‘I’m an Interpreter, and This Is My Secret Trick to Learning Languages Fast’
Esteban Touma, teacher and content producer for the language-learning app Babbel, explains adults’ brains struggle to form new thought patterns. “We’ve spent years developing a mind system that’s great at organizing information,” he says. “This makes us really, really effective at learning new things—except for languages. It’s hard to break with the rules of that system, and that’s exactly what you need to do, because you’re literally learning another system." Shangkuan adds that the best way to learn languages as an adult is to have fun.
Artemisa Valle, who manages the Volunteer Interpreters and Translators (VIT) Program at Casa Cornelia Law Center, says her trick is to watch children's movies and cartoons that you're already familiar with in the language you are trying to learn or brush up on. They offer simple storylines and vocabulary. "Practicing is easier because you can shadow (voice along) the memorized dialogue. Disney cartoon movies are the best—all that singing and dancing allows for plenty of breaks," she says.
Valle also recommends watching telenovelas for Spanish learners who are ready for more advanced practice. "This format offers the clever turn of the phrase, multiple register levels, and the nuance of the word," she says. "No boring study time here!"
Touma is all for this—as long as that's something that's pleasurable for you. "This plan has worked for hundreds of my students, but don't watch kid’s movies unless you actually enjoy kid’s movies. The trick is to watch something that you would enjoy watching in any case," he says. "The added benefit is that foreign language productions can give you cultural and regional insights too, and there’s a lot of great stuff out there. But the main thing is being exposed to the language and having fun. Don’t worry about understanding it all. Just watch, enjoy, and try to absorb what you can."
When using this tip, Shangkuan brings up a good point to keep in mind: “The question is whether you’re learning vocabulary that you can use in your everyday life." That's where also taking a language curriculum can be beneficial. "Remember that learning a language is not really about learning a language," Touma says. "What you’re actually learning is how to communicate in a new way with other human beings, so don’t separate that from your learning process!" He adds that ways to do this include connecting with people you may know who speak the language, listening to podcasts and music in your target language, or reading about the country's history.
One last note: "Remember that you have to be ready to share your own unique human experience with others in that language, so make sure what you’re learning is related to you," Touma says. "If I’m learning, say, Italian, I would never remember how to say “dove è la biblioteca?” or “where is the library?” But I will for sure remember how to say “Dov’è la pizza e il vino? Subito!” Priorities." That’s where is the pizza and wine, now! FWI.
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