Learning a new language is not only fun but amazing for your brain function; just make sure you’re not wasting your time as you learn a new language. Most learning methods out there suck! I can poke a hole in just about every approach out there for learning a new language, though many of them serve their place. I have always wanted to learn Spanish and a couple months ago I took the plunge, flew down to south America and I have really been devoting a good chunk of time to learning Spanish. If I had the knowledge and methods for learning a new language that I have now, when I started my Spanish would be 4-5 times better than it is currently.
When learning a new skill of any kind the first and most important thing to do is deconstruct it. Many of the world’s fastest learners talk about how to best gain a new skill and they always include this aspect. So what is deconstruction?
Deconstructing is breaking down the skill into smaller pieces. Identify why you might fail before you start, why other people have failed before, or why you have quit in the past. The idea is by breaking it down into smaller chunks it makes it easier both from a psychological perspective and knowing what to focus on when. This in itself will help you to start to understand the skill your about to undertake and where your time should be spent and what problems you may have to over come.
The first step is to reduce the skill into all the skills, write this down, create a tree like flow so you have an idea of where and how you will learn this skill. The next step is to interview someone who has learned the language fast. Another idea is just do a search on the internet to get an idea of how to learn this language fast. When you interview or study enough people you will see patterns of how they learned emerge, trust these patterns more then the traditional way of learning the language.
2. Learn the alphabet and pronucian
It doesn’t matter if you know all the words in the language your trying to learn, if you pronounce it using your native alphabet and pronucian no one will understand you. One of the first things we teach kids is the alphabet, why because it’s the crucial first step. Understand the your language has nothing to do with the language you are learning, think of it as an alien language. You need to start from scratch.
When learning the pronucian do not just listen and repeat native speakers, learn how they move their mouth and tongue. Anyone can learn to pronounce the sounds in any language you just need to practice the biomechanics of how the persons mouth moves. Break down the basic sounds just like you do for kids when they are learning to read in English, figure out what letters together produce which sounds.
3. Learn the most commonly used 1000-2000 words
How many different words do you use in a day, in a week, in a month, now think how many of those words do you repeat over and over again. A small number of the words in any language make up the majority of the conversation. Learn these first. You can do this in tandem with learning the structure of the language, but realize vocab is more important for expressing yourself at a base level. Assuming you can pronounce the words correctly, basic vocab mixed with hand gestures can get most of the conversation across, plus you will understand the basics of most conversation.
4. Learn and Mimic the Rhythm of the language
The rhythm of the language is one of most overlooked but important aspects of learning a new language. You should try and sound like a native speaker, even if at first it sounds goofy to you. I have experienced this many times, where I say something and sound “normal” to me and the person will not understand, and then I change my voice and rhythm to match theirs almost like I am making fun of them and they then understand me. It’s obvious to most people but things sound strange when you do not grow up with them, and even though they sound funny to me, I sound funny to them…and since I am trying to learn their language, I need to conform to what they are used to hearing.
Another way of looking at this is like a song or music. It doesn’t matter if all the components are their if the rhythm is off it sounds bad, and people do not want to listen to it. English speakers tend to put the emphasize at the end of the word where Spanish speakers put it in the middle. When you do not emulate the rhythm of the native persons speak their brain has to work harder to try and understand what you are saying, and mix that with your accent it becomes very difficult for them sometimes. Another tip I often get is speak faster, which tends to work. In the end speak fast and in a way that borderlines on mocking them (but make sure your not of course).4
5. Create a One Page Cheat Sheet
Creating a one page sheet and stuff all the information you are struggling with or that you have learned and want to review about the language of your choice. This applies for learning any new skill, but is extremely helpful with learning languages. I recommend doing this once a week (if you’re really dedicated), or whenever you feel like you’re ready for a new sheet. This sheet should be the kind of cheat sheet you would take if you had a test on your language. Try and fit as much good data as possible and make sure to pick out the most high leverage information, and the information that you are personally struggling with the most. I will in the future write an entire post on how to create an optimal one page cheat sheet. Place one copy of this cheat sheet up in the shower (in a place where it won’t get wet) and use it to help you with number 6. The funny thing is actually making the cheat sheet will make most if not all the information stick in your head, plus the act of analyzing what needs to be on the cheat sheet will help solidify the important stuff in your brain.
6. Have Shower Conversations
Practice by yourself having both sides of a conversation. Sure you can ask for directions, but can you give them? If you can’t give them how well will you really understand when someone tells them to you? One of the best places to practice this is in the shower, and it ties into number 5 as well and can be used to help practice your sticking points that are on your one page sheet.
7. Find a Comfortable Language Partner
Almost everyone will agree the best secret to learning a language is practicing speaking it with someone, but someone doesn’t mean anyone. You need to find someone that not only are you comfortable around, and you’re willing to try; but you need to find someone who is comfortable enough around you that they will tell you when you are making a mistake. In addition to this, the ideal language partner would be someone who your guys combined best language is the one your trying to learn. If you both speak perfect English then chances are you will revert to English more often than you would like. However if they speak Spanish but no English, and that iis the language your trying to learn, that is perfect. Another option is they speak Russian and no English and you speak English but no Russian and your both trying to learn Spanish. Make sure you find someone you are not willing to have conversations with but you will have conversations with them primarily in the language your trying to learn.
8. Immerse Yourself in The Media
One of the biggest mistakes I made when learning Spanish is not watching movies, reading books and listening to music in Spanish. I did a better job of this till I moved in with my buddy from the united states, at which point I remember how much I love American media. You can find a lot of good media in most languages, however even if you can’t find anything good there is no reason not to get some American media that has been translated or dubbed. One of my favorite shows when I was learning Spanish was the Simpson’s, or los Simpson’s. I find cartoons are better when dubbed then movies. Another great example is documentaries, specifically the kind where you can’t see the person who is speaking.
9. Practice Practice Practice
There are many great ways to practice when you’re by yourself, including Rosetta Stone, Duolingo, live mocha and others. Another great option is to use live mocha or another site to practice talking with people via skype in their native language. I do like some structure so I find the websites and tools listed above as a good supplement, however I warn you do not hide away in a room and think you can learn a language by just using those tools. We are social creatures, who learn socially, and more important someone laughing at how you say it or making you repeat it till you get it right will make you learn faster and better then a red x or an owl crying (Duolingo).
10. Make Mistakes
I did not start learning Spanish till I was ready to start making mistakes. In fact I would say the days I learned the most were the days that I made the most mistakes. This is the kind of skill you need to jump head first into. I cannot tell you how many people I tried to talk to that said they should know a lot of English but were to embarrassed to try. In fact one person told me they had spent thousands of dollars on lessons but would not say a word to me in English. You cannot pay to learn a language it takes trying and failing then trying again to get it.
11. Have Fun
This is the most important and hardest one to master, but it is also the most effective and most often over looked aspect of learning a new language. Until you get to the point where you are learning the language for you, your curiosity, your own amusement and you’re having fun doing it, learning a language is going to be really hard. If your trying to learn a language to impress people each hour will be a grind, conversations will be mechanical and the experience will just overall suck. Have fun with it, do things like sports, yoga, or other things where actions are primary and grunts or following other people will work. One thing I want to do for my next language is learn a martial art in that language, which would not only be something where I can learn by watching but I would most likely make new friends in the class as well. Figure out why you really want to learn a language and make sure it’s a good enough reason that you will stick around when you hit the inevitable plateaus.