May 3

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How I Learn Languages (2021 Edition)

A lot of hard work is hidden behind nice things.

Ralph Lauren

Last week I had a brief conversation with a fellow traveler and language learner (he was in my French class at RCC in Riverside) about how we go about learning languages. I hated to admit that sometimes my ego gets the best of me *cough cough Persian* and that even I can be tough on myself. People rarely ask me these types of questions, perhaps because they assume that I was just born with some innate talent for learning languages. 

False. I WISH.

Over the years, I have learned what works for me and what needs to go in the chuck-it and fuck it bucket. Here’s what I’ve learned thus far, and hopefully, it can help you and give you some insight on what it might take for you to learn a language.

Frequency Dictionaries Are Your BFFs

Hack your vocabulary list by using a frequency dictionary. I am not suggesting you throw away your pocket dictionary, but a frequency dictionary is a must-have in my book if you’re trying to immerse yourself in any language. Frequency dictionaries are just that, how frequently a word is used in any given language. Having one of these gems can expedite your language learning by learning the most popular words first and leaving the rest of the fluff behind.

The prices may vary, but I have found that the Routledge ones are the best. Expensive, but well worth the money.

Write Your Own Story with a Conversational Script

One thing I learned while at the Alliance Française is the emphasis on conversation. After all, we are learning a language to SPEAK it! As students, weekly writing assignments were part of the curriculum. While the topics didn’t always enthuse me, they helped me write my answer scripts. Now, I write scripts for myself all the time. Example: If I were in this situation, what would I say? Writing scripts ensures that whatever comes out of YOUR mouth is genuinely you. You are most likely to learn and retain it because the answers come naturally to you. Also, you won’t waste time learning phrases that you would never use in real life. 

Don’t know where to start? Just write down a list of your interests and branch out from there.

For me: travel, fashion, food, music, and sports. Not in that order, but you get the picture.

“You don’t learn French; you become French!”

This is what my high school French teacher told us at the beginning of the semester before assigning us French names. You probably remember your teacher doing something like this too. Mine would pass around an order slip once a month for the class to order food from a local French restaurant. She would have us watch movies, TV shows and listen to music. I still listen to Manau and MC Solaar, but have now added Médine, Youssoupha, and the dulcet sounds of Corneille and Stromae. These simple cultural notes always made me want to learn more about France and helped me understand how the language is used. I count with my thumb first, and my French numerals look pretty sweet. French and Italian fashion styles are found in my closet (simple and classic). Soak everything up and get in the mood. Nope, that wasn’t a typo.

ALLEZ ELIZABETH - SO YOU WANNA BE FRENCH? A PICTURE OF ME IN A PARKING LOT IN San Francisco WITH KARL THE FOG IN THE BACKGROUND.
Fog + Oil + Me

Practice, Practice, and Did I mention? PRACTICE!

It isn’t the sexiest way, but it’s the only way. Can’t go around it, just got to go through it. Do what works for you. I mean it. Only you know your learning style, and you should lean into it. Here’s a quick guide.

  • Aural (auditory-musical): sound and music.
  • Logical (mathematical): logic, reasoning, and systems.
  • Physical (kinesthetic): body, hands, and sense of touch.
  • Social (interpersonal): learn in groups or with other people.
  • Solitary (intrapersonal): work alone and use self-study.
  • Verbal (linguistic): words, both in speech and writing.
  • Visual (spatial): pictures, images, and spatial understanding.

If you’re a visual interpersonal learner, learn through videos/images in a group setting. You’ll probably get frustrated and lose momentum if you attempt self-study. So don’t sabotage yourself! If you find yourself fitting into many of these categories, try a few out and see where you fit in the most. 

I’m an aural-verbal-physical learner. I need to hear what I’m learning, so I can only get so far with phrasebooks or courses that do not offer audio, even if they have words and phrases phonetically written out. I need to write about what I’m learning (lots of dictation and reading). Dictation helps feed my aural and linguistic learning styles. Then after doing all that, I have to go and experiment. Like when I practice my Japanese at the local sushi spots, translate English to Spanish for my family, or using the German I just learned on the plane before landing in Berlin

These are the methods that work for me; now you have to find the ones that work for you! Either way, we are talking about PRACTICE. Right, Iverson? 

Skip The Grammar, For Now

Look. I’m not saying you don’t have to EVER learn grammar, but it just bogs you down when you’re starting. Like seriously, what will learning the different ways to conjugate a verb help you when you are JUST starting? When I was learning Dutch, grammar was a blip in the course. A little footnote to remind us when a noun was formal or informal, and not much beyond that. Why? Because it’s one less thing to learn, one less thing to stress about. The name of the game is to start conversing!

Be Realistic and Honest With Yourself On Why/How You Are Learning a Language

Ok, it’s a tough pill to swallow time. If you’re learning a language because:

  • It’s popular, but YOU have no interest in it.
  • You think you can learn by osmosis and do the bare minimum. 
  • It might be fun, but don’t want to put ANY time into it.

YOU WILL NOT RETAIN IT.

There I said it. 

AND Don’t do what I did. I spun a wheel with languages on it and got a complex language. All the choices on the wheel were going to challenge me either way, but Persian was another level for me. I didn’t give myself enough time to learn, retain, make mistakes, and grow from them. I became irritable, frustrated, and I gave up. Yep, I just stopped learning Persian. I love the culture, love the language itself even though it put me through the wringer, but I ultimately quit. Well, paused. What will I do now? Well, here’s advice for both of us:

Give yourself enough time, especially if it’s your first language in a new language family or just your first language other than your native tongue. 

Why? Because learning a new Romance language might have been easier for me than jumping over to the Indo-Iranian language. Even though I have a good list under my belt, I was wrong to assume that I could learn Persian fast because I learned the others that way. Every language is different (like no kidding!). Persian is going to take me a while, and that’s just the tea. Once I accepted it, I could free myself from the bullshit. 

Learn a language because you GENUINELY have an interest in the country, culture, or people that aren’t going to fade away as soon as learning the language gets hard. Understand your strengths and weaknesses and don’t stress yourself out trying to meet unrealistic goals. Show yourself some grace and make learning fun for you!

Check out the language resources pages for more my favorite sites, books, apps for learning a language!

*Hey, this page contains affiliate links. There’s no extra cost to you, but I receive a small commission when you decide to use them. They help me keep this party going.


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ALLEZ ELIZABETH - PINTEREST - HOW I LEARN LANGUAGES 2021 EDITION

CATEGORIES language learning

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