How to learn a language

Well, how I would approach learning a new foreign language, knowing what I do now:

  1. Most adults who are learning a language that’s not needed in their day-to-day lives are going to encounter it through travel, so start with the basics of what you would need for a trip abroad: airport, trains, customs, taking a taxi, asking directions, checking into a hotel, ordering a meal at a restaurant, courtesies. Yes, many people in these industries speak fluent English, since it’s now the de facto second language for much of the world, but not always, and even if they do, they’ll usually humor you speaking in your target language until you get stuck. Plus, for whatever reason, these areas make me feel especially embarrassed when I fall short, even though they’re not always covered that well in language classes.
  2. Learn whatever specialized vocabulary you might need for your personal situation: for example, if you are moving abroad, learning how to rent an apartment; if you need the language for work, learn how to handle routine situations.
  3. Learn to make the small talk you would need to converse with a native speaker in your own town, which might be asking about how they came to wherever they are, and why you’re learning their language. (This makes things feel less awkward so you practice instead of blush when put on the spot.)
  4. Learn to describe your life at home: the rooms and furniture and appliances and possessions in your house, your morning and evening routines and chores, your family, the weather, time. Practice as you go through the day: as you fold laundry, say the words for each article of clothing; as you do dishes, name them.

While you are getting comfortable with the above, you can start on a self-immersion, less structured way of expanding your vocabulary and fluency:

  1. Start listening to the news and learn vocabulary to describe current events. For example, for French, RFI has a podcast of the day’s news in simple French.
  2. Watch movies and TV in your target language. If this language happens to be Spanish or French, you likely already own DVDs with an audiotrack dubbed in that language. Especially when you know the plot, this helps get you up to speed with listening comprehension – people speaking to you directly tend to unconsciously slow down and speak clearly, which is obviously helpful but less helpful for understanding the language spoken at full blast.
  3. Follow what interests you: go to an international newstand to get some materials, and read celeb gossip mags or the sports pages. Indulge your guilty pleasures!
  4. Read whatever you want. For me right now in French, that’s 1. Harry Potter, and 2. a travel guide to California, where I lived for several years. Why do I find it so entertaining to read the French perspective on CA? Beats me. BUT, I do.
  5. Browse the internet, watch youtube cat videos, read blogs…whatever you do to procrastinate in English.

The point of all this is to lower your resistance to encountering the language by letting yourself consume whatever media you want. Do NOT under any circumstances try to read “literature” in your target language unless that’s how you spend your free time in English.

Finally, speak the language! italki and verbling are both great ways to find native speakers via skype. I’m not sure I agree with the “speak from day 1” philosophy – some of us are too shy for that – but once you have the active vocabulary to cover your daily life, it’s way easier and less frightening to practice.


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