Most Americans are intimidated by the thought of learning foreign languages. Classes are bad enough, but learning by immersion seems impossible. How will you function in an environment where you don’t even speak the language? And yet it is possible–and the benefits may be greater than you think.
If you want to become fluent in a language, the best way is through immersion, and the only way to truly be immersed in a language is to go to the country where the language is spoken. However, many people travel and even live abroad without ever gaining more than a slight conversational grasp of the language. How can you take the greatest advantage of your overseas stay and learn as much of the language as possible? Here are some tips for learning a language as fast as possible.
1. Listen to the language. It sounds obvious, but most people spend their time abroad, at least at first, listening to translations of what’s going on. Don’t. Avoid translators whenever possible. There may be times when you need them–sometimes, you need to know what’s going on–but as much as you can, don’t let anyone translate for you. Just listen to the language you’re trying to learn, and figure out as much meaning as you can from context and body language. You’ll quickly understand more than you ever expected you could–and before you know it, you’ll be recognizing words and phrases.
2. Repeat what you hear. Repeat things even if you don’t understand them. This is how children learn languages, and it works for adults too. If you can talk with children–and young people are often much more willing to teach you than adults would be–then repeat what they say as much as you can. They’ll be happy to correct your pronunciation, and they’ll probably find it easy to help you understand what it is you’re saying. Even very young children can help you learn the language this way: they point to something and say a word; you point to the thing and repeat the word.
3. Do simple errands alone. Learn a few key words from a translator before you go, and then strike out on your own to accomplish a task. Ask someone how to say “postage stamp,” and then go to the post office by yourself. Even if the only words you know are “postage stamp” and “please,” you’ll be communicating in the language. The more you do this, the easier it will become. And when you’ve really used a word because you needed it, not just because you were trying to learn it, you’ll be much more likely to remember it in the future.
4. Read. Most American bestsellers are translated into nearly every language in the world. Pick up a book you’ve read in English–preferably one you’ve read a few times and are very familiar with–and read it in your new language. You might not understand most the words, but because you already know what the book says, you’ll quickly learn from context. You’ll also discover grammar and spelling that you might not notice just by listening to conversations. You’ll learn vocabulary that isn’t used in everyday conversations.
5. Keep a notebook. Write down words and phrases as you learn them. Don’t worry about spelling at first; just write the way you hear things, so you’ll be able to pronounce them later. Write things down even if you don’t know what they mean; you can ask a friend later to translate for you. Read through your lists regularly so you won’t forget things you’ve learned.
6. Take risks, look silly, and have fun! The most important skill in learning a foreign language is the willingness to look foolish and to be misunderstood. Every person in the world who’s ever become fluent in a second language had moments along the way when they said something incredibly embarrassing and stupid. Don’t fear those moments; embrace them. Look forward to the ridiculous things you’ll say by mistake. Someday, your adventures in miscommunications will make great stories that you can tell your friends in your new foreign language–after you become fluent.