How do we learn a language the smart way?

She gets up at five in the morning to start getting everything ready for her kids' day in school. By 6 AM breakfast is ready, and now it's time to wake up the troops. It's 6:45 AM and she's making loop de loops to make it to the bus stop on time. Timmy's finally inside the bus, waving bye, wearing different colored socks. She gets back home to go about her day. Maybe she's a full time mom, maybe she works part time. Before she knows it, the clock reads 2:45 PM and it's time to pick up the kids. Nevertheless, she managed to get an hour, perhaps two, and dedicate them to learning English. She watches videos, and she reads blogs. She even has a language learning app on her phone with a crazy owl that harasses her when she misses a day!
Growing up, mom had a similar routine that went on for years. She was a single mom that like many, wanted to build a future for her children. In those times, the only way to learn English in the U.S., was to take adult ESL (English as a Second Language) courses in city schools or colleges. Being immigrants from El Salvador added the challenge of communication barriers. With such a busy schedule it was very difficult to find the time for English classes. However, somehow she managed to cram them into her day a couple times a week. With dedication and hard work, five years passed, and she was teaching English courses in a local high school! I know this sounds too good to be true, and that's because it is. Five years had passed, and she was barely able to hold a conversation. Dad, on the other hand, lived and worked in another part of town. He never took an English course in the States, but somehow was able to speak conversational English in those five years. Granted, that it wasn't perfect and his vocabulary was limited, but he was able to speak and use what he learned on the job. Was he smarter that mom? With more than enough reasons, I can safely say no. How then, was he able to seemingly learn English with almost no effort? That is the point of this article.
"Why?" you might ask. Why am I telling you this story? I'm sharing this with you, because I hear a similar story almost every day. I work as an interpreter and every day I meet different, mostly immigrant families from Mexico, Central and South America. To be more specific I usually meet the mom, the wife in the family. The one who is usually taking care of things on the home front; the one, that unlike the husband, is having the hardest time learning the language.

Like mom, most people get the idea that the more and faster they study, the most words, grammar and phrases; the better and faster they will learn. Don't get me wrong, sitting down for a couple of hours of online lessons and instructional videos is great if you have the time. Chances are however, that you might only remember a small fraction, and, if you are like most of us, time is precious and scarce. Another key factor that was missing from her learning course, was practice. She wasn't using it.

Why was it seemingly easier for dad to learn English faster? Two main reasons, quality over quantity, and practice.

Dad went to work with a handful of necessary words to accomplish his job functions. He wasn't worried about the words he wasn't going to use to get his job done. All he cared for, were the English words he used on a daily basis. After a few days of using the same vocabulary over and over, he had memorized it without even realizing it. If the job called for something different, all he needed to do was learn the new necessary vocabulary by using it over and over. Before long, his handful of necessary words had grown into a decently sized arsenal. This not only help encourage him to learn more, but also helped him climb up the ranks at work.
It wasn't until us kids were old enough, that mom decided to work full time with her small handful of necessary words. Only then, did she really begin to start learning the English language.
Does this mean that I have to wait until my kids grow up for me to get a full time job so I can learn a foreign language?

No. Mom waited this long, because it was the only way that worked for her at the time. We can however apply the same principles.

1. Don't overwhelm yourself.

Cramming too much in a short time is a quick path to frustration, which will lead to giving up all together. Take it a day at a time, and choose a handful of words you will commit yourself to use every day.

2. Use it or lose it! Use your small vocabulary!

Is there someone at the grocery, place of worship, work, or school that speak your target language? Start by saying "hello", "thank you", "nice to see you", or "good bye" every time you see them. The more frequently you speak your vocabulary, the better. Quickly you'll find more opportunities to add more words until you build your own arsenal!

3. Have a genuine interest in the language you are learning.

What is driving you to learn a new language? Is it necessity? Are you reaching out in your community? Perhaps you are travelling to a different country? Maybe you are simply in love with a language? In other words, try not to learn a language just for the sake of learning one. Find a language that you are passionate about or have a real need to learn. This will make the learning process easier and more enjoyable.

The internet is loaded with great tools to help us on our language learning journey. With technologies like chat and Skype, finding someone who speaks your target language is easier than ever! Don't miss out on these tools. For those that live in diverse cities, there might be places like parks, museums, even shopping centers where people from different countries meet. I'm sure you'll also find others learning your own language. By helping others, you may discover new ways and methods of learning a language yourself.
I really hope that this information helps you as much as it has helped me. I wish you all a happy language learning experience.

Please leave a comment below if you enjoyed this article or have any feedback! Thanks!

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ghkl profile picture ghkl   
hi how r u?
    Mar 25, 2017 @ 14:48
vincent profile picture vincent   
Thanks Serge, this is a very good article!
    Nov 24, 2016 @ 14:58