The Best Language Learning Hacks

You’ve successfully moved to your new home in the exotic country you’ve dreamt of for years. You aced the interview for that dream job and sailed through the complex visa process.

As you unpack boxes, the doorbell rings. It’s friendly neighbours welcoming you to the community. At least, that’s what you think they’re saying; it’s all Greek to you.

If you don’t speak the language of your destination country, life there is going to be harder than it needs to be.Simple, everyday tasks will be difficult, and conversations short. An inability to understand will really hinder integration. It would be a frustrating shame to move to this new culture and be prevented from exploring it by a lack of the local lingo.

For many, the only experience of languages is boring lectures on strange grammar in a stuffy schoolroom, leaving them unable to separate Spanish from Swahili. Learning a new language is not easy; it takes time and hard work, and even hours of classroom time won’t make you fluent in a fortnight.

Luckily there are tools and techniques that can help you grasp grammar, vary your vocabulary and ameliorate those accent issues. These tricks aren’t shortcuts, but exercises in efficiency. They will require time and effort, but the payback will be perfeito Portugese, großartig German or fantastique French.

Make flash cards and use sticky notes

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Carry flash cards in your pocket and put sticky notes on everything. At first your home will look like you’ve lost your memory and can’t remember the names for everyday objects, but closer inspection will reveal the simple genius of this trick.

The most English of activities, making a cuppa, will become an exercise in German linguistics. Boil the Wasserkessel, grab a Teebeutel and don’t forget to take the Milch out of the Külschrank.

Labelling items speeds up the process of learning nouns, their genders and associated verbs.

Carrying flash cards means any train journey, elevator ride or boring meeting can quickly become a revision session. Write vocabulary from the target language on one side, and below it write any useful pronunciation notes or grammar rules. Study this side before flipping the card to see the familiar translation. When this starts to become easy, do the same thing in reverse. Start with a small bundle of words and add more over time to keep the game challenging. Making the cards will be a big part of the process as writing things down helps commit them to memory.

These techniques might mean a cluttered house and bulging pockets, but will also mean an accelerated journey to an early milestone: the first 100 words.

Concentrate on the first 100 words

Vocabulary is the building block of language learning. Without a knowledge of nouns and verbs you’ll never graduate to grammar. Once the first 100 words are in your grasp, they can be combined in a multitude of variations to start forming sentences and simple conversations. Suddenly the textbook comes to life and things get more interesting.

It’s been suggested that just 300 words make up 65% of all written material in English, a rule that roughly translates to other European languages too. So even with the smallest mental dictionary a budding linguist can start to read, write and understand their target language.

Adding to this is the fact that many European languages share common roots thanks to various invasions and centuries of commercial trading. Many of the first 100 words will be cognates: words which appear intact or slightly altered across English, French, Spanish, Italian, German, Portugese and Dutch. It’s not just a case of adding ‘O’ onto English words to make them Spanish (although the bank is ‘el banco’), but it does mean that 20 of those first 100 words are strikingly familiar.

The first 100 words will quickly snowball into 300, 500 and eventually 1,000. Hitting four figures means your vocabulary is broad enough to survive conversation with a local, a key step towards fluency.

Invest in apps

The next step up from a pocketful of colourful card and scraps of paper on the fridge is a super-slick app on a phone or tablet. Some are better than others and some are fairly pricey, but some of the best are free.

Don’t rely entirely on techno teaching devices though, as they lack a connection with the real world that could hinder your progress toward linguistic perfection. Used alongside physical notes, textbooks and lots of practice, apps can be very advantageous.

Duolingo for example is a free app that allows users to tailor their lessons to their needs as well as their learning speed. Over 25 million users can be found talking into their phones as the app analyses accents and delivers one-on-one tuition. Although the app’s friendly owl mascot will nag you to revise and do your homework, it can’t answer any direct questions. Duolingo is a complement to teaching and textbooks rather than a replacement.

For those who need cuteness in the classroom, try CatAcademy. The humorous programme illustrates each lesson with an appropriate cat picture.

For quick vocabulary questions try Google Translate, but don’t trust it with long texts, as it can be clumsy with grammar.

At the more serious end of the scale BBC Languages hold free, self contained lessons and iTunes U makes lectures from the world’s best universities available free of charge.

Look for patterns pronunciation and grammar

Armed with a headful of vocabulary and some familiar phrases, start analysing how words are used. Pronunciation and grammar might seem as complex and nonsensical as quantum physics, but in reality their variations are based on simple rules and their use should make simple patterns.

Remember ‘i before e, except after c”? Similar rules exist for every language. German students will remember ‘PAD DAN PIN’ more easily than the complex sentence structure it represents.

Once you encounter these rules, make a conscious effort to spot them when reading or listening to material, then apply them to your own sentences.

Look and listen

Listening to pronunciation and grammar will help a lot, but watching them can help even more. How do you do that with a language? Learn to lip read.

It’s not as complicated as full-on lip reading, but watch the shape of the mouth when people talk. The subtler sounds that natives find natural can be difficult to reproduce for aspiring linguists, especially the subtle vowel of sounds romance languages or the glottal stop of the Middle East.

Whether sat opposite a friend in a café, or watching a tutorial video on an app, pay attention to were the speaker’s tongue and lips are going. You may find that the lisping ‘S’s of Spanish don’t come easy or throaty growls of Arabic suddenly make sense; be patient. As well as teaching your brain a new language, you are also teaching it to your body.

Start a conversation

As well as watching a friend speak, it’s usually polite to reply to them. Conversation is great revision of older lessons, forcing you to combine grammar and vocabulary in different contexts.

Chatting away will also introduce you to new bits of the language, giving the chance to ask a native speaker for some personal tutoring. Nobody knows their mother tongue like a native. Their insight will help put things into context; formal speech patterns may work in written form, but could be odd or even rude in person.

Learning the culture of a place can be just as important; cafes in Madrid may be filled with informal Spanish whilst Buenos Aires coffee drinkers keep things politely formal.

Conversation will be the only place to pick up the ruder, cruder or downright filthy phrases that exist in all languages. You might not want to use them, but it’s valuable to know what to avoid; asking for an innocuous papaya in Cuba could be a source of great embarrassment.

Perhaps most important is building an emotional connection. Being able to remember jokes and stories will cement the vocabulary used to tell them into your mind.

Practise little and often

Repeat, review and revise. As you advance into a language, be sure to look at the basics once in a while. Nothing could be more embarrassing than chatting away in near-fluent Hindi and realising you’ve forgotten the noun for ‘book’ (Kitāba), which you learnt on day one.

Reread a chapter in the textbook, test yourself and then remind yourself of it again. These three steps done regularly will help connect the new vocabulary to your native tongue, making the mental leap from one language to another easier each time.

This step is so simple many advanced polyglots neglect it and find holes in their knowledge at the most inopportune moments.

Read and watch in your target language

This is the reason you decided to learn a language in the first place: the romantic idea of reading War and Peace in the original Russian.

It might be a way off yet, but there’s no reason why you can’t start to consume books and movies like a native. It may be challenging at first as literature often jumps through tenses and modes, but this will pay dividends over time.

There’s no need to start with great works of literature; comic books and teen fiction should be a good start. This tactic can be a lot of fun, with many familiar children’s books being published in multiple languages. Settle in to read Tintin in Tamil or The Gruffalo in Greek and the familiarity of the characters and story should help the language lessons take hold.

Graduate up to Harry Potter in Hebrew and then on to Hungarian Hunger Games.

Not only is this method a great teaching tool, it’s a reward in its own right; it helps to mark your progress and is a great excuse to visit bookshops the world over.

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes

It’s well known that children can pick up languages quicker than adults; scientists argue that kids’ brains are able to grow neural connections more easily and dedicate areas of their growing brains specifically to a second language.

It may be even simpler than that. Youngsters see language as a game; one they are not afraid to lose once in a while. Years of schooling and boss-pleasing work culture means adults are instilled with a fear of being wrong, unwilling to attempt new things unless sure of ‘being right’.

Little ones could teach linguists much about the process of learning: enjoy it. Don’t hold yourself back by not trying, and if mistakes are made they will help you remember the vocabulary more effectively than formal lessons.

As early as you can, put down the pocket translator, dump the dictionary and commit to conversation with confidence. As long as the listener can understand what you’re getting at, you’ll be making progress and friends at the same time.

A newly learned language is a muscle, and without exercise it will wither and become weak.

Full immersion

It’s sink or swim, just dive on in. If it feels like you’re in over your head, know that friendly locals will help keep you afloat.

Before moving for good, try to visit your new home and take a residential language course. These exist all over the world and offer excellent value.

Mornings may involve tuition in a small group, the afternoon field trips with the class, the evening socialising with locals. All of it in the native tongue in a supportive and helpful environment.

Courses may last a few days or an entire summer and costs may vary significantly, so research which one works for you. Some will cater to youngsters and others to adults and may include special classes relevant to your new life.

As well as a valuable learning opportunity, it is a great chance to explore the place you’ll soon call home.

Have you learned a second language? Do you have any tips for people who are just starting out with language learning? Let us know in the comments!

Article by Andy Scofield


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