Teaching Yourself Foreign Languages – 7 Tips and 4 Free Tools

It’s true that English is widely spoken around the globe. So why make the effort to learn another language? Because, it’s a matter of common courtesy to at least make an effort to learn a little of the language of whatever place you’ll be visiting. You are after all a guest. Plus, you’ll reap the benefits of having a grasp of what is going on around you. Besides, do you really want to be one of those Americans?

Fortunately, we have something of a head start, given that at least one of us already has some exposure to Spanish, Italian, French, German, Japanese and Turkish. So we just need to brush up on those (or at least some of them) and add the languages spoken in Southeast Asia. If we end up going to India, no problem – Indians are phenomenal linguists. The country has 22, yes twenty-two, official languages. And more than 19,000 unofficial ones.

Four (Free) Tools for Dabbling in a New Language

So how do we go about learning a new language outside of a classroom? As you might expect under the circumstances, we rely heavily on audiobooks, podcasts and online programs. Duolingo is an app disguised as a game that will help you learn to read and speak a new language. There is a free and paid version. We’ve only tried the free version and are just putting up with all of the ads.

For audio only, Paul Noble is a very effective teacher. He uses the essential tool of repetition in a very creative and interesting way, so it doesn’t become tedious. When you are listening to his audio books you will be pushed to learn more content and just when your brain gets saturated he’ll bring you back to familiar territory. We checked our copy out through our library using Overdrive.

Podcasts are also wonderful learning aids that will expose you to native speakers. And Google Translate is a great tool to have in your pocket for guidance before and during your trip — though you should always check its translations with a reverse translate, since it sometimes produces some awkward wording. An even better choice is nicetranslator.com. (We have no affiliations.)

Here are a 7 tips for making language learning fast, fun, and effective.

1. Don’t get bogged down in grammar.

Traditionally, language courses have placed heavy emphasis on grammar. And that’s a pity, because many if not most students find grammar excruciatingly dull. So instead, why not learn the way natives do when they’re growing up with a language: pick up useful words, phrases and sentences, and acquire grammar organically as you correct your mistakes. (Grammar becomes more important, of course, as you advance to a higher level of proficiency.)

2. Think visually.

When Dennis was studying German in college, he had a wonderful textbook that accompanied German sentences with cartoons that illustrated their meaning, rather than with English translations. It’s important to learn to “think” in a language you’re learning; and you make that harder to do if you try to make word-for-word translations. Instead, visualize the meaning of a sentence or phrase. Rather than write out translations, draw your own cartoons – even if they’re just stick figures. Label objects in your home with their names in the language you’re learning.

3. Think humorously.

One of the cartoons in that German textbook illustrated a sentence meaning “I’ll pick you up at 7:00” by showing a clock with hands at 7:00, next to one of the characters in the dialog literally picking up the other character. It got a laugh. And it got results. The funnier, the sillier, the more absurd you can make it, the more likely you are to remember it.

4. Activate Yourself

It’s unfortunate that the default posture for students in a classroom is sitting down. Because that’s just about the worst possible position for learning. You absorb more if you are engaged in some kind of activity – even if it’s just walking around or standing. We do most of our listening (and talking back) to audio books while taking a walk or exercising.

5. Find cognates.

(What is a cognate, one may ask? Again – don’t get bogged down by grammar. A cognate is a word that looks or sounds very similar in more than one language. That’s because both words have the same origin or one is derived from the other.)

Spanish has a great many English cognates. For example, familia is almost the same as family. But beware of false cognates. You might expect that sopa would mean soap and ropa would mean rope; but they actually mean soup and clothing, respectively. You’ll even find cognates in some languages that are radically different from English, such as Japanese. Boifurendo means just what it sounds like.

6. Use cognates as launching pads.

Once you find a cognate, learn a phrase or sentence using it. This speeds up learning new vocabulary, and may also teach you a thing or two about grammar in the process. For example, the Turkish word for bathroom is tuvalet which is pronounced almost like toilet . So now you’re ready to learn a very crucial phrase: “Tuvalet (or tuvaleti) nerede?” (Where’s the bathroom?) Not only will you better remember that important word nerede, but you’ve also been tipped off that Turkish generally doesn’t use articles (a, an, the), and that Turkish word order can be very different from English word order.

7. Practice with a native speaker.

What’s that? You don’t know any native speakers? That’s very easy to remedy if you have access to the Internet. Just go to conversationexchange.com and find one or more tutors – absolutely free! It’s always easy to find people who are eager to learn English. And if you help them do it, they’ll gladly help you learn their own language. Additionally, you’ll pick up inside information about the culture of the country you’re visiting and tips for what to do there; and you just might make a friend that you can meet up with when you get there.

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