If you are committed to moving away from your country, at some point in life chances are you will have to speak a language that’s not your own: Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, you name it. Here are a few tips to help you on your quest of learning a second language…
1. Figure out the reasons why you want to learn the language and write them down at the beginning of your notebook. This will help to keep you focused when you lose direction later on.
2. Choose carefully the learning method of your choice (an online course, a book, a university class) and stick to it for at least 3 months. Don’t be that kid that complaining about his gym training program not working after 2 weeks working out.
3. Practice at least 30 min a day: it could be spent reading online, working on grammar, and speaking over Skype or in person.
4. Work on the basics to get you started, like asking for things (Where is X?, How much does Y cost?, Ordering food/drinks), and describing attributes (numbers, colors, sizes, good/bad, funny/sad, tasty/plain). There are some popular phrases available for translation from English to a gajillion different languages here.
5. Learn basic vocabulary and expressions. For translations, try Wordreference or Google translate. If you need to figure out how to pronounce a word, give Forvo a try; if you are struggling to find the right word to translate from English to your second language, it’s always useful to try with synonyms you can find in Thesaurus or define the words you want to translate in order to make sure it’s exactly the one you want in The Free Dictionary. Once you feel like taking a challenge, start reading simple children books in your second language. For example, for Russian children’s books I found in Goodreads the following list here.
6. Start with short and simple sentences and go through them with your language buddy/teacher. Tangentially, when doubting between two different but similar expressions, I always do a google search of both and see which one gets more results (remember to search with the quotation marks so that the exact sentence will be looked for e.g. “sentence I am looking for”.)
7. Do a few Duolingo tests. Duolingo is a website that offers free courses online for Spanish, French, Italian, German and Portuguese, which in practice consists of gamified tests involving translating words (e.g., English to Portuguese), writing down what you hear in audio clips and more. It’s quite addictive and particularly great when you have spent some time without practicing a language and you need to get in the mindset.
8. Find a language buddy. In case you are not familiar with the concept, he or she will be willing to help you with their native language in exchange for one of yours. You can meet a few times a week and have some conversation. Making a quick search for “language buddy communities” can land you some interesting sites. I did a few searches for different European cities and languages and this one seemed the most active. You can of course skype a language buddy, but I would use this as a last resort: you wouldn’t want weird noises or connection problems on top of the already existing difficulties of learning a language.
9. Focus on the vibe of the message you are trying to get across without over-relying on immaculate grammar use.
10. Start with simple ideas. Don’t jump in with complex discussions about the meaning of life. Focus on media (movies, TV series), travels and hobbies. E.g. ‘I saw a movie and it had these situations’, ‘I will travel to Bombay next month and I am really excited to see…’, ‘I really like to cook this and that plate’, ‘This weekend I went out and something unexpected/funny happened’.
If you are absolutely clueless, for your first session I would prepare some information about your background: ‘I come from X country and I came here because Y and Z.’ or ‘What I like the most is…’. Ask your buddy some general questions and have maybe one small story to tell. The point of conversation sessions with your buddy is not to run a script you have prepared beforehand, but for your first time it may help things flow. But have that as a backup, because you want to try and let the conversation develop naturally—to get ‘lost’ speaking the language. If you are living abroad, do not hesitate to ask for advice on night venues—you might discover one or two new spots.
11. Make clear you are happy to be corrected and don’t get annoyed if you end up being wrong most of the time. You are learning and stumbling through it is just part of the process.
12. When unsure about how to phrase a sentence, don’t be afraid to ask. For example, “How do I pronounce Obrigado?”, “How would you say <expression in English> in Portuguese?” (extra points if you ask these questions in Portuguese e.g. ‘Tão pronunciada Obrigado?’ or ‘Como se diz <expression>?’). It’s good to ask when stuck or curious, but don’t fall in the temptation of turning the conversation into a discussion of grammar. Find the balance between learning and actually talking.
13. Tackle abstract topics like philosophy and emotions. Try to tell stories.
14. Once you feel like you grasp most of the words and meaning in simple books, start reading internet forums and news articles.
15. Learn useful phrases a native person uses frequently and include them to your repertoire. Even at the first steps of learning a language, these phrases help you blend in a bit better, making your conversations feel more fluid and natural.
16. Listen to songs in the second language and go through the lyrics. Music tends to help significantly remembering words and expressions.
17. Learn to tell a few jokes. By this level you should be able to understand spoken language seamlessly (TV shows, movies, two people talking in the street) and also literature (starting with contemporary and advancing slowly towards classics from decades ago). To follow up with the Russian example: Russian school curriculum literature looks like a good place to start.
18. Whenever motivation falters, visualize your goal, whether it be moving away, communicating better with local girls, or pursuing business opportunities. If all else fails, think what you have been through already. Remember where you began and where you stand today.
19. Book a trip to a country where you can practice your skills with the locals. Reap the advantages of showcasing your interest in their culture, which sometimes will help tremendously in building a connection. I’m not saying it will automatically get you laid, but it certainly helps certain situations.
20. Check your ego at the door. You are learning and your first couple of attempts will suck, like how you wouldn’t attempt to deadlift 500 lbs off the floor on your first day in the gym. This is a marathon, not a sprint, so accept that progress comes slowly.