If you are anything like me, you took a few years of language courses while you were in school, but you never really learned anything. Maybe you learned enough to pass the tests, but then you quickly forgot everything you had been forced to learn… and today you couldn’t conjugate a sentence if your life depended on it. When you were in school, maybe learning a new language seemed like a ridiculous effort to spend so much of your time on, but now that you’re traveling the world, learning a new language seems like an appealing idea. You’d love to be able to understand the street signs you encounter and communicate with the people you meet while out on the road.
When I first flew to Germany in the summer of 2007, I knew about three words of German. Today I can hold a full-blown conversation… and best of all, I’ve achieved this without ever taking a single language class.
I hate language classes and if you do too, the following five tips for learning a new language might just help you out.
1. You Gotta Want To Learn The Language
The first secret to learning any new language is having the desire to actually learn the language in the first place. There’s gotta be something inside you that actually wants to learn and communicate in this new language. Without that desire, you don’t have the slightest chance of ever really learning how to speak in your new tongue.
Think about it! When you were in school and you were taking language classes, you didn’t want to be there. You just wanted to pass the class so you could get it over with and move on to the next thing. With this kind of thinking, how much of that language did you really learn? Not very much, right?
I know that for me, I took 2-3 years of both Spanish and Latin classes while in high school and college and today I couldn’t tell you more than five words in either of those languages. I studied hard and got good grades at the time, but I didn’t learn anything in the classes because I didn’t want to be there in the first place.
So, that’s the first secret! You gotta want to learn the language!
2. Ignore Grammar – Concentrate On Vocabulary
After your desire to learn has been established, the next secret to language success (at least at the very beginning) is to concentrate on vocabulary and forget about the grammar.
In school, they tend to teach you a few basic vocabulary words and then immediately jump into teaching you proper grammar. This is where my language learning always stopped when I was in school. I never got past the grammar part because I hadn’t really learned the vocabulary yet. It was like trying to teach someone how to count to a thousand when they didn’t yet know how to count to ten.
The reason I’ve been able to learn so much German over the past couple years is because I have completely ignored any kind of grammar training. Instead, I concentrate 100% on learning new words and being able to understand those words when they are either spelled out on a page or spoken to me directly.
After a while, the grammar will come to you automatically. While in the beginning stages of language learning, grammar is less important than you think. You can talk to people with poor grammar and they will still know what you are saying. So ignore the grammar and do what you can to concentrate on learning new words. If you want to go back at a later time (after you’ve really nailed your vocabulary) and then digest the grammar fully, that’s a wonderful idea.
3. Become Fluent In The Commonly Used Words
Along the same lines as putting off your grammar learning until a later date, the same can be said for big, rarely used vocabulary words. The truth of any language is that there are certain words that are used over and over again, while other words are used only on occasion. Therefore, it makes no sense to expend countless amounts of energy learning vocabulary words that will rarely, if ever, be used in your presence.
Instead of spending hours and hours learning words you will likely never use in conversation, concentrate on the 100 or 200 most used words in the language.
Tim Ferriss of “The 4-Hour Workweek,” has a great article about this on his website, and I recommend you read it. In it, he talks about the Pareto’s Principle of 80/20, which “dictates that 80% of the results in any endeavor come from 20% of the input, material, or effort.” The same is true when it comes to learning a language. Learn 20% of the words and you will be able to understand 80% of the language. Forget the big, uncommon words. Concentrate on the ones that are used most often.
4. Force Yourself – Make Learning Automatic
Another way to quickly and easily learn a new language is by making the learning process automatic. In school, I wasn’t able to learn Latin because I had never heard anyone speak Latin and as soon as I left the classroom each day, there was little chance I would every come into contact with the Latin language in any way, shape or form. But when you travel in a new country and the language you are wishing to learn is everywhere you look, the learning process become a whole lot easier, because you have no choice but to learn the words around you.
Automatic language learning is why so many people study in foreign countries or participate in housing swap agreements. By living and studying in a foreign land, you are forced to learn the language. If you want to understand the street signs and communicate with the people, you have no other choice but to learn.
When you are at home, however, and learning on your own, automatic language learning is a little more difficult. However, there are some thing you can do to force yourself to learn the language of your choice – even if you are thousands of miles away from anyone who speaks the language. Here are some tips:
1. Set your morning radio so that it wakes you up with the language of your choice. Internet radio is a great way to do this. You can use a stand-alone radio like the Logitech Squeezbox to program in radio stations from the countries that speak the language you are wishing to learn, or you can use your computer to wake you up to the language of your choice.
2. Another great way to learn some basic vocab words is to switch your computer’s operating system into your new language. I was forced to do this in Switzerland after my laptop’s hard drive crashed and the only version of Windows that the computer repair shop had in stock was in German. So, for the last year I’ve been operating on a computer that is in a completely foreign language. It took some getting used to at first, but today I can navigate my computer with ease because I’ve been forced to learn the most common words on my computer.
5. Curiously Digest New Content On A Daily Basis
Finally, the real secret to digesting a new language is the ability to constantly be learning something new. In order to learn, you have to work almost every day to pick up a new word, say a new sentence, or communicate with another individual. When you aren’t taking a class and being forced to learn new words, this can be difficult, so it does take a little self-control. That said, here are some of my favorite ways to make learning a new language both fun and a constant part of your daily life.
1. Read A Book – If you can, find a fictional book in the language you are wishing to learn and slowly work your way through it, word by word. You’ll need a dictionary of some kind nearby so you can look up the words you don’t understand… or you can use Google Translate or any other such online translation tool to help you work your way through the reading material. The progress may be slow, but if you can work your way through until the end of the book, you will gradually begin to pick up new words and your comprehension ability will improve dramatically.
2. Subscribe To Your Favorite Blogs – If you use an RSS reader, find a few blogs that you like in the language of your choice and subscribe to their RSS feeds. Every time a new article is posted, it will be sent to your RSS reader and you will have an opportunity to translate and digest that new content. This not only makes language learning fun, but it makes it automatic as well.
3. Get Curious About Street Signs – If you are living in or traveling through the country whose language you are trying to learn, you are at an extreme advantage. As you walk around, take note of the street signs, shop windows and city fliers that you encounter. Do you understand what they all say? If not, use your digital camera to take photos of the words and sentences you don’t understand. Then, once you have some time, go back later with a dictionary and look up what those words and sentences mean. Then, the next time you see that word or sentence out on the street, you’ll know what it means! For me, this has been one of the quickest, easiest and most fun ways to learn a new language.
4. Listen To Music – Music is another great way to familiarize yourself with a new language. You won’t be able to read the words as they are spoken, and in many cases you won’t even be able to understand what the singers are saying, but after a while the words and sentences in the songs will start to take shape and you’ll be able to distinguish between words and phrases. After a while, you might actually be able to understand what the songs you are listening to are really about. The trick here, like picking out a book to read or a blog to subscribe to, is to find some music that you actually enjoy listening to, because if you don’t like the music, you won’t listen to it and you won’t learn a thing.
5. Speak To Strangers – Finally, use your language learning as an opportunity to meet new people. Whether you are in the country of your choice and are trying to pick up their language… or you are at home and trying to learn on your own, keep an ear open for individuals speaking the language you are wishing to learn. Locals in the country of your choice are usually more than happy to converse with you in their native tongue if you ask them to. Others will have no choice, because they do not understand the language you are speaking. Even when you are at home, however, keep an ear open for people speaking the language you are wishing to learn. When you hear someone speaking that language, approach them, ask them where they are from, and tell them about your efforts to learn their language. Most people will be happy to converse with you… and approaching strangers in this way is a fun way to meet new people and learn new words.
So, there it is! Those are my five big language learning secrets for people who hate learning languages in a classroom.
1. Something inside you has got to want to learn the language.
2. Ignore grammar at the beginning and instead, concentrate on learning new words.
3. Work on learning the most commonly used words and forget about words that are rarely ever used.
4. Make language learning automatic by forcing yourself to listen, read and digest the language wherever you can.
5. And finally, find ways to make learning fun by reading new books, subscribing to blogs, translating street signs, listening to music or conversing with strangers.
What other tips would you add to this list? Remember, these have got to be tips for people who want to learn a new language, but they don’t want to sit in a stuffy old classroom in order to do it? Leave a comment below and let me know what you would add.