There are no two ways about it: learning a foreign language is a lot of work.
There is grammar to master, vocabulary words to memorize, and the culture behind the language that adds context. That’s a tall order. For that reason, so few people actually learn a foreign language. It’s demanding — and lots of people speak English anyway, so it falls off the radar. However, the payoff is huge.
Speaking another person’s language creates a bond, and it demonstrates a respect and interest that is compelling. It also sets you apart, especially if you are American.
So, if you have made the decision to learn another language, I am going to offer you three major hacks to speed up your progress. As someone with a PhD in Linguistics and varying degrees of fluency in Russian, Polish, Bulgarian, Czech, French and Spanish, I know a thing or two about this stuff. And these are real, field-tested hacks, not academic theory.
The Ultimate Sacrifice
The first hack is a big one, and it will only work for some people. The single best way to learn a foreign language is to find a girlfriend/boyfriend who speaks that language, whose English is pretty minimal.
You want to communicate with your beloved — perhaps their family — and you spend a lot of time together. I have seen this work many times. Among my fellow language students, we would jokingly call this “the ultimate sacrifice.” If you are THERE, in country, as opposed to HOME, where we speak English, all the better.
Now, if you already married or otherwise committed, I would recommend against using this hack…for fairly obvious reasons.
The Powerful Shortcut
Okay — that was pretty “macro” but the next one is “micro”: Learn the adverbs. Why the adverbs? Well, there are tons of nouns and verbs and adjectives. You will eventually need to know many in order to have a decent conversation, but that is a lot of work. Also, you can often figure them out from context. If the other person says something like “I like that XYZ” and is pointing at some object, you can guess that it’s an XYZ. Adverbs are different, and they can change the meaning of a sentence dramatically. Look at the following pair of sentences (adverbs are IN CAPS):
“John BARELY caught the train.”
“John ALMOST caught the train.”
Big difference in meaning, right? And it may not be obvious from context. The nice thing about adverbs, unlike nouns, verbs and adjectives, is that there are far fewer that are used commonly. If you learn 100 nouns or verbs, it’s a drop in the bucket. If you learn 100 adverbs, you have significantly increased your ability to have a meaningful conversation. Here is a link to a list of common adverbs in English. Find out how to say them in your new language and get to work!
Maximize Input – No Excuses
When I was in high school in New Jersey in the 80s, studying Russian, if we wanted a real copy of a Russian newspaper, we would have to drag our butts into Brooklyn to spend a ton of cash to get two-week old copy of Pravda. That sucked. Today, you have access to amazing new resources via the internet. Go in the internet and type in “Russian [or whatever language] radio,” and you get a whole bunch of live streaming radio from all over, some from the mother country, some from the US. Listen to it, leave it on as much as you can stand, even if you have no idea what they’re saying, you’ll be picking up the rhythm and melody.
Getting foreign language TV is easy too; there are services similar to Netflix for many languages. There is music in your language on YouTube (trust me, there is — no matter how obscure). Look up the major newspapers in your language and pick through them, word by word. You can practice foreign language chat at sites like SharedTalk or My Language Exchange.
Why do this? Think about how much English you heard before you ever uttered “Mama”. You probably heard tens of thousands of words. You need that sort of input to make sense of a language, and you can do it passively, just like when you were a kid.
So, just turn on talk radio or YouTube and you are off to the races — even when you aren’t paying attention.
The three powerful strategies for learning a foreign language so you can have an advantage in today’s global economy are as follows:
- The boyfriend/girlfriend who speaks <Foreign Language> but not English. This is the most fun, of course, but it is limited in application, and comes with certain other risks
- Learn the adverbs. You will have to do this anyway, and it’s the best way to enlarge your useful vocabulary FAST
- Get as much exposure to your language as you can. Listen to TV and radio, read the emergency instructions in the seatback on the airplane, in order to replicate the environment when you were learning English, without concentrating so hard on it…