At least once a week, I hear people say they want to learn a language. Because I live in Florida and near Cuba, people usually talk about learning Spanish.
From spending over a year in Spanish speaking countries, I’m already on my way with that language. Because of my interest in coffee, history, and travel in general, there are more languages I’d like to be able to communicate in.
It’s too bad that the average American holds multi-lingual ability so high. They’re just languages. There is a finite number of words and rules, and you don’t need to know that much to get by. English has a ton of rules and exceptions, especially when it comes to spelling. German is easy to spell, but grammar is horrendous. Spanish is easy all around.
Now I’m going after French. The alphabet is pretty much the same, so it’s not as difficult as Arabic or Cantonese or one of the 22 languages of India. After French is underway, I don’t think Italian and Portuguese should be that tricky.
So, let’s get into the method. The key is to stay interested and not feel overwhelmed.
I recommend you spend 15 minutes/day (or whenever you feel like it) reading/writing. Spend the other 5 minutes listening.
It makes sense to me to start with a group of common words. You can Google the 100 most common words in the language you are learning. Although a forgotten and failed search engine, About.com actually has some really great language tools and I use it almost exclusively. Write the words one day. Start defining them over the next few sessions (see the picture above).
For listening practice, there is a site called www.rfi.com which you can listen to in 15 languages. It broadcasts in different countries so you can hear Argentine Spanish in one article and reporters from Spain in another. You can also choose the category and topic like news, sports, economy, etc.
After the 100 common words, verbs seem to be pretty important, so I made a list of 20 common verbs, most of which are from the 100 list. Present tense is easy and effective in early communication, so I practice the conjugating patterns as seen below.
Work on only what you are working on. That’s one way to avoid getting overwhelmed. If you’re learning conjugation, don’t worry about understanding, you are just building patterns. After the 4th verb, I was guessing the endings. I was still way off, but by the 17th, I was conjugating confidently with 75% accuracy.
The next day, I defined the verbs I didn’t recognize, reading a few examples to improve association memory. By now, I feel it’s important to overview pronunciation. Using a guide like this one, I guess, listen, and practice the sounds. Again, I spend about 15 minutes studying and then I listen for 5 minutes while doing something like organizing my room.
Then I look for another part of speech, maybe prepositions. They pair well with nouns and and articles to make simple phrases like “on the table” and “beside the door”. With a pad of post-it notes, your room can turn into a constant learning environment.
If I spend 2 days on each part of speech, that’s just over 2 weeks. After that, I’ll look into regular verb conjugations, common nouns, and start moving into past and future tenses. That will keep me busy for another week or two.
So in just a month of studying only 20 minutes/day, I can start watching kids movies that I know, like The Lion King and Toy Story. Watch them with the audio/subtitles in the language the you are learning. When I can’t watch movies, I read very short stories for extremely young children. Pretty soon, I’ll be able to watch adult movies that I know by heart such as The Matrix and Forrest Gump while studying French grammar and common expressions on my laptop.
It takes time and interest to begin learning a language, but once that momentum is built there is absolutely no stopping it. For the rest of your life, you will be exposed to new bits and pieces of whichever languages you start. The key is to start.