gibberish · travel

Creative Ways to Learn a New Language

Have you tried every app, book, site or workshop out there, and still feel like you’re butchering your target language whenever you speak? I’ve been there, feeling like I should apologize to every native speaker for forcing them to listen to my atrocious interpretation of their own tongue, even after months of taking classes.

So you’ve hit a plateau. This might actually be where things get interesting. If the old formulas no longer work, then it may be time to set your sights on the unconventional, to take approaches you’ve never tried before. Reframing your mindset might just be what you need to send the gears whirring again, to rewire your brain to finally make that new language stick. I’ve got a few ideas — shall we start rewiring? 

1.) Karaoke your way to polyglot glory.

Finally, earworms serve a purpose! There’s a reason why your kindergarten teacher always made you sing your nursery rhymes — it really lets not only words, but as well as their order, stick in mind. LyricsTraining is a cool tool which uses music videos to gamify the learning process: you pick a language, a song and the level of difficulty, and as the music video plays, you have to type in the missing words from the lyrics. Your listening (or lip-reading) skills are sure to level up, without you being bored to death. Plus, since lyrics tend to repeat themselves, you’ll find that several sentences and expressions that will be stuck playing in your head for the remainder of the day. Listen to enough boy-band songs, and you may already be building your killer arsenal of pick-up lines; you never know when these lyrics will come in handy.

2.) Translate something you’ve written before from your native language to your target.

This was one of the most effective exercises for me to find my “German voice”. For someone who can blabber in English to no end, I would dread having to write in German, since it took herculean efforts for me to (1) try to compose my thoughts for a meaningful answer, while (2) scrambling to find the right words & expressions to say them in German. Now, what if we get rid of the first hurdle? This simple exercise just goes like this:

  1. Print out several blog posts, essays, journal entries or even emails you’ve written before.
  2. Get another sheet of paper and translate them into your target language. Try to not use any translation tool like a dictionary at first, so that you force yourself to express yourself with the words you already know (ex. use analogies, etc.).
  3. Have it checked by a native speaker, or use a translation app to cross-check.
  4. Take note of the phrases/sentences which you missed to translate, as well as the mistranslated words. Review these and repeat steps 1-4, and then try again to write something in your target language from scratch.

Step 1 removes the pressure of having to tame your incoherent thoughts into comprehensible text — what you have is an article which you were totally happy with at one time and is a pure product of your thought process. Translating these allow you to re-express thoughts that flowed naturally from you. Now, you’re not so overwhelmed from forcing yourself to think in a yet unfamiliar voice. What you’ll find is that you tend to start off and wrap up your sentences or paragraphs in a certain way, and once you know the foreign language counterparts to doing these, then the writing flows just a bit easier. The next time you have to write something in your target language, you already have a framework of how to do so, genuinely with your own words.

3.) Talk to yourself.

If you’re struggling to find a sparring partner to practice your target language with, why not look in the mirror? After all, you literally spend the whole day with yourself, so it’s definitely going to be convenient. Try to say out loud your thoughts or things that you see around you (ex. Die Stau ist unglaublich! -The traffic is unbelievable!, Meine linke Socke ist anders von meiner Rechte! – My left sock is different from my right!) More often than not, you’ll get to discover new words that you can probably use in your day-to-day. The goal is to condition your brain to start thinking in your new language whenever a new thought pops up. It could also help just to hear yourself reading something in your new language out loud, like news articles. If you’re feeling like it, have full blown conversations with yourself! The next time someone strikes up a conversation with you in your target language, then you may have already rehearsed your lines. If the whole thing still feels a bit odd, it may help to pop your earphones on (to make like you’re in a call), or even to talk to your or someone else’s pet (Now who’s a good boy? Du!).

4.) Learn to deliver a handful of killer jokes in your target language.

I’ve always thought that I’d know I’m fluent when I can be funny in a certain language. A good joke is always short, witty, and able to elicit a response — just like any well-delivered message. Pick up a joke book and try to understand how the locals would go about setting the scene, describing events and delivering the punch line to their friends. Select shorter jokes, so it would be easy to learn them by heart. Next, learn how to deliver them properly. If you dish it out and you get back a laugh, then you precisely know you’ve successfully done your job. Plus, jokes are a great icebreaker, so you might just gain some new friends to practice your new language with!

5.) Aim to make at least 20 mistakes a day.

When it comes to language learning, the only man who doesn’t make mistakes is the man who doesn’t try. Setting a target mistake count makes sure you’re trying more often than usual to express yourself in your target language. Also, having an aim of “failing” is kind of a win-win situation, don’t you think? It certainly relieves me of the pressure to be perfect at first try, and just lets me enjoy finding out how far I can push my ability. If you don’t have a speaking partner, record yourself and then have someone check it. For me, writing a page per day is a surefire way to hit my mark. The best thing is that next time, when it comes to show time, I already know how to correct myself before making the same mistakes again. Set your target at first to 20, then 50, then 100 — the sky’s the limit! In time, you’ll find that it’s actually getting harder to stumble along the way and you’re finally getting fluent!

Do you have more creative suggestions on how to learn a language? What methods have worked the best for you? Please do share them in the comments!


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