According to a BBC report last winter, there is an “alarming shortage of people able to speak the 10 languages vital to our future prosperity and global standing… [and that] more adults should learn at least one new language”. John Worne of the British Council, quotes that failure to act will risks the UK losing out “both economically and culturally”.
It seems learning a language is becoming increasingly more important. However the thought of learning a language, especially the older you get, terrifies most people. Our instant reaction is usually “I am not a language person” or “I am too old”. But learning a language is like anything else in life; once you know a few tricks, short cuts and tips, then things become a lot easier.
Here are my top tips on learning a language…
1. Get in the right mindset
Before you even start to pick up the text books and dictionaries, make sure you are in the right mind set first. If you start your learning journey with a negative attitude, you’ll never be as receptive to learning a new language as you could be, no matter how hard you try. You’ll instantly create a block in your mind, so even with the best of efforts, you will minimize your ability to absorb anything new. So ditch any preconceived pessimism and think that you can!
2. Learn the characters and the alphabet (including pronunciation)
Before you plow straight into it and learning to ask where the beach is, make sure you understand the basics first. Learn the alphabet and if the alphabet is not the same as English letters, for example such as Japanese, then take the time to learn this thoroughly.
There are three parts of a letter or character, and these are meaning, pronunciation and written character. Ensure that you know the alphabet thoroughly first before worrying about verb endings and sentence structure.
3. TV and songs
Immersing yourself in the culture of your learning language, isn’t just fun but actually very beneficial, and just for you coach potatoes, you’ll be glad to hear that watching TV is part of that. Engaging with popular culture (magazines, songs, tv, films etc) is a great way to also pick on different dialects and colloquial phrases too that you might not find in a formal dictionary. Who knew watching a Spanish version of Coronation Street could be so educational!
As with top 3, part of that popular culture you should try to immerse yourself in is the cuisine. In a study conducted at Örebro University, Sweden, Emma Asplund, Maria Backsell and Isabella Samuelsson reported that you can in fact learn about a country’s culture by studying the food culture.
So by indulging more in the cuisine, not only will you broaden your vocab but you’ll also increase your cultural awareness. Choose your restaurants and dishes wisely though – I am not sure a trip to Nando’s will broaden your cultural understanding of Portuguese any more than eating a korma will increase your knowledge of Punjabi!
5. Tap into your inner child
We might have to think back a little while here, but remember when you were at school, how much fun learning was? The cute pictures, bright colors and funny analogies, were all created to help you remember.
Well, revert back to the good old days and start injecting a little bit of fun in to you language learning! Make brightly colored flash cards and include pictures. I sometimes even use word association to remember new vocab. For example, I remember the word “korobu” which means ‘to fall down/over’ as it sounds like ‘collarbone’…my association is you might break your collarbone if you fall over!
Also perhaps try to attach imagery to your new lexicon… for example, in Japanese “shimeru” means ‘to shut’ so I imagine someone shimmering (sounds like shimeru) through a door that is about to shut. Odd but it works.
6. Set a goal
We all know about SMART goal setting, so set realistic and sensible goals for your chosen target language. For example, making a new year’s resolution to ’start learning Spanish’ is going to be as successful as a “keep off the grass” sign. Set a realistic goal, such as, ‘be able to read a Spanish magazine in a year’ or ‘to be able to ask for directions’ or ‘navigate the capital within 4 months’.
It will also help if you can make a trip to a place where they speak the language. Having the goal of learning Spanish in conjunction with being able to use it on a weekend break to Barcelona will be 10 times more beneficial and rewarding.
7. Stop worrying about “translating”
Learning languages, I have discovered that sometimes there is no like for like translations. For example in Japanese there are no plurals or words such as “the”, their use of “I, he, she, it” is often admitted and they have a polite and informal version of every verb. And in Spanish, the nouns are either masculine or feminine with “el” or “la” in front of the word. When there are such differences in your native tongue and learning languages that it might help to try thinking of the sentence as a whole, in context rather than of thinking a word for word translation.
8. Scrap the textbook
OK, that is a little harsh as actually there are some great text books out there and I suppose it does depend on what your end goal is. But, if you are looking to be fluent in a conversational way, then it is often best to scrap the learning directly from a formal text book and focus on real-life cases and conversations.
As with most subjects, theory and practical is very different! For example, try having a conversation with a native or try to write a few basic sentences, then only when you get stuck, you can check your dictionary, online or the text book.
9. Learn 100, then 1,000 most popular/common used words
One thing I have learnt through learning languages is that you can apply the 80:20 rule to it. What do I mean by this?According to the Oxford English Dictionary online, the 100 most common words account for 50% of the language, and the 1,000 most common words account for 75%. But to account for 90% you would need a vocabulary of 7,000 words and to get to 95% the figure would be around 50,000*. The correlation of the number of worlds you know and your fluency are not in line.
To be fluent enough, learn the most popular 1,000 words and don’t misuse your initial time on words you’ll never come across again.
10. Focus on some themes
I have already highlighted that when learning a new language, you should at first focus your efforts on the first 100-1,000 words to maximize your lexicon. You can take this a step further though and also consider words within a theme that you would often use.
For example, if you are a massive sports fanatic, then learning the vocabulary for sporting terminology will be more relatable to you and therefore much more likely to stick in your mind, as well as providing you with the motivation to learn. Perhaps you could buy a sports magazine or watch some matches with subtitled commentary of your learning language to inspire.
*note: the OED uses the term “lemmas” instead of words. A lemma being the base form of a word. For example, climbs, climbing, and climbed are all examples of the one lemma climb. Just ten different lemmas (the, be, to, of, and, a, in, that, have, and I) account for a remarkable 25% of all the words used in the Oxford English Corpus
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