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In early 2014 I took a course that guaranteed I’d be conversational in a new language (Spanish) in just 30 days. Not fluent, mind you, but able to hold short conversations with native speakers.
Great. I’m moving to Mexico in May, so I can get ahead of the language learning process, I thought.
The claim wasn’t false.
I was indeed conversational in Spanish after just 30 days. Well, as long as you consider asking for a beer, where the bathroom is, or telling someone that your dog enjoys eating rice and beans, conversational. In fact, if part of Spanish fluency was mastering the art of deciphering strange looks and hand signals, then I was indeed a pro.
The truth is, I learned a few canned phrases but somehow completely overlooked the fact the course didn’t teach me anything outside of simple scripted responses. If the person I was speaking with deviated from this script, my Spanish just couldn’t keep up.
In short, I was screwed. I now lived in a Spanish-speaking country (Mexico), and even with all the effort, I sounded about as well-versed in the new language as the average local toddler.
For the next year I tried just about everything to learn the language. I’d hit a wall. Memorization didn’t come easy, and when it did, recall was tricky. You see, what people don’t tell you about learning a new language is that the speed at which you recall the information is just as important as knowing it in the first place. And when everyone around you speaks a new language, it’s kind of hard to keep up.
After dismal results my first year living in Mexico, I decided to forego conventional wisdom and come up with my own approach. What could I lose? At this point, as long as I was studying Spanish, I would improve, so why not go all out and see what I could do?
The results were far superior to that of Rosetta Stone, Duolingo, and even the occasional session with a tutor.
In just three months, I went from a blubbering idiot to a blubbering idiot that could speak Spanish. Not fluently, of course, but enough to get the job done. I’m even able to hold short conversations with only minor stumbles, and although I’m much more capable of reading and writing in Spanish, my speech is improving every day.
Sidenote to avoid the aforementioned “minor stumbles”: In Spanish, “año” (year) is pronounced ah-nyo, not ah-no. You only make that mistake once. Trust me. Look it up.
Why It’s So Difficult to Learn a New Language
Everyone is a natural language learner. Think about it; you learned your first language without even really trying, right?
While it’s easy to argue that kids are best suited to quickly pick up new languages (they are), that doesn’t preclude you from doing the same thing. In fact, we now have more tools at our disposal than ever before, and with a realistic timeline, desire, and the motivation to keep going no matter how much you stumble — because there will be stumbles — you too can learn a language.
The Secret to Language Skills
The key is in immersion. We’ll talk about that more later, but to just touch on it briefly, you need to be able to surround yourself with as much of the language as possible. Depending on your study habits, this could lead to conversational fluency in a matter of months, or over a decade.
There are no hard-and-fast rules but one thing is certain; the more you surround yourself with the language you’re learning, the more of it you’ll retain.
I want to put the argument to rest that you need to live in a foreign country in order to experience this level of immersion. While it doesn’t hurt, it’s unnecessary. In fact, you’re probably sneering at the guy that lives in Mexico but tells you that he could have learned the same amount living anywhere else in the world, but it’s true. I live just 45 minutes south of San Diego, and even most of the Mexicans here speak English, so this is not an ideal location for immersion. In fact, I often go days without hearing much — if any — Spanish at all.
Immersion can happen anywhere. The key here is to listen, read, write, and speak in the language as much as possible, and luckily for you, the Internet makes all of that possible.
My Unscientific but Effective 5-Step Technique for Learning a New Language
People fail in learning a new language as they expect rapid results with a specific tool. There isn’t a single tool on the market that will allow you to reach fluency.
The best approach, is a blended one. Use the tools for what they’re best at, and be sure to vary your studies to keep things fresh and exciting.
The items in this list are in order of importance. Start at the top and only progress to the next step once you feel you’re ready. That’s not to say you won’t be working on any of these things concurrently; you will. But it’s illogical to think that you could go from a few hours on Duolingo to conversing with a native speaker immediately.
By the time you reach the end of the list, speaking, you’ll actually be doing all five of the learning modes below (or most) in your practice sessions – or you should be, anyway.
Pro Tip: Try to study multiple times throughout the day as opposed to one marathon session. Your brain does a better job of retaining information if you give it a rest now and then.
Before you can walk, you have to learn to crawl. In language learning, you have to learn words before you learn sentences, grammar, or parts of speech.
We’ve reviewed Duolingo previously and most users consider it to be a good tool in the language learning arsenal. It’s important to note that Duolingo was never meant to be the key to fluency. It’s a tool, and much like any tool it has its limitations. I mean, you wouldn’t use a fork to eat soup, right?
If you’re using Duolingo for its intended purpose — to improve your vocabulary — then you’ll get a lot out of it. The interface is slick, the gamification aspects of it are somewhat addictive, and overall it’s just a solid way to improve upon vocabulary in your new language.
It also has another oft-overlooked feature that will greatly improve your language learning, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
Flash Cards (Anki)
Anki allows you to create flash cards using a scientifically proven memory-boosting technique called spaced repetition. In short, after each flash card, you rate your ability to remember and recall it so that the card shows up repeatedly (every few minutes) if you are having trouble, or every few days if it’s committed to memory.
The system is smart, but it has a severe limitation — you.
Many people use Anki as sort of an on-the-go recall tool of what they previously learned in Duolingo. I put the words I learned in Duolingo into Anki decks as well, but I’m also constantly creating new decks for just about anything, including:
- Verb conjugations
- Super specific sentences (eating out, numbers, what to say to the cable guy, etc.)
- Photos (I use the Spanish word or phrase on the back so I begin to associate things with the Spanish word instead of relying solely on English to Spanish translation – to put it simply, I’m trying to “think” in a new language as well)
- Conversions from imperial to metric
With Anki, the system is even smart enough to “flip” the cards so that it does not just ask for a translation from English to Spanish (or your language of choice), but from Spanish to English as well.
I was listening to music, as well as watching movies and television anyway, so why not do it in the new language? You aren’t going to understand much at first, but that’s not all that important at this stage. What we’re trying to do here is to train the ear to the nuances of a new language.
There really isn’t a better way to do it than to integrate your entertainment habits into your desire to learn a new language.
One popular method for learning another language through television is actually one I disagree with now. When I first moved here I was told that watching children’s shows, such as cartoons, Sesame Street and Barney would be a great way to learn because the words were simple, and the speech was often slow. This is true.
The reason I disagree with its effectiveness, however, is simple… people don’t talk in cartoon voices all that often in the real world. On top of it being somewhat annoying at times, it wasn’t all that effective in training me to pick up on the nuances of human speech in a new language.
But, as with anything new, your mileage may vary.
You might be surprised to see Duolingo again but it’s important to talk about one of its least-mentioned tools, the built-in “immersion” feature. It’s surprising to me that so few people use this, as translation is a great way not only to strengthen your vocabulary, but also to begin seeing these words in context.
It gets you outside of the novice thinking that you can translate sentences or phrases literally from one language to another — you can’t. Actual translation — and speech — requires you to do subtle re-arranging and even some guesswork from time-to-time while you try to decipher the meaning behind the sentence and not just translate it word-for-word.
Duolingo allows you to translate works uploaded by others (usually Wikipedia pages and news articles) by clicking a sentence, and then translating it into a box in the sidebar. When you’re stuck, you can hover over a word and Duolingo will show the translation. If you don’t like any of the items that are currently available to translate, you can even upload your own content.
Once you are finished translating, you submit your work, and others will correct it, or vote it up or down based on how accurate it is. Some will even award you with “Lingots,” which are the in-app currency that allow you to buy additional features.
The reason this means of translation is so effective is due to the near-instant feedback you’ll get . This feedback is invaluable to learning a new language.
Language Exchange Partners
Once you’re about halfway through with the knowledge tree in Duolingo, you should be ready to have simple conversations. After you complete the tree, you’ll actually have a vocabulary of around 1,500-2,500 words, which is more than enough for a more complete, albeit causal, conversation.
The one thing about Duolingo that most don’t like is that it doesn’t improve your ability to recall words, phrases and full sentences as fast as actually speaking them and it definitely doesn’t help with nailing a new accent.
Find supplementary assistance outside of Duolingo in order to practice your speech, once you have an adequate vocabulary.
One of the nice parts about learning a new language is that you’re never alone. There are always people that want to learn to speak your language with whom you can converse. Practicing collaboratively takes the approach of spending half the session speaking in one language, and then rotating to finish the lesson in another. This way you and your language partner both get value from your chats, and you’re able to share tips, tricks and even criticisms with someone who is in the same boat as you.
You can find your own language exchange partner to Skype or email with at these three places:
We have reviewed WeSpeke earlier.
Do you speak more than one language? What tips, tricks or techniques would you recommend for learning a new language? Let us know in the comments below.
Image Credit: IMG 1965 by Tom Page via Flickr