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How to Learn a Language Faster

Get three tips sure to make your learning of any language faster, easier, and less frustrating.

By
Lisa B. Marshall
May 27, 2010
Episode #093

One of the most common questions I get asked is how to improve language skills. Learning a second language (second language acquisition or SLA), particularly English, can be a daunting and somewhat frustrating task. So today, I’ll cover my top 3 tips for learning a language faster.

Disclaimer

I need to start with a disclaimer. I am not a language expert, I am a communication expert. Although I have helped hundreds of non-native speakers with public speaking skills, my experience with second language learning is more personal.

I’ve mentioned before that my husband, Armando, is a native Spanish speaker (from Panama) and English is his second language. Our six-year-old twins are almost (but not quite yet) bilingual as well. Armando’s parents live in Panama and are bilingual speakers. In addition, we have hosted many English language learners in our household over the past six years. (Y todavia, estoy mejorando mis habilidades en enspanol.) With that out of the way, here are my top 3 tips for language learning.

Language Learning Tip #1: Don’t Worry; Be Happy

I’ve noticed that at least initially, many non-native speakers are afraid (or perhaps just a little shy) to speak. Remember that 1988 Bobby McFerrin hit single, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”? That’s good advice for language learning. In order to improve your language skills you’ve got to speak up and not worry whether you are making mistakes.

You are going to make mistakes. You will feel uncomfortable and frustrated at times. In fact, language experts suggest that errors are not only natural and inevitable, there’re also predictable! The good news is that we learn and advance from making the mistakes.

Listen to Others and Repeat What They Say

So an important key to faster learning is to work at reducing your inhibitions so that you can quickly pass through the inescapable stages of mistake making. You can also take fear out of the equation by listening to native speakers on TV or the radio and repeating what they say. In fact, many people listen to my podcast for exactly that purpose. They listen and read the text as I am speaking. A good next step is to go record and then listen to yourself delivering a podcast. That will help you to get used to hearing yourself speak in your adopted language without worry of embarrassment.

Can Alcohol Help with Learning a Language?

In terms of reducing inhibitions, I do have to mention one interesting study that was done in 1972 (Guiora). The researchers gave vodka & punch to one group of university-level language learners and nonalcoholic punch to another group. Sure enough, the vodka drinking students performed significantly better than the control group.

That study reminded me of when I first started learning Spanish in Panama. My teacher suggested conversational practice at a local bar. At first I thought she was joking! When we arrived at the bar, she suggested I try the local beer as we chatted. A bit later she included the bartender in our conversation. Eventually, she had me talking with several of the locals in the bar. I gained tremendous confidence from that outing. I didn’t think about it at the time, but perhaps the beer helped reduce my inhibitions.

Language Learning Tip #2: Look for Opportunities to Speak the Language

To be clear, I am not advocating drinking alcohol as language learning technique, I’m just saying that by reducing your inhibitions you’ll feel more comfortable going through the natural mistake process. Equally important is to seek out opportunities to use your adopted language in meaningful interactions. Think about what situations might be best for you? Maybe it means traveling to country where your adopted language is the native language. Maybe it’s practicing with strangers you’ll never see again, like a cashier in the store. Maybe you prefer to have conversations with other language learners, like in a class or a meet-up. Maybe it’s talking one-on-one with your teacher in a bar. The idea is to seek out opportunities to engage in meaningful interactions that are the most comfortable for you.

Find the Best Opportunity for You

Seek out those opportunities to engage in meaningful interactions that are most comfortable for you.

When I was learning to speak Spanish, I found that having regular group conversations over Skype was best. I didn’t feel as embarrassed because I wasn’t looking someone in the face, and it forced me to listen more carefully (I couldn’t use facial expressions for hints.) We also had native speakers on the call. When the language-learning speaker was stuck for a word, one of the fluent speakers could jump in to help—either with verbal correction or unobtrusive help via the text chat function. The text chat function allowed the speaker to talk without interruption, which by the way, research shows is a faster way to fluidity. Using this approach also gave the advantage of being able to learn mistakes and corrections without embarrassment; you could go back and either re-listen to the recorded conversation or just review the chat corrections. I appreciated being able to learn from my own mistakes without the embarrassment of being interrupted with corrections.

Language Learning Tip #3 Get Good Dictionaries

It was tough to pick just my top three tips, but I have to include getting good dictionaries as my final one. Use not just translation dictionaries, but also regular dictionaries in your adopted language.

My home has two electronic translation dictionaries. That type of dictionary is great because you can look up words very quickly, you don’t necessarily have to know how to spell the word correctly, and you can hear the pronunciation and repeat it until you get it right. Often these dictionaries also include idioms, which is extremely helpful too. I highly recommend an electronic dictionary that speaks, especially if you are learning English,

What Type of Dictionary Should You Use?

A middle-school level dictionary that includes both text and pictures can also help, particularly when you are still in the early stages of learning. Beginning learners might start with a child’s “my first words” dictionary. However for advanced speakers, I suggest using a standard dictionary. That way you’re learning the definition in the adopted language and you’re not translating. Besides, as we all know, some words just don’t translate.

By the way, I’m not suggesting you look up every single word. Research suggests it’s better to try to determine meaning from context. Again, the idea is to read or speak for meaning and not interrupt the flow by stopping to look up words. Research also suggests that if you are reading a page with more than three new words, then perhaps you should move to an easier level of reader. I find using graded kid readers an excellent way to ensure the reading is the right level.

So there you have it, three quick and dirty tips to help you learn a language faster. First, try to reduce your inhibitions and choose practice environments that are comfortable for you. Next seek out as many opportunities as possible for meaningful conversation and interaction. And finally be sure to get several different types of great dictionaries. 

This is, Lisa B. Marshall, The Public Speaker. Passionate about communication, your success is my business.

As always, I also invite you to join my newsletter or my professional network on LinkedIn (and Twitter).

If you have a question, send email to publicspeaker@quickanddirtytips.com. For information about keynote speeches or workshops, visit lisabmarshall.com.

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