It’s no secret that learning a new language can yield economic benefits. Proficiency in multiple languages presents various opportunities such as, the ability to travel widely and communicate with local people, acquire new knowledge and earn a livelihood. But while the payoffs are clear, it’s also a reality that mastering a foreign language is a lot of work.
I started a career in China at 24 years old. At that point, I was a clueless young American with no knowledge of Chinese culture and unable to speak Mandarin. At the time, it was extremely difficult for me to move up the corporate ladder because I couldn’t carry conversations with colleagues in their native tongue.
It was obvious that a good grasp of Mandarin would help my personal and professional growth. But like many who have tried to build new lives in a foreign country, my road to communicating like a local was no easy task.
In fact, unless you have the ear and patience for it, you can be studying for years without truly becoming fluent.
Good news is —while patience is still key— there are ways (not hacks) to speed up the process.
Below are tips you should try so you can be speaking a new language in no time.
1. Study intensely and frequently.
Louisiana State University’s Center for Academic Success advises that you should dedicate 30-50 minutes studying new material. Brief yet periodic learning sessions are much more efficient than lengthy, infrequent ones.
There is no reward in studying a language half-heartedly for months or years. When I founded BRIC Language Systems in 2010, I made sure that students would be participating in highly focused, interactive and interesting classes that would provide them the most personal attention during each session. For optimal results, we recommend students to take at least 48 classes spread out two to three times per week, for one to one and a half hours per session.
Fluency in a new language is an investment. Needless to say, engaging the services of tutors or enrolling yourself in a program is one of the quickest ways to reach your potential.
2. Take notes by hand…Or by phone.
While learning Mandarin most people said that learning the written language was unnecessary for expats and virtually impossible as an adult. Not so fast my friends, the written language is important and not impossible to learn. I did it using flash cards and traditional learning but also practiced using text messages and email with my friends and colleagues. I never learned to write Chinese characters, only to read and type. This is far easier because to read, you don’t actually need to memorize every stroke of each individual character. You need to be able to recognize characters and combining them in sentence form also gives context.
The same goes for typing which is even easier than reading. To type, you are basically sounding out the words using the romanized version of Mandarin called Pīnyīn. Pīnyīn is how school children in China learn to speak and it is also the written language most use to type on an English keyboard, phone, or tablet. To type 你好, or hello in Chinese, all you need to do is type in “nihao” and the characters appear on the screen as seen in the picture above.
With that being said, an old school pen and paper can boost learning and comprehension better in some situations. According to researchers at Princeton University and UCLA, students who took down notes by hand listened more actively and retained important concepts more effectively, compared to those who mindlessly transcribed during classes.
“We show that whereas taking more notes can be beneficial, laptop note takers’ tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning,” says a Princeton University psychology professor.
While trekking to Everest base camp, I took notes of our adventures each day in Chinese pinyin. It was a tough but fun way to practice Chinese while I was away.
The bottom line…take notes in the language you’re trying to learn, it helps and costs nothing.
3. Learn actively and passively.
While at the classroom, you proactively learn grammatical technicalities and you perform exercises that will improve your writing and speaking abilities. If you’re not behind a desk or a laptop, using flash cards is a cheap, simple and portable technique that can teach you new phrases and definitions without the rigidity of a formal setting. While learning Chinese characters, flashcards were a huge help for me.
Beyond one-on-one tutoring or group classes, you should also be supplementing your efforts while doing regular activities.
An enjoyable way to boost your efforts is watching foreign films with subtitles. It’s an efficient method that not only introduces you to the language, but also lets you discover the country’s culture as well. I can’t tell you how many Chinese friends of mine learned English through watching pirated English language DVDs that weren’t otherwise available on the open market. Watching scenes while reading subtitles helps you better contextualize and imagine how certain words are used in colloquial conversations.
Listening to music is another interesting activity you can do to supplement your learning. You can do it on your commute to work, or while doing your workout or taking a leisurely stroll at the park. Lyrics of foreign language songs can help you expand your vocabulary. You can kick it up a notch by singing the lyrics yourself, and mimicking the way the artists have pronounced the words in the songs on your playlist.
4. Surround yourself with native speakers.
While doing the above language learning methods, you should also keep those conversations going in daily life situations. Mastering the technicalities of a new language is only part of the journey.
If you decided to move abroad, making friends with native speakers in your neighborhood, doing activities outside of the house such as going to the local market, getting a haircut or eating at a café can all compel you to apply what you learned in the classroom into the real world. Hours of awkward and strenuous conversations with a local can motivate you to process, rather than memorize words and phrases in a rigid manner. Actual human and social experiences help you better contextualize and associate words with emotions attached to them.
Now trying all of these tips can seem overwhelming. But once you’re ordering your favorite dish at a hole-in-the wall restaurant in Beijing or São Paulo without using your worn out pocket dictionary, or enjoying a foreign film free of subtitles, you’ll know that all the hard work was worth it.