I came to the United States when I was 8 years old. I didn’t know anything about the English language. I didn’t even know how to pronounce my own name in English. After being in the United States for two weeks, I didn’t think I’d ever learn how to speak English. From my perspective, Americans shot their words out quickly – as though they were trying to hit targets rather than carry on conversations. English words whizzed by my ears like trains in a subway station and I felt like I was the only person that kept missing them.
Seven-months later, I was able to speak, read, and write better than 80% of the students in my class. I remember a particular instance when my second grade teacher, Mrs. Hughes, asked the class a question on English grammar – it involved direct object pronouns. I was the only one in my class to raise my hand. Even the top students were surprised.
With a perplexed look on her face, Mrs. Hughes called on me to answer the question. I gave her the right answer and she told me she was proud of me. Really proud! Up until that point, I had been the class dunce. The one who had trouble understanding the simplest of concepts. It was hard for me to believe how far I had come, but at that moment I knew I had arrived at my destination. So how did I undergo such a massive transformation so quickly?
Hard work! Every day, after coming home from school, I would spend around 1 hour doing my homework (as best I could) and 3 more hours of my own time learning the English language. I did this intensely for 3 months straight. After that I cut the time down to 2 hours a day and focused on conversing with people. It took a while, but in the end I achieved my goal.
This year, I want to learn to speak a third language – Spanish. I plan on being fluent in Spanish by the coming year and I will be employing some of the same strategies I used when I was 8 years old. I wasn’t consciously using the strategies at that time, to me they were games to make learning more fun. Even so, my methods proved to be highly effective. This year, I plan to apply those same strategies consciously. I also plan on adding some new ones as well and I’ve listed the strategies below. If you are looking to learn a foreign language, then these strategies will definitely help you.
Word Rally 500
One of the simplest and most effective strategies I used to learn the meaning of English words was the World Rally 500. Every night I would pick 25 words out of a book and look them up in my Romanian/English dictionary. I would break each word down by part of speech, pronunciation, meaning, etc. and then jot all the information on an index card. The English word on the front side and all the other information on the back side. After I had 25 words, I would pretend each word was a race car doing laps around my mind. Each time I pulled out an index card, the word completed a lap. I would rotate through each word 20 times, until I’d completed 20 laps – hence the name of this strategy.
This helped me tremendously because I repeated each word to myself 20 times. This almost guaranteed I’d remember every word that was committed to memory. As a bonus the whole activity was fun. I actually looked forward to it every night. The winners of the race were often words that stuck out in my mind as being unique. Words that I remembered after looking at them only 3 or 4 times. As soon as I remembered a word, I’d give it a first place ranking. I would then put it back in the deck and try to find the next winner. I did this until I memorized the entire deck.
You can use a similar strategy yourself. You don’t have to use the race car imagery if you don’t want to. You may want to use horses or boats or whatever you like. Picking images to associate with the cards is not mandatory, so you don’t need to do it if you don’t want to. The strategy will still work on its own. The imagery is just there to make learning more fun.
If you are learning a language for a specific reason, you might want to keep that reason in mind when you pick your words. For example, if you are learning a language for business purposes, your time should be spent learning business words (marketing, sales, profit, team, etc.). On the other hand, if you are learning a language because you plan on going on vacation in a foreign country, you might want to learn words that you’d probably use while vacationing (direction, water, place, etc.).
Label Household Items
One of the easiest ways to learn the objects used around the home is to label them. Translate the names of household items, use a marker to write their names on index cards, and attach the index cards to their respective objects using tape. You can label utensils, appliances, furniture – just about anything in the house. You don’t have to do this indefinitely, just for a couple of weeks until you learn the names of the objects around your home. This will expose you to the proper way of saying and spelling the names of things you use on a daily basis. By having things labeled, you’ll make it easier for your brain to assimilate the information. This strategy also makes it easy to learn the names of things you’ll probably use when traveling to the foreign country.
One of the best software programs for learning a foreign language is the Rosetta Stone. Unlike traditional language teaching programs, it is interactive and teaches you using images (not just words). Rosetta Stone goes at your pace. It doesn’t just speak at you, but asks you to participate in the activities. It then rates you on your level of comprehension. On top of that, it also tracks your progress and helps you figure out exactly where you need to improve.
The first lessons start out with pronunciation, where Rosetta Stone shows you an image and pronounces its name. It then asks you to repeat what you’ve just heard. Based on your response you will either be able to continue or have to repronounce the word until you’ve mastered it. As you progress, you will have to pick the image that corresponds to what Rosetta Stone asked for. Then later, you will write what you see on the image. Besides having great features, it also makes learning fun and I can easily lose track of an hour while logged on to it. I think it is quite effective on cutting down the time needed to learn a foreign language. I wish I had the Rosetta Stone when I first came to the United States – it would easily have cut 3 months off my learning time. If you are looking for a software program to learn new languages, this is definitely it! I give it a solid 9 out of 10!
Find a Teacher/Take a Class
To learn a foreign language quickly, find a foreign language expert – a teacher. A teacher can give you the guidance and education you need to lay a solid foundation for learning the foreign language. He/She will give you a thorough understanding of the language’s building blocks – grammar, pronunciation, spelling, etc. and these are what you need when you first get started. As you acquire more knowledge you’ll build on what your teacher has taught you, so it’s important to have a good understanding of the basics. A teacher will be the best suited person to give you immediate feedback and help correct any errors you make while learning.
Find a Language Buddy
About a week after I had been in the United States, I made a friend in my neighborhood whose name was Robert. He had come to the United States two years before me. He spoke fluent English, as well as Romanian. I asked him to help me learn the language by having him define words and phrases for me. If I could not find the meaning of a word or figure out the correct wording of a phrase, I’d turn to him for assistance. He was a great help and he even taught me the slang that’s used here in America. I felt he acted like a spotter at a gym, only instead of helping me grow my muscles, he helped me grow my vocabulary. No matter what you are trying to learn, there will always be someone a little further on the path than you are. Why not appeal to them for assistance and make a friend at the same time?
“I Spy” Dictionary
Whenever I left my home, I always grabbed my pocket size dictionary. I knew that I’d have nothing to do while being driven around so I made a game of quizzing myself on objects I found interesting. I saw many things on the road and when one particular thing jumped out at me, I looked it up in my pocket-sized dictionary. By doing this I memorized many everyday objects and learned how to pronounce their names. If I had trouble pronouncing the name of the object, I often asked the person next to me to help me out. Sometimes that person was my language buddy, Robert.
A pocket-sized dictionary may not be the most info dense medium, but it does have a word’s part of speech, pronunciation, and meaning - and for this strategy that’s all you’ll need. Since they are affordable, you can buy a couple of them. One to keep in your home and one for your car. If you’re usually the driver, you can ask your passenger to look things up for you. This makes the drive more productive and fun. It also beats listening to the same songs on the radio.
I’ve read that it takes around 7000 hours for a person to master a foreign language. If you divide that figure by a 12 hour day, it would take you 583 days to learn a new language. That’s a little over a year and a half of total immersion. Although I think 7000 hours may be a little exaggerated, I do believe that you need to be continually exposed to the language in order to learn it as quickly as possible. If you can afford it, you can move to the country who’s language you’re trying to learn. This will this help you assimilate the language quickly and also help you learn more about the culture, history, and origin of the language you’re trying to learn.
If you cannot afford to move to the actual country (I fall into this category), then you can still create a similar experience by plunging into it. With a simple click of a mouse you can buy audio books, language programs, songs, etc. and upload them on to your iPod or MP3 player. This way, you can surround yourself with the language when you are doing everyday stuff like working-out, washing the dishes, or driving around.
Watch Foreign Movies or Shows
Another strategy that can be paired up with total immersion is watching foreign movies and TV shoes. When I came to the United States, I was blown away by the amount of television programs that were available. I came from a country that had one national channel and it was on for only a few hours a day. Half the time, the channel aired propaganda that promoted the communist dictator and his local party. The rest of the time the channel showed movies promoting patriotism or national pride. Bad television at its finest. Contrast that with the movies, sitcoms, and cartoons available in the United States and you can understand why every Saturday morning I felt like I was in heaven. I would wake up at 6 am and watch cartoons and other shows until around 12 pm. The movies, shows, and cartoons helped me learn how to communicate with other people. I learned how certain phrases were used and in what context. This was way better than just reading about conversation in my English textbooks. If you are trying to learn a foreign language I recommend you follow my lead. Rent or buy some of the movies or shows that were produced in the country whose language you’re trying to learn. Every country has popular shows that it’s known for, you just have do some research to find them.
Do a Little Every Day
You can’t learn a language effectively if you spend 7 hours one day (total immersion) trying to cram in as much as you can, then spend the rest of the week doing nothing. It is much better to break that 7 hour block into 1 hour increments throughout the week. This will not only keep your mind fresher and more willing to learn, but will also guarantee that you are continually being exposed to the language. The more frequently you’re exposed to the language the fresher it stays in your mind. You don’t lose what you use. Especially when you’re using it day in, day out.
Foreign Language Thinking
This strategy may seem self explanatory, but it is quite challenging to implement on a regular basis. If I tell you to, “Hand me that pen” do you stop and consciously think about each word in the sentence or do you instinctively hand me the pen? If you’re a native English speaker, you’ll hand me the pen without giving it a second thought. Well if you are learning a new language, you’ll have to start from scratch. You could wait until you are in the actual situation to learn how to respond to a request, but I would urge you to be proactive. I encourage you to start practicing how you would respond to the said request as if it were asked of you in the foreign language. So if someone asked you, “How do you like the meal?” Don’t just instinctively shoot out a reply in English. Try to think what the response would be in the foreign language you’re trying to learn. Practice this as often as possible and you’ll soon be proficient in answering requests in the foreign language.
These strategies should be more than enough to help you get started on the path to learning a foreign language. I strongly believe that if you implement these strategies – you’ll master a new language in a quarter of the time it takes most people. And I should know, I learned how to speak, read, and write in English in about 6 months. If you have doubts about the validity of my claims, feel free to check out my 2nd grade report card. If you are confused by the name Catalin, I don’t blame you. It is actually my middle name. It seems when my parents enrolled me in elementary school, they filled out the forms incorrectly and put my middle name where my first name should have gone. I can’t blame them since they hardly knew a word of English themselves – too bad my guide wasn’t around back then.