A Practical Guide to Learning a Foreign Language

Learning a foreign language can seem like a daunting if not unachievable task to many of us.  I am here to tell you that learning a new language does not have to be the boring, monotonous travail that we begin to think it is from the outset of our freshman year high school language classes.  Thus, I write to those of you that are absolutely serious about learning another language and I believe I can offer some practical advice to help you not only enjoy the learning experience, but also to ease the pain and suffering that mass memorization of vocabulary and grammar tends to bring about. 

There are many ways to learn a language.  The easiest, but perhaps most stressful way is complete and total immersion.  This means to simply be thrown into an environment where you must speak, hear and read the foreign language on a constant basis and not be able to use your own native language (at all) to communicate.  Most of us however, are not afforded this luxury.  We have to try and keep ourselves motivated as well as make a conscientious effort to learn the language without much external support other than the routine language class.  This lack of stimulus causes our motivation to wane quite easily after the initial enthusiasm has passed and the task of memorization has become dismal.  The end result being such that our language books end up collecting dust after the semester is over and we are no closer to speaking the language with any fluency than we were previously.  For those who would like a way out of this quandary, I recommend beginning your language learning quest with the right elements.  These key factors will be your support to help keep your eyes on the end goal in times when the challenge becomes tedious or you become discouraged.  

I.   Incentive

Incentive is the absolute most important aspect in your quest to learn another language.  The first question you must ask yourself is why you want to learn the language.  If you have a genuine incentive to learn, then it will keep you motivated throughout the duration, especially when the language becomes difficult or you get frustrated.  My incentive to learn Spanish was that I found it rather disheartening when I could not understand people during a trip to Mexico even though I had studied it for 4 years in high school.  Also, the NAFTA agreement was being drafted and I figured if I could learn Spanish along with a Business degree then I might have more favorable job prospects in the future.  These were my incentives from the outset.

However, as I progressed I came to find that learning the language, in itself, was rewarding and practical.  People say that learning a little of the language before you travel will take you a long way, but I say that learning to actually speak the language will take you into an entirely new world! Further, you would be surprised to learn how much clearer our own language becomes through the study of a foreign tongue.  (I shall expound upon that point later.) Therefore, I recommend taking a trip to a foreign country where you can see with your own eyes that people actually do speak other languages and use them on a day to day basis. You will learn that language is actually very useful and not just a device they use just to punish us during our school days in the English speaking world.   

II.  Patience

Learning a new language does not happen overnight.  Just as a bodybuilder must go to the gym consistently for months to see even a miniscule result, so must the language learner have patience and consider it a lifelong endeavor.  In the beginning, you must memorize loads of vocabulary to build your base.  Once you have the built your base, then you can start building sentences and worrying about conjugations.  Once you have the conjugations, you can begin taking your first feeble steps to actually having a real conversation in another language!  

Another important aspect is to realize that you will never speak the foreign language as well as you speak English.  Therefore, don’t get frustrated when you are having a difficult time trying to express a thought or emotion in another language and do not compare it to how well you could have said the same thing in English.  You are a native speaker of English, yet you would know less than a one year old starting a new foreign language.  The magnitude of this difference in levels is gigantic, and a good way to induce frustration and make a beginner want to quit studying the language altogether.  So have patience, don’t compare, and reevaluate if you really have the time and enthusiasm to learn the language.   

III. Forget English

In the first few months of learning another language you will undoubtedly be translating your way through simple dialogue in class.  This means you first think of what you want to say in English, and then translate it to the foreign tongue.  Of course this is only natural, but it is also something that you will want to get away from as you progress and actually start to have simple conversations.  As you may or may not know, we actually think in our native language and are able to express our thoughts and ideas using complex sentences with minimal effort.  

Unfortunately, we are not able to do this in another language and thus try to translate the English phrase into a foreign one verbatim. This word for word translation does not work and will leave the foreign sentence sounding rather unintelligible and rough.  It is like listening to a radio with bad reception.  You might understand a little bit of what they are saying, but it certainly isn’t very enjoyable experience. 

Therefore, I propose tackling the problem in this manner.  Imagine that you have two file cabinets in your head, one for English and one for the foreign language.  When you need to express something in the foreign tongue, you should not reach for the English files abounding with numerous colorful English phrases.  Instead, reach for that anorexic foreign file, with only a few sparse phrases and words and form your sentence from there.  It may be a bit tantalizing at first since you might only be able to express only 10% of what you actually want to say.  

However, just like a child learns in this way by simply saying “Hungry!” instead of “I’m very hungry could you please take me to McDonalds,” so we too must start from scratch and form our foreign sentences one word, verb or adjective at a time.  This is especially true when you throw in idioms such as “I got his back,” which if translated into most other foreign languages will leave the listener thinking some sort of butchery was performed.       

IV. Make Useful Connections to Real Life

As I mentioned before, your native language will become clearer through the study of another language and it is a good technique to recognize these connections.  Through these recognitions you might possibly feel smarter which in turn, could increase your motivation.  Here are a few examples:

  1. The two leaders had a tête-à-tête discussion.  Tête equals “head” in French, thus the two leaders had a head to head (or private) discussion.
  2. Las Vegas means “Fertile Valley” in Spanish.  It’s too bad the Catholic Spanish conquerors didn’t have a little more foresight when they named it, as I’m sure they would have called it, “Future site of amusing, yet lewd establishments and moral degradation.” 
  3. Every Japanese name has a literal meaning.  For example, “Aiko” means “Child of Love” and “Suzuki” means “Bell Tree.” 
  4. “Travail” is a word I used in the first paragraph which is both, an English and French word meaning “work,” “task,” or “job” but is usually associated with something
    unpleasant in French. 

In making these connections, the foreign language becomes immediately useful to you in English and not just some abstract academic theory that you are having trouble applying to real life (assuming there are no foreigners with whom you can practice your new language.)  If you are the least bit curious, it will leave you hungering for more and the learning process will actually become amusing.  If you decide to take on a third language, these connections become even more useful in memorizing difficult vocabulary. 

A good example of this is the word “casa,” which means “house” in Spanish.  “Casa” also means “umbrella” in Japanese.  Taking this technique a bit further would be this example. “El oso” in Spanish means “a bear.”  I think that a bear is terrible, which leads me to the Japanese word “osoroshii” which means “terrible or dreadful!”

V.  Tips and Tricks

As I mentioned above, making connections is the easiest way to memorize the vocabulary.  If connections cannot be made, then there are a few other tricks I use to remember the words.  It is also important to keep in mind that you should use any technique that seems to work for you.  If standing on your head shouting out vocabulary until you are blue in the face works for you, then employ that method to the fullest extent.

A rule I go by is to not try and memorize entire phrases as a beginner in the language.  You should first try and learn what each individual word actually means and then they will make sense when you put them together (omitting the difference in grammatical structures). Learning phrases is useless if you don’t know what the individual words mean because without their meaning you cannot form other complex phrases or may say them out of context.  For example, I have had Japanese businessmen say “Hello, nice to meet you!” upon making eye contact without us having been introduced or even learning each others names.  Just because one learns a phrase doesn’t mean he or she knows how to employ it properly.  

Another trick is to imagine the foreign word next to a picture of the object in your mind. As mentioned before, we actually think in our native languages.  Thus, when we picture a fish in our heads, the word “fish” automatically appears as well.  Try imagining that you have been mistaken all your life and that the real word for fish is actually “poisson,” which is French.  Repeat the word and hear yourself say it for reinforcement.  Then try saying “I’m going to eat some poisson tonight.”  It sounds ridiculous and it is.  In fact, it’s so absurd that you will probably end up remembering the word.  You could also make a mental connection with this word as well since it looks so close to the word “poison,” which has the same meaning in French as it does in English.  Of course you wouldn’t eat poison for dinner but how about some poisson? 

Third, take this new word and use it as soon as possible.  Memorizing only places the information in your head temporarily.  However, when you are called upon to actually retrieve and use the information stored is when you reinforce it and make it (almost) permanent.  A good metaphor is that of the librarian and her index cards.  What may take the library patron a few minutes to find, will take only a few seconds for the librarian because he or she has probably accessed it countless times.   

Finally, you must practice listening to the language.  I know how boring those language tapes are and to be honest I did listen to them very much.  Instead, I listened to foreign songs or radio programs through the Internet.  Again, this is where incentive becomes really important because it would be easier if you already had a genuine interested in the music, news, or culture from that perspective country.  As a beginner, try to pick out some of the vocabulary you just learned.  When you hear it, it will be reinforced in your mind and harder to forget.  You will also be happy that you finally understood something even if it is only one word.  Remember, one word, becomes two words, which become entire phrases until you finally understand what they are saying.

An old Spanish proverb says, “A person who speaks two languages is worth two people.”  So I encourage all you language learners to find your motivation, determine which memorization techniques work for you and above all, have patience.  If you come to find that your enthusiasm is on the decline, take a quick trip to where they actually speak that language or at least find a native speaker with whom you can practice.  Finally, keep in mind that if you are persistent over a long period of time, almost anything can be accomplished.     

By Mateo de Colón

Global Citizen! こんにちは!僕の名前はマットです. Es decir soy Mateo. Aussi, je m'appelle Mathieu. Likes: Languages, Cultures, Computers, History, being Alive! \(^.^)/