Trajan King is an entrepreneur who has founded several companies, worked in Silicon Valley, has visited over 40 countries, lived around the world and speaks 7 languages. He writes about entrepreneurship, effective learning and language.
The first word I ever learned in Italian was “uscita.” I arrived in the Rome airport in 2012 with a good friend, not knowing a single word. My friend and I had to find our way out of the airport, so we needed the word for “exit.” Two months later, we flew home speaking pretty fluent Italian. Those 2 months included a lot of study, but we also made a lot of friends because we could speak the language, even poorly at first.
Knowing how to speak a bit of the language in the country you’re traveling in makes a difference in the experience you have there. The difference might not be 946%, in fact, it’s not really quantitative at all, but qualitative. I know this from living all over the world and meeting some great people.
For the first few years of my life as a traveler, I didn’t speak any foreign language, and, as a result, I always felt a bit lost, and was probably taken advantage of a lot. You may know how it is: at a store you hear the employees talking and laughing with each other. For some reason you suspect they’re laughing at you. You have a feeling you might be getting overcharged. You’re getting the special “tourist discount.”
Fast forward to a few years later. I was living abroad in Brazil, armed with my first foreign tongue: Portuguese. In a taxi ride to the airport, I noticed the driver has the meter set to the weekend or holiday rate, where it charges double. I don’t say a word the entire ride. However, upon arrival, I refuse to pay the double rate. If I didn’t speak the language, I never would have known. Learning a language definitely came in handy!
Another time, I was taking a walk, and I noticed a popsicle vendor dramatically increase what he was charging as soon as he saw me. I knew because I had watched him yelling out (in Portuguese), “Popsicles! Get your popsicles. 5 cents!” When he saw me, he changed it to, “Popsicles! 95 cents!”
The satisfaction I got talking him back down to the original amount was worth way more than a few reais. (I didn’t even want his sketchy roadside food, but victory is sweet. Sweeter than popsicles).
Know the Culture
Saving money is nice, of course, but the most rewarding reason for knowing the local language is that people really notice. People around the world light up when a visitor has taken the time to learn about their culture and language, even if it’s just a few phrases. It shows interest and respect and they usually respond with kindness, and even friendship.
I love the look on a Chinese person’s face when I start speaking Chinese to them. At first, it’s shock. Then appreciation. It’s obvious in those moments that this doesn’t happen often. I find this with all cultures. Universally, people are much nicer and open when you can speak to them in their language.
How to Learn a Language
So, you’re sold, but learning a language is easier said than done. So what’s the best way to learn a language? And if your time is limited, how do you get the most out of just a few phrases for a trip or vacation?
Here are my best tips:
You’re never too old to learn a language. Let’s get this ridiculous notion out of the way first. Somehow this false belief turned into a solid rule: adults can’t learn a new language. While it might sound correct, especially if you don’t want to memorize flashcards or listen to pronunciation tapes, the idea has been repeatedly debunked by science. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3723803/)
In fact, Catherine Snow, PhD, Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, said in an interview, “The evidence clearly demonstrates that there is no critical period for second-language learning, no biologically determined constraint on language-learning capacity that emerges at a particular age, nor any maturational process which requires that older language learners function differently than younger language learners.”
I know it’s possible because I didn’t learn my first foreign language until age 19 and have many friends who did the same. There is even evidence that older students learn certain things better than younger students. In addition, after you learn one, it becomes easier to learn another…and another.
So if you do happen to be older than 4, don’t be discouraged. You can do it!
Have a reason. Studying can be hard and it’s tough to stay motivated. If you have a goal to work toward, it’s much easier to stay on track. An upcoming trip will keep you going, so plan the trip, then crack the books. I guarantee you’ll be more motivated once that trip is booked.
Don’t focus on grammar. Speaking of books, go easy on the books, courses and study materials. Use them just enough to get an idea, at least in the beginning. Eventually, you’ll need to learn it if long-term fluency is your goal, but in the early stages or if you’re preparing for a vacation, learning grammar might not give you the biggest bang for the buck.
Learn the most common 100 words. What, then, is the best use of time? Learn the top 100 words. Because they’re so common, it’ll be easy to make sentences out of them and put them into practice. It doesn’t do much good to learn all the parts of the body, for example, unless you first know how to introduce yourself and order at a restaurant – both things you have plenty of opportunity to practice.
The most common 100 words of a language make up about 50% of the language, so get those down and you’re halfway there. Focus on just those 100 words and know them inside and out. Start to use them in different ways. Practice building the grammar around those words and build upon that foundation.
Speak all the time. So what then is the best use of your time then? Speaking. Speaking a lot!
An hour spent talking in a foreign language is worth 10 hours of having your nose in a book. The main reason is the book can’t give you feedback. Speaking with a real live person is all the motivation you need to listen and learn.
Speaking also gives context to vocabulary. The problem with flashcards is there is no context. I didn’t learn the word “uscita” from a list of vocabulary; I learned it from a real experience, and because of that experience I will never forget it.
So, if possible, speak with a native and keep a 3×5 card in your pocket to write down words that you come across during the day. Ask the native speaker to correct you when you make a mistake. Using the language daily and putting things in context is the best way to learn and improve.
Fluency is relative. I get asked all the time if I’m fluent. It’s actually kind of a strange question. It’s like asking someone if they’re fluent at golf. Do you know anyone who says “I’ve mastered golf?” Language is the same way—even your native language.
Have you recently heard an English word you didn’t know or made a grammatical error? I bet it happened more than once today. There may still be errors in this article and that’s after I wrote it and had it edited by a second native speaker of English. Becoming “fluent” is a journey that never ends, so it might not be the right measuring stick for success.
Immersion is the only way. The only way to truly learn a language is to immerse yourself and speak only that language. Intensely. When I moved to Rome we agreed we’d only speak Italian to each other – all the time. At first, it was tough! But you know what? After a couple of weeks we were having full (if halted) conversations in Italian and it was fun! So fun that we still do it.
The most useful benefit of immersion is focus. A 2-month concentration on learning a language (what I call “going all in”) forces you to put new words in context, speak all the time, and really live the language. Your brain processes all the new information, makes more connections, and retains what you learn much more efficiently than the more casual route of taking a weekly tutoring class (aka 1 hour of instruction followed by a week of forgetting practice).
So, if you’re planning a trip and want to get the most out of your experience, consider learning some words and phrases beforehand and practice them as much as you can on the trip. You don’t need to spend hours studying, or wait to talk to people until you know everything. Start having fun with the language on day 1.
Practice daily. Start small and focus on learning something new every day and putting it into practice immediately. If you’re at a grocery store and you don’t know what something is called, ask a stranger. Point to the object and ask in the foreign language what it’s called. Most people are happy to help you out. Then write it down on your list and practice is every time you go back to the store. The more often you practice and make it a habit, the more your brain will retain, which means you’re ready for more.
You’ll make a lot of mistakes. That’s okay. It’s part of learning. Speaking a language you just started learning takes humility, and being willing to feel like a fool will make it possible for you to go out on a limb and speak to people. Acting timid won’t get you anywhere. I’ve been made fun of more times than I can count, but I work to get over myself. When I do, the pace of learning takes off. Losing my own self-consciousness also lets others sense my own ego is a non-issue. Then they’re free to help me learn.
So to review, here are some to do today to get started:
- Write out useful phrases on a 3×5 card and carry it with you. Write down words you don’t know and look up the meanings when you get home, or take pictures of them and use them to make flash cards. Use a flashcard app like Anki or Quizlet.
- Join a club or a language meetup so you can practice speaking. These exist all over the world, so you can practice in your new language before you go, and then after you get there to help others learn English! It’s a great way to meet people who are as interested in languages as you.
- Find a speaking partner to practice with. Let her know correcting your speech is fine. In fact, it’s kind of the point.
- Commit to speaking at a certain time each day.
- Plan a trip or live in a foreign country to get full immersion.
- Speak all the time. Every chance you get, talk to someone in your new foreign language.
- Measure your progress not in time spent, but in mistakes made. Don’t say: I need to practice for 20 more minutes. Do say: I still have 14 mistakes to go!
- Don’t be intimidated. Have fun and enjoy the journey.
Don’t stress. Learning a language is fun! If you do it right, you’ll be hooked and won’t be looking for the uscita!
Best of luck and À bientôt / Até logo / Hasta la vista / A Presto!