The Goal: Learn A New Language

I have a dream of traveling the world, making new friends, and being able to speak to them in their native language…


But learning a second language can be tough!  I suspect you don’t have the option of moving to another country or taking a full time immersion course… so here are some pointers to get you started:

Step 1: Define Why

The first thing you need to do is to identify why you want to learn to speak the language.  This will identify the types of vocabulary you most need, and will also help you get motivated to do what it takes to learn.

Step 2: Allocate Time

You will need to determine how much time you can devote to your study, and what it will be most important to learn to prioritize your time.  In general 15 minutes a day is better than 3 hours every 2 weeks – small daily steps will improve your skills the fastest.

Step 3:  Build Vocabulary Quickly

Fast Fluency:  my reading says that a person will be perceived as fluent in a language with a vocabulary of approximately 2,500 words (and the ability to properly use those words in a sentence).  If your goal is to communicate in specific types of situations the vocabulary needed would be less, perhaps considerably less.  So, if you want to get out there and communicate – come up with a clear objective in terms of the people you wish to speak with and the topics you will need to be able to discuss, and focus on learning the appropriate vocabulary for that purpose.  You can always expand once you are fluent in a particular focused area, and while you are expanding you are also meeting your goals in communication!

A quick way to begin building the specific vocabulary you need is to locate reading passages which relate to your objective.  Initially they should be relatively short and simple – make it easy on yourself, you will progress quickly!  For example, if you are going on a trip to Spain, you might locate a travel guide written in Spanish about the various places you wish to visit.  If you are teaching children, locate a book written in Spanish about a favorite character or activity.  Often you can find materials needed at the library.

Once you’ve located the material, start with a short section.  This should be something manageable, not intimidating.  Remember, you will progress quickly, don’t push too hard at first because that will discourage you.

Then follow these steps:

• Make flash cards for all vocabulary and verbs

• Read story and answer questions (you can make up questions as you go)

• Review / drill with flash cards on vocabulary and verbs

• Read out loud, to improve pronunciation skills (with some sort of feedback if possible)

Once you are comfortable with the passage – select another one and do it again!

Step 4:  Develop Your Own “Instant Immersion” Plan

There’s a lot of discussion around “immersion” when it comes to learning languages.    If you want to learn to speak another language you will need practice listening and speaking in the language, but travel to a foreign locale or purchase of an expensive software package are not required.

There are a lot of ways to get that sort of experience, and most of them are Free, no software required.

Also keep in mind that, while it is great to listen to native speakers and have them critique your speech, children do not speak perfectly when they start and neither will you.  Speaking well in a language takes time and experience, and there is not a problem with learning now and then improving your pronunciation later as you have more chance to interact with native speakers (because you have enough vocabulary to carry on a conversation!).

Here are ways to “immerse” yourself:

  • Tutor:  A tutor can be a more expensive way to go, but also has the advantage of setting up conversation practice at a time convenient to you and on a topic you choose.  You can hire a professional who will come with a full curriculum and materials, or find a native speaker in high school locally who’s willing to have a conversation with you after school.
  •  Language class: Language classes are available for just about any audience in just about any area.  A good place to start is with the catalog of a local junior college.
  • Language club: Many areas have local language clubs.  Generally with these groups you will all meet at a restaurant on a regular basis.  Most have a member assigned to prepare a speech on a topic, and then members have conversation practice in the target language.  If you don’t find one in your local area you may be able to set up one using craigslist or meetup.
  • Exchange with native speaker: This can be something you set up with a native speaker who wants to learn English – or can be as simple as asking your existing babysitter to speak her native language to you or the children.
  • Story time: Many libraries will have bilingual story times you can attend.
  •  Foreign language videos: There is a wide variety of language teaching videos available.  You may find some good options available at your library or on Netflix if you are not ready to purchase one.
  • Videos in a foreign language: By this I mean, turn on an alternate audio track of DVDs you already have and love.  We occasionally watch our favorite programs in Spanish – we already know what will happen which helps with understanding – and I cracked up along with the kids when we watch the Dora Spanish audio (with Tico saying “faster…slower…” in English!)
  •  Cable channels: You will find quite a variety of options here, from talk shows to soap operas to kid programs.  A word of caution though, you cannot just use it as background noise – you will need to focus in and try to understand to improve your skills.
  • CDs– with songs, stories, or language lessons:We have a wide variety of these types of materials.  Our favorites are the Adventures with Nicolas books with CD and a CD of children’s songs we recognize (Wheels on the Bus for example) sung in other languages.
  • Software: Many software programs are available with native speakers giving vocabulary words or phrases.  If Rosetta Stone is in your budget I have been impressed with their voice recognition software which gives you feedback on how well you are pronouncing words compared with a native speaker.  On the other end of the scale computer programs are available on for a little as $10.  Since you are looking for a chance to listen to native speakers rather than a full curriculum you have a lot of flexibility in your selection.  These programs can also be useful for building your vocabulary in specific areas, since many of them are broken into categories like “colors”, “time”, etc.

Step 5: Keep going!

Keep working on it every day!

What Do You Think?