Learning a language is a popular bucket list item.
Do you know why?
I would start by telling you that if you know a foreign language, you can travel to that foreign land and even work there and construct your life there. Like if you learn French, you can go to South America, Mexico, Spain, France, and even parts of Switzerland.
You would say that even if I don’t know a language, I can visit any country. So, taking you to the larger picture.
Language is the brain of its culture. It integrates us with its people, their thoughts and beliefs, their religion and festivals, their literature and movies, their jokes, and routine lives.
It makes us understand who they are.
After landing in Chile — the land of notoriously bad Spanish — I had started conversing in Spanish in a couple of weeks. I continued feeling like a foreigner but as I started understanding more Spanish, I got integrated into the lives of the people around me.
Once you know more than one language, your ability to learn another language is even higher; you are aware of more sounds, twists, and turns of the tongue, alphabets, words, and ideas. But most importantly, you develop the ability to switch your thoughts into a different language as soon as someone starts speaking it. You become smarter.
Hell, Homo Sapiens could coordinate and overpower the entire world of animal species, in their own habitat, with the power of language and myths and stories.
Got enough reasons to learn a foreign language?
But language is not only words and grammar; it consists of the slang, the local dialects, the speed, the rhythm, the abbreviations, and the idioms. That is why it is hard to learn a new language.
Learning Spanish was an adventurous and a challenging steep climb during which my South American friends had to lend me their hand many times.
When people heard me converse in Spanish after a few months of my stay in Latin America, they thought that I had been speaking for years and refused to believe that I did not speak Spanish before Chile.
I am not the self-propaganda parrot Iago from Arabian nights; I am just trying to earn some credibility.
Image Source: Cyberchase Wiki
From blankly watching peoples’ moving lips to making them laugh and run behind me as I pulled their legs in their own language, I went through a journey on which I want to take you as well.
There are tonnes of online courses, tutorials, and language learning applications all over the internet. Pick any one of these which you think has good content. Eventually, it is up to you how you use this material.
Now, let us dive into these 25 tips for learning a foreign language.
1. Find a native speaker of the language — Instead of joining a course, do yourself a favor, just find a native of the language you are interested in. You can easily do this with one of the many language exchange applications. You can also find someone in your city, in an expat group, in meetups or on social media, anywhere. The need to speak the language is the biggest booster to learn a foreign language. I could speak Spanish in a few weeks because I had to. But I cannot still speak Kannada, the local language of Bangalore, because almost everyone speaks Hindi or English. Create that need if you want to learn a new language. Now distant from the Spanish lands, I video call my friends to continue practicing.
From here on I would assume, that you are either in the country of the language you want to learn or you are able to speak to at least one native speaker of that language regularly.
2. Watch and listen — I watched and listened to people with blank expressions. They even got conscious because of my constant staring. Pay attention to how people greet each other, how do they wish good morning, what do they say when they overeat or are late for a party, how do they ask for more sugar. Listen and observe, as much as you can. Soon you would start recalling the repeated words.
3. Start speaking — You get to do something better when you have peeled enough garlic in a restaurant kitchen. But first, you have to get your hands dirty and smell bad. Start speaking irrespective of incorrect grammar, incomplete and missing words, and an awkward accent. Don’t be embarrassed or hide behind the convenience of not knowing the language. Once you overcome the inertia of staying-in-the-comfort-of-not-speaking, you have already made progress.
4. Use objects, facial expressions, and hands — Move. Either you can blankly stare at a colleague or pick up a pen to show you are looking for stationery. If you want to ask how old is his daughter, move your hand vertically to guess her height. After I had finished speaking a sentence, I used to create sinusoidal waves going to the left with my hands. The waves signified that what I said had happened in the past. Design your own movements.
5. Forget shyness — Draw those curtains of shame. You would never learn otherwise. I knew volunteers who could not speak Spanish, even by the end of our four months English teaching program, as they were shy to say anything after a hola (hello). You have to face the fear of speaking incorrectly and being laughed at. Remember — even if you don’t speak, people know that you don’t know. Then what are you shy about?
6. Label objects at home and work — Label refrigerator, door, taps, sink, bed, mirror, chair, bathroom seat, egg. If you look at the word repeatedly, it would get added to your ink smudged vocabulary.
7. Practice from a grammar book — The Spanish grammar book my program gave me was a life savior. Apart from tenses, pronouns, verb forms, routine activities, greetings, objects — it listed easily confused words, false friends, and incorrectly used verbs. I practiced the book exercises and discussed them with friends — which made all the difference.
8. Ask questions — Clichéd but important. People have much more patience than we credit them for. Whenever I thought my host mother was going to thrash me for confusing between the Spanish words for snowy(nevado) and clouded(nublado), she explained even better. Your interest and resilience raise the motivation of others to teach and help. Ask questions from who so ever you can.
9. Watch movies, TV shows, and news with subtitles — This is not only fun but develops vocabulary, colloquial understanding of the language, gestures, and accent. As you hear more people talk, about different things, you are more confident to speak as well. And, of course, you get to know what master plan is the vamp of ‘Te Doy La Vida’ making now.
10. Focus on concepts — You can learn the solution to one linear equation in Mathematics but to solve another you need to know the concept. Don’t memorize, crack the concept. You can then modify and play with the language. She said good morning to him, I memorized the phrase and repeated. Everyone laughed. I hadn’t replaced the “he” with “she”. Remember, monkeys can also mimic.
11. Practice what you just learned — I recited the recipe of an Indian curry to my host mother just because I wanted to practice the different utensils and spatula name. It was hilarious. Do it, often. If you don’t have anyone to listen to you in the moment, try writing down. Or record an audio message.
12. Write down basics — The most commonly used regular and irregular verbs with their meanings and tense forms. Numbers. Greetings. Your doubts or words you forget. Until you write down, you would keep forgetting. I used to read through Mathematics problems while solving them mentally, without writing down anything. But in tests, I used to forget the equation or how to reverse the logarithm and could not solve the problem. Write down what you understand. Only then, it would get marked in your memory.
13. Keep translation applications handy — Google Translate and Spanish dict were like those emergency phone calls back home when you are making butter chicken and you forget whether you add cream before or after adding the tomatoes. They are really handy while directing a taxi, shopping, or during a conversation. Use them whenever needed.
14. Know the right order of learning — DuoLingo proved useless. The course starts with greetings, a few words from everyday vocabulary and how are you, that is about it. It never came to the routine conversations.
Start with greetings, then routine one line questions such as how did you sleep, did you eat lunch or want a cup of tea, when will you go home, what did you do — these everyday conversations would ease your way into the language slowly and naturally. Then come numbers, time, pronouns, introductory phrases, feelings, and routine verbs such as to be, need, want, say, come, go, have, eat, drink, party, read, learn, forget, watch, work, live, see, sit, sleep, shower, wash, clean. Relations, surrounding objects, seasons, places, temperature, professions, come next. Start with less. At first, I used to thrust out a string of jumbled words without articles, pronouns, and right tenses. Then I started adding them one by one.
15. Learn the basic grammar rules — Early but one by one. Live with present tense, then accept past, and then prepare for future. Explore a few regular and irregular verbs every day. Learn to modify the tense form of regular verbs. Then go to irregular verbs. That would help you change the tenses faster while speaking. Read through your list of verbs once every day.
16. Read out loud — Reading out loud improves the accent and boosts confidence. Just pick up a book or some random article on the internet and read out loud. People might laugh but it is worth it.
17. Write the phonetics in your native language — I used to write down the pronunciations and phonetics in the grammar book in Hindi. Thus, I could refer to the correct pronunciation, which my Chilean friends had told me, whenever I was doubtful.
18. Don’t be lazy — Oh boy. You would have to make a conscious effort. Learning a language is hard work but extremely rewarding. When you finally start understanding jokes or convey how happy you feel when your friend cooks your favorite meal, it all seems worth it. It is like finding a whole another set of human beings and beliefs and becoming a part of them and understanding them, but more importantly, being understood by them.
19. Focus on details — When you start — mistakes are common. But learn from those mistakes and grow. That is what it is all about. Like in Yoga, we bent down and try to touch our forehead to the knees little by little, to achieve the perfect posture. These details would also slowly bring you to perfection and would matter when you want to make an impression. Notice, listen, think, repeat, write, improve. Ask people to correct you when you pronounce incorrectly.
20. Don’t get offended — People would stop correcting you and that is the last thing you want. Colloquial learning — an art — is attained gradually by talking to native speakers. If you are attentive, you grasp the accent, appropriate words, modifications, speed, and idioms. These amalgamate you with the people. I have seen truck drivers, who let me hitchhike, light up as I referred to them as Caballero (gentlemen). Or women gleaming with pride as I complimented their cheese empanadas with idioms. But for this colloquial learning, you can’t get offended. Keep your pride on the side.
21. Crack jokes — This is the fun part. You learn slang. And if people are laughing, you have progressed in the language. Remember, as soon as you start making jokes, you have carved your entry into the culture.
22. Be patient — The appropriate greeting and accent and softness won’t come in a few days or even in a few weeks. We all learn at our own pace. Respect that and be easy on yourself. Take a break sometimes.
23. Be prepared to lose it sometimes — You would pull your hair — more than you had thought. Get a glass of wine and Netflix.
24. Be prepared to feel like an idiot — Once at the pharmacy, it struck me that I had not practiced the Spanish words for sanitary napkins. I stood there staring at the pharmacist as if I was trying to recall a complex chemical equation. Believe me, it gets worse.
25. Conversation — Conversation. Conversation. And conversation. I took a French course in college but I do not remember anything as I never practiced French. There is no other way. I spoke as much Spanish as I could and I remember most of it even now, after eight months of having left the continent. Get used to making conversations, much more than you would ever like.
This hard work pays off. You would be able to travel the world and work wherever you want to. You would be able to speak to so many more people. They would remember what you said when their son was in the hospital or how you cracked a joke or offered your help when your friend was struggling to stuff a turkey. One day, they would find your ‘how are you’ the most colloquial and would tell you that you are a pro.
Let me know how it works out for you.