For many of us, the start of the new year is the time we often dust off our language dictionaries and workbooks and resolve to learn a new language. We conjure up dreams of communicating seamlessly with locals during our next trip and impressing our friends with newfound skills. But most of the time, as we get caught up in work and life, our plans get shelved along with our books.
But the truth is, learning a language shouldn’t be a chore. After all, reading, listening, and chatting with others are all great, enjoyable activities, and learning should be, too. And it also can be easy—if you approach it in a fresh way.
So put down the books, and try one of these other ways of learning a new language. You’ll have the basics down pat before your next trip.
1. Learn as if You’re (Really) Young
When I start to learn languages, I often approach it through the eyes of a child. Children’s books and learning materials start with the basics and break them down into small fragments—and when you’re pressed for time, that can be much easier than getting into a dense workbook.
When I first started learning Korean, I learned my numbers in 10 minutes with the Korean Numbers Song. Later, I used children’s books and music videos to help gauge when I was ready to move past an introductory level. When I got to Korea, I gained confidence by speaking to nieces and younger students—they understood my basic words, and I wasn’t so worried about messing up. These conversations gave me the foundation to learn “formal” Korean later.
2. Watch Movies
Before I left for India, I got to know the three Khans—Shurukh, Salman, and Aamir—three of the most popular Bollywood Stars of our time. I immersed myself in their movies and songs, which not only made my ear familiar with the inflection and sounds of Hindi language, but also helped me learn a few basic phrases.
Of course, my first words in Hindi, “Tere naam le ke” (my heart takes your name) didn’t really help me order food or get around Mumbai efficiently. But, because I understood how real Hindi is spoken, as I learned the language, I ended up speaking it fluidly instead of like a robot (as I might from one of those audio-lessons). I also got to bond with my host family about the movies I had seen and the music I liked.
In Thailand and Japan, I learned a lot of basic phrases by studying karaoke songs—and even performing them! While it was embarrassing at first, it did help me practice my language, and also prepare for business situations (where karaoke is a common networking event).
3. Go Shopping
Instead of reading about the local market in your language text, why not just go there? Visit the Chinatown, Koreatown, or other ethnic neighborhood in your city at home, and talk with people to practice numbers, basic words and phrases, and polite formalities. I’ve found that vendors (especially in the U.S.) are always happy to chat with me, and even happier to help correct my language mistakes. It’s a great place to practice a lot of conversation in a short amount of time.
4. Use Technology to Learn Like a Local
There’s no need to invest in expensive software when there are so many free resources and apps out there. With a few downloads and apps, you can get daily updates and lessons, speak with a native over Skype, or have Google hangouts with people who are also learning. I recommend Italki to talk to natives and receive tutoring, Hindipod (for Hindi), and Talk to me in Korean, which has downloadable podcasts and shows. You can also get one-on-one attention with teachers and tutors on some of these sites. In addition, the BBC has great language learning guides, which offer insight into culture and everyday life in other countries.
5. Speak as Much as You Can
The only way language will stick is by speaking and listening often, so take any opportunity you can find to use another language. Talk to friends from other countries, try out an ethnic restaurant and speak to the owners in their language, or join meet-ups of like-minded language learners. Even when I’m at home, I try to speak new words and ask about how things are pronounced correctly in a different language. Remember to work on your accent and tones—one of the best compliments to receive is “your accent is really good!”
Learning a language doesn’t have to be a resolution that gets tabled again—it can be something to embrace in a fun new way. So as you prepare to travel to a new country this year, don’t be afraid to dive into the language. You may not become fluent, but knowing a little bit will go a long way.