Many dismiss any notion of moving abroad as they can’t speak the local language and they’re “bad at learning languages” – but this isn’t true. Unfortunately the British education system is appalling for language teaching, sucking all the life from the language. The vitality of a country’s culture; history, literature and cinema isn’t even touched upon until later years when we’ve already dropped Spanish in favour of a class that doesn’t make us want to stab ourselves in the eye. To most of us, foreign languages is a distant memory of mind-numbingly dull grammar lessons and we left school barely able to order a coffee in French. For those of us who have stuck it out, we know it was worth the pain – in the end, studying languages is a fantastic mix of history, geography, politics, philosophy, literature, art, cinema and linguistics.
But, don’t worry, monoglots, it’s not too late! With the snazzy invention of the internet and smartphones, language learning has never been easier or cheaper. There is no need to invest in private classes or even a dictionary! So after two decades of learning Cantonese, Spanish and Russian to varying degrees of success, here are my top tips for learning languages:
Before learning any language, you need to understand how your own language works. It may sound stupid, but you never actually learn how your own language works because you don’t need to – our brain plasticities as babies do all the work for us. However, if you know the function of each grammatical component, how tenses are used, you will understand the relationship between words. When learning your new language, you can compare this what you know in your own language and this will make the process a lot easier.
It’s boring, but you have to practise conjugating those verbs. Incorrect conjugations are nails on a chalkboard to native speakers. Use flashcards to test yourself and help memorise them. Always be conscious of your subject and verbs when reading and listening. This will help you produce them correctly when writing and speaking.
This might sound irrelevant, but this will improve your vocabulary in both languages. This will especially help if your new language has the same roots as your own language. For example, words with Latin or Greek roots can help you make an educated guess with many Indo-European languages.
To begin with, read headlines, memes, facebook and twitter posts. If you are in the country, make an effort to read shop signs, posters at the bus stop, restaurant menus. Then, you can go onto reading newspapers, magazines, books. It will be difficult at first, and you won’t understand every word – but don’t hesitate at every unknown word, instead try to get the gist from the context and only look-up recurring words.
Carry around a small notebook to write down new words and phrases that you come across in your daily life. Or if you are more technologically up-to-date, make a list on your phone. When writing down new vocabulary, put it in context. Doodle, or write down a phrase that includes the word and a few examples. Our brains make memories using connections, so learning “to ride a bike” is easier than just learning “bike”.
Putting your target language into a cultural context makes it more interesting to learn. Put subtitles of the target language on your regular TV shows. Watch movie or series that you know really well in your target language audio. Disney films work great! Since you already know the plot, you can focus on the listening to the target language. Here, you can start with subtitles in the target language, then take them away when you feel more confident and watch everything in the new language. Avoid anything with complicated plot-twists or existential, philosophical topics. Also, try to find original foreign language films or series – this will be a more authentic reflection of the language in use and its culture.
You cannot solely depend on apps to learn a language, but they are brilliant for learning vocabulary and useful phrases. Duolingo is great because it uses images for new vocabulary, which is then built into phrases and sentences as you go through each lesson to help memories and internalise the target language. Each lesson take abouts 5-10 minutes, so it is not a major commitment and you can do a little chunk every day during your commute. There are also support forums where native speakers explain any parts that are unclear to you.
Integrate language learning with your daily habits – label objects around your house with a post-it note. (maybe with some sellotape so it won’t fall off!) For example every time you use the bathroom you have “shower” “sink” “mirror” “toilet” , you will see these and subconsciously your brain will take them in.
If you are living abroad, the best way is learn is to go out and strike up conversation with the man in the shop, or the arepa lady on the street corner. Use your daily interactions such as super-market shopping, or going to the café to practise. Don’t be shy – people are a lot friendlier and more patient than you think. Often, locals are interested in foreigners, so make the most, ask about their lives and tell them about yours!
There are lots of free language exchange events you can find online on Meetup and Couchsurfing. These are a great way to meet different people and practise your language. These events can be tedious and repetitive, but instead of attending the events and introducing yourself again and again, find one or two people who you can arrange a regular one-on-one meet-up with. This way you can develop your skills by engaging in more interesting and deeper conversation topics.
Get out on the dating scene. Regardless of whether you’re looking for a bit of a fun or a something more serious, you will be forced to speak the language constantly. You will have to talk about your life and your interests, your goals and your dreams. Further down the line, you might even have to discuss your feelings and probably have a few arguments. When you are able to yell and cry and chastise in another language, you know you are doing a good job!
Making mistakes is the best way to learn. This not only applies for languages, but in life! We all learn from our experiences, so don’t worry about making mistakes! Making an idiot of yourself is a sure way that you won’t make the same mistake again!
Language is used to communicate an idea. In different languages, we used different words to communicate the same idea. When you are learning a language, you need to separate the idea and the word you are using – you are looking to transmit meaning, not translate. For example, you want to link the word manzana to the image of an apple itself, not the word apple. This may be a difficult concept to grasp, but if you can get your head around it, it will change the way you view languages and hopefully make it much easier for you learn!