I was fortunate to have spent time in both the United States and Taiwan while growing up. Although there were difficult transitional periods, bilingualism still came easier with cultural immersion. I am not fluent in any other languages but Chinese and English, but I know from my experience with Japanese how difficult it is to learn a language from scratch. This got me to think about how language learners who cannot go abroad and spend time in the language can learn faster. Here are some of my ideas. I’d love to hear your tips and tricks as well!
- Take a class. The most basic and widely used language-learning method. The benefit of a large class is that you have a larger resource base; although the downside is that each student receives less individual attention from the teacher.
- One-on-One Tutoring. Personal tutoring sessions will help you focus on topics and areas that are important to you, be it conversational skills, vocabulary building, or grammar. You can also set your own schedule (depending on the availability of your tutor) and devote a whole session to use and practice the language.
- Find Movies or TV Shows in the Foreign Language. Watching shows with subtitles will enhance your listening skills and you can match what you hear with the text you see. The visuals and story lines make it easy for you to understand the context, so you’ll still be able to follow the story even when you slowly stray away from the subtitles. When you’re entertained, you learn faster. I watched a lot of Korean dramas and Japanese dramas during my college years. Through the hours of me-and-TV time, I not only became familiar with the Japanese and Korean culture, but also picked up vocabulary. Because I watched the dramas with Chinese subtitles, it also helped me keep up with my Chinese skills.
- Read Short News Articles in the Language You Want to Learn. As you slowly build up vocabulary, you can move on to read more difficult or longer pieces. Studies show that it’s better to read material that’s slightly above your level because a) you’d feel more encouraged by how much you know, b) when there’s less new information to retain, you actually learn better.
- Translate as a Learning Tool.This doesn’t have to be formal at all. You can translate in your head a line on TV, a short ad on the bus, or even a few sentences that strikes your fancy. Training your brain to think in the foreign language is the key here. And when you find that you can’t translate something off the cuff, write down the words you need to complete the translation, and figure it out when you can access a dictionary. Baby steps, right? A free website called Duolingo, a “translate the web, learn a language” program, actually has brought to the fore conversations about translation as a learning tool. They currently have the site set up for Spanish and French learners, and have plans to launch Portuguese and Chinese sections as well. I’m not sure how I feel about using people’s desire to learn to get free labor for translating the web (and stealing jobs from translators!), I’m also not sure if there are copyright issues here, but maybe this is a program worth exploring. What do you think?
- Find People to Converse With. It’s not always easy to find people to speak with in the foreign language you want to learn and in a level that could benefit you. Some cultural organizations might offer language sessions or meetings, though, so that’s an avenue to look into. You might also want to try meetup.com, a site that helps organizations and groups facilitate meetings with people of similar interests, and see if there are conversation groups that may suit your needs.
- Listen to the Radio. Depending on your language skill level, this may or may not work for you. I’ve tried listening to the Korean news station, hoping that with time I’ll be able to pick up more words or learn the grammar, but without a large enough vocabulary base, the news was gibberish to me. One way that could be helpful to new language learners, is listening to podcasts that also have transcripts online. Going through the transcript first, to translate the material, and then listening to it will help you understand the text, build vocabulary, and improve your listening skills.
In the end though, learning a language is all about spending time with it. The more time you spend with the language, the better you’ll get. I hope some of these tips are useful to you!