Growing up in Queens was awesome because there was always someone speaking a language I couldn’t recognize. I’m proud to be a product of one of the most diverse places in the world. It’s almost impossible not to be interested in languages when you’re almost guaranteed to hear at least two or three just walking out the door.
Learning a new language was one of the most difficult, rewarding projects in my life. But it wasn’t as easy as saying 1,2,3 go — There were a lot of things I had to do before I got over all the false starts. Most of which weren’t language learning specific exercises. I found four things that helped me get serious about learning a language before getting started.
Taming the domestic perspective
Before you actually get to the meat of learning a language, you come in with a lot of preconceived notions. You have to be ready to discard your fixation on your native tongue.
This is no easy task — you’ve probably been speaking in your native language for as long as you’ve been speaking. Language influences how we think about in more ways than one. We structure our thoughts based on the way other speakers speak, we speak about the content that other speakers speak about, we absorb content made by people who speak our language.
All of this to a large degree will do its best to hinder you from learning a language. When we strive to learn a new language, we aren’t just learning new words, we’re learning a new way to think, a new way to communicate. Each society has its own set of values, overlap is present but not necessary.
Take for example Brazil — here in the northeastern region, we tend to take time to express our thoughts. Especially when it comes to the professional setting, we explain our background, why we are saying what we are about to say, get started on our main topic, interrupt it to remind you of why you should be listening, and mix our main point with justifications as to our qualifications as to our specifications for choosing the particular words we are saying.
In New York, we just say it.
The disparity between the fast-paced American city and the slow-paced Brazilian city is not just the language. There are many differences not only in our culture but the way we think. If you’re thinking about learning a new language, get ready to also change your world view.
Opening the door to actual learning
Everyone and their mother is trying to sell you their language learning course. Many of these courses are great, I personally buy as many apps, textbooks, and courses as I can afford. So long as you’re actually using them and you’re using them right you won’t waste your money.
You will come across a lot of vocabulary that you need to memorize. If you try to brute force yourself into just looking at something and writing it a thousand times, you’re gonna have a bad day. Take the time to try to get a better grasp on memory and how to improve it. Look into spaced-repetition systems. My favorite is Memrise — but I hear great things about Anki too.
Listen and repeat exercises permeate the landscape of second language acquisition. Open your ears and don’t pass extreme judgment of what comes out of your mouth, it’s going to sound foreign.
It takes time for a foreign language to stop sounding foreign, but eventually, it does happen. Don’t laugh at yourself too soon, be calm and focused. Actually listen and repeat.
The sounds that are unique to your target language may take time to become clear. There’s this weird feature in Japanese called glottal stops, characterized in roman characters by repeating letters. Take for example sekken (soap) — the way it’s pronounced is se-glottal stop-ken. If I stop to listen, I can hear it easily, but in real-time it took me years to get good at actually knowing for sure it’s there.
Navigating the booby traps
Get used to blunders. Get ready to start trying to chat up a romantic partner only to say something really stupid, and hoping they find it cute.
A large part of this comes from what I mentioned earlier, we are learning a new system of thought along with the words. There are some hiccups and crashes and false-cognates in languages. Even the most seemingly distant languages have more similarities than you expect. Mistakes start early.
You will fall into a booby trap. You will, absolutely, unequivocally, unavoidably mess up at some point. This is just part of it, don’t resist language learning because of these moments, because they are learning moments.
Many of the mistakes I’ve made are still fresh in my mind. I can still remember the time when I was talking to a girl in Japanese and I tried to casually, quietly scare her the way we do in the US, ‘boo’ — only in Japanese they say “wah” — boo, the way it sounds when I say it in English, is a fart. I verbalized a fart to the poor girl. Understandably she didn’t talk to me again.
I wish that was the only time I’d made a mistake, but I can say for sure that I know to use ‘wah’ every time now.
Mistakes form strong memories, use that to your advantage, because there’s a lot of memorization down this road.
Where’s the finish line?
Every language has thousands of words, grammar points, conjugations, declensions — don’t think that you can do everything perfectly right off the bat.
Progress will not come steadily. There are moments in language learning when things just seem to click, and you can’t predict when they will come. Focus on progress indicators — the progress may be invisible, but if you start knowing that things don’t come all at once and that there may be things that make sense immediately and other things that will only make sense after years, even basic things, you will make language learning a lot less stressful and a lot more fun.
Language is not something that you can perfect. There’s no championship, you don’t ever win it. You strive continually, make daily efforts to put it in use, whether that means listening, speaking, reading, or writing.
I hate seeing “learn x language in y weeks” type articles. These sorts of timeframes are rigid and meaningless. What does it mean to “learn” a language?
Here, let me teach you some language right now.
In Portuguese, the word for “you” in the singular is você.
Great, now you have learned how to read Portuguese, go show all your friends how cool you are for learning Portuguese in a minute.
This is what some of these courses and articles sound like — there are many different levels of mastery, and each of them is fluid. You may be a beginner in some aspects and great at others. It’s inevitable that after studying French for 3 months, whether you realize it or not, you learn at least some French.
I’ve got all the basic daily use English down. “Good morning,” “how are you?” — I’m absolutely confident in this sort of language. Yet even though English is my native language, two sixth graders talking about the latest video game they’ve been playing will leave me stranded — even though we’re speaking the same language. I don’t even want to think about high-level trigonometry, it might as well be Mongolian.
Language learning is a life long endeavor, no matter what all those articles have been telling you. There is always progress to make, and always progress being made.
Do what the kids did
Every kid in this modern is age is watching something on tv, or something on the internet. Because of this so beautiful tool we’re both navigating right now, we have access to just about everything that’s been broadcast, except the lost episodes of Doctor Who.
Okay — if you’re learning some ancient obscure language and that language is only passed down through a verbal tradition from a master who only has five disciples, you’re excused. Everyone else: watch something. Listen to the radio or music. Play video games. And do that in your target language. There’s the internet now, and you can find things on your favorite search engine easily.
Let’s say you’re learning Khmer. There’s one easy way to find a whole bunch of movies — all you have to do is navigate to your favorite search engine and type in “movies in khmer” or “Khmer music,” shows, dramas, podcasts — etc.
Once you’ve found content that you like, you can search for content similar to that content. Say you like “The Snake Man” — movies like snake man might give you nice results.
Search engines turn up a lot of simple results — but you can be interesting.
- Khmer movies like *your favorite movie*
- Khmer rap
- Khmer comedies
Things like that turn up a lot of results. You make have to dig a little more if you’re learning not so popular, not so modern languages, but even then, there is a plethora of content. Even target language translations of your favorite Looney Tunes cartoon.
My daughter can barely say papa but she’s fallen into the trap of joining a polyglot father’s family. We may be in a Portuguese-only desert, but my house is an oasis where she can constantly hear something in a different language. All of this is giving her the tools to recognize different sounds and patterns in language.
Not understanding is no curse, it’s a chance for improvement. If you’re watching something you don’t necessarily understand — it doesn’t mean you’re not learning. The rhythm and cadence of speech — intonation and the different voices, inflections, and expressions are all much more subtle and hard to teach, watching a show or listening to people speak will help you learn the more intuitive aspects of language, even before you start learning vocabulary.
Learning a language is not a school material we can just study and learn forever — it requires constant active engagement. We need to try to put ourselves in a position of constant, or at least near-constant immersion. We need to be forgiving, and we need to be in it for the long haul.
People who are successful in learning languages have learned to accept and embrace the nature of what they’re studying. It’s not just about recognizing words — language is used, whether it’s by dead scholars or content marketers, we all use language.