Sunday, August 14, 2011

How to Learn a Language in a Month (I Hope)

I’m headed to Brazil on a business trip next month. I love to travel, so I’m totally stoked. Most of all, I love going to countries with foreign languages. Every time, I dream of being fluent in the language. But it’s not that easy, is it?

Failure of Spanish Classes

I took Spanish in the eighth grade, and loved it. My suburban Houston neighborhood was not what you would call diverse. My Spanish class opened my eyes to the reality of a different culture and language. I had never realized how surreal it would be to express the same thought in two different languages. Doing so was like solving a cryptogram puzzle. And every day, every lesson, brought an exciting new technique for solving them. Every homework was a new set of cryptograms that we had just learned how to crack.

There’s a problem, though. After four years of classes, I couldn’t carry a conversation. I was – and am – intimidated by the awkwardness of trying the first clumsy sentence. So it’s easier to speak English, even around family members who are native Spanish speakers. Twenty years ago I had – or should have had – the keys to the language. But I could never get the lock to turn.

Now I want to learn Portuguese. I only have about three weeks. Four years of classes aren’t an option, even if I thought they would work this time. Should I spend a four hundred bucks on Rosetta Stone? Practice all 300 words and 20 phrases on the EuroTalk CD that came as part of a 33-disc set? Subscribe to a Portuguese podcast? I know, buy an app! Hmmm.

How I became fluent in French

I started learning French in the eleventh grade. I actually walked around the corner from my sixth-period Spanish III class directly to my seventh-period French I class. I spoke a lot of Spanish to my French teacher, much to her annoyance. Every lesson was just as revelatory and every homework just as much of a delightful puzzle as Spanish was. And after finishing French IV, I was…not fluent. Barely even conversational. I got college credit, read some cool stories by existential French authors, and was too intimidated to speak to French foreign exchange students. Same approach, same outcome.

But I am fluent now. I got there, but how? I know it happened in the Peace Corps, but why?. During training, they made us follow “immersion”. We couldn’t speak any English to anyone while we were on the campus. Only French. It was not fun. We hated it and complained. Of course, we were also hot, homesick, feverish from the vaccines, and cramping from intestinal revolts. So Mr. Immersion did not come along while we were at our best.

But we did speak French. We didn’t feel ready, and we weren’t. We still had more lessons to take, more grammar to learn, more vocabulary to remember. But we spoke it anyway. And everyone we spoke to would only speak French back to us. They didn’t even know English. (Or rather, they lied and said they didn’t.)
Immersion certainly worked. It succeeded at the task that an hour a day of exposure in a high-school classroom failed to achieve.

For the next three years I refused to speak English to my Beninese co-workers. I told them it would hinder the language mastery I needed in order to educate the students we shared. Every night I wrote out lesson plans in French. I read French translations of novels I enjoyed, like Jurassic Park. And I let my students correct my mistakes. Until by the end of the school year I was correcting their mistakes. (The class applauded the first time I did so.)

So how does this help me with Portuguese? My co-workers at the office certainly aren’t going to switch to speaking only Portuguese with me. Even if they did, I need something to study, and I need more time – at least six months.

A Different Approach

Right after I downloaded a few iPhone apps with Portuguese vocabulary – they were free – I ran across something useful on Twitter. (Yes – it happens. You don’t think the Library of Congress is archiving the whole thing for nothing, do you?) It was titled “The Learning Secrets of Polyglots and Savants.” It described someone who learned enough Icelandic to hold a conversation after just one week - with an interview to prove it. OK, it turns out the guy is a savant who memorized pi to a gajillion places. (Which I’m totally jealous of, by the way.) But the next guy mentioned was just a regular Irish guy who learned enough Dutch to hold a conversation after only two months - with an interview to prove it. That’s twice as much time as I have, but still gives me hope.

The article described some memory techniques I’ve read about in the last few years. Our brains are wired to be really, really good at recalling places and images, especially when they involve action. Spend an extra 60 seconds coming up with an action image that represents what you want to memorize, and it will stick with you for hours and days, not just a few minutes. Another technique is graduated-interval recall, which involves reviewing the material at ever-longer intervals in order to lock it into the next level of memory, with the least amount of repetition.

Even with these optimization techniques, I’m going to have to prioritize. That’s a dilemma on its own. What do I focus on? Vocabulary covers a lot of ground. Should it be verbs? Travel phrases? Food? Numbers?Days?Colors?Animals?Shopping?VerbTensesPronounsPrepositionsPartsofspeech?????

I googled the-Irish-guy-who-learned-Dutch-in-two-months. He calls himself the Irish Polyglot (a more concise title), and has a website titled Fluent in Three Months. He travels to a new country every three months to learn a new language. I’m even more jealous of him than of the gajillion-places-of-pi guy.

His website gave me one validation and two clues to resolving my dilemma. The validation is that you simply have to start speaking the language. From Day One. No waiting until you’re “ready.” The first clue is to memorize phrases and vocabulary from a phrasebook like the ones by Lonely Planet. The other clue will cause raucous laughter from friends who’ve heard me try karaoke: put the phrases to music, and sing them. For the good of society, I’ll just try that in my head, not out loud. Much.


So I’m totally stoked. I bought the Lonely Planet Brazilian Portuguese phrasebook. It totally reminded me of the LP Bengali phrasebook that some friends brought on a mission trip, from which we learned the phrase “Careful. The monkey is stealing your food.” I’m going to create action images, and set them to music (in my head). I’m even going to write my own dialogs and memorize them, the way I prepared my lessons in the Peace Corps. And I’m going to be mentally prepared to just start speaking the language. First with the hummus vendor at the farmer’s market; then with everyone I meet when I get off the plane in Sao Paulo. The only problem is that I’m much better at creating a plan than following through. And I need plane tickets.

Any ideas for how I can make a living by traveling and learning languages?

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