Giving language learning another go

Jay Downes
Dec 6, 2017 · 3 min read

Ever since I was a young child I’ve been fascinated by the idea of learning a new language. Dreams of flitting about around the world conversing with the locals and impressing girls at foreign restaurants reinforced my desires. Over the years I would toy with learning multiple languages but I would never fully commit to the task. Japanese, Korean, Spanish and Dutch words occasionally pop out of my mouth at strange times leaving the person I am speaking to confused. Inhibition tends to be ignored when the joy of remembering pieces of oddball sentences suddenly appear (9 times out of 10 they don’t know what I’m saying so I might as well try to impress them with my hidden culture).

Once again the exciting prospect of language learning has reared its head in the form of Mandarin, but this time I will do it differently. What I learnt from these past failures was that a lack of immersion left my conversational abilities spotty at best. I was able to read basic text and guess my way through it, but when I listened to a native speaker talk I would be lost. In my opinion, this defeats the purpose of learning a new language. Who wants to read foreign text when you can discover new cultures and make new friends from different countries using the native tongue? So, how will I climb over the mountain of challenges the Chinese language presents me?

Trying to impress a girl of course.

A lovely and patient Mandarin speaking girl has agreed to help teach me and I would be a fool to pass up on the opportunity. Benny Lewis, the author of Fluent in 3 Months, encourages immersion of a culture in order to learn a language most effectively. Obviously it would be ideal to fly to the country of choice and force discomfort and a crash course learning style but sometimes the opportunity to travel isn’t accessible. So, the next best thing is to converse as much as possible with native speakers. This is a great form of practical learning of newly acquired skills and your language partner will be able to help explain grammatical errors not explained in other language apps/books. I feel this is essential in languages such as Mandarin where specific tones are necessary to avoid offending somebody while asking for the bathroom.

Depending on how committed you are to learning or how fast you need to learn you can increase your input to gain a greater output. Techniques to boosting your vocabulary quickly include the following:

Use a progress building app such as Memrise or Duolingo to build your word bank.

Write out the main phrases you plan on using in a notebook and read over them daily.

Listen to music in the language of your choice (it helps even more if it is a pop song/earworm).

Watch movies you are familiar with, that are dubbed in that language.

Fly to a country that speaks it (even better if speaking in English is not an option).

If travelling isn’t an option find somebody in the area that will agree to talk to you often and provide helpful feedback. Being given false positive critique is detrimental to progress as it is hard to unlearn something once it is instilled in your brain.

Join a club that teaches in person (if funds allow it).

There is no one way to learn a language but what always holds true is the amount of time you spend actively using it the faster you will learn. Testing yourself is initially painful but once the fear of failure disappears your skills will improve exponentially. This is apparent in most educational development but school systems taint this skill building exercise by providing negative feedback when you haven’t quite understood yet. When you are learning outside of a school environment there are no repercussions for failure. In fact, your learning curve will be cut down massively from attempting to consolidate your knowledge through testing.

So, if you have ever considered learning a language I suggest crawling out of your unsocial hole and committing to conversing with a local. You will save a lot of time and be prepared to impress that boy/girl who is woefully unaware that deep down you are in fact cultured.

Jay Downes

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Neuroscience/Philosophy/Lifestyle design