I'm sure a lot of us have at some point or another tried to learn a foreign language however gave up when it got hard and frustrating. There is simply too much to learn and takes way too much time. That's what I thought myself until I broke down the whole language process into more digestible steps that are manageable and enjoyable. I've used this approach with 4 other foreign languages and now can safely call myself a polyglot of 7 languages and counting.
For anyone that wants to learn a language however doesn't have the time or is frustrated with traditional methods of learning a foreign language, I would love to share to you my effective broken down approach. So scrap the piles of textbooks, audiobooks and forget taking classes, this step-by-step approach will make learning a foreign language effective, time and cost-saving and most importantly fun!
Step 1. The Fundamentals
Learning anything in life requires you to know the absolute basics first. It’s like learning to crawl before you walk. Take the first steps by understanding the absolute fundamentals of a language which are the alphabet and/or phonetic systems. Depending on the language itself learn thoroughly the individual discrete building blocks that make up the language such as the letters, characters or syllables. The deeper you understand the individual components that make up a language the easier it becomes to construct sentences of your own later on.
There are literally limitless resources online that can help with understanding the basics of any language. Just have to look for your target language and basics to find resources on how to understand and use the respective alphabet system. Once you do find the most appropriate resources I would recommend looking for flashcards (or making them yourself) to practice remembering the components of a language. The reason being is that it is far easier to remember in images than in text.
You should also look for audio resources to hear the actual sounds and how it is pronounced by a native speaker of the language. There are numerous free online resources such as YouTube.com that teach phonetics and pronunciation. The more you can imitate the sounds like the native speaker (and accent) the more natural and fluent you will sound later on.
This step is all about introducing and solidifying the components that make up the language. Only move on once you are confident in your ability to read, pronounce and remember the whole alphabet or phonetic system. Some languages are much trickier than others so take your time if necessary. It pays to put in the effort to solidly understand the foundations.
Step 2. Core Vocabulary
Contrary to what many believe, you don’t actually need to learn thousands and thousands of words to be able to be fluent in a language. Learning the ‘core’ vocabulary of a language can be enough for most daily conversational use. Learning about 1000 words gives you about 70% of the core vocabulary, learning 2000 will give you about 80% and learning 3000 will give you about 90%.
Think about it this way, if you learn how to say 3 words in total – one pronoun (i.e. “I”), one verb (i.e. “eat”) and one noun (i.e. “pizza”), you’ve already created one very simple sentence (“I eat pizza”) – you might not sound like a native but you can at least communicate with a native. Now if you learn another verb (i.e. “like”) and 3 nouns (i.e. “burger”, “sandwich” and “fruit”), you have a total of 7 words in your vocabulary giving you the ability to create 8 sentences (1 pronoun x 2 verbs x 4 nouns) as opposed to 1 sentence with 3 words. As you can see, the more words you learn the amount of sentences you can construct increases exponentially!
The best way to learn any vocabulary is through flashcards. Our brain works and learns in images rather than text. There are flashcard programs such as ‘Anki’ (completely free!) that let you select particular ‘decks’ of vocabulary to learn at a time. That way you can quickly memorize large chunks of core vocabulary at a time, i.e. learning colors, places, verbs etc.
Whilst using flashcards it helps if you use of learning techniques such as abstract vivid imagery, mnemonics, or 'chunking'. For instance, if you are trying to remember how to say ‘dog’ in Japanese, which is ‘In-U’, I would picture myself calling to my dog “In you come”. Of course it may not sound phonetically accurate however it prompts your brain to remember how to say it properly in the language.
Alternatively, if you don’t have access to flashcard programs you could always learn the vocabulary via ROTE learning however that can get frustratingly boring fast.
The idea behind this phase of learning is to acquire as much of the core vocabulary as possible so that you can start creating simple sentences and comprehending speech.
Step 3. Grammar
Yeah I know no one likes vising their ‘grammar’ however with it you can completely misconstrue the meaning of your sentences. It can be terribly boring and confusing to learn all these sentence structures, rules, and exceptions, especially when everything seems so foreign in the beginning. There are no real short-cuts to learning grammar since every language has its own set of unique rules. The best thing to do is to learn the basic grammar structures a few times, write them on a cheat sheet and move on - refer to it whenever you need to.
Grammar can be extremely convoluted such as in the case of verb conjugations, gender considerations and irregularities in the language. Stressing about it won’t do you any good so it’s far better to learn the basics then correct as you practice speaking or writing. Let’s move on to the fun part!
Step 4. Self-Practice
This is where it gets really fun. The reason why it is self-practice rather than practice with natives is because:
- You need to build some level of confidence instead of constantly stumbling in your speech with a native
- It can be done anytime and anywhere for free, and
- If you build yourself to an intermediate conversational level you can progress to more advanced aspects when you do practice with locals without giving them a headache that most beginners do. There are tendencies for people to revert back to your common language (i.e. English) when they see you struggle with their language, that is why getting to yourself to a relative proficient level first will force them to speak to you in your target language.
There are many ways to self-practice in your foreign language. This step is essential as it helps consolidate and familiarize yourself with the language and puts acquired knowledge into action.
You could start off simple by doing basic role-playing by yourself or with a study buddy. Give yourself excuses to watch your favorite movies, series or clips in your studying language. For reading comprehension you could read newspapers, magazines, online articles or books. Whatever you choose to do, make sure you enjoy it and use a variety of learning formats, such as watching a movie, then listening to the radio and acting out some role plays. I always tend to repeat things to myself after I hear it for instance, when I watch a movie I will repeat exactly what was said so I get used to speaking like natives.
It doesn’t matter whether or not you understand everything you are listening to, reading or watching as long as you are getting exposed to the language. It is always helpful to have a dictionary of some sort to help you piece together the puzzles that don’t make sense.
Step 5. Mentor
By now you should have gotten to a level of beginner/intermediate level (depending on the amount of time you invested in learning and practicing). In this phase you should find yourself a mentor, teacher or someone of native level to help you further excel with your progress.
You could always do this phase earlier on however it’s not always possible to have someone guide you from the start to the beginning. If you do then that’s great!
So now that you’ve gotten familiar with the fundamentals and the general usage of the language it’s time to refine your language skills. The mentor is one that can give you far greater insight into a language and culture than any textbook or audio learning course can. They can give you the proper colloquial way of expressing yourself, slang, idioms, cultural differences etc. They can instantly correct you and give you feedback on your proficiency that no learning material can. They should be someone native with a lot of patience and preferably someone fun (rather than too serious) to make the whole learning experience more effective and enjoyable.
To find a mentor you have a wealth of cost-saving alternatives to a private language tutor.
- Social Networking Sites: Sites like Meetup.com and Geoexpat.com are great for meeting people with similar interests (in this case learning a language). They are usually free of charge to use, fun and you can make great friends at the same time. It’s easy to find people who want to practice or exchange languages, the only thing you need is to be in the same city and to have some structure to your learning.
- Online Video Calls: The beauty of the internet is that you have access to native speakers all over the world. Using sites like italki.com directly sets you up with native speakers that are either doing language exchanges or offering tutoring services. These sites are usually free or involve a small fee. A lot of these native tutors usually offer ridiculously low fees such as $5-10 an hour depending on the native country.
- Friends: If you really lucky, you might be able to find (or have) a friend that is willing to help you with your studies. Although, I don’t necessarily think this is the best way as they might get annoyed with your constant questions and mistakes, it’s still a good way to learn the language and the ins and outs of a culture.
Step 6. Immersion
The last and most enjoyable step is immersion. The more you integrate elements of a language/culture into your daily life the quicker you will be at reaching fluency. Ideally, when you immerse yourself in a foreign culture you would speak the language day in day out with everyone you encounter. You would also listen, watch, and read everything in the learning language.
Immersion requires persistent effort for months to years, you have to embrace the language and culture instead of reverting back to your native tongue when things get too challenging. I’ve seen people live in cities for 5-10 years and not even know how to speak the local language – since they rely on using their primary language and make others accommodate for them rather than make an effort to assimilate to the foreign country. Effort is key! As long as you keep learning and practicing you will eventually become fluent, it’s just a matter of effort and time.
The best way to immerse yourself is to live in the foreign country you are studying however it is not always possible. The next best thing to immersion is to live in (sub)communities that speak the language on a daily basis as well as live their culture. It’s usually quite evident which parts of your city have certain cultural dwellings, i.e. Chinatown, Little Italy etc. It’s kind of like living in a foreign country at home!
Strategies for Effective Learning
Here are some very effective strategies to help you reach fluency much faster.
Minimal or prohibited use of your native tongue whilst learning – Reverting back to your mother tongue will slow down your progress and becomes your safety net whilst learning. If you resist the temptation to revert back and find the solution in the foreign language you will learn much faster!
Remove ego and embrace mistakes – The key to learning is embracing mistakes and removing ego to accept that your mistakes. The more mistakes you make the faster you will learn. No one perfects anything in life without make countless mistakes.
Study smart not hard – Constantly cramming yourself with unfamiliar information is a good way to demotivate yourself. Take your time with studying and make sure you space out your study sessions – keep them constant so you don’t lose momentum and progress. Mix up your learning so that you don’t keep doing one kind of study. Try doing some reading comprehension, then work on grammar, then watch a movie in the foreign language. You give yourself a variety of stimulus that keeps it interesting and enjoyable.
The Power of Language
When it comes to learning a completely foreign language most people give up too early at the thought of such an arduous task. Although there is a lot of effort involved with learning a foreign language, it's about being smart about how you go about learning. By following the above 6 steps, you effectively breakdown the arduous challenge of learning a foreign language. You make it dynamic and enjoyable rather than repetitive and boring.
Learning a language is fun and extremely rewarding. Just imagine if you spent half a year to learn Mandarin Chinese – you now have the potential and ability to communicate with over 1.6 billion people more! It’s amazing how learning one additional skill can give you so much potential in life.
So what are you waiting for? The power of language is more than enough of a compelling reason to start learning now. Embrace it and see the world open its doors for you like no tomorrow.