How To Learn A Foreign Language

How To Learn A Foreign Language


I went on a trip to Germany when I was 16 years old. I met many teenagers from around Europe and was always surprised by how many languages they could speak.


The girls from Germany spoke, German, English, Spanish, and a little Italian. The Italian girls spoke Italian, English and French. The Serbian guys spoke Serbian, Croatian, English, German, and multiple other Baltic languages.


… And then there was me. I spoke English, English, English, and 5 sentences in Spanish and German.


This is pretty typical for Americans. We don’t learn foreign languages nearly as much as Europeans. We’re lucky if we can say much of anything in Spanish or French after the 6+ years of classes in school.


I wanted to reach outside my culture, yet I’d never taken the time to learn more than a few little words in a foreign language. When I saw so many teenagers easily mastering 3 or 4 different languages, it showed me how much I hadn’t learned up to that point.


Who could blame me? All of my friends had gone through the same language classes as me in grade school, and they hadn’t learned much either! After 6 years I don’t think any of us could have held a conversation in Spanish or French.


The way American schools teach languages is terrible. I’m not going to go into all the reasons why, but you can’t disagree with me. If after 6 years less than 10% of the students can speak Spanish well enough to hold a conversation, we’re doing something wrong.


I’ve got a much better way to learn…




My Spanish teachers tried to work with an ‘immersion’ style, but it didn’t work. They had 45 minutes per day, 4 days per week. That’s not nearly enough to get my brain immersed in a new language. Years when by and my Spanish vocabulary grew by maybe 40 words per year.


In fact, I only had my first real immersion experience when I went to Spain one summer. I was twice as good at Spanish when I left than when I arrived, and I had picked up phrases I actually needed. (No past participle pluperfect verbs conjugations required) I was only in Spain for 3 weeks but I started to think in Spanish and even dream in Spanish.


As you know, I’m traveling full-time now. I spent the last year in Asia but I had Central America pegged as my next destination. Seeing that this trip would become a reality I picked up learning Spanish again. Being in Asia I mostly looked at vocabulary and practiced alone, but whenever I met someone who spoke Spanish I made an effort to communicate. Still, it was more like Spanish class  than immersion.


And that’s why I’m so excited for the next few months…


I’m Going To Mexico!


This is a big opportunity to conquer a language that I’ve been learning ever since 3rd grade. I can stay as long as I want, and if my experience in Spain is a predictor of the future, I should get way better at Spanish when I’m down there. This trip will be far longer than two weeks!


When you’re actually around people who speak a foreign language it becomes really fun to learn! It’s useful and you can surprise locals. There is nothing more satisfying than trying to express an idea, digging through your head for that missing word, remembering it, and getting a nod of recognition from a stranger who thought you would get stuck.


It feels so great to tie a string of phrases together on the fly and actually have it make sense, or when the conversation gives you a perfect opportunity to use a word you’d memorized that morning. That’s when new phrases get planted into your long term memory and those are the moments when you really feel like you’re getting somewhere!


Learning languages is so much fun once you understand a few basic concepts. Having the opportunity to dive in to live in foreign cultures in order to improve your speaking is a real blessing!


Just Another Reason To Consider Becoming A Nomad…


If was was rooted to one spot it would be a big deal to go to Mexico just to learn Spanish. Fortunately, it’s a non-issue for me.


I also want to learn to speak German. Living in Germany for 6 months is also on my radar.


Do you like learning new languages? Where would you live, if you could choose, that would give you a great opportunity to learn? Are you interested in international business, or traveling outside the United States at all? It’s not necessary, but understanding a foreign language will help you out. Do you really want to be that American who can only speak English, like I was in Germany?


It’s your call, but I’m making an effort to get trilingual as soon as possible.