In the movie The 13th Warrior, Antonio Banderas’ character learns to speak a new language just by listening to the merry Norsemen share stories over the campfire at night. Within weeks, without any practice whatsoever he nails the syntax and pronunciation and demonstrates a very impressive vocabulary. You’ve got to love Hollywood.
No, learning a new language is more like Colin Firth in Love Actually. It requires a lot of practice and even then you’ll make countless mistakes that will make you sound like a horse’s bee-hind, but it will get better.
One of the things that make learning a new language so difficult for adults (kids occupy another dimension linguistically-speaking), is the way in which it is traditionally taught. It’s dry as dust, to be honest. Whether you choose to attend a class or take a course online, you’ll endlessly repeat vocabulary lists and phrases that are not generally relevant to everyday conversation, and do written exercises about finding a café near the Eiffel Tower (or whatever touristy landmark pertains to your language of choice).
It doesn’t have to be that way, however. There are several ways in which you can make learning a new language fun.
Here are three tips:
1) Make it real
Take your lessons out of the classroom and hit the streets – or the digital equivalent. Mark Mason has written an excellent article providing tips on how to learn a new language. It’s excellent because he’s done it, several times. He’s tried all sorts of methods and he knows what really works. According to Mason, the single most important thing you can do is converse in the new language. Ideally, you should talk to native speakers, but if that’s not an option, then find someone whose is at least more proficient that you are.
You can, of course, meet up with the people in your class and go out for dinner or coffee and all yammer away in your pidgin Russian or German or Mandarin, and you’ll probably have fun. But, you won’t be able to pick up on and correct all of each other’s mistakes. You could learn new mistakes and they’ll probably prove difficult to unlearn because the fun you’re having will make the memories more resilient (studies have shown this).
You could always invite some people from the move advanced class to join you (and your teacher, if you don’t mind the outing feeling like a school event), but native speakers are really first prize. Given that the world is full of expats, chances are fairly good that you’ve got a community of native speakers in your town or city. All just have to find them. Whatever you do, don’t crash the community! Approach them respectfully. Ask them if you can participate in some local events – but be genuine in your interest.
Alternatively, you could find an online community of native speakers. Join online forums or chat groups where members speak only Spanish, or Italian, or Urdu. Again, be respectful in your approach.
However you do it, online or face-to-face, engage in as many real conversations as possible. Be prepared to make mistakes and to be laughed at. Take heart in the fact that most people are only too happy to help those who are making an effort to learn their language (and their culture), and they’ll do it mostly tactfully.
Mason says that one hour of proper conversation is as good as five hours in a classroom and 10 hours wrestling with the content of an online course on your own. So stop dithering and get out there.
2) Make it silly
We’ve briefly mentioned that having fun while learning makes the memories stick, so you need to find ways to learn that will put a grin on your face. The Language Learning Blog suggests writing a silly children’s book. Complete the entire process in the new language. Make a conscious effort to think of the story in the new language rather than your mother tongue. Plan it in the language; write character sketches, research, do everything in the new language. If an entire story is too intimidating try a comic poem, or write the script for an episode of your favourite TV show, or a soap opera.
Use funny images and mnemonics while you are doing exercises. The visual cues will help your memory, especially if they tickle your funny bone.
3) Immerse yourself
Mason says that the more intensely you study a new language the more quickly you learn it. Watch TV programmes in the language, listen to the radio, read comics, watch funny videos on YouTube. Surround yourself with the language and practice it daily. He recommends you keep at it (in a real and relevant way) until you reach the ‘brain melt’ stage. Then do it again the next day, and the next, and the next …
It’s not easy for stuck-in-a-rut adult brains to learn a new language, but you can make it easier by making it fun.
- License: Creative Commons image source
Jemima Winslow has tried to make her adult brain learn French, Russian, and isiSotho. She’s not been terribly successful, but that’s probably because the lessons were dead boring. She’ll try having some fun with her next language and see if that works better.