Learning A foreign Language is Much Easier than You Think!
What is one foreign language you would love to learn but haven’t yet? I put that question up on Facebook the other day and I think it was one of my most popular posts ever. Learning Languages is one of those things that everyone seems to want to do and everyone has a different reason for doing so. I think one of the coolest answers came from my friend Brooke who said she wanted to learn Sanskrit because she felt the language contained an ancient power. I thought that was a fantastic answer because it was also a driving force for me to learn Latin in university. In this post, I will show you how to easily learn a foreign language.
As of writing this, I speak 6 languages, including my native language, English. They others are Turkish, Mandarin, French, Spanish, and Japanese. They are all at different levels of fluency but if you picked me up and dropped me off with nothing else but clothes and my smile, I could survive and make friends in these languages. I am most fluent in Turkish, in which I can discuss politics and philosophy confidently. I can also make basic convo (ordering food, where are you from? I’m from… etc.)in German. I have also studied Latin, Arabic, and basic Thai.
Enough showing off, now let’s jump into how I did it. The three most important things you need to effectively learn a foreign language are: access, resources, and a method. Access is the ability to practice speaking the language and resources are the materials you use to learn the language itself (grammar, syntax, etc.).
The first topic I want to cover is the method. Despite doing very well in my languages classes in high school and university, that style of learning never resonated with me. I am much more of a hacker when it comes to learning foreign languages. I like to dive right in and figure it out for myself. Over the years and after many, many books, I am quite comfortable with the method I have built up for myself. I have deconstructed many different resources to develop this method for easily learning foreign languages.
Grammar is often one of the scariest things for people when it comes to learning a language. This is in large part because it is not really taught in school. Seriously. Can you tell me what the past perfect tense of the verb “to create”? Or the future progressive of “to do”? Don’t worry. I didn’t learn it until I had to teach myself English grammar in order to understand Turkish grammar.
Grammar is the building blocks of the language. It is the skeleton. Of which there are two primary constructions: Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) and Subject-Object-Verb (SOV). English is an SVO language, i.e. The cat ate the mouse, and Japanese is a SOV language, i.e. The cat the mouse ate.
Here is a great grammar hack that I learned from Tim Ferriss’ book ‘The Four-Hour Chef.” He deconstructs the language using 12 sentences:
The apple is red.
It is John’s apple.
I give John the apple.
We give him the apple.
He gives it to John.
She gives it to him.
Is the apple red?
The apples are red.
I must give it to him.
I want to give it to her.
I’m going to know tomorrow.
I have eaten the apple.
I can’t eat the apple.
Ask a native speaker to translate these sentences for you and Boom! You got your grammar guide!
Don’t know a native speaker? Keep reading. We’ll be talking about that.
Learning another language isn’t much good if you don’t know any words in it. Learning vocabulary is the bulk of what you do in learning a foreign language. This is another pain point for people because they think they need to learn 10,000 words in order to be fluent. This is not the case. On average, you need about 2000 words to read a newspaper.
Wait. 2000 words?! Who has time for that?! No worries. I got you covered. In comes Pareto’s Law. Pareto’s Law is also known as the 80/20 rule. In other words, 20% of the words you will learn will make up 80% of the words you actually use. So really you only need to learn 400 words. Of course, you shouldn’t stop only at 400 words but it is a significantly easier number than 10,000 or even 2000 words.
Where to begin:
Step 1: Set Your Goal. Use SMART-Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time Sensitive as a framework for choosing a good goal. “I am going to learn to speak Italian” is not a goal. “I am going to have a 5-minute conversation about cooking in Italian in 4 months” is a goal.
Step 2: Write a self-introduction in your native language. Include things like hometown, hobbies, major in university, job, family members, and pets. This honestly will be the phrases you use most because as soon as you start speaking in your target language, people will be asking you these questions over and over and over again.
Step 3: Learn your helping verbs: Like, Must, Can, Going (i.e. I’m going to go to the store)
Step 4: Batch your vocab together. Organize words that are related to topic or situation. Limit them to a manageable amount per day. A number between 5 and 10 is a good number.
Step 5: Study right before you go to bed AND right after you get up. This will optimize your memory and retention.
Step 6: Make mistakes and have fun! The more mistakes you make, the faster you will learn.
Here are some tips:
- label things in your house in your target language. Especially things you use every day, like spoons and bowls.
- Make flashcards on old school 3×5 cards or using one of the many apps available for your phone. I recommend: Flashcards+ (this link is for Apple users)
- Have shower conversations with yourself. Role-play different situations and different roles in your target language. This sounds strange but it is very, very effective.
- If your book comes with CDs, rip them to your hard drive and upload them to your phone so you can listen to dialogues wherever you are. I did this with my Genki textbook for Japanese.
Access is the ability to use your target language with another human being who speaks that language. This used to be my biggest challenge when learning a new language, especially when I lived in rural Michigan. Thanks to the internet you can now connect with native speakers of your target language easily from your phone or computer. I know not everyone is able (or willing) to drop everything and move to a foreign country like I am prone to do so here are some great, FREE resources to help you practice the foreign language you are learning.
I love Meetup. I use them constantly when I am traveling abroad to meet like-minded people and pursue my interests. It’s really easy to use. Simply search for your interest, choose a group, RSVP to a meetup and show up! Languages exchanges are very popular and easy to find. If you can’t find one, you can start one! You can find a Meetup here.
This used to be my favorite way to meet people for language exchanges and hanging out. The community has changed over the years, and a lot of people have migrated to Meetup but you can still find Couchsurfing hangouts to chat with travelers from around the world. Usually, drinking is involved. Check it out here.
Italki is a site where you can have 1-on-1 language lessons with a native speaker. It is free to sign up but you must pay for lessons. Paying for classes ranges in price but is usually affordable. This is a great option for those who want a personalized class. Italki Teachers are vetted and require certification. Italki also has lessons taught by Community Tutors, these are non-certified native speakers. You can sign up here.
HelloTalk is a cool app that allows you to chat with people who speak the foreign language you are learning. When you fill out your profile, you state what languages you are learning and what ones you speak, then you get to start convos with other people who are trying to learn your language. In the app, you are able to edit their messages and vice versa. It’s free, extremely convenient and easy to use. Note: there are built-in safeguards to prevent thirsty creeps from hitting you up.
You can download HelloTalk from the iPhone App Store here.
The final piece of the puzzle for learning a foreign language is getting the right resources. I will include some of my favorites below but finding the right resources will be largely up to you. Some people really like academic textbooks, others like MOOCs or web courses. You gotta figure out what’s the right material for you and your style of learning, but you can still use the learning hacks above to jumpstart and optimize your learning.
I moved the list of languages resources to this page: