Learning a foreign language to relative competence is achievable in under one year. With the availability of worldwide interactive media and new developments in free software anyone has the capability of becoming fluent in a new language quickly, you just have to know how to start and what to look for. In the past three years I have stumbled upon my own approach to language learning outside a classroom and am now fluent in both Mandarin Chinese and Brazilian Portuguese. I hope to detail what has helped me here:
1.) To build vocabulary at the start, use spaced repetition.
The torrent of incomprehensible input seems daunting when encountering an unfamiliar language. The musical beauty and hidden mysteries of a new tongue are enticing, but how can you deconstruct a flowing river of new language? Start with the building blocks: words and phrases. Using the website Memrise, I was able to build a foundation of 3,000 commonly used Chinese words in a few months. This helped me navigate web pages, menus, street signs and find book/movie content (along with an indispensible pop-up dictionary called Perapera Kun). At this stage I obsessively ran through flashcards gaining ‘mem points’ and contributing entries in memrise’s network of dedicated language learners.. Some people enjoy the SRS system Anki, which can be used on the go with any modern phone or tablet. Although memrise needs an internet connection, I personally found it to be more engaging and effective. There are flashcards for less serious study aims like slang and obscenity, and sets dedicated to lists of most commonly used verbs. I have used memrise to tinker with many different languages, even picking up a few common phrases in Russian and Turkish to impress drinking buddies. Memrise has courses for over 200 languages ranging from Kyrgyz to Choctaw , so you are sure to find a suitable course no matter your language goals.
2.) Read books that you know and love.
In the beginning, reading will be a struggle of constantly looking up new words and phrases, but if you can find a foreign language version of a book you love this hassle can be slightly ameliorated. Context clues and familitarity may lessen your reliance on a bi-lingual dictionary, and reading a book you know you love will encourage you to continue. I never tire of skipping around the profound entries in Meditations by the stoic philosopher king Marcus Aurelius, and since the book is well beyond copyright and famous around the world it is easy to find foreign language versions. I have skimmed through both the Chinese and Portuguese versions, and it is easy to download a free pdf to iBooks and carry it around on my ipad for reading on the bus, at home, or wherever. There are plenty of old books to avoid copyright , among my personal favorites are the Dhammapada (Portuguese version here [PDF], Chinese version here), the Tao Te Ching (Chinese version here, Portuguese version here [PDF]) , and Nineteen Eighty-Four (Chinese version here, Portuguese version here [PDF]). But in many countries copyright on the internet is not well protected, and someone allegedly found multilingual versions of popular modern-day books like the Harry Potter novels and Stephen King’s works. Even technical manuals on computer programming, linguistics or mathmatics can be found through a quick search. Once you are well read in the language, you will easily find interesting books you’ve never heard of through online research/wikipedia. The options appear limitless.
3.) Watch and listen to foreign language shows.
Podcasts are a way to dive into listening when your vocabulary is semi workable. Jumping into the stream of language and trying to look up new words as they float past can be tiring, but it’s great practice. Your itunes store can easily be changed to another country and you can peruse the hot podcasts or throw some interesting words into the search bar. I have enjoyed the Nerdcast [portuguese] and 坏蛋调频 amongst many others. Try searching for a talkshow on youtube in your target language, or look at the myriad Chinese language video sites like PPTV or VeryCD. Suggestions for portuguese shows include The Noite and Panico na Band. My Chinese suggestions are 非诚勿扰 and 大男当婚。 You can find shows that appeal to you through reddit or google.
4.) Find target language subtitles for movies.
One great thing about learning Chinese is they automatically include Chinese subtitles a lot of the time. For other languages, you can usually find a subtitles file that can be easily linked to a movie download. If I watch a Brazilian movie I will look for brazilian portuguese subtitles, NOT english subtitles. It’s better to hear how they pronounce the words on screen than understand the meaning. You can look in your electronic dictionary if you want to know a word. Watch the same movie two or three times and you’ll start to pick up lots of language.
5.) MEET PEOPLE WHO SPEAK YOUR TARGET LANGUAGE.
This trick is easier if you already know people who speak your target language. It’s also easier if you live in the country immersion style, but it is still possible to practice speaking with someone if you don’t know anyone or don’t live in the country. Benny Lewis has documented methods for practicing without the need to travel. I learned portuguese in China because I met my girlfriend in a local western bar. Before I met her I had never seriously considered learning portuguese, and had zero connections to Brazilian communities. After meeting her I was in contact with many friendly Brazilian people, and developing relationships with these people pushed me to learn in my free time. Meeting people can be difficult, but it is a skill like any other and can be learned. There are plenty of books on learning sociability, perhaps you can find one in your target language. How to Win Friends and Influence People is bound to be widely translated.
6.) Listen to music while looking at the lyrics
When I first began learning portuguese I listened to Los Hermanos and read along with the lyrics on my iPad, I remember noticing the differences in pronunciation with letters like ‘ti’, ‘de’ and ‘rr.’ This increases your ability to read words out loud as well as understand how to spell words you hear. Just by listening to a groovy tune. Learning is a pleasure! I did the same with many bands in Chinese, and highly recommend finding a Chinese friend to take you to KTV. You can ‘study’ while you throw back a few drinks and sing Backstreet Boy oldies. I loved learning to sing songs by 万能青年旅店 and 汪峰。 I learned some of the guitar parts and knocked out two learning birds with one fun stone.
7.) Use Wikipedia as a key to the portal of multi-lingual research!
Wikipedia is the wormhole to humanity’s collective consciousness. It’s articles range from the orientation of toilet paper to Hegelianism and everything in between. There are wikipedia articles about books, celebrities, movies, scientific theorums, and many of these articles are translated into another language. Do you want to know how to say Slaughterhouse Five in French or Italian? Wikipedia can help you. Then you can google any other information you are looking to find.
8.) Read the news in other languages.
Whether it’s the explosions in Tian Jin or the Olympics in Brazil, crazy things happen everyday. All over the world. Read a short article in your target language about something that intrigues you. Watch a news report. The colorful diversity that exists across the globe is endlessly fascinating. Learning foreign languages means you will no longer be bored.
9.) Enjoy the process.
If you are going to dedicate time to learning a language you need to make it fun for you, whatever that means! Indulge all your guilty habits in the language you are learning. Anything that can be done in your mother language can also be done in your target language. Learning a new language opens doors to entirely new cultures, foods, drinks, dances, songs, movies, etc. Even a book you have read and loved 3 times will take on new shades of meaning and beauty in a new language. Don’t think of looking up new words as a hassle or too time consuming. Every word in a new language has different connotations, subtleties, etymology. You are literally building a different network of understanding inside your brain. Have fun exploring the boundaries of this new understanding, and challenge yourself to see things you’ve never imagined!