Learning to speak another language is a great challenge but, contrary to popular belief, not something that demands the “right gene” or a huge investment of time and energy. In fact, with the right mentality and tools, anyone can do it with only the slightest change in routine.
So why aren’t more people doing it?
I have found that not knowing where or how to begin is often to blame.
In this post, I’ll present an approach that will help you reach a basic, conversational level and build the confidence and momentum to continue your learning—all within 2 months.
Following this approach has enabled me to communicate and make the most out of extended trips to both China and Spain. It has truly helped me find the joy in language learning, and I hope it will do the same for you.
The learning mentality - nobody’s perfect.
In the early stages of learning anything, perfectionism is your greatest enemy. Most of us expect everything that comes out of our mouth in a foreign language to be absolutely correct, and if it’s not we have somehow failed miserably and are no good at all. These overly high expectations we set ourselves create a tension that is counter-productive to the learning process, and the truth is, nobody will think any less of you if you stumble on occasion.
Embrace your mistakes. By acknowledging the fact that you won’t be perfect straight away, and allowing yourself to play with the language, you create a relaxed mindset and learn through trial and error. With your main focus on communication, it’s absolutely fine if you have to resort to sign language or using the few words you know to express something completely different. Most people will be very patient and more than happy to give you constructive feedback.
As language learning expert Michel Thomas put it; “in communication all you need to do is get the ball over the net. Sometimes you may hit the net, and receive a blank stare in return, but that’s ok; you get another serve.”
Remember to have fun and view your mistakes as an important part of the learning process.
The right tools—why they work
There is no “one correct way” to learn a language. Amidst the sea of different resources available today there are many worthy of note, but I’ve chosen to focus on the two that have helped me the most, and provide the greatest value for people who can’t, for whatever reason, make a huge investment of time or money.
The Michel Thomas Method (MT)
This is, in my experience, the best method for building a foundation in a language. Visit website here. The course is completely aural and the focus is on communication. In the beginning, you are asked to relax and not feel you have to make an effort to memorise anything. There is no homework, and the responsibility for your learning lies with the teacher, so all you have to do is listen and repeat.
The language is broken down into its most basic components, and then you’re fed more and more so you’re gradually expressing more and more complicated thoughts and ideas.
In this method, you listen to a lesson with a teacher and two students. You are the third student. Every time the teacher asks you to repeat something, you pause the player, take all the time you need to formulate your response, hit play and listen to the other students attempt it, and then, finally, the teacher repeats the full sentence. This works very well seeing as if one of the students makes a mistake it might very well be the same thing you are struggling with, and the teacher will explain it further.
It’s important not to become frustrated if some essential words are being left out at some point. The course has a plan, and everything you learn will build nicely on top of what you know already, so at the end of the course you should have a good understanding of the structure of the language.
Basic vocabulary is covered in the course and you’re taught many tools to figure out words on your own, especially ones you already know from English, but this is not where the main focus lies. Also, the teachers aren’t necessarily native speakers, so it’s important to not always mimic their pronunciation blindly. For this, more exposure to native speakers is important, and for that we can use the second tool.
(MT prices range from $12-$100)
LingQ - the perfect partner.
LingQ helps you build your vocabulary, and improve pronunciation and comprehension. It is a unique learning tool in the way it gathers such a large amount of material in the languages covered by MT in one place, saving you the hassle of searching for quality material yourself.
The approach I follow relies mainly on listening and speaking, so the great use of LingQ is that you can download as many podcasts/lessons in your target language as you need, and listen to them wherever and whenever you want. The lessons vary from beginner to expert, and can cover specific topics or simply be a recording of a conversation between two native speakers.
The written transcripts can be used to fish out unfamiliar vocabulary. LingQ highlights new words for you, and lets you save the words you would like to review later as “links”. These “links” can then be reviewed as flashcards on your computer or phone at any time until you’ve learned them.
(Premium membership $10/month)
Putting the tools to good use
Two good tools are enough, and now it’s important to maximise your gains by using them correctly.
Structure first, vocabulary second
What use is knowing the name for six different types of chairs if you don’t know how to ask if you may sit? Imagine structure as the skeleton, and additional vocabulary as everything that covers it. Both are very important, but without the skeleton the body will crumble.
When you’ve gained your foundation from MT, using LingQ podcasts is a great way to get more exposure to the language, and build your vocabulary. One focuses on structure and on gaining an understanding of the basic principles of a language, and the other exposes you to what you’ve learned and helps you build vocabulary to further express your thoughts.
Maximise your time - learn a language on the go
By using an approach that relies heavily on active listening you can learn a language in situations that would otherwise be spent in unproductive limbo. This way you can reduce the time you have to set aside specifically for language learning to zero.
Finding a quiet, relaxing space at home when using MT is great, but I’ve personally used it a lot while being on the move. This course is such good value because it allows you to do something productive with time you’d otherwise be wasting. Use it while commuting on public transport or walking the dog. With a specific task to do, suddenly being stuck in traffic isn’t such a waste. Personally I’ve made a habit of walking places a lot more so I have more time to do my daily practise.
The flexibility of such a method is ideal for people with a tight schedule who initially don’t know whether they want to invest a lot of energy in learning a language or not.
2 month Kick-start
For this approach all you need is a copy of the Michel Thomas Method in your target language, an account on LingQ, and an audio-playing device. (Michel Thomas courses are sadly only available in Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, German, Dutch, Russian, Polish, Greek, Japanese, Mandarin, Arabic and Hindi. This does, in my experience, cover the majority of languages English speakers wish to learn.)
1st month –
Now for the fun part. With an i-pod fully loaded with a course in your desired language you’re ready to go.
Set yourself a goal of 30 minutes practise every day. For the first few weeks the most important thing is to simply set yourself a routine. How hard is it to fit in half an hour over the course of a day? Most people I know spend at least this much time commuting every day, or watching Netflix in the evening. Set a goal and prove to yourself you can stick to the plan.
With a minimum of 30 minutes practise every day you should be done with the Foundation and Advanced courses in a month. You will then have a solid routine, good understanding of the main points of the language, and be properly prepared to continue your learning.
2nd month –
For this month the focus is on exposure to the language, and building your vocabulary. In the same fashion you were doing the previous month use the MT Vocabulary course if there is one for your target language. If not, review the points you found tricky from the previous courses. Download podcasts to your i-pod from LingQ and listen as much as possible. It’s OK if you’re not able to give it your full attention all the time seeing as passive listening will also make you familiar with the sound of the language.
While listening to your podcasts, keep an ear out for unfamiliar words that keep popping up. Spend some more time now reading through the written transcripts of the lessons on LingQ, and set aside ten minutes every day for reviewing the words you’ve saved.
Speak the language at every opportunity. Now is the time to really put your skills to the test. A language is meant to be spoken after all. Find a native speaker willing to help you out, or somebody else going through the same process. It might be a bit awkward at first if you’re not used to speaking without the gentle prompt from the MT courses, but remember to embrace your mistakes and focus on pure communication.
Conclusion - the essential first step
At this point you won’t necessarily be fluent – but that isn’t the first goal. After a two month period, where most of the learning can be done in situations where you’d usually be spending time anyway, you shouldn’t have much problem communicating in your target language – quite the achievement!
Gaining fluency in a language is a never-ending process which is attainable by everyone, but before that comes the stage of understanding structure, being able to communicate and actually wanting to continue. It’s seeing this early stage as possible I think is most important.
Remember to be proud of your achievement and use the language whenever you can. Enjoy the process. The biggest obstacle is just getting started, and once you have, it’s hard to stop.
What language are you going to learn next? Let me know in the comments below.