Many people think I’m good at languages, but (keep the secret) it isn’t true. I’m as good as anyone. The difference is that I love them, I’m totally into them. And what you like, becomes easy.
Within my life I’ve studied (formally and informally) English, French, German, Classic Greek, Latín, Esperanto, Bulgarian, Japanese, Italian, Lithuanian, Portuguese and Latvian (Two lessons!). I studied English during my whole life, Esperanto just during few weeks. With Bulgarian I learnt a lot in just one month, with French I didn’t learn anything in two years. Italian faded and I forgot it quickly, but my Little German is still there, robust even if I don’t water it anymore.
So, waht did I learn after all this? What were my successes and my mistakes? Here’s my piece of knowledge about learning languages:
1. Hunger is the mother of invention
Necessity is the best incentive for learning a new language. You must be forced to use it somehow. Your brain will use true energy for that task. Avoid people speaking your mother tongue and also (when possilbe) those who speak languages that you already know well.
It may look difficult and (specially) expensive, but you can also use it on a small scale: agree with people around you not to speak this or that language; address native speakers always in their own toungue, even when they speak better your own language…
During the first days of my Erasmus in Lithuania, there was a problema with the documents of my home university. I had to go quickly to a copy shop to send a fax. The women who worked there weren’t very young and they could only speak Lithuanian and Russian. While I was only able to speak Spanish or English. Luckily one of them came up with asking if I could speak German and I said yes, well, a little. I don’t know what happened then. It was like Goethe’s spirit taking control of my Broca’s area. It is obvious: I could speak because I needed to.
2. The aim is communication
Don’t seek perfection, don’t try to be 100% right, loose your fear of speaking wrong and committing mistakes. With the first langauge you learnt, you spent years speaking it in a wrong way, now look at yourself how good you are at it. If you can make sentences like “If you cold me bring coat” everybody will understand you. If you’re not good with tenses or cases and say to someone “Thank a lot for bringed this for I”, you will be understood too.
Don’t obsess over your accent. While you can speak in a way that you can be understood, the rest doesn’t matters. Think about famous people in your country who speak with an accent… Would they be the same without it?
Moreover, your accent is your trademark. It can be sweet, sexy or exotic and it tells people “hey, I’m not from here”, which is always useful for they not to talk to you with a too tricky language or a too quick speech.
During a summer I worked in a bar by the beach. It was 12 hours/day, 7 days/week. The worst thing was the unbearable moments in which we had nothing to do, no clients and no work. Luckily, my co-worker was from Bulgaria and she was happy of teaching me Bulgarian words. At the beginning they were simple sentences such as “please, one coffee with milk” or “fucking hell, bitch”, then I started with wild-card words like “here”, “thus”, “that”… At the end of that summer I was able to keep simple conversation with Bulgarians, even if, I was never taught a single gender, case or tense.
3. You have to like it
A lot. All langauges (including artificial ones) have a human group behind who speaks them. There’s a country, a culture and a bunch of traditions that you must get acquainted with. There are millions of ways to do so. Watch movies in the original version, listen to music and learn the lyrics by heart, look for recipes (and cook them!), read web pages, books, comics…
Ioannis Ikonomou, an European Union translator, speaks 32 languages fluently (only one of them is his mother tongue: Greek) and his advice for learning a new language is this: fall in love with the culture behind the language you are currently learning.
When I was little there were very few compact-discs at home. Indeed, I said compact-discs. So, those that we had, I listened to them over and over again. One of my favorites was The Best Of Beach Boys, that my father bought I still don’t know exactly why (years later he confessed he never really liked the band). I learnt the songs by ear. I could do playback with those songs with no idea of what were they about. In some moment I stopped listening to that album, and, in some other moment, I learnt English. And suddenly, bang, I realized I kept the memory of the songs and I was able to understand them without listening to them, just by playing them in my head. Music is powerful, it strikes your memory like the smell of the softener mum used to use at home. Even today, I still use songs in other languages that I know by heart for making sure how a sentence or a word works. It’s like a database that is always with you, for grammar, phonetics and vocabulary.
This point is related to the last one, but it deserves special attention. Read. Read. Read. I don’t know if I’m being clear. Read. In the language you’re learning, of course. If you’re just starting, read children’s books, conversation guides, lyrcis… If your level is intermediate, try reading comics, because if you don’t get the words, the drawings can help you. And, as soon as it is possible, start reading actual books.
Oh, and don’t obsess over looking up every single word you don’t understand. This will only make you unable to enjoy the reading. It will become a torture that you will want to give up (and you will) as soon as possible. When you read a book in your mother tongue, you don’t look up all the words you don’t know. Many adjectives may be strange, many substantives may be new, but the context gives you enough information for you not to cut off your reading. Only look up those words that you really need to look up. Let yourself go with the flow and sooner or later you will get trapped by the story.
And of course, I guess it’s not necessary to say, but you must read something you are interested in. Don’t read something just because it’s in the language you’re learning, look for a book you want to get finished.
I tried to read three books in English underlining and noting down every single word I didn’t understand fully: The Castle by Kafka (just to start with something light), A Game of Thrones and A Dance with Dragons. I didn’t finish any of them at first. When I got rid of this compulsive necessity of underlining and noting down (I even was doing charts to keep track of the evolution of my understanding) I could read books in English without problems. I don’t understand the 100% of the words, but I don’t understand 100% when I read in Spanish either and, after all, I get the plot and enjoy the story.
5. Know what you’re facing
One of the biggest mistakes I’ve made while learning languages was using the same techniques with different languages. You must think about two things: how deep you know the language and how far it is from your mother tongue. The specific techniques that are useful for starting learning a language aren’t the same than the ones that you use to perfect it once you already speak it fluently. And the techniques that are useful with a close language (like English and German) are not useful when learning a distant one (like English and Chinese).
People in general know very few about languages filiation. In Europe we have several language families: Latin languages, Germanic languages, Slavic languages… These families belong to a bigger family called the Indo-European branch. So, hey, nor Greek or Russian, nor Norwegian or Latvian (not even Kurdish of Sanskrit, which are Indo-Europeans too) are the furthest languages you can find: they are cousins of English! However, Basque, Hungarian, Chinese or Zulu… they are indeed remote languages, and it will be harder dealing with them.
To sum up: Don’t expect the learning curve will be the same with French and Indonesian. The good thing about learning a “close language” is that you can get to master it quite well. The good thing about learning a “remote language” is that there aren’t so many people who can speak it.
In Lithuania, during my Erasmus, I took lessons of Lithuanian and also French during both semesters. I had a couple of notebooks in which I noted down every new word I found in those courses. I wrote carefully, trying to keep a nice handwriting, in two columns, with two different colors… I found out that doing it was very useful in Lithuanian, but totally useless with French. The words in French evoke easily their translation into Spanish. What I needed to do with French was to write the same word over and over again, in order to learn its spelling. I could spell “beaucoup” In 14 different ways. All of them wrong.
Always when writing in your new language, use dictionaries and translators. Take advantage of Google Translate and Wordreference as much as you can. Translate in one way, and then again backwards. Keep in mind that translators, dictionaries and the speakers themselves make mistakes all the time. Look for what is useful for you and get rid of what looks fishy. Don’t be afraid of this kind of cheating, because if you do it for communicating, you will be still learning.
Making Lithuanian course homework can be hard. Constantly I needed to look for the verb tenses on the Internet for making sure that I was writing them right. Searching stuff on the Internet was a short-term solution quite effective, but after some time it gets boring. My brain, naturally lazy, started remembering the tenses of verbs because it didn’t want to look them up on the web. It was too much work.
7. People are good
Some are even better. The world is full of Albanian native speakers which would love to teach their language to someone like you. So don’t be shy: make questions, ask for help and nag a little.
If you go to a party where everybody is spaking a language you don’t understand, you will easily find someone who would like to interact with you: teaching you, talking to you with gestures or drawings, playing with you some easy game…
Don’t be afraid of being a bore or annoying. Most of us are happy of interacting with foreigners.
Some people will love to teach you langauges, some won’t that much. Take advantage of those who love teaching and suck their knowledge like a linguistic vampire. If it hadn’t been for that person in that party somewhere lost in the middle of Europe who wanted to start teaching me some words in Lithuanian, maybe I would have never chosen this destination for my Erasmus, and I would have never learnt one of the most interesting languages in Europe.
8. The more languages you know, the easier it gets to learn new ones
Don’t be afraid of learning a new language because “I’m going to forget the one that I already know”. There is one first border: the moment in which you see yourself capable to communicate effectively in a language that isn’t your own. Beyond this point, every new language you learn, gives you a new point of view, it teaches you something related to grammar, etymology or phonetics that will make it easier to learn the concepts related to the next language you are going to study.
It is said that John Bowring, governor of Hong Kong during 19th century, knew 200 languages and was able to speak 100 of them. Of course, not all those languages were “ready to use” within his brain when he wanted to speak them. Those that he didn’t use for a while, became deactivated, but he just needed a week of studying to get them back. Something similar happened to Giuseppe Caspar Mezzofanti, an Italian cardinal who learnt more than 30 langauges without getting out from Italy. So don’t be afraid of forgetting, just get ready to recover this language at any time.
One of the first Spaniards I met in my Erasmus in Lithuania was happy to meet me, because we both were the only Spaniards who were going to enroll the Lithuanian language course. “I’ve been told that it’s a difficult language”, she said to me. “Indeed, it has a lot of cases”, I answered. ”Cases? What is that?” Oh, my friend. What is a case? Good question. Thanks to German and Latin I already had met the concept of “case”. Of course it’s not the same in one language or another, but the concept, the idea of what it is, was already in my mind, and I didn’t have to learn it from scratch. This poor girl, actually, started thinking that “it was a silly detail only useful for saying where you are from” and didn’t care anymore about it. She finally dropped the course. A martyr of comparative linguistics.
9. But I’m way too old to start learning a language
Yes, you are. The perfect age for having learnt a language was when you were between 4 and 6 months old. Indeed: months. After that, if you’re still younger than 14, you can learn other languages easier than most of adults and even speak them without any accent. But it’s not the same as your mother tongue.
Anyway, those are not reasons to give up. It’s like if you were getting depressed because you’re not growing anymore with the same pace you kept while you were under 14. Take a look at the story of Benny, the Irishman, who was monolingual until he was 21 and then he learnt 8 languages he can use fluently. His secrets? Aiming on communication, linguistic immersion and love towards the culture and the people behind the language. Doesn’t it ring a bell? If you check his video, you will definitely like him, but later he will try to sell you his method.
It’s never too late to start learning a language. Did you know that speaking other languages helps prevent Alzheimer? Whar other reaons do you need?
My father was never good at languages (and I guess he wasn’t very interested in them either). Until one day, when he was already 50, he decided to start learning French. There were some times in which he tried to learn English (with not very good results), but this time he took it seriously. Few years later (4 or 5) he’s got a certified level for C1 and can communicate very well in French. Myself, I started studying languages seriously after 18. It’s never late.
10. Don’t give it up
It’s a distance race. Learning a langauge does take time.
I know, I know. You’d love to use these ideas strictly: move to a village in India and learn Punjabi, but you have a job stealing your time. Or a no-job stealing your money.
Languages are learnt through insistence. Keep on. Try not to abandon them. When you can’t go to the course anymore, look for a personal teacher, or someone to make language intercourse with, or go to some conversation practice club… And take it up again as soon as possible.
It’s important not to give up, because in short-term you may not realize how much you have learnt, but one day will come in which you will be able to chat with someone in that language, read a book or watch a movie. And you will feel awesome, because suddenly you would have access to millions of articles on Wikipedia, movies that were never translated, mountains of books and lots of people that may hire you or may make you fall in love. But all this will happen only if you don’t give up halfway.
Learning a language can be rewarding but also quite desperating. Sometimes it all seems to be so easy and sometimes even the silliest detail is an impossible obstacle for you to move on. Some days you will get out from your lesson happy and cheerful, greeting the birds with your new language, but sometimes you will get out crestfallen and shuffling, feeling the worst student in the class. All this is normal. It even has a name: The Kramer-Bohmstadt syndrome. Hehe. No, I’m joking, I just made it up. Don’t give up!
And you? Do you have any tricks or techniques for learning languages? What is working for you? What is failing? Share your wisdomfulness with us!