Sep 18, 2007

One simple trick to master any language

When I was in school, I struggled with the many languages I had to study. Although I knew how to read and write the script, I hardly understood what I was reading - let alone being able to string together anything that made sense. Not surprisingly, I hated the language subjects - except English ie.

It was only later in life I figured the one surefire way to learn any language - and all I can do now is wish I could go back to school and make short work of all those seemingly unsurmountable assignments.

So, what's this trick? Just watch the TV news in the language you're trying to learn, every single day for 2 to 3 months. And that's all you'll need to do.

When I share this with others, most people instinctively react that it won't be enough. They suggest maybe one has to supplement it with books and audio tapes - and probably even a tutor. It can't be as simple as listening to gibberish all day - how do we find out what the words mean and more importantly, how do we know where one word ends and the next begins? And what about grammar?

But each one of us - as a child - learnt at least one language by listening to it all day , whether we understood it or not. And that's our mother tongue. We didn't need phrasebooks, audio tapes or crash courses for that. We listened to all of it - trying to understand and grasp it through the context. We used and practiced what little we knew and used that to understand some more and then some more.

When we become adults however, we lose faith in the process. The need to control the learning process takes over. We need to have specific starting points, we need to make tangible progress, we start tracking how much time and effort we are putting in. And frustration - and the possibility of abandoning the task - is never far away.

By doing away with starting points, any externally imposed tests tracking arbitrary progress, and even an expectation of mastering the language in a given time - this trick ensures that we start concentrating on the language and listening to it.

At first it seems like a steady stream of gibberish. Then some words start standing out. They become familiar though  one might still now know what they mean. Then the context provides a clue. And then you deduce what the adjacent words mean - not getting it right all the time. But if you do made a mistake, soon enough you'll figure out. Soon you'll also develop an ear for the language, ensuring you understand the way words can and cannot fit together.

The trick also works with listening to the language in any form - in a language movie or TV soaps for eg.

But TV news gives you a ready and constantly changing context that you already know (broadly, at least) from the newspapers and from people around you. This makes the assimilation of words and meaning double quick. And in the course of a couple of months - you're very likely to hear everything you need to get started.

If you can't find a TV news channel for the language you're seeking to learn, you can try searching the web for an Internet radio station that carries news in the language. The two problems with radio are that it's easy to get distracted and lose focus on what you're listening (especially when you can't understand anything.) Secondly, the lack of images does make it a bit more difficult to figure out the context.
About the author:
Iqbal Mohammed is Head of Innovation & Strategy at a digital innovation agency serving the DACH and wider European markets. He is the winner of the WPP Atticus Award for Best Original Published Writing in Marketing & Communication.
You can reach him via email or Twitter.


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