How To Learn Any Language (Especially As An English Speaker)

Posted on Posted in Entrepreneurship and Learning

I was planning on writing and posting a follow-up piece to one I wrote several days ago called, You Are Not Morally Obligated To Help A Dying Child In The Street, but got very far down the philosophy rabbit-hole and had to take a break. I’ll hopefully finish that one up tomorrow. I also hope to add at least a few more articles concerning philosophy before I finish the Praxis 30-Day Philosophy Course.

But for now, let’s talk briefly about language.

Learning a language is hard. Some language acquisition experts even go as far as to say that if you attempt to learn a language after puberty, there is almost no chance you will ever obtain native-level competency when it comes to your accent. And the odds of gaining near-native fluency are very low. You can get really good, but to get to the next level is a whole other story.

This makes sense. Language is the most complex system you will ever use. In fact, the ease with which we use our native languages is nothing short of amazing. We can create and communicate a near infinite number of distinct utterances. We have command of thousands or even tens of thousands of different words. And with the system that makes up any given language, we can string together those words and utterances and be understood by thousands, or millions, or billions of people whom we’ve never met or spoken to before.

Learning a second language post puberty is tough, but extremely valuable and rewarding. It not only increases the millions that you can communicate with, but also brings intense personal satisfaction.

And the best part is, getting to the point of meaningful communication does not require native-like competence. That can be your goal, but it’s important to remember that language “fluency” is always a matter of degree. If you can get your point across effectively, that’s all that really matters.

So how do you learn it?

First off, save your money. You don’t need expensive software like Rosetta Stone.

Here are the four things you need:

  1. Drive. As I said, learning a language is difficult and embarrassing and uncomfortable so you have to really want to learn it.
  2. Time. Learning a language is not for the faint of heart. Despite modern qualms with repetition and memorization, this is how you will learn vocabulary and grammar. Repeat. Repeat. Memorize. This takes time.
  3. A basic level grammar book. Find a beginner through intermediate level grammar book that includes exercises and answers to those exercises. For German, I use German In Review. Make sure the book is simple and doesn’t have minuscule print. Go through this book many times. Do the exercises. Then do them again. Repeat. Repeat. Memorize.
  4. The internet. This thing is actually several things.
    1. First, use the internet to download the app onto your phone. This is an excellent dictionary that has extensive clarifications and lets you add words to a vocab list within the app. It also has quiz games and a vocabulary trainer which use the words on your personal list. This is huge. It’s fun and easy and you can practice anywhere anytime. If it doesn’t contain the language you want to learn, then find an app that has similar functionality.
    2. Second, use the internet to find movies, music, and articles in the language. You won’t learn that much from the first two in the beginning. Despite having watched Finding Nemo in Spanish class whenever you had a sub, I don’t think a beginner gets much out of it other than hearing how the language sounds. This is important, but the value of the movies and music increases as your skill level increases. Reading articles will help you build your vocab lists.
    3. Third, find conversation partners online. There are paid services out there that match you with people but these aren’t necessary. If you’re an English speaker you are a highly valued commodity throughout the whole world. People want to talk with you to better their English. A good place to start is to find large Universities in the country of the language you’re learning. There is probably some type of public Facebook page. Write a message (better to write in the language you are learning as a show of respect but English works too) in the group saying you are seeking a conversation partner who wants to better their English and who wants to help you improve in their native language. Watch the responses pour in. Skype once a week for an hour or two and you will learn more than you did in four years of high school language classes. As a side note, depending on the language in question and your location, looking up local universities or language schools is also a good idea. In the past I have gotten several German conversation partners from a local English language school in Ann Arbor. Meeting in person is probably preferable, but there might only be slim pickings. But if you look at foreign universities you will almost certainly find someone willing to Skype with you.

Do these things consistently and you will see results. Though the task itself is difficult, the idea and process is simple. Use grammar books, vocab lists, and media to learn the basic structure and concepts, and then put it into action with a conversation partner.

You will fail.

You will look and feel stupid.

But then you’ll start to sense an increasing rapidity of clicks and it’ll feel awesome.

If you stick with it, you will gain a whole new way of viewing and interpreting the world around you. And that’s a magical thing.

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