Like a lot of native English speakers, I’m pretty lazy when it comes to learning foreign languages. The temptation to get by using English is always there.
I studied French and German at high school for a couple of years, but I can’t speak them now. When I was studying at school, I wasn’t convinced about the usefulness of studying another language. Everyone speaks English these days, right?
Once I started travelling, I realised how much more you can enjoy your travels if you speak a little bit of the language.
I did a homestay in Guatemala to learn Spanish. For English speakers, Spanish is one of the easiest languages to learn quickly. It’s easy to get to a stage where you can make yourself understood, even if you are making lots of grammatical errors.
Before I moved to Japan, I assumed that if you lived for a year in another country that you’d be able to speak the language pretty well. That’s not necessarily the case if you have to speak English all the time at your workplace (as many English teachers do). I lived in Japan for 4 years and I slowly studied the language. I can speak okay conversational Japanese, but I can’t understand Japanese movies without subtitles.
Japanese uses a number of writing systems, including kanji, based on Chinese characters. It’s not exactly the most practical writing system, but it does have a certain beauty and elegance. The history of how the characters developed is also interesting. For example in ancient China, farmers wanted their sheep to be big. This is reflected in the origins of the character for beautiful:
Sheep (羊) + Big (大) = Beautiful (美)
(You need Asian character support to be setup on your PC to see the characters above).
Before I visited Russia, I familiarised myself with the Cyrillic alphabet. It’s a lot easier than trying to learn kanji. I just wanted to learn enough so that when I was in Moscow I would know I would be in for a long train ride if I got on a train going to Владивосток.
One of the most useful tools for learning languages are flashcard programs that use spaced repetition.
They’re much more efficient than paper flashcards. You grade yourself on how well you can recall the answer and the more trouble you’re having remembering vocabularly, the more often the program asks you that question. It really speeds the process of learning and remembering vocabulary. They are especially useful to have on your smartphone, so that you can practice when you have a few spare minutes.
Anki is a great free program.
If you don’t practice languages, it’s easy to forget them.
Reading, writing, and watching TV shows and movies in a foreign language are all good practice.
Finding a language exchange partner can be really useful.