I’ve studied Spanish, German and Chinese in both school and immersion environments; in both classroom settings and one on one tutoring. I’ve also been an English teacher to ESL students in several countries. Some things I’ve learned about language acquisition:
- You have to make it a primarily goal, not a hobby. An hour or two a week is not enough, it should be daily.
- There are lots of ways to study, but you need to focus on what works best, on the learning the most used language content first.
- Traditional books and classroom settings are mostly outdated and you can drastically speed up learning time by “hacking” – or making use of technological shortcuts.
Here are some things that have worked well for me:
The Pimsleur System
I always recommend Pimsleur to beginners: it’s slow and easy to follow along. In 30 minutes a day you’ll learn functional conversation. It’s focused on language learning for business but I think it’s a good initiation. For some it may be too slow, but for people who have trouble listening, repeating and learning, it will get you started and give you confidence.
Worth mentioning because of all the huge advertising they do, but not my favorite. It’s a very good program that helps you learn a language from the bottom up – the “natural” way, but this also means it will be months before you learn anything practical or useful you can use.
Short conversations on mp3 you can download and listen to. Very useful, interesting content, fun presentations, lots of new vocabulary. The only thing is it isn’t very structured (starting from easy to more complex grammar).
Very worth the cheap monthly price – they have great visual, dialogues and practice sentences.
And yet… they all fail
I came to Taiwan about 10 years ago and studied hard for a year, and then basically plateaued. I could express myself and get around and buy what I needed to.
I didn’t have the burning need to learn any more Chinese. In fact I didn’t like speaking Chinese because I couldn’t say anything I was interested in.
When I went back recently to try and study in the classroom again, I was even more frustrated – my speaking level was higher than the course book but I couldn’t write. I can recognize and read Chinese characters, and I can type with pinyin keystrokes, but that level of memorization (recognition) is a mountain away from remembering all the tiny strokes of all the tiny characters enough to do it by hand with no prompt.
Two things I learned
1. Chinese teachers teach foreigners differently than native Chinese children – who learn to speak Chinese first, well before they learn to write, and then they learn a whole system of Chinese characters beginning with base symbols (radicals) and build up from there.
2. Most foreigners start with “Hello, how are you?” and move through a course book that deals with things like talking about the agricultural products of your home country (very boring material that you’ll never really use.)
These are the difficulties in learning Chinese. To get around them, learn to speak first, and only talk about what interests you.
If you want to really learn Chinese quickly, find a private tutor. You can find one online or locally. Better yet, go to a country where the language is spoken, make some friends, hang out with them.
Make a list of topics you enjoy. Some of my best classes recently were me talking about my business, about my beliefs and opinions, about philosophy and religion, politics, the sci-fi future or technological advances, etc. Of course this is tricky in the very beginning, but the principle holds. Learn how to be you in another language – practice telling the same stories or jokes you like to tell. Learn how to get to know people and ask about their interests, history, families or hopes.
In Taiwan there are magazines like Studio Classroom, which come out every month and feature pretty interesting, relevant and timely content. Take one of those, or a Time magazine (or Wired, etc.). Find interesting things to talk about.
Struggling to express what you believe in and have people understand and like you fuels the motivation to learn a language.
Learn a language in 3 months
A big part of the reason I’m not more fluent in Chinese is that I spend most of my time writing books and researching – but a friend of mine has made language learning his life.
Benny Lewis (www.fluentin3months.com) travels around learning languages and focuses on maximizing retention and fluency. If you’re serious about learning a language really fast, with less effort, he’s got a new book out called “Fluent in 3 Months” – you can get it on Amazon.