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5 Weird Tips to Help You Learn a Foreign Language

by Louis J. Wasser

If you’ve never bothered to learn or needed to learn a foreign language, you may feel a bit intimidated. If you haven’t traveled much, or didn’t grow up exposed to a second language, you may even feel downright scared. Maybe your best memories of another language are the vocabulary tests and verb conjugation drills you had to endure in eighth grade. And now that you’ve been out of school for years, you have no intention of repeating that agonizing experience.

The good news is it doesn’t have to be that way.  If you regard a new language as an opportunity to learn about another culture and enrich your travel experiences, you can make significant headway. Once you view a new language in a social context, you can easily learn to fit in the grammar along the way.

Think about how you learned English.  You had discovered how to ask questions and communicate basic desires and needs before you ever learned to read, and before you understood the difference between a noun and a verb.  There’s no reason you can’t simulate the same process in a new language, now that you’re an adult. Relax a bit, and get used to the fact that you’re going to make mistakes. Don’t hold yourself to a high standard of fluency. Cut yourself some slack, and you’ll wind up surprising yourself as you interact with native speakers.

Here are 5 tips to help you immerse yourself quickly in a new language.

Memorize basic phrases you’re likely to need when you visit a country where your target language is spoken.

Buy a phrase book, and read it in your spare time — when you’re in the reception room of your doctor’s office, or waiting for your flight at an airport.  Learn phrases like Quelle heure est-il? (“What time is it?” in French), Come fine il ristorante rimane aperto? (“How late does the restaurant stay open?” in Italian), or Bitte sprechen Sie langsam (“Speak slowly, please,” in German).

Learn ten new vocabulary words every day.

Vocabulary is everything in a new language. Keep learning new words. While, as a study from the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages points out, it’s important for a foreign language student to learn “how when and why to say what to whom,” it becomes a difficult challenge to ask where the bathroom is in any language if you don’t know the word for “bathroom.”  Give yourself the challenge of learning ten words a day, and just imagine! In one year, you’ll have acquired a vocabulary of over 3,000 words.

Look at a newspaper or listen to a YouTube video in your target language every day.

You won’t understand either the newspaper or video at first. But in time you will. You’ll be surprised at how the newspaper pictures and YouTube images will help you along. It’s really amazing what you can accomplish on YouTube.  Try entering the words “Danish” and “commercial” in the search bar, as an example, and there you’ll have it:  a TV commercial in Danish.  Try looking for different YouTube videos in your target language (“Russian Christmas carols,” “German speeches” … well, you get the idea).

Make a new friend who speaks the language, and who wants to improve her English.

What a great way to learn a new language, and not have to feel self-conscious! You’ll also be reassuring your friend that he or she need not feel self-conscious.  Your mutual fears are automatically converted into a zero-sum game. Meet once or twice a week over coffee or lunch. And need we add, if you’re single, make a point of dating a person who wants to learn English, and can also help you with your target language.

Take advantage of language learning software like Pimsleur or Rosetta Stone.

These can bring you up to speed fast.  You can make your mistakes in private.  And, let’s face it — your eighth-grade Spanish teacher did have a point when he insisted that repetition and practice are vital when you learn a language. But now, the one who’s taking the tests is the same one who’s administering the tests.  And that would be you.

Do these five things to learn a new language and you’ll be surprised.  In only a few months, you’ll feel confident enough to carry on a simple conversation with a native speaker in a new language.

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