Among pre-travel rituals, nothing excites me more than learning to spout out a few foreign phrases. Sometimes, it’s worked out great. I’ve understood and been understood, had a few laughs, and made some new friends.
But more times than not, I’ve fallen flat. Opening my mouth to articulate in a strange tongue for the first time yields incomprehensible gibberish. Dejected at a first failed attempt, I shut down, never to utter more than a few basic pleasantries for the remainder of the trip. So, what went wrong?
Well, many things.
After more of these misguided adventures than I’d like to admit, I’ve pinpointed some of the differences between my successful and unsuccessful attempts at learning and speaking a foreign language. If you’re serious about learning a language for your travels, you can’t afford to ignore these five language learning secrets.
1) Be consistent and practice every day.
If you’ve ever crammed for an exam, you recognize the futility of jamming a mass amount of information into your head in a short period of time. Language learning is no exception and infrequent marathon study sessions can hijack, rather than improve, your progress.
Instead, focus on breaking up your foreign language study sessions into manageable chunks, lasting no more than 30 minutes at a time. A daily half-hour of language learning is far more effective than one marathon three-hour session a week.
2) Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
As important as consistency is repetition. Don’t make the mistake of moving forward in your course before you’ve had time to soak up everything. Studies show that humans may need to repeat a foreign word 160 times before remembering it. So, pace yourself and repeat – over and over again.
3) Track your progress
Along with pacing and repetition, it’s a good idea to record your progress. While working through a course, I use a worksheet to track my daily half-hour study sessions by chapter. I’ve set an arbitrary goal of five sessions per unit, but have often adjusted this downwards (and even upwards) depending on the difficulty. Be sure to move on only after you feel you have mastered the material (at least 80% at minimum).
4) Practice makes perfect
Spending all the time in the world listening to CDs will never get you where you want to go. To gain fluency, nothing substitutes conversing with a native speaker.
Use the Internet to find local cultural clubs, meet-ups, or courses in your hometown. Social media is another great way to connect with new people, many of whom are all too happy to help someone learn their language—especially for lesser-spoken foreign languages like Afrikaans, Basque, or Albanian.
Partaking in a conversation exchange is another great way to improve foreign language reading and writing skills while developing friendships with people from around the world.
5) Don’t let fear take the wheel and steer
Probably the number one reason for failing to speak a foreign language is fear: fear of being misunderstood, fear of sounding stupid, and fear of failure.
The fear is probably not unfounded. Chances are you will be misunderstood and you will sound stupid (at least to your own ears). But all that doesn’t matter because if you persist, you will not fail.
As English speakers, we hear a multitude of accents and varying language abilities. How often have you looked down upon someone who is clearly just learning the language and struggling with it? Most likely never. And if you have, I’d be just as happy if you left now. Here’s the door.
Once you realize that no one will ridicule you for trying to speak their language, the world will be your oyster. And if someone does deride you for your attempt, they aren’t worth speaking to anyways. Just as you would be supportive, so too would most of the world.
Don’t let your feelings of inadequacy stop you – embrace your language learning potential and try, try, try.