Three tips to learn any language faster
Whether you’re preparing for an upcoming trip, planning to move abroad, or just want to expand your horizons, learning a new language is your ticket. Thing is, learning a language is a massive undertaking — one that commands ample practice and discipline. But it doesn’t have to take a long time to learn a new language. In fact, the right approach can help you become conversational in any language in a short period of time, with just a bit of practice each day.
Let’s dive deep into three ways to learn any language faster.
1. Take in media and identify cognates
As a language learner, one of the best things you can do to get your brain accustomed to a new language is to consume media in that language. This could be music, it could be podcasts, perhaps a television series or movie with subtitles. As much as you can, pause to reflect on sentences or phrases and (if you’re alone) repeat them out loud.
When you’re listening to or watching the media, try to identify cognates — words that sound similar in multiple languages. You will likely be able to pick up on several of these in any given piece of media, particularly if the language you are learning is somewhat similar to your own (English and Spanish or English and French, for example). Often, these terms will have an emphasis on different syllables than in your native tongue, so be prepared for them to sound slightly different.
Once you’ve recognized a cognate, use your understanding of that term to identify the surrounding words and eventually, the entire phrase. Here’s an example, for an English speaker learning Spanish:
Yo necesito ir al supermercado — I need to go to the supermarket.
“Supermercado” is similar to “supermarket.” And, “necessito” is similar to the English word “necessary,” and it’s easy enough to trim that down to “need.” With only a basic grasp of common words such as “ir” (to go), it’s relatively easy to translate this sentence into English.
Now, let’s switch it around for Spanish speakers working on English.
Este bar es solo para adultos — This bar is for aduls only.
“Adultos” should jump out at you right away here. And “bar,” well, that word didn’t even change!
Once you’ve learned to identify cognates and use them as a base from which to translate entire sentences, its time to move on to step 2.
2. Focus on core words and conjugation
But if you think about it, speaking a language comes down to being able to master a few basic principles:
- Asking and answering common questions
- Speaking about things that are happening now, in addition to things that happened in the past and will happen in the future
- Conveying the emotion behind what you are saying.
Asking and answering common questions
It’s said that if you can learn 300 words in a language, you can speak the language at a basic conversational level. This is true. But how do you go about learning those words? By using them in common sentences.
This is likely to be among the first things you learn when practicing a language, whether you take lessons, listen to podcasts or YouTube channels, or read books. Basic vocabulary is essential. For English learners, ManyThings.org has several great lists to start with. For Spanish learners, Live Lingua has a comprehensive list of basic Spanish phrases and greetings.
Whatever the language you are working on, find a vocab list and familiarize yourself with using those terms in basic questions and sentences. Use common situations like “Where is _____,” “How do I find _______,” “I need a ________.”
Accompanying audio files, videos, or music will make memorizing these terms even faster.
Speaking in different tenses
Proper communication means being able to talk about things other than what is happening right in front of you. You want to learn how to speak in past and future tense as well. To do this, you need to grasp the language’s basic conjugation. While you can use the tried method of creating flashcards with a word written in each tense on it, I actually find it more helpful to only write the ending of a word on the card, and apply that ending to the words you know. Here are basic examples of past, present, and future tense in both English and Spanish, spoken from the first person.
Past: -ed, -e
Future: Will _____
Then, apply the ending to common words and use them in a sentence spoken out loud.
Future: Will work
Future: Will eat
Past: é, í
Present: estoy comiendo
Conveying the emotion of what you are saying is the easiest of the three. In fact, you already know this one. Physical indicators such as whether you are smiling or frowning, and whether you are stressed, happy, scared, nervous, or confident, are the same in every language. Even if you don’t understand a word of what someone says to you, I’d bet that you can tell whether that person is having a great day or if they’re barely keeping it together.
Thing is, basic emotional indicators tend to be forgotten by someone who is worried about being able to form a sentence. This is because the pressure of speaking overshadows everything else. When speaking your native tongue, it’s easy to be relaxed and to let your hands, face, and body movements assist in what you’re trying to say. Learn how to do this in a language you are learning, and you will find it far easier to get your meaning across — even if you’ve missed a word or two along the way.
3. Immerse yourself
Think about the last time you cooked something new — a dish that required you to actually follow the recipe and bring a wide array of ingredients together into one (hopefully tasty) conglomeration.
No matter how it turned out, one thing is true — you did it. And even if it’s not perfect the first time, hopefully it will be even better the next time.
Contrast this with a more passive experience like watching a cooking show on television. Sure, the end result is beautiful and probably tastes exactly as its supposed to — but can you now rush to kitchen and prepare it just like they did?
No. You can’t.
Watching something happen is nothing like getting your hands dirty by doing it yourself. And the same is true when learning a language. Watching videos and listening to audios is only going to get you so far.
To actually grasp the language, you need to speak it with a fluent — and preferably native — speaker. This is the best way to get your brain accustomed to the quirks of the language, and to speaking and understanding it.
If you can’t simply up and head to another country right now, let along move there, the next best thing is immersive language lessons. Online schools such as Live Lingua offer immersive lessons taught by native speakers, that will have you speaking one-on-one from the first lesson.
Sure, you’re going to make mistakes and need correction — and it’s best to get that guidance from someone who lives and breathes that language. That e-book you read didn’t offer any feedback, did it?
Thom Jackson is a freelance writer from Idaho who contributes to the blog at Live Lingua and a number of other sites around the web.