I wish I could just go to the app store, download the Spanish Language directly into my brain and immediately be able to speak fluently. The only maintenance I’d need would be a few updates on slang once in a while. Unfortunately, language doesn’t work like that, and if it did, you wouldn’t fully appreciate your accomplishments. *Sigh* C’est le vie, right?
Why to learn another language?
Besides being able to bust it out a dinner parties, there are plenty of practical reasons to learn another language.
- Multi-lingual people are said to have better problem solving abilities.
- Knowing another language can help you stay sharp when you’re older and even delay alzheimer’s.
- Speaking another language can help you when you travel (in the obvious ways).
- Some things just don’t translate. A story or narrative is always best in it’s original language.
- My personal favorite reason, in the words of Nelson Mandella, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language that goes to his heart.”
I’ve done a lot of research on language learning. I’ve read countless articles, tried a handful of apps and watched my fair share of TED talks. I’ve done the research so you can skim over the steps and save your precious time.
THE FOUR LAWS OF LANGUAGE LEARNING
Throughout all my research, there are several points that come up repeatedly. I’m going to call them the Laws of Language Learning, you know, like the Laws of Physics.
1) Before you do anything, start the brain soak, as Chris Londale, creator of KungFu English, puts it. Just listen. See how the speaker forms the words with their mouth. Observe body language as one is speaking. You can do this by watching foreign movies, TV shows and YouTube, listening to podcasts, checking out CD’s from the library, or if you’re lucky enough to travel where they speak that language, just observe.
If you can’t travel, you can simulate an immersion experience using audiobooks, regular books, tv, movies, and chatting with native speakers.
2) Again in the words of Londale, find a language parent. He uses the word “parent” because this person must interact with you in the same way a parent acts with their baby who is still learning their language. This must be someone who will work with you to understand, won’t correct your mistakes, confirms understanding by using correct language and uses words the learner knows. (Spouses are not usually the best for this.) Some people are able to fill this need through Skype or Couchsurfing.
3) Probably the most important law is to practice every day. Twenty minutes every day is much more effective than a few hours on the weekends.
Every single language expert I have ever spoke to or read about has said that natural talent and age have little to do with one’s ability to learn a language. Londale suggests that the language needs to be relevant to you and perceived as important for you to really learn. For example, if your in-laws speak Spanish, or you need another language for career advancement or it’s somehow necessary in your everyday life, you’ll learn much faster and be more motivated to maintain and improve your language abilities.
The Different Ways I’ve Learned Languages
Formal study of Spanish
If you have the time and resources to enroll in a language class, by all means, do. I always feel that formal instruction is a great way to learn the structure and grammar of a language. If you just take an introductory class, or two, and then go submerge yourself in the language, that is a great way to learn.
In one of my Spanish classes, we were required to recite a story that was several minutes long. The assignment was to create drawings to help us remember the words we were to recite, like hieroglyphics. This worked wonderfully for me because it was fun and creative and it made me feel confident in my language abilities because I was actually speaking fluently. It took a while to think of a drawing or symbol for each word but once I had, that connection had been forged in my brain. I used the same drawings for the same words in other stories. If you want to do something like this, I would suggest copying down a children’s story.
How I learned (super) basic Thai in a few weeks
Thai was tough because the structure is totally different from Spanish or any of the latin languages. For example, there are no tenses. Instead of saying, “I went to the store yesterday,” you effectively say, “I go to the store yesterday.” The key is you have to know the words that indicate a time.
Also different in the Thai language is the use of five tones (high, low, mid tone, falling and rising). The same word in a different tone could be the difference between “chicken” and “fever.” To an outsider, it’s difficult to find the patterns.
For this reason, it was a real challenge to teach myself Thai from a book but that’s essentially what I did. I got a little book called Thai without Tears and worked through it every day for about 20 minutes for about three weeks. I also watched some videos and listened to a few podcasts so I could practice my sounds and tones.
I didn’t bother trying to teach myself how to read Thai. That is a job left to the pros (maybe if I go back, I’ll take a few lessons).
This method did prove to be effective. I had a few basic conversations with several Thai people. A monk asked me where I was from and I was able to tell him, while using the appropriate formal words. I was able to ask directions, ask for the bathroom and negotiate a price on some pens. It’s nothing fancy but it made a huge difference and made me feel like a bad a**. Plus, so much of communication is non-verbal so my skill level mostly met my needs.
How I gained beginner conversational level in French
Three words: Coffee Break French. Only the best podcast I have ever heard (and I’ve heard a LOT.) I love CBF because the lessons are just 15-20 minutes so you don’t get overwhelmed. I listened while I walked to work every day and would repeat a lesson a few times before I moved on. (I also talked to myself as I walked so you have to be ok with a few stares. But have some perspective; your language learning goals are more important than the opinions of a few strangers.)
Since French is a latin language and has similarities to Spanish, I did teach myself how to read and write French. My first thought about French was how wacky the spelling is. But my French-speaking, then-boyfriend just explained that English has just as wacky of spelling, I’m just used to the rules. Touché.
Thankfully, I had his help and support (the old boyfriend) and he would read to me and with me in French. Again, start with children’s books. The pictures help.
Other methods I’ve come across
Start with a basic study of grammar and sentence structure so you know how to order your words and use formal tenses if necessary. Then learn the 100, 500 or 1,000 most common words. If learning the foreign writing system is too much for you to chew, just learn the words and if you’re using flash cards, write them phonetically.
YOU DON’T NEED MONEY: FREE RESOURCES
Podcasts, my favorite are from the Radio Lingua Network.
Books and CDs from the library.
Anki, a spaced repetition flashcard program.
See if there are any volunteer opportunities in your area that work with immigrants or teach English.
Apps. I like DuoLingo because you can test out of the beginner lessons if you already know the basics.
I used to always avoid Rosetta Stone because it was so expensive but I see they’ve lowered their prices. You can get a two year subscription for $170.
It’s always worth a shot to google “Free ways to learn (insert language here)”
So there you have it. I’ve reassured you that you don’t need natural skill or money to learn a language. You just need 20 minutes (aka, the length of one Parks and Recreation episode).
Pick a language that applies to you so you’re more likely to stick with it.
Remember the Laws of Language Learning.
And lastly, set small, achievable goals along your language-learning path to stay motivated.
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