I’ve lived in nine countries, and when I first arrived in most of them, I didn’t speak much of the language. Being linguistically and culturally lost has become a habit.
I’ve found the best way to advance rapidly in these situations (as well as if I’m attempting to learn before arrival) is to just jump in and start speaking. You must first and foremost be shameless. (This is precisely why studies have shown that alcohol can actually help language learning — at least of pronunciation.)
I’ll outline here a few other things I’ve discovered as I went from a monoglot with a bad memory to fluency in 6-8 languages (depending on how you count), but really it all boils down to being shameless enough to speak badly as you’re learning.
If you’re looking for advice on how to take on a language, keep in mind that learning styles are highly personal and you should take my or any other internet guru’s advice with a large grain of salt. While academic research lately tends to recommend communicative learning styles, it has also shown that many different methods can work. (Patsy Lightbrown and Nina Spada’s academic textbook offers a great overview of research into language learning, and has been very useful to me in refining my approach: How Languages are Learned1See in particular Kindle locations 1915-1918.) Above all, the most important thing you can do is find a way to learn that matches your own style. It’s so, so important to choose a way to learn that you personally find fun.
That said, in my experience … language schools and university classes are not such a good bet. You pay a lot of money to sit in a room where most people speak the target language just as badly as you do. You don’t get much time to speak yourself. And you have to spend more time and money getting to and from the class.
I prefer an approach that’s much cheaper (it can even be free) and more efficient. I mix online tutoring and/or language exchanges, with working from a communicative, self-teaching book. Here’s an outline of my strategy, as refined over the years.
1. Online Language Teachers and Exchanges
Of the many, many sites I’ve tried for finding both free language exchanges and paid tutors, Italki has been the best.2Other options for finding teachers/language exchanges are Livemocha and VerbalPlanet, but I personally haven’t had as much success with those. The quality of “professional” teachers on the site still varies enormously, but they do offer quite cheap trials to help you find the ones that fit you, and there are excellent teachers to be found for any language.
Prices can run from about $5-20 per hour, making the lessons very competitive with (usually cheaper than) language schools and university classes. I recommend working with several different teachers simultaneously (both certified and “community”, or untrained teachers), as well as language exchanges, so that you get various perspectives on the language. The best teachers to work with are those who are willing and patient enough keep the conversation almost entirely in the target language. I schedule a one-hour class about every other weekday, and on off days study on my own.
Look for learning materials that emphasize communicating in relevant contexts. Grammar is important to help you feel comfortable and to find some shortcuts, but generally should not be an end in and of itself. I have personally used a number of the Teach Yourself Guides (a.k.a. Complete Language), as they follow a communicative approach, have clear grammar explanations, and provide relevant dialogues and context for each culture. They do tend to lack grammar practice; for that, grammar workbooks can be useful as a supplement. Here are Amazon affiliate links to the best grammar books I’ve personally used for French, Spanish, Serbian/Croatian/Bosnian, and Italian. And this is a fun, crucial look at spoken Brazilian Portuguese. Reader recommendations for these and other languages are welcome in the comments.
3. Memorization Software
I make flashcards for the vocabulary and grammar rules that I want to remember on my laptop (doing so is itself a great way to learn); I can record the correct audio with my teacher (this even works over skype) and save images from a google search instead of just translations. The software syncs, and then everything I need to study is in my phone and available for review in any free moment throughout the day. Ideally, you can get your settings just right so that each flashcard will appear just before you would have forgotten it. Of course, paper flashcards can work well too if you don’t mind carrying a pile of them around to study in spare moments.
4. In-Person Language Exchanges
For meeting foreigners coming through your city, and locals when you’re traveling, you can attend meetups for travellers. Check Meetup.com for a disorganized website with a lot of options, InterNations for elitist “expat” meetups, Facebook groups for the language or culture in question, and especially MundoLingo and other language exchange meetups for your area. (Couchsurfing used to be useful but slided into irrelevance after screwing its membership on a massive scale while claiming to be a nonprofit, and then turning into a corporation.)
5. Be Funny with Minimal Vocabulary
Use the minimalist language method to have conversations in your target language, even before you’re the slightest bit conversant. You need to practice with native speakers, but people are unlikely to be patient enough to agree to that if you’re not entertaining to talk to. (Those who are rich and/or gorgeous can ignore this advice — and pretty much any of the world’s advice on anything.) Sure, you could badger and cajole people into speaking their own language with you (as opposed to English or whatever), but you’re better off just being funny. Hence my minimalist method, which is about maximizing how amusing/charming you can be with a bare minimum of vocabulary and cultural awareness. It’s a way to get your foot in the door for future, real language learning.
6. Tools for the Post-Dictionary World
Like most language learners and translators, I’m almost constantly logged on to WordReference and Google Translate. Of particular use are WordReference’s forums, where a lot of out-of-work translators seem to have nothing better to do than ponder your trickiest questions. Also great are Wiktionary and Wikipedia (use the language links at Wikipedia to find out how a technical term is translated into a target language). Linguee is a useful translation tool for phrases in some European languages, though the quality of its answers is erratic.
Any further recommendations for shameless language learning for the non-linguistically gifted are welcome in the comments.