While living abroad, whether years ago in Spain or now in Brazil, lots of people have asked me how I have managed to learn new languages and become fully operational in them so quickly. While I do believe that some people have the natural ability to make sense of language systems more easily than others, there are a number of things that everyone can do and attitudes they should take to make their language learning process more efficient and much more enjoyable. Here goes the list with 10 tips based on my personal experience of learning new languages (I am fluent in 4 languages, and have some basic knowledge of 3 others):
- Get local!
Spending some time in the country where the language you want to learn is generally spoken, is indisputably the best way to become fluent quickly. Being in the natural environment of the language turns the learning process much more intense and efficient, being the quickest and most effective way to become conversational in a language.
You do have to throw yourself into it, though. You can do more than just being present in the country. Surround yourself with the local language as much as you can. Practice speaking, reading, writing, listening everywhere and any chance you get. Take a cooking or a dance class to practice some specific vocabulary in a natural environment. Repeat phrases you hear on the street, read labels, go see local movies in the cinema, strike up a conversation with neighbors etc. – in other words, do whatever you can to make the most of being in the actual language environment.
Learning a language is a process that requires a considerable effort from your part. It would be marvelous if you could just download a language in your brain and then go conversing all over the place. Until this brain upgrade becomes available (which I do not think is in too far future), however, there is a lot of work to be done to learn a new language, especially if it is very different from the ones you already know.
First, you will need to be serious about actually becoming fluent. That means both, studying a lot, and having the courage and stamina to go out and put everything you have learnt in practice over and over again until it starts to feel natural. Practice the new language even with your friends that speak your first language or any other languages that you already have dominance of and that, therefore, seem much easier and comfortable than the new language you are learning. Being systematical until it becomes natural, is the key phrase to take away from here.
- Create associations!
If you cannot remember a word or a phrase, try to relate it to other words in any other language so that it becomes memorable to you. For example, my husband remembered the word “vastupandamatu” (irresistible in Estonian) adding it up from Portuguese words: “vasto” (vast) + “panda” (panda bear) + “mato” (bush or jungle).
In addition to using phonetic resemblance to your advantage, you can also derive words from other languages that you know. Depending on how well you grasp the concept and different language systems; there is a chance of actually getting it right this way:
Example No. 1: If you were an English speaker trying to learn Portuguese and wanting to negotiate, you might take the English word “negotiate” and put it in the common form for Portuguese verbs (ending with “-r”) and you would have something like “negotiar” which is not too far from the actual word “negociar”. At least you will be understood, and hopefully corrected, so you will remember the correct word.
Example No. 2: Sometimes, you will need to lay out all the synonyms to the word you are looking for to get it right. For example, saying you are “shyo” (“shy”+o) will not make any sense to a Brazilian, whereas “tímido” (“timid”+o) is the exact word you are looking for if you are trying to convey the idea of being a bit bashful.
It does not work with every word, of course, and it helps to know the basic logic of the language you are learning, but from time to time, it can help you out in situations where you want to make yourself understood no matter what. Simply speaking louder (as some people seem to think), however, will not do that trick.
- Do not be afraid of making mistakes!
Making mistakes is actually one of the best ways there is to learn. Native speakers are almost always impressed with your effort to try to learn their language and will want to help you with that. Even if you get it totally wrong and end up saying the pretty much opposite of what you were trying to convey, it is perfectly okay and no one, I repeat, no one will ever judge you for trying.
An Example: I have a Mexican friend that once went out to have dinner with his Brazilian friends. The Brazilians wanted to know if he had liked the food. My friend responded them that it had been “exquisito”, which is Spanish for exquisite, as he imagined the Brazilians would use the same word for this concept. However, when he saw his Brazilian friends with a perplexed and disappointed look on their faces, he knew that something had gone wrong. It turned out that “esquisito” actually means “weird” in Portuguese. Once that was cleared, they all had a good laugh about it and my friend (nor I) will ever forget the true meaning of that word. Plus we will always have a great story to tell.
- Be consistent, yet creative!
Learning a language is a marathon, not a sprint, so you will not want to tire yourself out within the first days of the process.
While keeping your basic language studies and practice consistent and regular, try to mix it up a little by adding some unconventional methods that you actually enjoy. It might be looking up the lyrics and singing along to your favorite song in the language you are learning; or binge watching local soap operas with no dubbing or subtitles. It might be a game or an app or even running day-to-day errands trying to explain more complicated concepts or words with the vocabulary you have got. It is not embarrassing; it can actually be a lot of fun!
Example No. 1: Try explaining to the doctor that you have cystitis when you do not even know the word for bladder; or try and give an overview of your country’s history to a curious local friend.
Example No.2: Once in a pharmacy in Catalonia, Spain, while looking for a very specific shampoo, I ended up telling the pharmacist that I needed to wash my hair with something that smelled like asphalt. The best part of this story is that I actually walked out of there with the exact shampoo I needed!
Therefore, whichever your method, as long as you enjoy it, it will work and help to improve your language skills.
- Ask for help!
Do not be afraid to let people you meet know that you are in the process of learning the language, and thus, would appreciate it very much if they could correct you when you make mistakes. Then, when you receive feedback, try saying the correct forms and phrases out loud a couple of times to remember them and let the other person know, how much you appreciate their help in improving your skills.
This might seem like an obvious thing to say, but you have to take into account the cultural differences in each place. While some nations will always naturally try to help and correct you, others find it rude and instead of correcting you, will just keep saying to you that you are doing an awesome job (even if they do not exactly understand what you are trying to say). So be blunt and let them know from the very beginning that their help to correct your mistakes is appreciated and that they should not worry about your ego getting hurt in the process.
- Accept big challenges!
This is one of the hardest things to do, yet very effective. Stepping out of your comfort zone (even more) to do things, which might be challenging even in your native language, is an incredibly efficient way of taking your skills and confidence to the next level. Whether it is making phone calls to solve a problem, participating in a debate or being interviewed by a local TV channel, anything that gets you nervous – prepare, and then do it!
Whatever situation makes you most insecure about your language skills, go ahead and accept the challenge. You will be surprised what the stimulation to your brain caused by some temporary stress can bring out in you. Moreover, afterwards, the feeling of having surpassed yourself is just amazing! You will gain more confidence and see soon enough that you can successfully handle any challenge that comes your way, which brings us to the next point:
- Celebrate all wins!
Whenever you notice that you have mastered a challenge (see the previous point), new vocabulary, the conjugation of a difficult verb or running a day-to-day errand in the local language, take a moment and give yourself a mental pat on the back. You work hard, so do not wait until someone else gives you props for it, recognize your own effort and success before anyone else. Celebrate even the small wins, while recognizing that even though you are still half way to the top of the mountain, every single step forward counts! This will keep you motivated in the long run.
- Go easy on yourself and take care!
Eat well, do not skip meals or cut your sleeping hours! You will need all the energy you can get for processing ridiculous amounts of new information and enough sleep to let it actually settle in. Learning a new language can take up much more brainpower than you initially imagined and it might seem like it is coming together more slowly than expected. Do not despair, however, nor be too tough on yourself! Sometimes your brain just takes time for things to start making sense.
You will get frustrated from time to time, that happens. An example: When I had just moved to Barcelona, a wonderful group of local friends met up each Thursday to have dinner together in all kinds of different places around the city. They invited me to join in. The culinary experience included long conversations on the most various topics. During the first several weeks, however, I could not keep track of what was being said most of the time, and was, thus, pretty much unable to contribute anything meaningful to the conversation. I became very frustrated and irritated with myself because of this. I felt as if I was missing out and even when I concentrated my hardest during those dinners, I quickly became so tired that I could barely even think in my own language not to mention the one that I was learning. Nevertheless, I stuck with it, and after a while, it naturally started to pay off and get easier.
Therefore, while it might seem that it has been weeks and you are not getting anywhere, your brain is actually unconsciously working on all the information you do not even notice you are receiving. Take hearing music or the language being spoken on the background, for example, or unconsciously saving words or phrases you hear someone use and relating them to certain contexts or moods.
At one point, finally, the moment where your conscious mind catches up arrives. The results of all your efforts most likely even surpass your expectations – suddenly you understand a lot of what is going on around you and find yourself using expressions you have no memory of purposefully learning. The brain is magical like that, so do not give in when frustration hits in the early stages of learning a new language. It is all about giving yourself enough time to process, store and become comfortable with it.
- Have fun with it!
Once you get the very basics of the language down you can start having a little fun with it. Everything from swearwords, accents, lyrics and slang to comparing sayings that might or might not apply to a situation, will enhance your sense of the language, as well as create situations to have a good laugh about with your local friends. If you dig deep, you will realize that each language conceals riches different from others and playing around with them will give you a much better understanding of not only the language, but also the local culture. And this is something truly precious that no one will ever be able to take away from you.
Now, all you polyglots and language enthusiasts out there, tell me what I missed! What would you add to this list?