Languages fascinate me. Even though I’m not fluent in any language besides English, I’ve always made attempts to study the local languages of countries I visit to try to develop a “travel survival” level of competency, the level where you can ask how much something costs, use common greetings and courtesies, order in a restaurant, ask for something in a shop, and, for the most ambitious, ask directions, although you’ll probably never understand the reply. In some countries, the language is difficult enough that you can’t really even get to “travel survival” level without significant additional study, but even a little can often help, if only to convey to the locals that you care enough about their culture to try. Almost always the reaction when they hear you trying to use their language is positive and will only yield good things. There are a few countries where hearing their native tongue butchered does not appeal to the locals…France being the foremost example. But don’t let that deter you. Practice makes perfect.
I’ve read many studies on language learning and most of them agree that the best way to learn a language is to be immersed in an environment in which it is all around you. That way you are learning language the same way you learned your native tongue as a baby, by first hearing it’s sounds and rhythms and eventually picking out words for objects and then discerning the grammatical structures, verbs, adjectives, etc. through language osmosis. Obviously if you are travelling to a country where your target language is spoken you are in the right place. But if you want to give yourself a jump start on the language before you arrive in the country, you can help yourself immensely by doing a few things.
1. Memorize the most frequently used words.
Find a list of the 1000 to 2000 most frequently used words in any language and focus on learning those words. Articles I’ve read on word frequency say that in most languages a 2000 word vocabulary will cover 85% of the words used in everyday speech. But you must learn the most high frequency words. This is purely a memorization exercise. Learn the words whatever way works best for you. Many people prefer to use flashcards, either handwritten or using one of the dozens of flashcard applications available for smart phones, tablets, or computers. There are flashcard decks of the most commonly used words available for many languages from the companies that produce the flashcard programs as well as free downloads of user-generated decks. Some people (me) put post-it notes on items all around the house to give themselves an additional visual reminder to help internalize some of the words.
2. Immerse yourself, but start in pre-school
The next thing to do is immerse yourself in the language you are trying to learn as much as you possibly can. The more you hear people speaking in the language the more you will begin to absorb its rhythms and develop the ability to isolate words and phrases. See my other post on “My Home Spanish Immersion Plan” for ideas on how to immerse yourself in another language. The same principles in that article apply to any language.
If you are new to the language, try to immerse yourself at the level of a child learning a new language. Watch or listen to radio or videos for kids. The language is slower and uses simpler vocabulary and sentence structures than programs for adults. If you can find children’s books in your target language, those are a great way to start reading. If you choose books for adults you will be looking up every other word in the dictionary which is a frustrating experience. Instead start with easy books that only require looking up maybe one word every sentence or two, especially after you’ve memorized the high frequency words from step 1. Besides, who doesn’t want to re-read “Go, Dog, Go!” in Spanish? Of course along the way you will pick up some odd vocabulary. I now know that Spanish for “Goosebumps” is “Escalofrios”.
I’ve seen recommendations from language “experts” that you shouldn’t watch videos to learn language, that you should only listen to audio. I disagree. Body language is a large part of any culture and you need to learn that too. A particular word combined with a particular expression or body movement may convey a different meaning when used with another expression or movement.
3. Grammar, verb conjugations, etc.
I’m divided in my own mind on this one. Some experts say that you should not burden yourself with too much grammar study at an early stage of language learning and instead focus on absorbing the rhythms and vocabulary. However, I come from a software programming background where you first learn the grammar of a programming language, and then start to apply it. I love learning rules and exceptions to rules, so my natural inclination is to learn the grammar early. I certainly think it’s useful to at least do a light study of the grammar just to save yourself some headaches. For example, in Spanish, it’s good to know up front that nouns have two genders which require different articles in front of them, such as ‘el’ and ‘la’. It’s also good to know that the endings of adjectives should agree with the gender of the noun. We don’t have those features in English, so they might not be apparent unless you read about them first. I’m sure you could probably develop intuitive rules over time, but it might be a long time. But I don’t necessarily think you need to go into a super deep grammar study of all the various special cases in the beginning.
Likewise on verb conjugations. You can learn verb conjugations passively by just hearing or reading a whole lot of different examples and gradually developing an intuitive sense that when the subject of the verb is “he” vs “we” that a different verb form is expected. Or you can just sit down and memorize a bunch of verb conjugations for the highest frequency verbs first. I admit to doing the latter, but I’m not sure I’m really learning the conjugations until they flow automatically in my mind when I need them in conversation, which doesn’t happen just by memorizing the conjugations. So, my recommendation is to maybe study conjugations for the top 100 most commonly used verbs and then let the rest come as needed.
4. Idioms and slang
The best thing about listening to a language on radio, TV, and videos is you learn idioms and slang as they are commonly used by the locals. One of the first words I learned from Spanish videos was “buey” (sounds like guey) which I dutifully looked up in my dictionary and discovered it means “ox”. But the “real” translation is “dude”. Like “Buey, donde esta mi coche?”… “Dude, where’s my car?”. I guarantee you will not find these kinds of words in Spanish language learning books. The best thing about learning words and phrases this way is that if an idiom is popular you will hear it a lot, so the repetition will naturally reinforce your learning of the most important idioms the soonest. In the case of the movie I was watching, I think “buey” was used about 9000 times, so I definitely absorbed it. If you start jotting down words and phrases that you recognize you are hearing a lot you will rapidly learn a lot of useful idioms.