Learning languages opens the world
Credit: freestock.ca

You are sitting at a bar, palms sweating. You sip your drink again to fill this unnaturally long pause with something. The tension is insurmountable. You open your mouth to the person next to you and start stuttering words. “Me llamó John. Yo soy Americano. Tengo dieciséis años” – you get the age wrong too… by six years. That was the last time you said these sentences. She looks at you with a understanding smile and turns back talking to her friend in light speed Spanish. You wish you could keep the conversation going, it is such a beautiful warm evening at a Mexican beach and she had such a shining smile. But all you can do is go back slurping on your piña colada. As the drink has lost its taste, you wonder: “All those years in high school Spanish and this all I can do? I must be really bad at languages.”

How many of you have tried to learn a foreign language and gave up – raise your hands (at least in your mind if you are sitting in a public area reading this). Most of has had frustrating experience with foreign languages that end in conclusion “Oh, I am not good at languages, that’s it”. Well, I am here to say that is not true. You are good at languages - you just do not know it yet.

The initial failures (and I stress failures) in learning a foreign language are experienced at school. The first thing a school system fails to do is to explain WHY you want to learn that foreign language, be it Spanish, Russian or Swahili. Without a proper answer to this question, you can't have the proper motivation. You end up learning just enough to get the grade that you want and because it is required for the college you want to attend.. With such failed basic level, failure to learn the language is pre-dertmined.

Therefore, do not blame yourself if you did not learn Spanish/Russian/Swahili at school.It is not your fault and does not mean that you are “bad at languages”. Let me introduce you to “10 Unconventional Methods to Boost Your Language Learning”. This guide does not have specific methods of learning a certain language – there is plenty of material for that. This article is about your mental approach towards learning a language. I call them “unconventional ways” as these steps are not usually taught in any language courses, and definitely not at school.

“A good start is half of the way” – as some smart person said ages ago, so let’s start!

 1. Know WHY you are learning the language.

So first things first, answer the question to yourself – WHY. Why do you want to learn this specific language? Is it for your career, for travelling, for pleasure, for your love interest, your fascination with culture? Not just think of it, write it down.  Take a sheet of paper and try to get at least 5 reasons why you want to learn this. More reasons you have, easier it will be to go back to your sheet and get yourself back on track when things get tough.

2. Approach with “Can do” attitude.

 Many of us have heard of certain truisms about language learning, like: “Children are better at language learning”, “When you are past 10 years old the language learning skills go down”, “Some people are not good at languages”, “It take a lifetime to master a language”. Well, take all of those truisms and throw them into a mental garbage bin (or even better – write it down and throw it away or burn it!). They are not true and there are many people who proved that (see more about learning languages at Tim Ferris website or Benny the Irish Polyglot). Don’t get yourself wavering about this nor let others get to you. These truisms are just a form of well know failure disease called “excusitis”. So don’t let yourself catch it.

 3. Hypnotize yourself into a state of “I can speak [the language]”

 I am sure you have heard about the placebo effect. It is quite mysterious and well recorded in medical history. The patient is given a fake pill and they feel their symptoms go away. They are healed just because they believe they are getting the treatment. Power of the mind can do amazing things. However, this effect can be used beyond the medical sphere. Making yourself believe something will make it much easier to achieve. So when you start learning a language think “I can speak [language]”. From day one. Yes, from day one! “But I can’t speak the language yet” – you will say. Well yes, but the future you can. And you will get yourself so much faster if you make yourself believe that has already happened. Also, it is so much more fun that way.

 4.I can speak [the language], therefore I can…” list.

 This will be a very fun little exercise. Take a sheet of paper and write down the list of things “I can speak [the language] therefore I can…” Be creative about it. First think of all things you will be able to do with it when you can speak it. Then Google it and look at websites and pictures that come up. “I can speak Arabic, therefore I can haggle when I am in a souk in Morocco”, “ I can speak Japanese, so I can bond with people in the Harajuku district”, “I can speak Russian, so I can share my stories when I go on the trans-Siberian railway and drink vodka with my new friends from Novosibirsk”, “I can speak Spanish, so I can speak to my partner when I learn to tango in Argentina”, “I can speak Polish, so I can pick up girls/guys when I hang out in bars in Krakow”. The list can be endless – worlds of opportunities open up when you know a foreign language. Just make sure when you are writing, put the statements in present tense – “I can speak…”.

 5. Fall in love.

 Having a boyfriend or girlfriend who speaks the language can be a big boost, yes. But it is not necessary (especially if you already have your other half, which could make things very awkward). Fall in love with something in the culture. Get obsessed about one thing or person. Be it a Korean TV drama star, Spanish guitar virtuoso or ancient Chinese poetry of Li Bai. Get at least one thing that gets your juices going about the culture you are learning the language. When you start learning foreign language you are advised to get interested in their culture. Many books will have some “Culture insight” snippets. But if you can have at least one thing you can focus upon and be passionate about it, it will make things so much easier. So, fall in love and let it guide you.


Fall in love in Paris in French
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 6. Create the little world of [the language].

 If you are living in the country that speaks the language you are learning – great. The only thing you have to do is to be open to that world and surround yourself with people and things from that culture. Many expats surround themselves with other expats, spend their days speaking English with other people, using media, like movies, TV series and news, in their language and complaining how hard it is to learn the local language. So if you are expat – live the culture, live the language and you will learn it. Yes, it will be difficult and tiring. But to make things happen, and happen fast, you need some sacrifices. It will be worth it.

However, if you are not so lucky as to live in the country, it will be more challenging. You need to create a little world for yourself and fill it with the stuff of the culture. Get your room full of posters with the writings and cultural objects of the country. Get the books of famous authors in their own language and browse them from time to time. Very important – watch movies, TV series and listen to music from that country. Get the audiobooks or music on your iPod, put the lessons and movies on your iPad, and when you are commuting, or other idle time, immerse yourself in that world. Let it be your little eccentricity, your secret little world that most people around you are unaware of or will not understand.

 7. “All things are difficult before they become easy” – so make them easy before it is difficult.

 Set yourself up for early success. You make your own rules of what that success is. It can be holding a basic “My name is/I am from” conversation and understanding what the other person said, recognizing certain words written in the street or recognizing a few words in a song, so you can sing along that part. This “glass half full” attitude will let you progress much faster and get to the harder stages with more ease. It will also get you through learning plateaus, times when you do not seem to progress at all, much easier.

 8. The “stick” part of “Carrot and the stick”

 Now, as you set yourself for successes, you need to make some stakes too. Do not let it be too easy in the end, or you will not reach your goals. One big mistake that people make when learning a language is not setting any time limit. “I will learn Chinese Mandarin” sounds much more abstract, than “I will be able to hold a basic conversation in Chinese Mandarin by the end of this year”. Or “I will be able to read National Geographic magazine in French in six months”. When you have a set time, your brain will accelerate the learning process naturally. For some people it might take 3 years to learn to that level, but not for you, you have a deadline. Go one step further and make your commitment official on a stickk project. There you can pledge your goal, allocate some money for an anti-charity (that you would never on Earth give money to) and get your friend – referee who will observe if you achieved your goal or not. In this case the deadline becomes very, very real… Or do you want your precious dollar bills to go to The George W. Bush Congressional Library? Or to support Obamacare?

 9. Stress is good.

 In many cases in life too much stress is not a good thing. It is one of the main causes of health problems and so on. But there is a good stress, or eustress, that gets you out of your comfort zone and gets your brain working faster and more efficient. This is very useful when learning a language, as by nature it does get you out of your comfort zone. One stressor will be your set deadline and making some stakes. But then you need to get yourself into situations beyond a classroom where you have to use the language. If you are in a country, that will be very easy. Just stop talking your native language and/or English. It will be very difficult at first, but then you will NEED to remember that word and that phrase. If you are not in that country, there still are some creative ways to make yourself uncomfortable. For example, go to a restaurant where they speak the language and order using the language you are learning, converse with the waiter. You may blush or go all beet red, but you will remember those words much better afterwards.  Embrace feeling a little like an idiot some of the time, and just go with it, have fun with it, or you will never learn the language. There will never be a perfect time to start, so  start now.

 10. Remember – 80 percent of time you will only need 20 percent of language.

 Think of your average day in your country using your language. Do you often dive into deep existential discussions about Camus’s writing or environmental policies? Most of the time you just use simple phrases and small talk. That is how much you will need to know in a foreign language most of the time.  For most basic conversations you will need to learn up to 500 words (divide by 10 words a day – it will take you at most two months). To reach a certain fluency you will need up to 2000 words, which will not take more than 6 months if you keep the pace. And from there, if you are passionate about certain topics – cinema, literature, history, engineering – dive into that vocabulary. As you will already have conversational flow, it will be much easier. Basically, in one year you will not only speak the language but also be able to get into passionate discussions about a few topics you really care about.

 “Mastery of a language takes a lifetime” it is often said. And in a way it is true. Just think about your native tongue – can you proclaim having a mastery of it? If not, you still can do quite a bit anyway, right? Same goes for foreign languages. Learning a language is learning a whole new world, with its history, culture, and ever changing nuances. Of course it is impossible to master it, nonetheless in a short time. But, you can become functional, even very good at it, in a fairly short amount of time (and the time frame depends entirely on you). Diving into the learning process with this mindset will make it much more attainable as well as fun. So go for it and good luck!

 How many and what languages can you speak? How many times did you quit learning a language? Why? What are the main difficulties for you when learning a foreign tongue?  What unconventional methods have worked for you? Please comment!