I’ve always loved the idea of speaking a foreign language. They mystery, the intrigue, not to mention the romance. The reality of it, however–long classes, repetitive flashcards, difficult conjugations–was less than appealing. That is until I met my foreign beau-turned-fiance from Bosnia. I’m all about merging the cultures, and what I clearly lack in the kitchen (homemade borek? Yikes!), I’m trying to make up for on the language front. Learning a foreign language is not something that comes naturally to me (you should have seen my beginner attempts at French!), but like anything, I firmly believe that if there’s a will, there’s a way. Here’s my guide to learning any language, even if Rosetta Stone hasn’t picked it up yet.
1.) Sign up for a class. I was initially trying a do-it-yourself approach to learning Bosnian, when I quickly realized that my progress wasn’t where it should be. Call it lack of structure, but I thrive in an environment that holds me accountable for my progress. With a language as uncommon as Bosnian, it was a little tricky finding a class, but I finally came across the Cactus Language School that offers courses right here in NYC. My teacher has buckets of patience, and the intimate learning environment of only 3 students has been a huge perk. Or if solo learning while sitting in your pj’s is more your thing, you can find a program that offers distant learning via Skype. I tried out the International Bosnian Language Course and loved the affordable pricing and the flexibility with scheduling. Also check out CourseHorse’s language classes, which allows you to narrow in on the language of your choice, and then compare all different types of classes offered throughout the city. Brilliant stuff!
2.) 400 words. Learning a language is not about the quantity of words you know, necessarily, rather the quality of words you know to be able to communicate. Studies have shown that there are roughly 400 words that are used most commonly in every day language…so rather than wasting your time memorizing phrases that will rarely come into practice (i.e. “Imam malu smedu psa s velikim usima”, because who really needs to know that “I have a little brown dog with big ears”?), spend your time wiser. I started by making a list of the top 20 words I use in every day conversation in English, and translated them into Bosnian. Get crazy with post-it notes. Label everything in your house so you have constant visual stimulation. Sketch pictures of the words that will help trigger your memory. Use mnemonic devices. Create silly jingles and record yourself singing, then add it to your playlist. Hey, whatever works, right? Once you have those words committed to memory, pick 20 more, and so on. (Note to reader: When creating my first list of 20 words, dog/chihuahua actually did pop up. Love that little guy…just saying.)
3.) Download a free program from Byki. While Rosetta Stone may not have every language available to download quite yet, Byki sure does. And even better…it offers a free (and quite comprehensive) sample of the program! If you find you enjoy it, a whole program can be bought for a fraction of the cost of Rosetta Stone, and comes with audio downloads so you can learn your new language on the go. While the structured classes at Cactus help me master the grammar and composition piece of learning a language, Byki is my best friend when it comes to expanding my vocabulary. Bonus: I get to hear the native speaker repeating words over and over again, helping to improve my less than perfect (okay, horrendous) Bosnian accent.
4.) Make a new friend. There are a plethora of pen-pal services that will connect English speakers to people all over the world, such as Conversation Exchange. Through this site, you can easily connect with native speakers, and practice both written language skills through emails, snail mail, and instant messenger services, as well as oral language skills through Skype. Not to mention, when you finally get to visit your country of choice, you’ll have a new friend waiting to meet you! I’ve used this opportunity to bond with my future mother-in-law by conversing back and forth via texts and emails in the mother language…she’s an excellent source of encouragement, and a little bonding never hurt!
5.) 15 minutes a day. Like most things in life, if you push too hard, you’ll burn out quickly. On the contrary, if you do nothing at all, you’ll learn nothing quickly. I’ve found sticking to the practicing-for-15-minutes-a-day-rule has kept me from getting bored and frustrated, but assured that I’m picking up at least one new word a session. As New Yorkers who spend an absurd amount of time commuting on subways and buses, this allots us the perfect piece of time to practice, without putting a dent into the rest of the day.
I’d love to hear from all you bilingual folks out there! What tried-and-true language learning tips do you have?
By: Jessica Tiare Bowen