GoNOMAD Guide to Learning a Language On Your Own

Words to the Wise, Learn by Yourself

By Kristin Johannsen

language.learningFor independent travelers, the advantages of speaking some of the local language are clear. Besides simplifying daily life, the ability to talk with the people leads to those magical encounters that you remember all your life.

But for those of us who are “linguistically-challenged,” learning a foreign language — even the basics like “hello” and “Where is the bathroom?” — can be tough.

So, what’s the best way to learn your “target language,” as linguists call it? Most agree that it’s best to learn a new language when you are young, as that is when our language skills are developing. But even if you are over the hill, there are ways to make language learning easy and fun. It all depends on your learning style.

Before you rush out to buy a bunch of language tapes and textbooks, or enroll in a quickie language class, it pays to determine your learning style.

Learning Styles

Educational researchers have found that each of us has a preferred learning “style,” defined in terms of how you take in new information most effectively. Though we may use more than one, most people do show a strong preference for one of the three learning styles: auditory (by sound), visual (by sight), or kinesthetic (by doing).

Try out some of the language learning activities below that match your learning style and you may find that you’re able to ask for more than the bathroom when you land in a foreign country.

Auditory Learners

Do you prefer to hear a book on tape, rather than reading it? Enjoy long conversations on the phone? Always have music on when you’re alone? Easily remember what other people say? Frequently recall things by sound? If this describes you, then you’re probably an auditory learner, one who takes in information best by hearing it.

Some helpful language learning activities for auditory learners:

  • Use cassette or CD language courses where you listen and repeat.
  • Get a shortwave radio and listen to broadcasts in your target language.
  • Watch videos in the target language– children’s movies are great to start with. But choose wisely– I once met a Swedish guy who had perfected his English by watching Monty Python!
  • Sing along with pop songs in the target language–ask a friend to write out the lyrics for you or buy some world music CDs and try to follow along with the liner note translations.
  • While overseas, watch TV programs on a subject you already have some knowledge of (for instance, cooking, your favorite sport, or your own religion.)
    Visual Learners
  • Do you love to write letters and journal entries? Prefer reading a textbook to listening to a lecture? Recall things by pictures? Often see mental images of what people are saying? Understand things more easily by looking at a diagram? This is the profile of a visual learner, one who takes in information best by seeing it. (This is also the most common learning style.)
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Useful language learning strategies for visual learners:

  • Read a textbook and write out answers to the exercises
  • Label everything in your house in the target language
  • Make a chart of the new alphabet or writing system, and put it where you’ll see it often (a friend hung the Japanese hiragana characters in her bathroom)
  • Puzzle your way through magazine articles on a topic that interests you, making minimal use of your dictionary. Teen and women’s magazines are often written at a simple level.
  • Get yourself a pen-pal or key-pal in the target language. This doesn’t necessarily mean a native speaker–beginners can benefit from writing to another learner.

Kinesthetic Learner

Do you enjoy sports much more than reading? Often feel restless? Dig in to new projects without stopping to read the directions? Like to work with your hands and make things? Recall things by how you felt? If so, you are likely to be a kinesthetic learner, one who takes in information best by bodily action. (People with this style often have a hard time in traditional classroom settings.)

Good language learning approaches for kinesthetic learners:

  • Use the target language while doing volunteer work. Programs that have you building or constructing are great for kinesthetic types. For information on finding and choosing a volunteer program, see search the  for volunteer programs that have you doing and talking.
  • Take craft or cooking lessons in the target language. For inspiration, see Sheila Mary Koch’s wonderful article on learning Spanish and Mam, a Mayan language, while studying Guatemalan weaving techniques at www.gonomad.com/womens and search for learning programs overseas.
  • Go walk about in a foreign town, and practice your most recent lesson on everyone you meet (asking the time, getting directions, chatting about the weather).
  • Play a sport in your new language– also a good way to make friends! Check out EduVacations http://www.eduvacations.com language, cooking, arts and sports programs overseas!
  • Get a temporary job using the target language. Depending on the economic situation of the country, travelers can sometimes find work in hotels, restaurants, hostels, and other businesses. Whatever your learning style, there are some basic principles that are helpful to everyone who is learning a new language.
  • Don’t be afraid to make mistakes! The more you talk, the more you’ll learn, and each mistake brings you that much closer to mastering the language. Ask people to correct your mistakes, and make a point of practicing the right form later.
  • Get language input at a level you can understand. There’s no point watching a three-hour-long epic movie without subtitles if you can’t make head or tail of it. The ideal language level is something just a bit over your head–you understand most of it, though you couldn’t speak (or write) like that yourself. If 5% of the words are new to you, the context from the other 95% will help you work out the meaning of new vocabulary and internalize it.
  • Find someone to talk with at your own level. If you’re just a beginner and getting frustrated, try practicing with another learner — if possible, one who doesn’t speak your mother-tongue. Or make friends with a child at the appropriate language level (I learned the Japanese word for “praying mantis” from a two-year-old!)
  • Make your own opportunities in your hometown. Is there an international student at a nearby university who speaks your target language? A refugee family who would love with talk to you? An ethnic restaurant where you can chat up the waiters? An ethnic church or cultural association where you could meet people?
  • If you are able to do so, enroll in an immersion language course overseas. There is really nothing better than mixing the formal instruction of a language school with the informal kind that comes from living in the country where the language is spoken.
  • Most importantly, have fun! Learning a language doesn’t always need to be serious business. Singing along with the radio, reading trashy gossip magazines, watching horror movies, kicking a soccer ball — whatever you love doing in your native language, do it in your new language. While enjoying yourself, you’ll also be expanding your world.