Why is it that certain people seem to pick up new languages with ease, while everyone else has to struggle like a normal person? The truth is it has nothing to do with language talent. These people know how to start thinking in their new language from the very beginning, and actively find ways to practice this. So, how do they do it?
Let’s say you’ve decided to learn French. You come to a language meetup, and get up the courage to sit at the French table. Wait a second, you can’t speak French at all! Someone speaks to you, and you have no idea what they said or how to respond. Clearly you’re not ready to start speaking French yet, right?
Wrong! Stick with it. Yes, it’s hard to dive into a language environment where you’re completely new, but it’s the most efficient way you’ll learn to start thinking in that language. The reason is simple: You can do all the preparation and study all the grammar you want, but what you’re really trying to do is learn a language. You won’t start learning how to speak until you start practicing speaking. Humans have an innate capacity to learn new languages, and the way we do it is by immersing ourselves through listening and speaking. Any time you spend doing something else — including mental translation — is almost certainly better spent trying to immerse yourself.
Remember when you were learning your very first language? You probably don’t, but we can assume it involved scenes of your parents shoving things in your face and making various sounds. At first you didn’t understand these sounds they were making, but over time you learned to associate them with particular things being shoved in your face. You learned to associate the word “water” with the clear, tasteless liquid, and the word “pizza” with that round, flat thing that always burns the roof of your mouth.
For adults, the biggest challenge of learning a language is recreating this situation. In other words, to learn a new language naturally and fluently, first we need to learn how to become language infants again. Fine, but how? Here are some tips to get started:
I. Speaking from zero 從零開始
- Mimic. Even if you can’t say a single word, you already have a great resource in the people around you. By mimicking what you hear others saying, you’ll start to get an impression of the pronunciation and expressions in your new language.
- Use eye contact and facial expressions. Language is all about communication, and nonverbal communication often conveys even more than words. For instance, even if you don’t know how to say “I don’t understand” in French, you can always raise your eyebrows and shake your head to communicate the same thing. The other person might ask you “you don’t understand?” in French, and then you’ll know how it’s said.
- Use props, or pen and paper. Even if there’s no pizza nearby to point to, you can always draw a picture. Use pictures to express yourself, and watch as native speakers feed you the words you need to know.
- Accept your current level. No one was born being able to discuss their plans for the weekend, let alone politics. Don’t feel bad if all you can say is “bonjour, comment ça va?” Simple stuff is important too. And if the topic is clearly beyond your level, don’t sweat it. It’s perfectly fine to sit it out once and a while. We’ll share more useful tips in part 2 to help you get there.