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10 Tips to Learn a Foreign Language Faster

Avoiding Beginner’s Frustration

Learning a foreign language faster, including through immersion.
Communication by language often seems to occur less quickly than it should. But there are ways to accelerate the process.

How come I'm not learning this language faster? It's a question you'll hear in language schools around the world. The students asking tend to be 40 years of age or older and monolingual English speakers. They intuitively know English grammar but have forgotten the grammatical rules and terms.

It's not that these adult students aren't learning. But they feel they should be learning more and learning it faster. And that creates frustration. But can one learn faster? Can one eliminate the feeling of frustration? Are their expectations reasonable?

During ten years of combining travel and language studies I have experienced these frustrations with fellow adult learners. These tips represent the cumulative wisdom garnered from this informal group.

1) Focus on the process

Don’t expect a return proportionate to your investment of time and energy. Acquiring a new language is a highly individual and mysterious process. You will have good days and you will have bad days. You will go forward. You will go backward. You will go sideways. But, eventually, you will get ahead. Don't squander your enthusiasm and energy by comparing yourself to others or having preconceived notions of how long it should take. Cultivate a relaxed attitude. Stop asking yourself "How am I doing" and start asking "What can I do to engage the language?" Remember the Buddhist teaching: "Pay attention to the path and you will reach the destination."

2) Celebrate

Learning a new language is going to take longer than you think. If after your first month of study you can capture the basics of your new language, you will have made great progress.

3) Celebrate your accomplishments

One of the most satisfying trips I ever took was back to Costa Rica, where, four years earlier, I had studied Spanish as a beginner. The same shops, travel arrangements, and day-to-day contacts that had been a struggle were now a delight. The comparison between "before" and "after" was a source of great satisfaction.

4) Bring study resources

Everyone wants to pack light, but be certain to bring with you one textbook written in English. Immersion means that Spanish will be taught in Spanish, French in French, and Thai in Thai. And that includes grammar. You will find it useful to have a textbook or workbook about the new language that is written in English. If you don't know what an indirect object or an irregular verb is in English, you will be hard-pressed trying to identify them in your new language. Consider investing in a book of English grammar. The Chartbook: Understanding & Using English Grammar is concise and easy to pack.

5) Embrace the past

A 50-year-old fellow student at the Becari Spanish Language School in Oaxaca, Mexico came to school one day full of new enthusiasm. At last she had some grasp of the past tense. For three weeks, she reported, she had lived entirely in the "now" because she could only express herself in the present tense. With the past tense, she was now able to report her experiences. "I told my family I went to the market and talked about it a little. For the rest of the meal, we talked about markets. I didn't understand everything they were saying, but at last I was able to initiate and participate in a conversation with more than a simple response to a direct question." The lesson is simple: the sooner you know the past tense the more you can communicate in the present.

6) Talk to your mother

Homestay households are genuinely interested in hosting a foreign student. Knowing that your goal is to learn their language, they will encourage you to speak it. When I was studying at the Casa de Xelaju in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala ( my homestay mother prepared coffee every afternoon at four. She set aside this time to talk just to me. We discussed every topic imaginable. It is a mystery to me how she understood anything I said given the level of my Spanish at the time. But she did, and the experience of being understood was fundamental to my desire to continue my studies. So talk to your mother and family. Come to the lunch or dinner table with something prepared to say. You'll find your hosts an interested audience for your baby steps in your new language.

7) A new persona

Talk to any student of language who has reached some level of proficiency and they will admit that they express themselves differently in their second language and, as a result, think differently. Watch interactions between native speakers. Every language has a "style" in which it is spoken and you will have your own style, too, within the rules of grammar and with clear pronunciation of course. I know an American woman who is rather boring in English but becomes quite charming and amusing in Italian. So if you are in France, Italy or Spain, indulge in a little play-acting. Become French, Italian, or Spanish! You don't have to wave your hands as you think Italians do, but recognize that your new language demands a new persona to speak it effectively.

8) Do it with style

What is your learning style? Are you auditory, visual, or kinesthetic? Create learning methods that work for you.

9) Have an imaginary conversation with yourself

Draw a picture with vocabulary words. Walk the street and count each step. Invent your own "physical anchors." One adult student I met at the Instituto Tonali in Guanajuato, Mexico touched his chest to remind him to make the "e" or "i" ending for the first person past tense of Spanish verbs. For the third person, past tense, he envisioned a face of another, which reminded him of the "o" ending. Invent your own set of "physical anchors." If you're learning the present tense, sit in a park and report to yourself everything you see: "I see a man in the park, and now I see a tree." Listen to a song while reading the lyrics. Use your imagination to discover effective ways to learn.

10) A journey of self-discovery

Learning a new language involves learning about yourself as a student. What do you do when you get frustrated? How do you react? Do you blame the teacher, the school, the method, or your age? Mastering irregular verbs is not as difficult as mastering your own approach to how you study. Language Learning is a journey of both world discovery and self discovery. So observe yourself and don't become attached to your frustration. If you feel overwhelmed, back off. If you are planning to study for a month straight and you get bogged down, take a break. Give yourself time to study and breaks to assimilate what you've studied.

Listening and Understanding

The four skill areas of language are speaking, reading, writing, and listening comprehension. Of all the skill areas, developing your comprehension of the spoken language takes the most time. It's frustrating because often the other skills get ahead of understanding speech. It takes time to tune your ear to new sounds. You're going to hear a lot you do not understand. But that's your job. Listen for general ideas, key words, and sounds. When you watch a program or movie in English with subtitles, listen to the English while reading the subtitles. Copy down interesting phrases. If you are an absolute beginner sitting at dinner with your family, again, listen for key words. Ask their meaning. Practice their pronunciation. Listen with care and in time understanding will follow.

As your skills increase, your experiences within the culture will multiply by the day. You will no longer be visiting a place but living in a culture. Every interaction, no matter how seemingly mundane, will be a delightful opportunity to relate to the country and the people.

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