How to Hack a Foreign Language

To live is to learn. Otherwise there’s no other option for me. Learning languages has been one of the longest-lasting hobbies of mine. On top of my English, Russian, Ukrainian, Dutch, Japanese and pillow French I am currently acquiring is Finnish.Finnish is considered to be one of the hardest languages to learn. Today was the first class after almost 1 month holidays break. Needless to say that at the regular Finnish class everyone was horrified when the new translatiivi material came up.

Let’s explore how we can hack the language in record time. Here’re my almost-pro tips:

1. Write down the words, their synonyms and translation in your native language. Browse through your notes once in a while paying attention on the word-synonym conjunction.

2. Systematize words from the same category, for example nature. Combine the words in a short story about the subject they belong to. Write down to that story or repeat it in your head.

3. Create as many derivative words as you can from the basic form, for example place – misplaced – irreplaceable or Finnish käydä – käyttamatön – käyttämiseksi. Try to build the sentences for each derivative. Continue playing

4. If you already know other languages from the same group, draw the analogies between the words and their cognates. For instance, Roman languages like French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and others have many words in common with English. Same goes for Chinese – Japanese characters. But those probably require a separate blog post 🙂

5. Find the song in foreign language that you like. Play it on repeat several times. Try to get what the song is about. Then google the lyrics and compare your findings. If the song is too good, learn it by heart. One day you’ll become a star in your foreign country karaoke bar 🙂

6. Observe what words and expressions you use the most, and learn them first. Then learn various reactions to those expressions. The small talk in foreign language is guaranteed.

7. Be creative. The first Finnish expression I learnt was Mina olen mansikkapiirakka (I am a strawberry pie). The phrase doesn’t make any sense untill the moment it’s pronounced to a native Finn. Said out of mere play, it has always triggered a conversation about the language through which I eventually learnt one more (yet another) Finnish phrase.

Bonus Tim Ferris technique: blend the mental and the physical. In his Four Hours Work Week he writes: “I often transport a skill that I practice domestically – martial arts – to other countries where they are also practiced […] Sports just happen to  e excellent for avoiding foreign-language stage fright and developing lasting friendships while still sounding like Tarzan.” Tim’s blog is full off useful tips and tricks on how to master a foreign language. The one that I found the most fascinating was “mnemonics” technique:

“For this, I suggest coming up with mnemonics about your target word, which helps glue the word to your memo- ry way more effectively. Basically, you tell yourself a funny, silly, or otherwise memorable story to associate with a particular word. You can come up with the mnemonic yourself, but a wonderful (and free) resource that I highly recommend is memrise.com.

For instance, let’s say you are learning Spanish and can’t seem to remember that “caber” means “to t,” no matter how many times you see it. Why not come up with a clever association like the following one I found on Memrise: This [caber -> cab, bear -> tting a bear in a cab] association makes remembering the word a cinch.” Very simmilar method was used by Tom Sampson in his Redesigning the Brain while he learnt how to memorize the cards order in the deck.

Finally, learn the language by discovering what is interesting to you personally. This seemingly simple and obvious way of learning appears to be also the most effective one.

Image: The Tower of Babel Pieter Bruegel, 1653

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