Building an Environment that Teaches You a Language

I once read about a Hungarian woman who worked as an interpreter during the Cold War. She knew sixteen languages, including Russian and Chinese, most of which she taught herself reading novels and watching movies in those languages. This woman obviously had a great interest in learning languages and was born with or developed a knack for it otherwise she wouldn’t have gone to all of that trouble. I think that it is wonderful that language learning is so much more accessible today than it was fifty, or even twenty years ago. While language learning consists of lots of different techniques and strategies, one that bears special mention is that of creating an environment that will teach you the language naturally.

If You Have Access to the Internet You Can Learn a Language

There are a huge number of free or low cost resources online to learn foreign languages. One of my favorites is www.polyglot-learn-language.com. The accounts are free. Once you sign up and identify what languages you want to learn it automatically finds video lessons on youtube.com that will teach you the language and it will make a list of software programs that you can buy to help you learn it. The site has a huge forum where you can post and ask to find a pen pal or a “language exchange partner.” People can then respond to your post, or you can respond to their posts, and then you can pick and choose people that you want to practice your language with online either on Skype, MSN Messenger or at language exchange meetings/parties. All for free! The site also includes a chat room where people from all over the world come to practice many languages. I have seen English, French, Turkish, German, Dutch, Arabic, Russian, Romanian, Italian, Portuguese and a few languages that I couldn’t identify in that chat room. It’s a lot of fun and closely monitored so the conversations don’t become obscene or perverse as they often do in other chat rooms. I have personally used www.polyglot-learn-language.com to find language exchange partners for Portuguese and Mandarin Chinese and it has been a lot of fun and very beneficial.

Some other free, or reasonably priced, websites are www.lingq.com, www.spanishpod.com, www.chinesepod.com and www.frenchpod.com. Their basic services are all free and very effective at teaching you a wide variety of languages. They all provide free podcasts that you can put on an MP3 player. That way you can take the language anywhere you want to go. I’ve been using www.chinesepod.com for almost a year and I really like it.

Ebay, Amazon.com and other online stores can be a wonderful resource for finding books, CD’s and DVD’s in your target language for a reasonable price. You can also find actual textbooks online. While looking for a good textbook in Mandarin, I found one that I could use one for free at www.wikibooks.org.

Make Your Community a Resource

Using the internet is great but there are more things that you can do. The library is a wonderful resource. Even if your local library doesn’t have the materials you want, as may be the case if you want to learn not so common languages like Serbian or Gujarati, make sure you ask the librarian where you could find them or find more of them. Universities often have good resources that you can use for a modest fee.

The world community is quite small these days. Most of us live in cities, or near cities, that have sizeable expatriate or immigrant populations. Look for them online or just let yourself wander to those parts of town. They have stores, festivals, parties, sports leagues and religious congregations that are all in the language that you are looking to learn. Make new friends and get involved. Many of them will be excited that you are interested in their language and culture and will be very helpful and encouraging.

Dry Learning

Using the internet, movies, local library and local “ethnic” communities can help you recreate your environment to learn a language through exposure to it but a certain amount of word lists, flash cards, grammar lessons and dictionary searches is unavoidable. Be careful not to make this the main focus of your learning because it’s artificial and often discouraging. Let this just be complimentary to you actually interacting with the language in different ways that are more real and natural.

Get Out of Your Comfort Zone

Millions of us live in nice, comfy little monolingual bubbles which is why we never learn to speak anything other than our native language. In this case, you can’t let your environment teach you unless you change it. Listen to your podcasts, read your books and meet new people who speak your target language, and hopefully very little of your native language. Do it often, repetition is a wonderful school teacher. If at first all you can do is go to a Chinese New Year Celebration and have a very basic conversation with a dozen people, that’s great! Don’t be lazy and slip into your native language. Push yourself a little. Listen to them speak to each other and see how much you can pick out. If you don’t understand everything, that’s okay. If you don’t speak 100% correctly, that’s okay too. The more you try and the more observant you are the better you will get.

Giving Credit Where Credit is Due

Although the words of this post are my own I have to admit that they are heavily influenced by two great language learners and teachers: Stuart Jay Raj and Steven Kaufmann. Letting your community teach you the language is an idea that I got from Stuart and many of Steve’s ideas about enjoying the language are quite manifest in this post. I willingly acknowledge that I have been standing on their shoulders for the past year as I have been tackling Mandarin Chinese. Thanks guys.

4 Responses

  1. One thing that is still true after all these technological advancements is that you can’t make progress without putting forth EFFORT. Glad to see your efforts are paying off.

    Thanks for the link to ChinesePod!

  2. John: Yep, no substitute for hard work. ChinesePod is great, you guys do good work. I’m also a fan of your website and, you may have noticed, have a link to it as well here on the blog.

  3. While I definitely get discouraged with my language studies at times, I think it is because I make excuses as to why I do not speak Spanish more fluently. First, I know that there are plenty of Spanish-speakers in Boston, but I have not yet tapped into my community as a resource. The amount of “dry learning” that I undertake is significant, so I know that I need to step out of my comfort zone and do some “intercambios,” because ultimately it will expose me to the target language and force me to apply my oral skills in that language. I will definitely try polyglot-learn-language as well. Thanks!

  4. I am learning Catalan and I agree that the amount of resources now available on the internet is fantastic. The one thing that was missing for me was a decent organised way of making notes on what I am learning, including the audio. So I made a program to do it: ‘My Language Notebook’ (www.mylanguagenotebook.com). It is Free and it can be used to make notes for learning any language. Users can also share their notes if they want via the site.

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