Ten Tips for Learning Languages

I’m going to write some tips for learning Japanese especially for the people going on the Worldschool Travels to Japan this year. But I’ll start with general tips on learning a foreign language.

I’ve become fairly fluent in German, Japanese, and Spanish mainly by travelling and living in the countries where they are spoken. From those experiences I think anyone can learn a foreign language they just need to:

  1. Jump in and be willing to make mistakes. To start with and pretty much every step of the way you’re going to need to just go and use the language if you want to learn and enjoy it. You are going to make mistakes: that’s one of the big ways we learn anything. The great news is that most native speaker will really appreciate that you are putting in the effort to learn their language and they’ll be very supportive.
    And even though you will make mistakes you need to…
  2. Be Confident. I remember when I learned my first Japanese words many years ago I thought I must be missing something, I must not be saying this right: but I was! Foreign languages are at first totally mysterious and we may imagine it’s not possible to learn it because we’re not a native speaker.
    While you might not ever have a perfect accent or get everything, you can definitely become fluent enough to understand, be understood, and even enjoy inside jokes! Which brings me to the next tip:
  3. Have fun! Even if you do need to learn a language for work or school, you’re going to find it a lot easier to learn if you make sure to have some fun with the language. The reason you’re usually using your native language is you enjoy it and are having fun with it: it can be the same with learning a new language. Very much related to that…
  4. Remember it’s about connectin’ not about perfectin’. People are way more interested in connecting and getting the general idea of what you’re saying than they are in correcting or judging whether you’ve said something grammatically correct. You can really interrupt the flow of a nice conversation by worrying too much about perfection.
  5. Learn about the culture. Read about the history of the country or countries from whence the language came. Watch movies. Listen to music. You can learn a lot of language directly from those sources and you’ll just be aware of the culture, which is polite, helps you understand the context of the language, makes it more meaningful, and motivates you overall.
  6. Travel to the country. Of course this is my favorite bit of advice. When you’re in the country it helps with all these other tips. You’re surrounded by the language and given the opportunity and forced to learn. You can learn more of the language in a couple days in a country than months in a classroom.
  7. Surround yourself with the language in different settings. If you’re not in the country you can still find communities and even if you are in the country make sure to get out, away from people who speak English! Go to the markets, volunteer, hang out in the park, etc. Each place offers new words and phrases to learn enjoyably.
  8. Go to school. That’s right I said it! At the very least it’s a new setting to learn new words! But really people on the street don’t usually want to correct you and teacher/tutors will, which can be very helpful. A little bit from school or books can go a long way when you combine it with real world experience. But I’m talking short term school, tutoring, or group learning: a few months in a classroom to me seems a waste of time, money, and soul.
  9. Make friends. Okay I’m not suggesting befriending people just because they speak the language and people can get annoyed if you keep asking them language questions. But people often do want to help you learn and making friends with people can help with all these other tips: have fun, learn about the culture, gain confidence, speak in different settings, and this last one:
  10. Be the language. Language is not just about the words and grammar or even accents. Every language has a spirit. (But at the very least, please try to develop a bit of an accent. Many English speakers will speak a foreign language with a complete [usually] American accent.) Really, you’ll notice a  bilingual person will often seem like two different people depending on which language they are speaking.

Don’t lose yourself and be phoney.  Just let go to some extent and be influenced by the language and culture. You need to engage the native speakers where they’re coming from rather than expect them to meet you.

For example, you can’t really speak Spanish “correctly” without being friendly, welcoming, and playful, even if you’re not that way in your native language! To speak Japanese “right” you have to be very polite, appreciative, quick to laugh and quick to bow.

If you can do those things you can connect with new people in a new way you couldn’t have before. That’s one of the most exciting, valuable, and wonderful things in the world. And you’ll be able to import the riches you find from those connections into your own language and community.

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4 Comments

Filed under language learning, languages, linguistics, unschooling, worldschooling

4 responses to “Ten Tips for Learning Languages

  1. Here is an article that I wrote some time ago for Pick the Brain on language learning. As someone who has learned 11 languages, 4 including Russian and Cantonese since turning 55, and while working, I do not believe that going to a school is a good move, unless you have lots of time and money to waste.

    http://www.pickthebrain.com/blog/language-learning/

  2. Steve, I just read your post and thought it was a really good summary of what’s needed to learn languages. http://www.pickthebrain.com/blog/language-learning/

    I especially like #6. “When we learn, we change. We need to accept this change.” That’s what I was talking about with my last #10 tip “Be the language.” I like how you say:

    “Many of the difficulties that grown-ups face in language learning, come from the a resistance to change. It is often more comfortable to follow the patterns and pronunciation of our own language, rather than to commit to fully imitating the new language.”

    And your last comment there:

    “* All learners benefit from the help of an encouraging tutor and an enthusiastic group of fellow learners, in order to overcome these barriers to learning.”

    …is exactly what I meant when I said “Go to school.” I was partly being playful because I’m an unschooler and I’m not a fan of school for learning just about anything! But unschooling and natural language learning can definitely benefit from some school sometimes….

    • The web, social networking, sites like LingQ.com can all provide this support better than a classroom. The classroom, with its “make busy” activities, and mixture of motivated and unmotivated learners, is a distraction, largely a waste of time. The listening you do there is dominated by the voices of non-native speakers. I would not attend a school.

  3. Pingback: Stranger in a Strange Land Newsletter: July 2009 « Eli Gerzon’s Worldschooler Blog

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