1. The Birmingham Screwdriver

In which we find out how to get started and use the right tools for the job

The Birmingham Screwdriver”, for those unfamiliar with the expression, is not some sort of exotic cocktail, but in fact a hammer. It’s an unfair slur on one of the powerhouses of the industrial revolution. The implication is that the inhabitants of the English Midlands city were too dim to choose the right tool for the job.

Unfortunately, many who have tried to learn a language failed in their endeavours precisely because they were using the wrong tools.

Sometimes we are so keen to get started, that we don’t consider the most efficient way to move forward. The story goes that a boy was seen panting and sweating, pushing his bicycle by his side as fast as he could. “Why don’t you get on the bike?” asked his curious friends. “I can’t. I don’t have time. I’m late for school!”

So, let’s stop for a moment, slow down, get on the bike. And then we can move faster toward our goal. Or rather, your goal. What exactly is it? It needs to be very clear in your mind, otherwise you will waste a lot of time learning stuff that you don’t need to know.

The aim of this chapter is therefore to let you know exactly what you are letting yourself in for if you decide to learn a language. You have to know the worst, otherwise, like so many others, you will fall early in the race. Many tens of thousands of language manuals are sold in the UK each year, yet we remain a resolutely monolingual nation. So the following is a realistic, but attainable, guide to just what it takes. Don’t read the whole chapter in one go if you have a weak constitution.



  • Getting started

  • The four core skills of language learning and the tools required to master them

  • An introduction to the International Phonetic Alphabet

  • Perfectionism: the rust in the toolbox

  • How long does it take to learn a language?

  • How to use this book: what it can and cannot do

This is an extract from our must-read book about language learning, THE LANGUAGE SECRET. Browse the site for more extracts from the other chapters and information about what they contain. You can also purchase a copy of the book by clicking on the button at the bottom of the page.