5 psychological tips to help you learn languages more quickly
It was a beautiful Spanish spring day. I sat in a café in a small southern village, the light lazily playing on my face as it filtered through intertwined branches above. The smell of fresh oranges wafted on the warming breeze and a church bell sounded from the other end of the valley. Then something amazing happened.
I was the only native English speaker but suddenly, without even trying, I could understand what two women at a nearby table were saying:
"Ella le dijo que le gustaba," said one, the darker woman. "She told him she liked them."
"¡Pero tenemos nuestras diferencias!" said the blonde one curtly. "But we have our differences!"
For the first time without effort, the meaning was clear to me! I had spent months teaching myself the rudiments of the language and now, sitting there relaxed, I had experienced Spanish as naturally as if I'd been listening to English.
The right mind for language learning
Learning any language needs practice, of course. Vocabulary, grammar, and correct accent all need to be learned in a class (or better yet, in the country itself). The tips here are intended to maximize your mindset to relax with your language learning.
The idea is to get you feeling confident that you can absorb your chosen language quickly and speak with fluency.
Learning to understand native speakers (and actually being understood by them) is one of the greatest confidence-boosting pleasures. If you're learning a language right now, then let these tips help you feel confident that yes, you can do it.
For better language learning:
1) Forget the past
As a child and teenager, I felt I just couldn't learn foreign languages, but I have really enjoyed learning Spanish and French in recent years. It feels so different now.
Forget about school day language learning. Your adult brain is very different to the undeveloped school class brain that, perhaps, struggled with French or tussled with Spanish.
Think about the differences in why you are learning your language now. But also...
2) Remember the past
That's right. Think about how you learned your mother tongue. You learned thousands of words almost by 'osmosis': just by absorbing, not even thinking about it. Seek to learn new languages in a similar way to how you learned your own. Relax. Don't always try to remember; just immerse yourself in the language and...see what happens.
This doesn't mean that you should swap proper organized study for the immersion method but you can certainly complement any classes you take with renting a movie in the language you're learning; switch off the subtitles and just focus on enjoying the visuals without even trying to understand. Close your eyes and imagine a flower opening to the sunlight; take a few seconds to imagine that flower as your mind – opening and preparing to 'receive' the language.
3) Discipline yourself to learn
Relaxing to absorb a language is key on one level. But you also need to discipline yourself to study. Write down how many hours you intend to study each week and stick to it.
The Swiss explorer Johann Burckhardt, the first westerner to travel into Mecca back in the 19th century, had to learn Arabic perfectly (detection as a non-Moslem could have meant death for him). Not surprisingly,for many months he spent four hours every morning before the Sun came up learning the basics of Arabic grammar. I'm not suggesting you go to these lengths, of course, but we can learn from people who have such powerful work ethics.
4) Hang round with language geeks
Sorry, I don't mean 'geeks', just people who are really good at picking up languages. Just hang out with them, don't even try to study with them. Why? It seems that hanging out with people who are very, very good at something can have a 'rubbing off' effect on you. The old medieval apprentice system was as much about absorbing attitudes – a certain 'Je ne sais quoi,' shall we say – as learning the trade itself.
Get to know great language learners, now and then just asking, "How do you say ... in French?" or "If I wanted to ask someone, 'When is a good time to visit?', how would I say that?" Being around people who are great at something means we can start to consciously (and also unconsciously) 'model' their talents.
5) Visualize yourself speaking fluently
This may seem strange but can be amazingly compelling. Close your eyes when you are feeling particularly relaxed and imagine watching yourself on TV with the sound turned down. Imagine seeing yourself in the country in which the language you are learning is widely spoken. Now visualize yourself (still with the sound down) speaking that language fluently with some of the locals (or maybe with one particularly attractive person J). See yourself gesticulating, laughing, speaking easily, and listening; doing this regularly can make you feel more confident about starting to speak your chosen language naturally.
Or let me do it for you by clicking on the free audio below.
Learning languages adds new dimensions to who you are. Some languages have words for things that other languages don't; meaning we can describe in one language what is indescribable in another.
And as no less a person than Charlemagne once said (if I interpret rightly), "To have another language is to possess a second soul."
Suddenly aware of my astonished eavesdropping (I think I was even craning toward them), the two Spanish ladies at the open air café had glared at me; but I didn't care. For me it was an epiphany. I'd never thought of myself as a linguist; this was wonderful!