By Bhalachandra Sahaj
A couple of weeks ago, my friends and I returned from our trip to China. Along with wonderful food, streets overcrowded by people, and the Great Wall, one of the things that impressed me was how my friend managed to fluently communicate with Chinese people—he’s been intensively studying Mandarin for more than a year, and in that part of China where we visited (its eastern part) he had almost no problems understanding people.
Studying foreign languages has been both of our hobbies for more than five years. He has dedicated himself to Arabic, Swedish, and Chinese, and I to Japanese and Russian. Together we’ve discovered a bunch of tips, rules, shortcuts, and life hacks that help us study effectively and learn our languages faster, easier, and with more enjoyment. I’d like to share some of these tips with you today.
- The first (and my favorite) one is to surround yourself with context. A language torn out of its context becomes more abstract, less practical, and less meaningful—so your task is to create this context for yourself. For example, if you start learning Japanese, don’t just try to analyze kanji or grammar constructions. Instead, read something about Japanese history; find newspapers, magazines, and websites dedicated to life in Japan—there are plenty of them available in English. You can even purchase a fudepen, watch some YouTube videos, and try practicing traditional calligraphy! Get yourself acquainted with the corresponding culture, and the reward will be a deeper understanding of language.
- Use media. By media, I mean music, movies, comic books, and even video games. How to use them? You can, for example, translate the lyrics of songs you like. I enjoyed this one: not only understanding what a band was singing about, but singing in Japanese with them, and learning at the same time! This way you can learn and repeat new words, and it’s much more fun than reading through a list of new words again and again. Watching movies in the original language (with subtitles) allows you to correlate what you hear with what you read; also, this way you learn to understand the meaning of what is said by ear. It’s especially useful if you have no opportunity to communicate with native speakers live.
- Talk to yourself. The only conversationalist and language partner available 24/7 is you. After even a couple of weeks of studying a foreign language, you will be able to construct short phrases and questions. Do it! Comment on your actions (like, “Okay, now I am going to make myself some tea”), think out loud in the language you study. Listen to how native speakers speak and copy their pronunciation; make a list of ready-made phrases that can be used in daily life and practice them. In general, try to learn phrases, not just words, and use them when speaking to yourself. And of course, if you have a chance to communicate with a native speaker, do it!
- Learn the most common words first. When you start learning a foreign language, you definitely do not need to know words like “astrophysics” or “vertebrae.” Focus on something simple: go, eat, sleep, this, that, take, give, play, see, say, and so on. Oh, and by the way, pay the most attention to verbs. Nouns are secondary, and adjectives are not so important—in the beginning, at least.
- Always carry a pocket dictionary around. It can be invaluable, trust me.
And one more piece of general advice. Do not be afraid to make mistakes. You will make tons of them anyways, always. So, why hesitate and feel bad about it?