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The Most Efficient Way to Learn a New Language, Proficiently

Artwork By Isabella Toppi

If one more 22 year-old tells me it’s too late to start learning a language, I’m going to smack them. My grandma started learning Spanish at the ripe old age of 64. Granted, she doesn’t have work or Instagram to consume her time, but I have met so many young people who yearn to learn another language, yet whinge for lack of time. I say, if you have time to watch Netflix, read the newspaper and do your grocery shopping, you have time to learn a language. Here’s why…

A turning point for me in this endless procrastination battle was the realisation that, although you can set temporal goals for making improvements, there really is no end point for learning a language. You can’t say, “I’ll take Russian lessons for three years and then I’ll be fluent”. It’s not that black and white. Esperanto maybe, but that’s a whole different ball game. The reality is you will never speak as well as a native, but the trick is to learn efficiently so as to incorporate it into your everyday life.

First off, immersion is key. Don’t waste your time lingering around the language for five years and wonder why all you can say is “una cerveza por fis”. Sure, being able to order a beer in Mexico is useful, but what’s the point when you can’t communicate beyond that? I know a guy who, hoping to compliment a girl in a club on her makeup – which is bizarre and a mistake in itself – accidentally told her, “me gusta tu mantequilla”, which means, I like your butter.

Rather, you have to jump right into the language, surrounding yourself with it in as many ways as possible. It’s not enough to say you’ll read ten pages of a foreign book a day, or watch the nightly news on France24. You need to integrate the language into your banal quotidian activities.

So here are a few tricks I’ve picked up:

  • Lists: for example, don’t write “carrots, milk, eggs” on your shopping list. Write “Karotten, Milch, Eier” or whatever it may be. Do the same with to-do lists and reminders.
  • Movies: here is that excuse you have all been itching for, to watch Netflix without the associated guilt. Watch movies and shows in your second language. Better yet, watch movies you have already seen, without the subtitles (although I would not recommend watching 8 Mile in German, Rabbit just isn’t the same).
  • Music: discovering songs you love in your second language is so effective because you listen to them repetitively, which is the best tactic for instilling words and phrases into your long-term memory (Don’t tell anyone but reggaeton is the real reason I picked up Spanish.) Again, Swiss-German rap hasn’t yet proven so sexy though.
  • Reading and watching the News: you’ll learn so much if you follow a story you already know the general gist of. We all know Trump wants to build a wall – read about it online in your new language, as you already know the context. Judging people in other languages adds an extra spice to your life you never even knew you were missing.
  • Cooking: find recipes online in your new language, and follow them. The repetition will help you learn vocabulary, which will help you write your foreign shopping list. Never forget the word butter again, not even in the club.
  • Find a foreign lover: self-explanatory. Get rid of them as soon as they can speak English better than you can speak your chosen language.

Secondly, finding a balance between active and passive learning is crucial. So often I meet people with a decent knowledge of another language but are fearful to actually speak. They know all the grammar rules, extensive vocab, and are fine listening in on a conversation, but when it comes to actually communicating, they get stuck. This reflects that they have only learnt passively, and haven’t been given or embraced the opportunity to actively use the language.

Being able to communicate effectively, whether written or verbal, is a two-way street. You’ll be so much more efficient if you practice active and passive learning equally. Don’t expect to become fluent just by sitting on your arse playing Duolingo. Go out of your way to get in touch with a native speaker, and speak to them! The chances are you’ll be able to help them with their English in return. Exchange Trump articles in your respective languages, bond over your festering hatred.

Third, old habits die hard. Don’t set yourself up for setbacks down the road; make an effort to master correct pronunciations from the beginning. The best way to pick up proper pronunciation is by listening carefully and mimicking, in the same way we learn our mother tongue as kids.  It’s also important to actively correct yourself aloud when you recognise that you’ve made a mistake, so as to imprint the sounds in your memory.

To a native speaker, it doesn’t matter how broad and sophisticated your vocabulary is if your pronunciation is rubbish. Nobody will take you seriously if you can’t pronounce paella. The same goes for accents. Somebody once asked me if I thought written accents were important. I asked him, “¿tienes 22 años o tienes 22 anos?” One means, ‘are you 22 years old?’ while the other means ‘do you have 22 anuses?’.

Speak with as many people as possible, as much as possible. Repeat conversations, however trivial they may be. Repetition is key. Tell every one of your classmates about your difficulty finding a park. Offer to be the one to order the beers at Oktoberfest – no matter how sloppy you get you’ll always be the master at demanding “mehr Bier bitte!”

Moreover, let those you speak with know you’re not going to be offended when they correct your mistakes. Most people hold back from correcting foreign speakers’ mistakes because they still understand what we want to say. This is all well and good until you realise you’ve just told a 9-year old, “tu vas te coucher bien ce soir” (you’ll f**k well tonight) instead of you’ll sleep well tonight; or asked them “bist du kalt?” (literally translated as are you cold? but interpreted in German as are you dead?).

Lastly, don’t hit a plateau. Once you’re at a stage where you still make mistakes but can effectively communicate in day-to-day life, you’re at a pivotal point. Upon realising we can get our point across without too much hassle, most people become lazy, losing the motivation to improve. If it’s become too comfortable, you’re doing something wrong. So speak more, read more, watch more Netflix. Learn how to say merry-go-round; multi-faceted; occultism.  Go to a foreign country and get lost within the culture, and convince your grandma that there’s never been a better time.  

Georgia Cox

The author Georgia Cox

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