On the Road

Teach Yourself

If you’ve put off learning another language on the grounds that you can’t afford it, you’d better look for a new excuse fast. All it takes to learn a new tongue is time, effort and enthusiasm. In the Information Age, all the tools you need are at your disposal for a minimal cost.

The auto-didactic or self-teaching method suits the mentality of someone who likes to understand the logic of a language. Considerable time and energy has been put into books that explain the nuts and bolts of a language – the grammar – and these lingual rule books are available for less than $10 in most cases.

The self-taught lingual student is often also a grumpy sod or just plain shy. He’s often less inclined to learn by chatting away to the locals than he is to spend hours feverishly looking up words in a bilingual dictionary.

The way to teach yourself a new language is simple:

– Read through the basics of a grammar book and learn the most important verbs by heart and how to conjugate them. Learn the basics of present and past tense, pronouns and the use of prepositions and adjectives.

– Build yourself a vocabulary by setting a target of 10 new words a day and write them down in a little vocabulary notebook. Before you write down the next ten words, test yourself to see if you remember the ones you scribbled down yesterday – if you don’t then start from the beginning. If 10 is too hard try 5.

– Get hold of a book in your target tongue that you’ve already read and sit down with a good grammar book and a bilingual dictionary. Read through the first page until you come to a word you don’t know and then look it up, writing the result down in your vocabulary notebook for next time. This can feel incredibly tedious to begin with but as time goes on you’ll be turning to the dictionary less and less. You don’t need to understand everything, just try to get the general flow – try a kid’s book first.

– If you don’t understand a phrase or an expression in your studies, make special note of it until you can ask a native speaker – very likely it’s either so archaic that you’d look like an idiot repeating it, or else it’s super hip slang that will make you sound cooler than the average multi-lingual traveler.

– Watch loads of foreign-language movies on DVD. This technology is a great gift for the modern student as you can watch in the original language and see the translation at once. Then watch it a second time and put the subtitles in the target language too so you can catch the pronunciation and test your understanding.

– Join an internet pen pals community such as http://www.sharedtalk.com. Most of them are free and you can meet people who are looking to make a language exchange – typically they would write to you in English whilst you try to express yourself in their tongue – then you correct each other.

Naturally, there are limits to how much you can learn by yourself. To really get the local slang, mannerisms and pronunciation it’s necessary to immerse yourself in the local language by traveling there. But you can get a good base before you go and be speaking within days rather than months if you put the time in.

And it will hardly have cost you a penny.