This is the start of a series of posts on language learning.
There are currently around 6,000 languages spoken in the world. I’m kind of a linguistics nerd. I like pondering the connection with the mind and perception, how languages change over time, as well as the fun stuff like vernaculars, accents, slangs and colloquialisms. When traveling, it is essential to at least know some basics of the language(s) spoken in that region. If you speak English, you have the advantage of knowing one of the major lingua francas (widely spoken languages used to facilitate intra-language group communication) in the world. English will get you by in many places, but there are still tons of countries out there where English is hardly spoken if at all.
The languages that I currently speak to one degree or another are: English, Spanish, French, Portuguese and Russian. That’s starting with the language I speak the best, English, to the language I’m the least proficient in, Russian. The path I took to learn each one has been very different and I feel confident in commenting on the different methods of language learning and what has and hasn’t worked for me.
Language learning in general
First of all, in my opinion the most important thing, especially for travelers, is effective conversation rather than reading or writing. You will need to be able to read signs and restaurant menus of course, but most of your beginning efforts towards learning a language should be geared towards being able to speak the language in basic day-to-day interactions with people. Here are some things to think about:
What methods you use to learn a language will be dependent upon your environment and the resources available to you.
Environment is important in providing the resources. Are you already in the country where the language you want to learn is spoken? If not, are language learning resources such as internet, access to books, music, movies, formal classes or informal tutoring available to you in that language?
After figuring that out, how well you learn a language is completely dependent upon you. Although certain people definitely have a natural aptitude for learning languages, in my opinion how well most people learn a language depends upon their motivation, attitude, and how much time they put into it.
Motivation– this includes external as well as internal motivation. How much do you need to learn the language? If you’re in a foreign country without any knowledge of the local language, the external pressure is always on for you to learn some quickly to be able to fit in and get around. How much do you want to learn the language? How much you want to learn the language is proportionate to how quickly and effectively you will reach your personal goals.
Attitude– There are plenty of people who take several semesters worth of language classes that they’re not interested in and finish not really knowing very much at all. Inversely, there are people who take only one or two semesters of a language and can use what they learned quite well. You need to be interested in the language you want to learn if you want to learn it well. Taking an interest in the culture also helps a lot. Enjoying the process of learning the language is much more productive than viewing it as a chore. Another thing that hinders people is shyness. When learning a new language, if you speak you are going to make tons of mistakes. You are also most likely going to have a thick accent in the beginning. If you can get over it and just continue to try using whatever bit of the language you’ve learned thus far you will get better at speaking very quickly. Many people study a language for a long time but don’t want to speak much until they are good at it, which is an oxymoron because you need to speak a lot in order to speak well.
There are many ways to learn a language and it is ideal to employ many methods at once for best results. Many people swear by one method or another, by I’ve found that you can and should use any method at your disposal to mix it up and help you learn in a variety of ways. Some of the methods I’ve used include watching movies in a foreign language, language meet-ups (usually in cafes or on college campuses), writing to language exchange pen pals, language learning audio tracks, taking classes at a local university or junior college, downloading e-books online, and using the internet to look up any specifics about the language I’m trying to learn. In my next posts on the subject I’ll go into more depth about each of these methods and talk about their efficacy…