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Last week at Far Away Places (my new travel blog), I shared some tips on how to learn Spanish fast. The short version: Hire a tutor. But what if you can't afford a tutor? What if you don't want to spend money but still want to learn a language? In this guest post from Benny Lewis, the Irish polyglot, he shares tips on how to learn a language on the cheap. For more info, visit Benny's site, Fluent in 3 Months.
Wouldn't it be great if you could effortlessly communicate in another language? For many people, this seems like a pipe dream. We aren't going to wake up one day (à la Jason Bourne) suddenly fluent in a bunch of languages, and we can't download them into our brain instantaneously like they do in The Matrix. Such dramatic changes aren't possible.
However, it is possible for the average adult to learn to speak a foreign language confidently in a relatively short time.
I'm sure you've met people who have managed to learn a foreign language, either by growing up with it or learning it as an adult. The only problem is that we tend to think they had resources we didn't have: time, talent, and (above all) money. Surely it must have cost a small fortune for the courses they took, the software they bought, and the time abroad to study. It all seems out of reach for those of us on a budget.
Today I'm here to tell you that money has nothing to do with learning a language. In this article, I'll give you several steps to learn your target language and reach a good spoken level — maybe even fluency — without spending a cent.
It's time to start language hacking!
Finding the right mindset
I've been learning languages for about eight years, and can indeed speak several fluently now. I typically socialize and live my life almost entirely without using any English, depending on where I am and who I'm with.
However, at age 21 I could only speak English and had poor academic results in German from school. Learning a language seemed impossible.
I was so sure of all of this that I managed to spend six months living in Spain without learning to speak any Spanish!
But then one day I had a Eureka! moment. I realized what had been holding me back all this time: My devotion to the excuses, not the excuses themselves. It was a fear to speak, a fear of ridicule, a fear of annoying natives, a fear of making mistakes and looking stupid.
Only fear kept me from learning to speak another language.
In meeting thousands of language learners over the last decade I can confirm that fear is why they aren't speaking — the actual excuses they give are what they lean on to justify that fear. But it's unfounded.
After living in dozens of countries, I can tell you that most people across the planet have no interest in making fun of your attempts to learn their language. First, they're generally thrilled that an English speaker is even trying to speak their language. And second, very few people are that malicious. When you try your best to speak to a person in their native language, they appreciate it. People's focus is always on understanding and communicating, never ridiculing someone willing to try.
So, my top tip to learning a language is to deal with your fears. This is a psychological barrier, not a monetary or genetic or intelligence problem. Apply some of the other tips in this article, and try to use your new language at every opportunity. By doing this you'll see that all your fears are unfounded and even when you are speaking with just the basics, you can indeed do a lot! Each time you try, the fear starts to seem more illogical until it vanishes.
Learn the essentials
Too many people who have a real desire to use a language get caught up in the learning stage and stay stuck there indefinitely. Too many of us are perfectionists, so we feel that you need to know all of the grammar and all of the vocabulary before you can "bother" a native with your stumbles.
So they get the biggest, fattest courses they can find. Perhaps that's expensive software, which in my opinion actually leaves a lot to be desired, (as you can see in my frank Rosetta Stone review) or maybe it's signing up to a classroom-style course. These systems use a ground-level-up approach of trying to teach you everything, and in doing so tend to teach you nothing that you can use right now.
All you really need to get started is a vague understanding of how the language works and some key phrases and essential vocabulary.
There are many completely free resources for getting these basics. A few of my favorite include:
With just this handful of free tools, you can start learning the basics of your chosen language today.
Find people and start speaking the language immediately
There are hundreds of ways to learn a language, but I will tell you very frankly that if the goal is to speak it then anybody who tells you anything but to speak it right away is hurting your potential progress.
Studying indefinitely is a waste of time in this respect. The purpose of studying should be to improve what you're already saying, not to prepare to speak some day. (There are seven days in a week and "some day" is not one of them.)
The communicative approach of language learning involves using it naturally as much as possible and doing so immediately. Studying is a minor part of what you should really be doing. What you should really be doing is speaking the language naturally. And no, you don't have to fly to the country to do this!
First, see if you can meet up in person to practice your language. This is a powerful way to make a language a truly natural part of your social calendar and life. Here are several ways I've been able to make this happen:
If you live in any major city you will find natives and fluent speakers of most languages if you look hard enough. They are definitely there! If you're really stuck, or live too far from such cities, there's another option: online (Skype-based) conversation!
There are many sites that you can use to find someone who actually wants to learn English who you can help, while they teach you their language. My own website, for example, has a forum section where plenty of people post the combination they are looking to exchange and many are finding a conversation exchange!
Other sites that can help include Livemocha and Busuu. These actually have paid course aspects that I really don't recommend to people, but their social connections to find native speakers are great and free!
Be imaginative, confident and let the conversations flow!
So you've got the basics, found someone to speak to, and decided to put your excuses aside and attempt to enjoy the experience. There's still something missing though — what do you talk about when you've learned so little?
This is actually much easier than people think. A few weeks into learning languages I can have dozens of conversations, and it's because I try to use my imagination (no, I don't talk about the weather), try to be charming to balance out any minor slip-ups I'm making or simply laugh at them as not a big deal, and listen to the other person.
If you're worried that you won't be interesting enough for the other person, it's important to realize that sometimes to be interesting you have to be interested. Being a good listener will have the other person appreciate your company all the more, and with time you will be saying more and more.
I discuss many other aspects of how to get into this flow of imaginatively in initial stages in a conversation on my blog and summarize my favorite tricks in this video.
As complicated as it seems, when you let go of your hang-ups then you may discover that you had the ability to speak all along, as my friend Geraldine showed me by speaking in Spanish all evening the first time she tried.
Rather than being a genius and needing to perform advanced grammatical calculations, to really speak a language you have to actually learn to stop thinking so much, learn enough to say something first, let go of your ego, make a few mistakes and just let conversations flow!
No credit cards or wads of cash are necessary for this.
Give it a try — with enough practice you will improve so quickly that soon you'll start to wonder if you really couldn't speak the language before!