Learning a Foreign Language
One of the best ways of learning a foreign language is to go all in. Full immersion in a foreign country.
But most people don’t know where to start when it comes to learning a foreign language. So they end up spending most of their time with other expats. And they never truly experience the local culture.
In this post, you are going to discover four simple steps you can take now to start learning a foreign language. I’m not trying to sell you a be-fluent-in-a-week kind of method. I don’t believe in those. Here you will find an approach to guide you through the learning process.
The Gringo Syndrome
A set of simple sounds are the basis for languages. If you sound like a gringo when you speak a foreign language, it’s because your native tongue influences you with its sounds.
It’s like a Lego game. You start with small bricks. And when you put them together in a constructive way you get a beautiful castle. So the reason why you have an accent, or you think you can’t pronounce certain words is because you are using the wrong bricks.
When you start learning a foreign language, your first task is to identify the sounds you are not accustomed. You don’t have to hold a Masters in Linguistics or to be an expert in foreign languages.
Just go to your favorite search engine. Type in “[name of your target language] phonology.” One of the first links should be a Wikipedia page. There you will get everything you need to perfect your pronunciation. Again, you don’t need to learn all these weird symbols. You can click on them, listen to the pronunciation, and read how to make them yourself. Keep in mind that the goal here is not to lose your accent and to sound like a native. Your goal is to get rid of your pronunciation barriers so that you can communicate with people.
Let me give you an example. Let’s say you are from the US (so I assume English is your native language), and you want to learn Spanish. Then you look for “Spanish phonology, ” and you click on the Wikipedia page. There you can see that Spanish has only five vowels, which are similar to some English vowels.
And when you look at the consonants, you can see that there are only two that are very tricky to you: The trill and the flap (i.e., the two kinds of R). Now you know that you just have to focus on those two sounds to get a clear pronunciation.
If you want to go deeper, you can take a look at your native language phonology. You will understand how and why you are speaking this way, and you will get a better insight into the different notions and sounds.
Sometimes, looking at the Wikipedia page will be enough for you to master these new sounds. Sometimes, you will need more material. In this case, you can just go to YouTube and type in “Spanish pronunciation,” or “how to trill r” for example, to find tutorials.
Speak like Tarzan
At the very beginning, when you are learning a foreign language, keep it simple. Learn basic words and essential phrases. Aim at simple expressions you would use on a daily basis in your native tongue. You want to speak like Tarzan. Use simple words, and don’t worry about mistakes. People are most likely to encourage you. They don’t care if you make mistakes, as long as you’re making an effort to communicate in their language.
For example, you can go to YouTube and type in “Spanish most common words,” or “simple Spanish phrases.”
The Ferriss Approach
Once you get a basic understanding of the language, you want to learn modal verbs: can, need, must … These verbs are powerful tools. They give you the power to use any other verb without having to conjugate it.
Tim Ferriss is an American entrepreneur who loves traveling and learning a foreign language. His approach starts with the translation of these 13 simple phrases:
The apple is red
It is John’s apple
I give John the apple
We give him the apple
He gives it to John
She gives it to him
I must give it to him
I want to give it to her
I’m going to know tomorrow
I can’t eat the apple
I have eaten the apple
Is the apple red?
The apples are red
Maybe you don’t care about the word apple, or the color red, right now. But these words don’t matter. The point of these phrases is to show you the basic structure of your target language. The structure of the language is subject-verb-object? Or subject-object-verb? How do you use infinitive verbs after modal verbs? What about the plural nouns?
Also, you have a clear example here of the modal verbs. You only need to know a few conjugation patterns, for these modal verbs. And then you can use almost any verb you want.
But don’t use Google translate! You’re going to need a native speaker to translate these sentences for you. So the question now is: How do you stop spending time with expats? And where do you meet people to practice your target language?
The Social Polyglot
If you are living abroad, the chances are that the people speaking your target language surround you. So all you have to do to meet people is to go out and approach them. Literally.
Approach people in the street. You can talk about anything or just introduce yourself and say you are looking for language partners. If you are too self-conscious, you can ask for directions. Or go to the supermarket. And ask someone where the apples are. The person you are talking to will understand you are not from here, and it’s going to lead to a pleasant conversation about you and your adventures.
If you feel too weird approaching random people, then you can also join a club. If you like cooking, look for cooking lessons in your city. Go to the tourism office, or search online.
Be social. And don’t wait until you know 500 words, or even 50 words before talking to people. Again, if you make some efforts, people are going to be very helpful to you. They will appreciate seeing a gringo speaking the local lingo.
Clear, Rinse & Repeat
Mastering a foreign language can be a long process. It requires repetition, consistency, and patience.
But your goal is not perfection. Your goal is communication. Your grammar mistakes don’t matter. Go out there, talk to people and make some new friends. You now have everything you need to start learning a foreign language abroad.
So, what are you waiting for?
This article was contributed by guest blogger Akita Ropiquet.
Akita is a French polyglot. He blogs about language learning at My Name is Ropiquet, where he documents his learning process and provides free resources to learn foreign languages.