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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