciation is not difficult. While there are some sounds not found in English, the language is not tonal and presents few problems for most English speakers.

Why is Korean hard?

  1. There is not a lot of shared vocabulary. While everyday Korean increasingly uses English borrowed words (derisively referred to as ‘Konglish’), often in a form unrecognisable to an English speaker, these will on get you so far.
    • Cognates include 주스 (ju-se) – juice, 오렌지 (or-rin-ji) – orange, 에어컨 (ae-o-kon) – air conditioning, 텔레비 (tel-le-bi) – television, 아파트 (a-pa-teu) – apartment, 원샷 (won-syat) – bottom’s up (one shot), 홈피 (hom-pi) – homepage, 오토바이 (o-to-ba-i) – motorcycle, 슈퍼 (syu-peo) – supermarket.
  2. The word order of Korean sentences take some getting used to. While in English sentences usually follow the <Subject> <Verb> <Object> pattern, in Korean the order is <Subject> <Object> <Verb>. That said, this difference does not seem to be a huge barrier to English speakers.
  3. Korean has three or four (depends how you count) levels of politeness which can be very challenging to master. But a beginner can get away with focusing initially on two and not offend anyone too much.

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Is Russian hard to learn?

Russian, like most Slavic languages, is quite challenging to learn for English speakers. The United States Foreign Service Institute ranks Russian in its forth tier of difficulty of languages to learn for English speakers – harder than French and German, about the same as Hindi and Turkish but significantly easier than Japanese, Chinese, Korean and Arabic.

Russian is challenging to learn because:

  1. There is not a lot of shared vocabulary. While there are not many borrowed Russian words in English, Russian does have some English (and French) borrowed words but this does not get you very far.
    • Useful cognates include центр (tsenter) – center, студент (student) – student, класс (klas) – class, иде́я (ideya) – idea, но́мер (nomer) – number, фильм (film) – film, метро (myetro) – metro and автобус (avtobus) – bus.
  2. Russian nouns have one of three genders – male, female and neuter. While at first this might seem daunting, the noun endings very often give away the gender – an ‘a’ ending for feminine nouns, an ‘o’ ending for neuter nouns and a consonant ending for masculine nouns.
  3. Russian grammar is hard for English speakers – there are no two ways about it. The verbs conjugate according to number, tense and gender. Moreover there are two verbal moods – perfective and imperfective. Nouns, pronouns and adjectives all decline according to number, gender and grammatical function (case). And there are six grammatical cases!
    • The complicated grammar is somewhat offset by a very flexible word order and the lack of articles (‘a’ and ‘the’).
  4. The verbs of motion are complicated. In English we have ‘to go’. But in Russian the verb of motion depends on whether we go by foot or by transport. And whether it is a oneway or return (or habitual) journey.
  5. Pronunciation is challenging. The actual pronunciation of words is not really difficult for English speakers – the exception being the vowel “ы” which has no equivalent sound in English. And the rolling “R”. The difficulty in Russian is that the position of stress in a word can change the sound of certain vowels. The most obvious example is “o” which when not stressed is pronounced “a”. For example “Большой Театр” is pronounced ‘Balshoy’ since the stress is on the second syllable. To make matters worse, the position of the stress and therefore the pronunciation of vowels can change when a word changes its grammatical function.
    • The Russian Cyrillic is easy – that is once you accept that fact that while the letters might look a little like the latin script, their pronunciation is not the same.
  6. Russian has two levels of politeness (the вы and ты forms) are quite straight forward even though getting comfortable with the situations in each should used can make an English speakers as bit nervous. The fact that they вы form conjugates in the same way as the second person plural (‘you’ as in ‘you guys’) makes things easier.

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Is French hard to learn?

French is not that hard to learn

French has long been the most popular language learned by English speakers – including in Britain, Canada and the United States. Indeed, it has among the highest proportion of non-native speakers of all major languages.

French is among the easiest of languages for an English speaker to learn. The United States Foreign Service Institute ranks French in its second tier of easiest languages to learn for English speakers.

French is easy to learn because:

  1. There is a great deal of shared vocabulary thanks to William the Conqueror and the Norman conquest in 1066. Indeed half of English vocabulary has French/Latin roots.
  2. All French nouns have one of two genders – male or female. While at first this might seem daunting it quickly becomes natural with the gendered article (‘le’ or ‘la’) learnt as part of the noun. So rather than just chat (‘cat’) we memorize le chat (‘the cat’). And ‘la chat’ just sounds wrong.
  3. French grammar, though somewhat irregular, is not that challenging despite the much-feared subjunctive mood.
  4. Pronunciation can be challenging with quite a few sounds that aren’t found in English. But the French are so used to hearing their language spoken with a foreign accent that this is rarely a barrier to being understood.
  5. The two levels of politeness (the vous and tu forms) are quite straight forward even though getting comfortable with the situations in each should used can make an English speakers as bit nervous.
  6. Oral comprehension can present difficulties – that is understanding a native speaking talking. The French language has a lot of contractions and small particles which can be difficult to catch, especially when spoken quickly (and perhaps with a regional accent). For example ‘il y en a un‘ which means ‘there is one of them’.

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How to learn Russian – Fiona Hill

Fiona Hill is a British-American expert on Russian affairs. She speaks Russian fluently. She was born and raised in a coal mining community in the North East of England and still retains her robust northern English accent.

How to learn Russian by Fiona Hill

She has no family connections to Russia but decided to learn Russian on the advice of an uncle who, at a time of rising tensions between the West and the Soviet Union, thought that promoting understanding between the two sides would be fruitful. As the daughter of a struggling coal miner, she was granted funding by a coal miner’s union to begin her studies of the Russian language and was then accepted into the Russian language program at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

She spent a year studying at the Maurice Thorez Institute of Foreign Languages in Moscow and she earned a master’s in Soviet studies and a doctorate in history from Harvard University. She then went on to be appointed to the US National Security Council and to advise three presidents of the United States on Russian and European affairs. She has also worked in a number of foreign relations institutions and think-tanks. She authored several books about Russia including an autobiography entitled “There Is Nothing for You Here: Finding Opportunity in the Twenty-First Century” published in 2021.

We have reached out to Fiona asking her what is her secret for language learning success and for her Five Top Language Learning Tips. We will get back to you when we hear back from her. Stay tuned.

Learn Russian Grammar Step-by-step


A 535-page book and accompanying mobile app.
● Step-by-step introduction to Russian grammar in 200 topics.
● Over 3,000 annotated examples.
● High-quality audio pronunciations via the app.
● Fun and challenging exercises to ensure retention.

Check them out here:

Learn Russian Grammar Step‑by‑step - book and app

Learn Russian Step-by-Step: A Comprehensive Guide

Are you interested in learning Russian and want to start from scratch? Look no further. In this comprehensive guide, we will walk you through the step-by-step process of learning Russian.

Step 1: The Russian Alphabet

The first step in learning Russian is to familiarize yourself with the Russian alphabet. The Russian alphabet consists of 33 letters and is based on the Cyrillic script. This is pretty straightforward except for a couple silent letters and the infamous ы which has no equivalent sound in any other European language. But you’ll get the hang of it pretty quickly with lots of practice.

Step 2: Basic Grammar

After you have learned the Russian alphabet, the next step is to start with the basics of Russian grammar. This includes learning basic sentence structures, verb conjugations, and noun declensions. We recommend focusing on present tense verbs and basic vocabulary to get started.

BOOTSTRAP RUSSIAN GRAMMAR will help with this! And progress styep-by-step to the advanced grammar too.

Step 3: Building Vocabulary

One of the most important parts of learning any language is building a strong vocabulary. We recommend starting with the most commonly used words in Russian and gradually adding to your vocabulary. One useful resource is the 1000 most common Russian words list. Additionally, reading Russian literature and listening to Russian music can help you pick up new words and phrases.

BOOTSTRAP RUSSIAN GRAMMAR will help with this!

Step 4: Practicing Listening and Speaking

As you build your vocabulary, it is important to practice listening and speaking skills. One great way to do this is by finding a language partner or tutor who can help you practice speaking and listening.

The BOOTSTRAP RUSSIAN GRAMMAR app will help with this!

Step 5: Reading and Writing

As you progress in your Russian language learning, it is important to start practicing reading and writing skills. One way to do this is by reading Russian texts, such as news articles or books, and practicing writing in Russian. We recommend starting with simple texts and gradually increasing the difficulty.

Step 6: Immersion

Finally, the best way to become proficient in Russian is to immerse yourself in the language and culture. This can include watching Russian movies and TV shows, listening to Russian music, and even traveling to Russia to practice your language skills. There are loads of free resources on the internet to help with this.

In conclusion, learning Russian step-by-step takes time and dedication. However, by following these six steps, you can gradually build your language skills and become proficient in Russian. Good luck (Удачи!) on your Russian language learning journey!

What is Qu’est-ce que c’est?

Qu'est-ce que c'est Qu'est-ce que c'est?

Qu’est-ce que c’est « Qu’est-ce que c’est » ?

The very commonly used French phrase Qu’est-ce que c’est ? is the contorted way in which the circumlocutory French ask ‘What is it?’.

Or as the French would say ‘What is that which it is?’.

Let’s break it down into its six contingent words and take a closer look:

(1.) Qu‘ + (2.) est + (3.) ce + (4.) que + (5.) c‘ + (6.) est

  1. Qu’ is an abbreviation of the interrogative pronoun que meaning ‘what’.
  2. est is a conjugation of the verb ‘to be’ – in this case ‘is’.
  3. ce is a demonstrative adjective meaning ‘it’ or ‘that’.
  4. que is the relative pronoun. also mean ‘that’ or ‘which’. Taken together ce que is an indefinite relative pronoun and means something like ‘that which’.
  5. c‘ is an abbreviation of ce which as we saw means ‘it’ or ‘that’.
  6. And also once again est is a conjugation of the verb ‘to be’ – in this case ‘is’.

So reassembling we have ‘what’ + ‘is’ + ‘it’ + ‘that which’ + ‘it’ + ‘is’.

And now we know what it is. Or to put it in a way the French might: Nous savons ce qu’est « Qu’est-ce que c’est » !

Ça y est !

Oh – and here is how it is pronounced:

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Which is the easiest language to learn and why?

what language is the easiest to learn - the tree of languages

The answer to the question “what language is the easiest to learn?” is “well, it depends…”. Or more explicitly it depends firstly on where you are starting from – that is to say, how dissimilar the target language is from your native language. And secondly it depends on how novelly complex the target language is. Let me explain.

Learning a language is like climbing a mountain. The effort required to reach the summit depends firstly on how far away the mountain is from where you are setting off. And secondly how high the mountain is. A Spanish person learning Italian has not far to go – the mountain is not far away. But a Japanese person learning English has a much further distance to go linguistically. Though the (English) mountain is (arguably) not that high. But for an English person learning Japanese the mountain is both distant and high – Japanese is linguistically distant from English and is also inherently complex.

Relative Linguistic Distance

Relative linguistic difference is how far away the mountain is. However quantifying linguistic difference is not easy. Languages are complex and differ in many ways including vocabulary, grammar, written form, syntax and myriad other characteristics. This makes for difficulty in the formulating a measure of linguistic distance. That is not to say however that people have not tried – they have.

A taxonomic approach is the Automatic Similarity Judgment Program (ASJP) method. This method measures the ‘distance’ between words with similar meanings across languages. The list of words to be compared are selected to be culturally independent and for which there are representations in all of the world’s languages. The list comprises basic words of human communication (e.g. I, you, one), body parts (e.g. eye, nose, tooth) or environmental concepts (e.g. water, stone, night). To assess the similarity of a pair of words with the same meaning in two different language, a distance is calculated based on the number of sounds that have to be changed, removed or added to transform the word in the first language into the same word in the second language. The result is the ASJP linguistic distance index.

Obviously this is not going to be a good poxy for the difficulty of learning a language. While having similar vocabularies – like English and Dutch for example – does indeed make a language easier to learn, there is much more than that in assessing linguistic distance from the perspective of learning a foreign language.

Measuring language-learning difficulty empirically

A better approach is that taken in a 2005 paper by Chiswick and Miller which constructs a measures for linguistic distances based on how rapidly migrants to the United States and Canada from various linguistic backgrounds gained proficiency in English.

According to their index, Korean and Japanese are linguistically the most distant from English based in the observation that Korean and Japanese migrants have the least success in English language acquisition. At the opposite end of the spectrum Afrikaans, Norwegian, Romanian and Swedish are linguistically the closest languages to English.

There are of course obvious several problems with this as a language learning difficulty index. Firstly notice that languages from wealthy countries are ranked easier. This is likely because people from these wealthy countries benefited from an effective English-language education even before arriving in the US and Canada. This is most starkly illustrated by the case of Finnish which is undisputedly one of the most linguistically distant languages from English and yet it scores medium difficulty. Secondly migrants from ex-British colonies where English is still widely (and effectively) taught also benefit. Hence perhaps contributing to the low difficultly scores for Malay and Swahili. The different difficulty scores for Bahasa Indonesian compared to Malay – even though they are essentially the same language – would seem to suggest the migrants from the ex-British colony of Malaysia arrived already with an advantage. Though having said that the high difficultly score for Hindi contradict this ex-British colony argument.

Another issue is that of directionality. While positing that Russian is only moderately distance from English based on the finding that Russian speaking migrants are relative successful in acquiring English, it does not mean the opposite is necessarily true.

Measuring the time to learn a language

Perhaps the best metric of the relative difficulty of learning particular languages can be arrived at by consulting the language learning experts – those that actually teach it. The United States Foreign Service Institute is ideal in this regard. It is the institution that trains US diplomats and its School of Languages Studies teaches around 70 languages. The FLI structures its language courses based on its experience teaching Americans the languages it offers. The duration of each language stream differs according to the Institute’s experience with getting the average student to a proficient level. So the duration of their courses range from 24 weeks to 88 weeks. That is to say that, in their experience, some language take over 3.5 times longer that others to learn. That is quite a difference.

According to this metric the easiest languages for English speakers to learn are Dutch, Norwegian, Swedish and romance languages (Italian, Spanish and Portuguese) . The most difficult are Arabic, Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese and Korean.

Here are several post discussing the ‘difficulty’ of some of the more popular languages that English speaker learn in French, Spanish, Italian, Russian, German, Korean, Japanese and Chinese.

Ranking of Language Difficulty for English Speakers
  1. Dutch – easiest
  2. Norwegian – easiest
  3. Swedish – easiest
  4. Italian – easiest
  5. Spanish – easiest
  6. Portuguese – easiest
  7. French – quite easy
  8. German – quite easy
  9. Indonesian – medium difficulty
  10. Malaysian – medium difficulty
  11. Swahili – medium difficulty
  12. Russian – difficult
  13. Turkish – difficult
  14. Finnish – more difficult
  15. Hungarian – more difficult
  16. Thai – more difficult
  17. Vietnamese – more difficult
  18. Arabic – most difficult
  19. Korean – most difficult
  20. Japanese – most difficult
  21. Chinese (Mandarin and Cantonese) – most difficult