Language Hacking 101

languagetextWould you rather speak 2 languages fluently or be able to casually converse in 5?

How about 8? I just found out that the woman who sleeps down the hall is octolingual. I discovered this when I probed her yesterday to tell me about her childhood in Northern Pakistan. Shamim, my apartment-mate, said modestly, “I speak all the languages of my region.” Growing up in such a tribal area of the world, she learned to communicate through several different tongues – Urdu, English, Wakhi, and Shina to name a few. While I can’t sit down and quiz her on her fluency, the fact that she is pursuing graduate studies in America, in an English-speaking program, is remarkable.

Learning a new language is like learning anything new – it takes a little time. Seriously, just a little. If you understand the right approach, picking up new grammar and vocabulary is as easy as baking a cake. Just follow the recipe.

After you have picked your desired language, deconstruct it.
Timothy Ferriss explains it best in his blog post, “How to Learn (But Not Master) Any Language in 1 Hour.” Translating a few simple phrases in one’s mother tongue (English for most of us, right?) exposes the most blatant grammar rules in another language. Here’s an example with French, using Tim’s favorite sentences:

  • The apple is red. – La pomme est rouge.
  • It is John’s apple. – C’est la pomme de John.
  • I give John the apple. – Je donne la pomme à John.
  • We give him the apple. – Nous lui donnons la pomme.
  • He gives it to John. – Il la donne à John.
  • She gives it to him. – Elle la donne à John.
  • I must give it to him. – Je dois le lui donner.
  • I want to give it to her. – Je veux le lui donner.

Even in a few minutes, we can already begin to understand French grammar. We can distinguish different subjects and their respective verb accompaniments as well as pronoun placement. I’m not too adept at grammar terms, so I’ll stop there, but you get the idea. Spending some time to do direct translations is an invaluable first step in learning another language.

Invest some money into a dictionary, grammar, and vocabulary books:
Now that you have some basic expectations, start taking notes. Flip through grammar books and beginning-level vocabulary books to begin building a base, and write out a few mock conversations that you would have with a native speaker. Make charts. Draw pictures. Highlight and underline. Learn the most common phrases and start speaking them. Traditional language classes are costly and time-intensive, so you might also think about purchasing language learning software as an alternative. Use these resources actively.

Supplement your studies with popular entertainment.
I remember reading 17th century French plays in high school, thinking, why can’t I read Harry Potter instead? Find movies, music, and books in your chosen language and get immersed in popular culture.  Learn to sing a national anthem or other popular songs. Find out what the main sources of news in that language are and start translating the headlines. Download a foreign language podcast and listen to it in the background when you’re answering emails or chatting away with friends. This will keep you interested and will certainly help accelerate the learning curve. I once experimented with music before major exams in college and found that listening to French songs for a few days prior to a test greatly increased my confidence and capacity to speak.

Connect with others learning the same language.
While you may be saving a significant amount of time (and money) by choosing to skip the formal enrollment of language class, learning a language alone is no fun. Seek out language clubs in your area, or better yet, if you happen to know someone who speaks your desired language, set up a regular meeting with them for an informal lesson or conversation. There are also a handful of social networking sites on the Internet that are language-based: check out My Happy Planet and for starters.

Keep useful resources close by.
If available in your language, I highly recommend using a laminated reference guide. These cover the absolute essentials of a language and should be kept close by for reference. In high school, one of my friends used to laminate his study guides for exams and read them in the shower before school. Why not take the same approach? Lather up and learn some words! The Internet also has an amazing collection of common phrases, audio examples, and other sites that offer free language resources. It’s almost overwhelming how many sites are out there.

Use if you have want to learn Spanish, French, Italian, German or Russian.
This site is an online translator that includes the most comprehensive collection of colloquialisms (like the alliteration?) that I have ever seen. Use as often as possible (here is an example, once again in French).

Learning a language should not be intimidating. On the contrary, it should be a fun, interactive experience that connects you with others and helps you learn about another culture.

A few additional language-related articles:
10 Steps to Becoming Fluent in a Language in 6 months or Less
How to Learn a New Language 1 Week Before Your Trip
How to Resurrect Your High School Spanish…or Any Language (another Tim Ferriss piece)
20+ Ways to Learn a Language Online

I know this post is a bit link heavy, but there are too many quality resources on the Internet to ignore.

Adios. Namaste. Hoşça kalın.

(photo credit:  nofrills)

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