Tag Archives: Mistakes

010 Ways to Actually Learn a Foreign Language

6 mins 5 secs

0. Start with why, yes I know this is also the title of a book ( which is queued on my reading list), but this absolutely essential. If you do not have precise reasons why you want to learn something, be it a language or a new skill, when the tough times come ( i.e., the plateaus ) you are going to experience more friction than usual trying to go from where you stand to where you want to go. Starting with why does help, but do not delude yourself this won’t erase any of the difficulties that may arise, but it will give you some traction to keep you going.

1. Be ready to work: there is no way around it! There is no magic potion you can drink and you will suddenly wake up being able to understand another language. The ideas which we will discuss here are meant to be simple but simple doesn’t mean easy. Remember nothing that is really worth our efforts is easy or comes fast.

2. Have an open mind they say. It sounds easier than it actually is. When you learn a language, you are also learning a new way of seeing the world, which might utterly contradict your own culture’s practices and beliefs. Calm down, breathe and let it be, the world is not going to explode because you actually realized that the way you do things is not THE way of doing them. On the contrary, getting to know another culture with a different worldview will expand your horizons and will strengthen your knowledge of your own culture. You might be surprised by the things you’ll learn or rediscover about your own culture that you just took for granted.

3. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, for it is absolutely ok to do so, what’s more, they are inherent in the learning process. Think about the time when you were a baby and were learning how to walk, didn’t you stumble and fall repeatedly? Yes, you did, but that did not stop you from getting up and trying again and again and again until you succeeded. So why should it be any different when learning how to do something else?

4. At first, you will have an accent, and you probably will still do even if you are proficient, but guess what? Accents are sexy! So don’t make the mistake of being paralyzed because you won’t sound like a native speaker, what’s important is being able to communicate.

5. Accept the fact that you will be lost, especially when hearing words for the first time, there are times in which you will only understand two words out of a ten-word sentence, and you know what? It’s perfectly normal. Jared Diamond gives an example of this in his book “Guns Germs and Steel”. He says that the very first pre-Columbian people that saw Colombus’ ships approaching could not actually see them because they did not know what a European ship looked like, it was only after the shaman described it to them that they began to see it! As we say in Spanish ” El que no sabe es como el que no ve” roughly translated “He who does not know is the same as he who cannot see.” Your brain cannot recognize information it does not hold, hence the “fog” you experience when you don’t understand. For the longest time, I thought that the line: “C-notes by the layers” in Notorious B.I.G.’s “Big Poppa” said “Seadoos by the lakes” it was only years after I first listened to that song that the pennies finally dropped. When I did understand what the song actually said and what it meant ( it’s all about them Benjamins yo!) I felt like a cork was removed from my ears and I was able to hear!

6. Ignore people who criticize you, and make fun of you when they hear you trying to speak the language you are learning, remember that your priority is to use the language, so the only way to achieve that goal is to actually try, and after that, you guess it, try!

7. Do not fall into the trap of wanting to know how everything in the language works. Instead, do speak, practice, and try. At first, you’ll feel like an actor that is playing a part, or someone who is repeating like a parrot without knowing why, or even worse; someone who is lying and saying things he doesn’t believe ( point 2). However, the more you « lie », the more you begin to believe the lie and the easier it would be to understand why people see the world that way. This will make things simpler to understand once you get into the language’s nitty gritty grammar aspect because you’ll say it with conviction.

Now that we’ve tackled the significant psychological barriers to learning a language, let us get into some tactics:

8. Use a unilingual dictionary, yes I said it: unilingual. But why oh why? Well when you use a unilingual dictionary to look up a word, not only are you learning the word we looked up, but also some words of the definition which, you eventually had to look up as well to understand the original word’s meaning. In this manner, you multiply the number of new words you learn and as an added bonus you learn them in context. The fact that you get used to shaping the meaning you want to convey in the target language really helps you to consistently make the effort to actually use the language we want to learn instead of becoming eternal translators going back and to our mother tongue, which is a heavy cognitive task.
We should ask ourselves whether we want to actually communicate in the target language or not. If the answer is yes, then we can use the said language as we learn it!

9. Get you entertainment on! Yes watch as many movies, tv shows documentaries as you wish (Yay! you now can feel better about those “one season in one sitting” tv-watching strings), but there is a catch; change the audio and subtitles to the target language.
At first, you won’t understand a thing, ( or perhaps it won’t be the case), and that’s ok ( more on that on the next point). At first, you will be distracted by the subtitles and you’ll spend your time reading and not actually watching the movie.
One thing you can do is watch an old DVD that you’ve seen many times so that you know the storyline by heart. You have to do so in the target language (that is the language you wish to learn), that way if you miss some of the action it won’t be that big of a deal since you’ve seen the movie before.
Why is this a good strategy? Well, you’ll begin to understand the relationship between the pronunciation of the words and their spelling, for there are some languages in which the way you spell some words is not the same way you pronounce them. ( Yes, English I am looking at you!) By doing this, when you see a new word, which you won’t understand right off the bat, you can pause the movie and go look it up in the dictionary. Now, this is no fun. However, the movie is just the excuse you are using to learn a new language; with time, you’ll start noticing your progress as you move away from reading the subtitles because your mind will have made the link between the pronunciation and the spelling of the words you hear. When this happens, you won’t need to read the subtitles as much because your ear will have gotten used to hearing and recognizing the sound patterns and the rhythm of the target language.

10. Try to find someone to practice the language with. Post an ad on Craigslist or your local version of it, so that you can meet and speak with other people, who, like you, have made learning the same language a priority. Even better, visit your local University and go to the international’s students office and post an ad offer help with your mother tongue in exchange for help in the language you seek to learn. You live far from a University? Well, many apps allow you to practice a language with other people. I like Anchor.fm because it allows you to meet interesting people and have great conversations while you practice your target language. Don’t worry about not being able to explain the ins and outs of your language to the other person, should she have a question about grammar and why it is a mistake to say this and not that. You can tell her that it is just that way and the other option just sounds funny/weird. Remember, neither you nor the person helping you have to be linguists to help the other practice a language.