Learning a new Language

It can be easier than you might think

No Language is perfect and neither are we, but the courses tell us otherwise

Languages are a great skill to master for everything from training and exercising your brain, to making travel and social interaction much more enjoyable.

The problem is that most of the time, we can find them so damn difficult to learn. Sure there are some extremely talented folks out there, that just need 10 minutes in a culture and they learn the lingo, but for a lot of us myself included that’s not the case.

Im a big believer in at least learning the basics, like yes, no, please, thank you, hello, goodbye, the essential 2 beers please and since im childish, the best swear words.

My work involves a lot of travel, meeting and working with different crews of people with different cultures and languages, many of them speak English as a second or third language, so having these basics in the bank works very well, and has helped improve my people skills.

Over the last 3 years, Ive been based in Central Asia which on the surface is for the most part easy in terms of language, just learn Russian, one language which is universally spoken as a first language across the region.

The difficulty is, well its Russian, for the most part a complex, intimidating and well just really difficult language to learn.

This is the first problem in the way that we are taught to tackle languages, we are taught that they are intimidating and difficult to master, as humans we tend to overthink and over analyze learning tasks and so this new language gets built up to be some kind of invincible monster.

The second problem I have found is that most language courses are looking for perfection and teach a classical clean version of the language. In reality that’s not the way it works each, language is modified by its users.

As an example im from the North East of Scotland so while I speak English, I really have to think about what I’m saying and the structure when I need to speak classical English the way its taught, the real world just isn’t like that, if your not a native English speaker and you spend enough time with me, you will speak English the same way I do. (If you ever bump into a Kazakh who speaks Doric the NE Scottish version of English I probably know them).

Trying to learn this classical version of the language your trying to master can be a nightmare, again it builds up the difficulty and intimidation factor and means it takes far longer to get confident in the language.

The third problem is there is a lot of focus on reading the language, which can be really challenging if the characters aren’t Latin. Again having to learn to read the language immediately builds up builds up the difficulty and intimidation factor and means it takes far longer to get confident in the language.

Especially when there are really good instant text translation apps which are free to use, this is just uneesecary for the learner today, although if I was being cynical I’d say its a great hook to keep us paying for tuition for longer.

OK so what’s the solution?

The good news is that there are other ways to do this, we can make it much easier for ourselves to learn any language. We just need to re-adjust to the viewpoint that just as no language is perfect, we ourselves do not need to be perfect fluent speakers in that language.

Intimidation factor — This is the one thing that makes learning a language so bloody difficult, the thought of the complexity of the task gets into your head, so start with the low hanging fruit.

  • 5 minutes per day with the basics — To begin with just learn the very basics yourself online or on a free language podcast. 5 minutes learning, hello, goodbye, please, thank you etc. will give you confidence in yourself, keep going just with those until you have mastered them.
  • Write the words phonetically — On paper or a prompt card, write the word the way it sounds and include a description, again don’t spend hours doing this, just as you learn and get comfortable with the word, get it on a card in this way, not the way its written in the language your learning, but the way it sounds in your language eg, hello in Russian is Privet, but the sound is Pre, Vet when written in English. Being able to match the word to the sound it makes is much easier to digest than a bunch of letters that make no sense to you
  • Aim for the way word sounds, not perfect pronunciation — Almost no native speaker will speak with perfect pronunciation, local modification of the language sees to that. A part of the intimidation factor with a language is that we are taught that we need have perfect pronunciation before we can speak the language and that’s simply not true. All you need is that a native speaker can understand you
  • Don’t be afraid to talk like a cartoon caveman — What I mean by that is don’t be afraid to miss words out, simplify the language and your sentences as much as you to build confidence and add to your skills as you build confidence, eg, Can you tell me where the nearest restroom is?, this could be simplified to hello, where is nearest bathroom? No one will laugh at you, people will just be happy in general to help out or have a conversation with someone who took the time to try and learn their language. As you build confidence and your skill in the language build up your sentences.
  • Watch TV in that language — Pick your favorite shows or movies and stick the subtitles on for context. This immerses you in the language when you don’t have access to a native speaker, it helps build your recognition of the language and phrases, don’t underestimate the power of that.
  • Learn to count in that language — Start with 1 to 5 then 5 to 10 etc. go as slowly as you feel comfortable with but learn the numbers, once you have those down you can learn to do simple arithmetic in your chosen language, this helps you to think in that language and is a game changer quite honestly. I use this as an exercise 5 minutes before I start my learning for the day and it gets me in the zone.
  • Don’t worry about reading it — In the beginning you don’t need to be able to read the language, you have a translation app to help you available for free on your phone, use that instead, let you brain focus on one task, learning how to speak. Over time your brain will recognize words and start to put it all together for you reading wise, but don’t focus on it. Your brain is truly amazing, so relax, don’t overload it, and let this come naturally because it will.

If like me you struggle with languages but have a real need to learn or are just curious and want to make a start with a new skill, try some of these tips, its taken me long time to get to a point where im comfortable with Russian, almost 3 years actually, but since ive used these 7 tips day to day for the last 3 or 4 months, Ive developed more than I had the previous 2 years.

Languages don’t need to be intimidating or complex, we just need a strategy to kill the intimidation factor at the beginning and use simple tools and tricks to keep us going.

Its like anything else we want to learn or improve at, small steps taken daily build up like compound interest in the brain and lead to something great, the trick is to make it simple, fun and to keep going.

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