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Curt Rosengren

Foreign Languages: Roll Your Own

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Knowing a foreign language can enrich your travels immensely, but whether youíre studying Spanish or Swahili, learning that language can be a real challenge. Fortunately, there are a few ways to minimize the pain, making it easy and even fun.

Start with the basics
Get the basic tools: A good grammar book, a dictionary, a workbook, a book of verb conjugations, and a reader.

Experiment
Different people learn different ways, so there is no one formula to follow. Some people learn well in classes, others on their own. Some need the structure of a grammar book, while for others the learning process is more of a free flow. Still others find that a combination of all of the above works best. Find out what works for you, and stick with it.

Listen to music
Music is a fantastic study aid. Find music in the language you are studying. Many music stores have World Music sections, where there you can find music in even some of the more obscure languages. Some music stores let you listen before you buy, which is a great way to make sure you like it and ensure that it comes with the lyrics text. Having the text to the lyrics is vital, especially when you are first starting out and all the words still sound like mush to you. And while you're listening, try to sing along. It will help you get the feel of forming those unfamiliar sounds and words in your mouth, and is a good way to get over the "I-can't-say-a-damn-thing" hurdle that everybody runs into when first learning a language.

Music can serve as:

  • A vocabulary builder: Read the lyrics as you listen, looking up the words you donít know and making a list with the words and their translations for each song. With repetition, you will soon be familiar with the songs and able to sing along (or in my case, squawk), and the words will plant themselves in your vocabulary.
  • A constant reminder: Listen to the music in the car as you commute, or on the home stereo while you are doing chores. Even if you arenít actively studying, the music will help help keep the language close to the surface.
  • An easy way to familiarize yourself with the language patterns (word order, common phrases, etc.).
Write
Find penpals in the language you are studying. If you are online, this is much easier, as you can send and receive messages more or less immediately via e-mail. Try to write something new every day, even if itís just a quick note. This is a great way to practice your ability to put the bits and pieces of the language that youíve learned to use. It allows you time to look in the dictionary for the right words and in the grammar book for the grammatical rules when you arenít yet familiar enough with them. Think of it as a slow motion conversation, allowing you to stretch the way you express yourself past what would be possible in a spoken conversation.

Talk
Find a conversation partner. Talk as often as you can. The biggest obstacle to being able to use your new language is fear of sounding stupid when you talk. Forget about thatójust throw caution to the wind and plunge right in. You may sound awkward at first, but if you donít take that first leap, your spoken language will always be left wanting.

Think
Force yourself to think in the language you are studying. Even if itís just starting out a "thought sentence" with a couple of words before switching back to your native tongue. With time, you will be able to think more and more in that language, and needing to fill in fewer and fewer blanks with your own. If you are really persistent about it, it becomes an unconscious habit, allowing you to practice the language (and keep it alive) without even thinking about it.

Read
Read something in the language you are studying whenever you get the chance. Buy a dual language reader. If you are someplace where you can find them, buy newspapers in that language, or find foreign language newspapers on the internetónewspapers, travel pages

Practice listening
Especially if you are teaching yourself a language, this can be challenging. Watch movies made in the language you are studying. Use Real Audio on the internet to listen to radio stations from around the world, or buy a short-wave radio to pick up worldwide broadcasts. If you are in an area with foreign language programming on TV, take advantage of that. Tapes with conversations in that language are also useful tools, especially if you have periods of downtime, like a commute to and from work. Listening to them again and again may seem like overkill, but it will gradually build the sound of the language in your ear. As with everything, successful comprehension takes practice, practice, practice.

Memorize and conjugate
Speaking of practice, practice, practice, sorry folks, thereís no magical replacement for good old fashioned memorization. The only surefire way to learn verb conjugations, noun genders, and other such nasty stuff is repetition and memorization. One way to make it less painless is to make flash cards. For example, to learn verb conjugation, buy a set of 3x5 business cards and go through the conjugations, making a card for each. The very act of making the cards will help cement the conjugations in your head, and then you can use them wherever you want. Itís a great way to make use of commuting time.