My System To Learning A Foreign Language

One thing I noticed with learning Spanish is that if I use a new word once or twice in a real conversation, it sticks in my head for months. Even simple words I’ve memorized like “church” or “bucket” fade from memory since I never use them.

So that got me thinking about the most effective way to learn a language, and I stumbled on something that has worked for me in Portuguese.

First, only learn words that you frequently use in your native language.

If you’re studying a resource and it has a word that you haven’t used in English during the past month, don’t even bother writing it down. The most effortless way to learn a language is to only study words that you will use soon in conversation because that helps commit it to memory. If you’re not exposing yourself to what you’re studying then it will never stick.

With Portuguese I first started with 200 basic words that I wrote on notecards. With each notecard I wrote the English version on one side and the Portuguese on the other. I studied by looking at the English word and then guessing the Portuguese word. This is what I have been doing with Spanish since the beginning, but I did one little extra step with Portuguese that is making a big difference: I made up a sentence using that word.

Let’s do an example with the Portuguese word for person, which is “pessoa.”

What is a common sentence I use with that word? Well many times I’ve been in a bar or club that was slow, so I’ve said, “There aren’t a lot of people here tonight.”

I know how to say “there,” “a lot” and “people,” but let’s pretend I don’t know the word “tonight.” I look that up and find out it’s “esta noite.” I write that down on its own card.

The next day I get to the “noite” card and then make another sentence I might use. How about: “Where is a good club to go out at night?” I don’t know how to say “club” so I look that up and the next day make another sentence which leads to another new word and another new sentence. Do you see how this works? I’m learning the language in my own words. And since I’ll soon use all these new words I can toss them from my notecard stack after a few days to continually add new ones.

When I’m talking in Portuguese and there is a word I wanted to say but couldn’t, I write that word down right then and there and look it up later, because I know it’s a word I’m going to use. One night months ago a Brazilian was complaining about how some gringos didn’t want to pay a $3 bar cover and I was dying to say “Some of them are cheap” but I didn’t know how to say “cheap.” So I looked it up when I got home and it was etched in my brain ready to use the following night.

The system in a nutshell:

1. Grab basic language resources that teach you the structure of the language and initial words you must know. I recommend a verb book, dictionary, grammar book, and the Pimsleur audio course. Start with the audio course and only move to the books once you get the basic pronunciation down.

2. Make notecards that focus on words you use in your own language. Make up a new sentence on-the-fly for each word.

3. Carry pen and paper everywhere (or have a smartphone) and write down words you wanted to use. Consult a dictionary but also ask locals to nail the pronunciation. You must do this because in just an hour or two you will forget all the words you wanted to look up.

4. Commit for 90 minutes a day. It’s a myth to think you’ll “pick up” the language enough to be conversational in a reasonable amount of time. Unless you’re 5-years-old it’s not going to happen quickly without study.

Study the language in your own words, then go out every day to practice what you learned on the local women. In just a couple months you’ll be able to have basic conversations and communicate a good portion of what you want to say, including your game translated from English.

After that you’ll hit a wall when going from having conversational skill to being proficient, a place where I’m stuck in with both Spanish and Portuguese. Maybe I’ll have some advice about that in the future.

If you liked this post then I think you will like my travel memoir A Dead Bat In Paraguay, about when I quit my job and sold my stuff to try and bang my way across South America. It contains my experiences with South American women and the struggles that crushed me both mentally and physically. Called "refreshing." "honest," and "inspiring," A Dead Bat In Paraguay is available in both eBook and paperback. Check out the homepage to watch the introductory video, read exerpts, or learn more about what's inside.

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  • tommi

    great info mate, rock on

  • Rafael V

    Reading your post, I’ve had a crazy idea that might be useful for completely noobs about the game: flashcards with one side what the girls say and on the other side with what they really mean.

  • EinZeta

    Roosh, what are your thoughts on learning two languages at the same time? (Spanish and Portugese in your case) Would you say it’s easier than one might think, or all the more difficult and possibly easy to mix Spanish and Portugese words up at times? Do you spend 90 minutes a day on each language or divide your time between both languages during that time period?

  • Papillon

    Here’s a solid resource to delve into language learning further:

    http://how-to-learn-any-language.com/e/index.html

    Also, a cheap way to increase your listening comprehension is AM talk radio (when you’re overseas).

  • http://www.thegmanifesto.com The G Manifesto

    Cool system. I will definitely use it when I try to tackle Portuguese.

    “Carry pen and paper everywhere and write down words you wanted to use.”

    This is a rule of life.

    Pen and paper are a must for ideas, languages, master plans, girls phone numbers etc.

    I honestly never leave the house without them.

    - MPM

    The G Manifesto’s last blog post: Mardi Gras: The G Manifesto Way.

  • retired backpacker

    Good pointers. I’ve actually noticed that the whole “liquid courage” factor comes into play. I found that my Portuguese got better when I had a mild buzz, and my conversations flowed with more ease than when sober.

  • redneckpunk

    it’s true, you do speak better when you’re a little loaded, it relaxes your brain and you’re not over thinking, kind of like your muscles move faster when you’re loose as opposed to tight. Another important thing for learning a language is being able to explain your job (not just title), family, daily routine, etc. these are things that will usually come up in a conversation and you can prepare by self-study. Think of questions you would ask a girl, then reverse it as to how you would answer. Now you have questions and answers to things you are interested in or common topics. As far as being proficient, speak the foreign language all day, it’s practice there is no secret.

  • Papillon

    I believe that as many as 70-80% of spanish / portuguese vocabulary are cognates, meaning a bulk of it shared.

    it would be complicated to study both at the same time, and if you’ve learned one well, before taking up study of the other, it can be trip you up sometimes.

    on the other hand, there are study systems for spanish speakers that take this into account, to learn portuguese quickly using the spanish vocab and grammar rules as a base. a competent speaker of spanish should be able to learn portuguese in a few months this way.

  • http://www.pregametime.blogspot.com Willy Wonka

    Decent post Roosh. If I ever feel like attempting to learn Spanish again, this is the way to do it. I’ve been taking Spanish classes since pre-school and I can’t even hold a simple conversation with the Mexicans down the street.

    Willy Wonka’s last blog post: The Grind.

  • Z

    thanks so much for this! i’m currently enrolled in a medical spanish class, and it’s such a joke. my patients are 90% spanish and this system will work great for me, since all I need to know are mostly medical spanish.

  • http://www.matthoss.com Matt Hoss

    Also, for maximum efficiency, it’s best to live in a society where you’re surrounded by the language you want to learn, just like Roosh is doing in South America. Once you’re totally immersed, and speaking English is not an option, the brain adapts.

    I speak four languages fluently due to growing up in six different countries, and I barely remember learning them.

    Matt Hoss’s last blog post: Enjoy the Journey As Much As the Destination.

  • http://ashleyandme.blogspot.com Riff Dog

    Excellent advice. I like the idea of discarding all words you wouldn’t normally use in English either. So obvious, but I never thought of that.

    And of course it’s best to practice on the local girls. Women love a foreigner who seems so cute trying to speak the language.

    Riff Dog’s last blog post: So Who Are You Going to Listen to?.

  • http://gameforomegas.wordpress.com Omega Man

    The trouble I have with Spanish is hearing and comprehending. It’s not as bad with people I know well.

    Omega Man’s last blog post: I’ve Seen Things You People Wouldn’t Believe…….

  • speakeasy

    I’ve been studying a little Portuguese lately. But it’s now screwing with my head when I read Spanish. When I see a Spanish word like “felicidades”. My instinct is to pronounce the last “de” the Portuguese way. It’s like I have turn on a switch in my head to make me forget about Portuguese pronunciations. I bet it will be a mess if I was in a situation where I was having a conversation with a Spanish speaker and a Portuguese speaker at the same time.

  • Anonymous

    Hi Roosh, can you please post an entry about jealousy. I keep comparing myself to this guy, that maybe my girl would go for him instead of me and its driving me crazy. It’s not healthy and I keep comparing. I’m trying to not care but I can’t, I keep comparing myself to him.

  • http://www.thegmanifesto.com The G Manifesto

    “I keep comparing myself to this guy, that maybe my girl would go for him instead of me and its driving me crazy.”

    Are you smoking heavy amounts of chronic?

    - MPM

    The G Manifesto’s last blog post: Mardi Gras: The G Manifesto Way.

  • Lumiere

    There is an excellent iphone /ipod touch app for flash cards

    http://www.thestandard.com/news/2009/08/06/iflash-touch-iphone

  • Jack Me Off Jack

    excellent advice

  • spandrell

    There´s no universal system for learning languages. You just have to find out something that works for you. And find it yourself.

    The only absolutely essential thing is consistency; study for more than an hour every single day. Never skip.

  • Wolf

    Hey Roosh, I study Korean myself- check out an awesome free spaced-repetition flashcard program called Mnemosyne at http://www.mnemosyne-proj.org/

    It’s based on this Czech scientist’s studies into how the brain converts short-term memory to long-term, and basically automatically stores and schedules your flashcards to maximize your learning. Helps me a lot.

  • Quasi

    I think your post is excellent, in my field of research in understanding the brain and memory consolidation. I have only found support in that the “usefullness” or level of relevance is the catalyst determining the outcome, excellent idea with going over them later, that is actually a proven working way, also briefly before sleep should further enchance the consolidation, since it mainly takes place in deep sleep, so havey alcohol drinkers miss out :-) ! or chronic weeds smokers.

  • Life’s a trip

    Flash cards do help commit words to the memory, but you did not mention accent and pronunciation which are CRITICAL for communication…especially when you are not a native speaker. From my own experience finding some local girls who want to practice english and then going back and forth with them in their native language for you and enhlish for their sake will achieve optimal results much faster.

    In my own experience, when I read a word in english and the equivalent word in the language I was studying, I would then pronounce the word with a built in english pronunciation. Accent is tough to get rid of, if even possible, but it is easier to learn the right way the first time than to break a bad habit.

    Young human beings do not learn a language by reading it. They hear words and then attempt to mimic them…

    If you are in a decent-sized town there is likely to be a univeristy nearby, and if there is there will definitely be girls who are studying english…

  • Danny K

    Good post Roosh, interesting system. I speak 5 languages and have never really had a system myself but I’ve always tried to immerse myself in the language. Great idea with the notecards, I can’t emphasise enough how important it is to write down words you think of and need.

    My ways of learning that have always helped me:

    - Watch foreign language films (or target language) in that language and also with subtitles in that language , or watch a series you like if it’s in English and download Spanish subtitles for it.
    - Listening to music in that language – when I was learning Spanish, I used to listen to Juanes a lot, especially good as his accent was clear and helped with my pronunciation – find a style you like and listen to it.
    - Stick it notes everywhere with words
    - Set your homepage to a Spanish page for example mine’s http://www.marca.com because I love sport
    - Put your mobile in Spanish or whatever
    - Put facebook in Spanish

    Just immerse yourself, and soon you will pick up words without trying because you are constantly using the language. You’ll be surprised. But there’s no substitute for practice and living in the country, practice makes perfect.

  • Lika

    I learnt Spanish (and improved my English) with a Franklin Speaking Spanish-English dictionary that I bought in 1996. This is the best investment of my life. It has a flashcard function with 5 difficulty levels. The flashcards game is the best thing I have ever had to build up my vocabulary in both languages.

    I have tried to get something similar on my iphone but I couldn’t find anything good.
    I recently bought the MS dict Spanish-English dictionary (Oxford) which is a great dictionary but it does not have a good flashcards game unfortunately.

  • http://www.jasonargall.com Jason Argall

    Great tip, Roosh. I’ll try it. Being immersed is the biggest help, but it doesn’t do it all. I’ve met many expats who have lived down here for over 5 to 15 years and still only use the infinitive tense of every verb… “El estar aqui pero en el pasado cinco minutos” And they have wives who barely speak English! lol

    Just like Danny K said, watching foreign language movies and listening to music has also helped me a lot. Soap operas too. Don’t worry, pick the right one and the beautiful women will help you live through the cheesiness. You’ll also get good lines for fighting, loving, etc.

    One other tip I can give is to buy gossip mags, fashion mags or Maxim-esque men’s magazines and to read the interviews in them since they all use the common spoken language. Even better is if you can read these out loud to a girlfriend who can quickly define any words you don’t know or correct your pronunciation as she’ll probably be happy to help you communicate better with her.

    Jason Argall’s last blog post: Ogilvy: Amex Helps Travelers Get Lei’d.

  • http://frankfaz.wordpress.com/ FAZ

    I wish I knew this when I was taking German last semester.

    FAZ’s last blog post: On some days, the fish just don’t bite..

  • http://greendroppings.com Simon

    I recommend finding a song that you have heard a few times, loading it up on youtube, and bringing up the lyrics. This helps a lot, will teach you some past and future tenses, and will probably have lots of colloquial verbiage as well. We did this a lot in my formal spanish classes, also with movies.

    Simon’s last blog post: Carnaval in Brazil. What was it like?.

  • Sinnerman

    Have you guys heard of the Michel Thomas method? He works with commonalities, focuses only on conversational language and doesn’t allow studying or memorization. There are full courses available for anything from french to Arabic and for free depending on your internet morality. Here are the rapidshare links for Spanish and Portugese that I found with a quick google search:

    http://rapidog.com/michel-thomas-portuguese-rapidshare.html

    http://avaxhome.ws/ebooks/audio_cd_spanish_with_michel_thomas.html

  • Russ

    I learned to speak fluent Spanish (I can speak it on the phone) in two years and I used a system almost identical to Roosh’s. His advice is golden. 90 mins a day is key.

  • Mario

    Hey Roosh, do you want help? I’m Portuguese (not Brazillian, mind you.)

  • Banter

    The secret is you have to pay to get good at any language.

    These materials gets you talking to the 5th grade level, at most. After that, you would need a maestro to refine your speech, which involves technical grammar lessons and pronunciation.

    Having a good vocabulary helps.

  • http://exhibition-camillianhome-kiara.weebly.com free spanish course online

    Hi there, You have done an incredible job.
    I will certainly digg it and personally suggest to my friends.
    I am sure they will be benefited from this website.

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