Four Things That Have Helped Me Learn Languages

I wrote before about all the different things I’ve done to learn Spanish. I’ve also studied German, Portuguese, and the ever-useful Cape Verdean Creole. I used to think learning a language was just osmosis– if I was around it enough, I’d pick it up. Turns out this isn’t really the case after about age 10. So I resorted to a few more conscious tactics:

1. Cracking myself up with mnemonics. If I learn a new word, I immediately try to come up with some silly picture or sentence to remember it. A favorite phrase: Liquor is lekker (“delicious” in German). Picturing a pot-smoking duck helps me remember that pato is the Spanish word for “duck”.

2. Cracking other people up by making a fool of myself. I’m not a shy person, or a perfectionist, and both of these things have helped me in being totally ballsy about speaking other languages, even when I can’t. People will laugh at you, you’ll feel like an idiot every day, but if you wait until you can speak perfectly to actually speak, you’ll be waiting a looooong time.

3. Doing my thing. Studying a language with books and apps (I like Duolingo, even though my friend Kerstin Hammes doesn’t and she knows a whole lot more than me) and podcasts is great, and solving the puzzle that is a foreign language’s grammar can be interesting. But at some point you should actually use the language. Using it in stores and restaurants and cabs is a good start, but what I really like to do is… do stuff I like to do. But do it in the other language. For example, in Buenos Aires, I went to yoga classes and on architecture tours in Spanish, and I won 75 pesos betting on horses at the racetrack. What are you into? Poker? Cooking? Dog training? Do it in your target language! You’ll learn a lot of specific vocabulary, and you’ll be (to some degree) in your comfort zone.

3. Listening to stuff. Music is a great way to learn a language, especially if you study the lyrics or get someone to help you understand them. I also really like podcasts– one called Radio Ambulante has been billed as “this Latin American life.” (I’m a huge fan of This American Life on NPR, but even if you’re not, you might like this.) They publish the transcripts of most of their episodes, and for awhile I had a habit of listening to one while I made dinner (most of them are only 20-30 minutest long), listening to it again and reading the transcript during dinner, and then listening to it AGAIN before I fell asleep. (Some people claim that listening to a language right before sleeping helps you absorb it better. I have no idea if this is true, but I figure it can’t hurt.)

4. Reading John Grisham books. I confess: I love John Grisham. And I probably read half a dozen of his books translated into German when I was living in Berlin. I also read kids’ books, Cosmopolitan magazine, and the cereal box. The key, for me, was reading stuff that was easy(ish), interesting, and somewhat familiar– not arcane literature or highly technical articles. My Spanish tutor in Buenos Aires actually told me NOT to read translations of my favorite books (oops), but to find original works (books, articles, whatever) that were interesting and not impossible.

What else has helped you learn a language?

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