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How To Learn A Language

How To Learn A Foreign Language

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.” ‒ Nelson Mandela

Anyone who's had or witnessed a conversation between two people who don't speak the same language (a clumsy mixture of sign language and slowly repeating the same word over and over again) can recognise the importance of at least knowing a few key phrases from the country you're travelling to. But how cool would it be if you could speak a new language fluently?

Besides being an impressive CV buffer, being able to speak more than one language will open new doors when you're abroad. You'll understand the culture better, make new friends and blend into the country more freely, rather than standing out as an obvious foreigner. This month we're breaking down this seemingly impossible task, and giving you the best tips on how to learn a foreign language.

  • Do

    1. Choose The Right Language
      If you are starting the process of learning a new language from scratch, consider the following:

      Do you want to visit countries where the language is spoken?

      Will you speak the language at any other time – with friends, colleagues?

      Do you enjoy the films, literature and history of the language?

      You need reasons to persist in learning a new language. It's going to be tough at times and if you don't have a personal interest invested in the process (or if language skill doesn't come natural to you), it's going to be even more difficult. Be sensible about it. If you love Spain and have always wanted to visit South America, learn Spanish. Or if you visit France twice a year, learn French.

      If you're a businessman, or you want to take your business across international borders, think about what is practical. Look at the language you're learning versus the number of countries where it is spoken, and how useful it will be to you. Here are some basic stats: French is spoken in 28 countries, Arabic in 25 countries, Spanish in 24, Russian in 12, and Portuguese in 10.

    2. Cast Your Net Wide
      You need to do more than spend an hour a day listening to a CD of basic lessons if you're going to learn to speak the language within the next decade. The recordings are great and they will help you tremendously, but to pick up the essence of a language you'll need to get stuck in. Back this up by taking online lessons, getting hold of lessons on DVD or CD-ROM, and downloading smartphone or tablet apps. All of these have their strengths and weaknesses. There is no sure-fire lesson that will teach you to speak the language fluently, so take the best from all the options available to you. You will find that the more you do to learn the language, the quicker and more naturally it will come.

    3. Listen To The Language And Practice
      Spend time tuning your ears in to your target language’s sounds and rhythms by watching foreign TV shows and films, listening to foreign radio stations and hanging out with friends or acquaintances who speak the language. If you enjoy cooking, watch cooking shows. If you like music, do some research on the net and look up artists who perform in the language. The important thing is to take the words and phrases that you're listening to and apply them in context as much as possible.

      If you're watching a programme or listening to the radio, brush up on your vocabulary before tuning in. For example if you're planning to watch a cooking show, revise food words first. Set yourself goals, like trying to remember all the proper names of dishes and ingredients used. If you continue to listen to the language as much as possible, you will gradually become familiar with the the sounds and rhythms of the language and be able to pick out words and phrases.

    4. Make Associations
      The most difficult and time-consuming part of learning any language is the vocabulary component. To make it easier on yourself, look for connections between the foreign word and the English translation. Build mental images or draw pictures based on the connections – go back to high school 'mind maps'. For example, the french word for ice cream is glace which sounds like glass. In the case of ice cream, imagine yourself eating ice cream in a room where everything is made of glass. Engage your other senses too. Give the room made of glass and icy feel, that will help your brain associate the word with the cold texture of ice cream.

    5. Practice And Organise
      Short-term memories quickly fade away, so you have to practice regularly to convert what you're learning into long-term memory. The best way to store information for faster retrieval is to organise your learning. For example, instead of trying to learn unrelated vocabulary, try learning words in the same category. Start with a category of interest, like food.

      When practicing, remember to engage your other senses again. Try to paint a picture in your mind about the words and phrases you hear. If you’re learning food vocabulary, imagine eating the food while reciting the word in your mind. As you are pretending to chew, hear and see the word for the food item.

      The more you focus your eyes and ears on learning, the better chance that you have to get the information into your long-term storage. That’s why repetition is so important: the more you repeat the information in similar as well as different ways, the better your brain will be able to recognise and process the information.

    6. Work On Your Own Time/ Have Realistic Expectations
      Languages vary in their difficulty, but they all require a generous amount of your time, consistent effort and patience. Your guidebook may say: “Learn German in 6 months or less”, but take this with a pinch of salt. There is no exact science to learning a new language.

      There are several factors that determine the length of time it takes to learn a new language: how close the language is to your own, how much time you can realistically spend practicing, how difficult the language is to learn and what resources are available to you.

      If you are learning to speak Mandarin, don't feel like a flop because after a month you can only understand the structure of the alphabet and order Chinese takeaways without looking at the menu. As long as you are working at it as hard as you can, you will get there when you're ready.

    7. Join A Language Club
      The main advantage of taking a course at your local language club is that you'll have a teacher or tutor to provide you with instruction, support and feedback – plus you'll have people to practice with. You will also be studying with others who are at more or less the same level, which is ideal for people lacking the confidence and support.

      Learning a language in a club provides two essential elements: structure and consistency. If the club meets two days a week, you’ll be obligated to attend the meetings – especially if membership is not free and if you make connections with other members of the club who rely on you.

    8. Put Yourself Out There
      One of the best trial by fire experiences you can go through is visiting a country where your only option is to speak the language. If you've progressed to a point where you feel comfortable speaking to your friends and colleagues in your new language, give yourself a test by going abroad and trying out your skills. It may seem daunting at first, but once your nerves settle and you remember everything you've learned, you'll find it's the best classroom in the world.

  • Don't

    1. Be Scared To Make Mistakes
      One of the hardest things about learning a new language is taking what you've learned and testing it on the real world. You're going to make mistakes: get words wrong, jumble the tenses and draw a few blanks. Don't feel embarrassed, rather smile and let them know you're still learning. What you're doing takes commitment, effort, intelligence and a healthy dollop of courage. Nobody will make fun of you for learning – if anything, they'll correct your mistake and laugh with you.

    2. Stop Practicing
      Like any muscle in your body, the brain gets lazy if you don't exercise it. Once you've reached your goal and can comfortably communicate in your chosen new language, keep practicing, else you will forget what you've learned.

  • Three Places You Can Practice Your New Language Without Feeling Embarrassed

    1. The great thing about audio lessons is that you can have your MP3 player or CD on just about anywhere. Here are our three favourite places to practice.

      3. The Bath

      This would be higher up on the list, if not for the fact that people tend to get too relaxed in the bath.

      2. The Kitchen

      Ideally while making supper after a glass of wine (to stimulate confidence), there is almost no better place to repeat your lessons and not feel the least bit of embarrassment.

      1. The Car

      The car is a great place to practice everything, from speeches you need to make to bosses and angry spouses, to the new song you're going to nail at karaoke. There is total anonymity and it's the one place people feel comfortable enough to sing, swear and shout. So it seems only fitting that it's the best place to practice your new language.

      Last Updated: May 2012

Clayton Truscott

Clayton Truscott

Clayton is a comfortable traveller, having grown up in a small city that was far away from everything. He spent lots of time in the car as a child, driving up and down the coast of South Africa on surfing trips with his family. After studying abroad in the United States and spending a year working in London, he moved to Cape Town, where he completed a Master's Degree in Creative Writing. He now works as a freelance writer for various travel, surfing and action sports publications.