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Learning a Language from Scratch – 10 Techniques for Quick and Easy Mastery

Learning a Language from Scratch – 10 Techniques for Quick and Easy Mastery
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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.

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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!

4. Eat

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, SwedenEmma 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Good luck!

*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

Featured photo credit: Ardelfin via morguefile.com

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Alice Dartnell

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Last Updated on July 21, 2021

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)
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No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

How to Make a Reminder Works for You

Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

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Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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Reference

[1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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