How to learn languages easily

Kjell Kühne
You would like to learn another language? Here is a collection of hints and techniques that can help you achieve it.

Basic knowledge
•Every child can learn every language in the world, and so can basically every adult. You just need good methods and enough motivation to keep you going. •If you simply count together all the minutes and hours you have been speaking a language you will get a pretty accurate picture of the level at which you speak it. It is learning by doing, just as you learned to speak in your own language and improved with time. •There is no limited capacity - the more you know, the easier it is to learn more (more stuff to connect with) and the faster you learn! •Memory draws from all senses. The more senses you involve, the easier you remember. •Emotions help memory a great deal. •You learn to speak a word in the right context by speaking it in the right context - every other technique might or might not help to achieve that. Traditional language classes are unfortunately too often out-of-context.

Your attitude
•Learning a language is fun! That's why we do it. If it's fun, it works ten times faster than when it's not. If you are working on something that is not fun, give yourself a break and do something in the language that you really like to do! This will be a lot more effective than struggling through tough things, and it will keep your motivation high. •Making mistakes and having them pointed out is a good way of learning. Use it as much as possible! •Learning a language is like filling a barrel with water: nothing of what you've learned ever gets lost. •Seek out experiences that are at the upper limit of your ability. If it's too difficult you might loose your motivation, if it's too easy you might not learn anything new. - Challenge yourself! •Find accomplished learners, ask them how they have done it and use their best practices for yourself. (just like you do with reading this file) •There is a certain chemistry between people, in language as in many other parts of human interaction. Look for people that have your wavelength and spend as much time with them as you can. •Start right now! Don't wait for the language to come and knock on your door. You go and get it!

Practicing strategies
•In your dictionary check out the things you already know. Whenever you have nothing better to do, look up some things you are unsure about. •When you ask for new words, write them down or mark them in your dictionary, that way you can practise/recall them later on. •Ask for funny and strange words - you remember them more easily and they help with other things. •Use every chance to speak the language, big ones and small ones. •Write your own dictionary. •Edit and enhance your hard-copy dictionary with slang, special vocabulary, corrections. •Hold dialogues with yourself in your head. •Tell yourself what you're doing. •Look up things in the dictionary right when you need them. •Look up things in the dictionary right before you need them.

•Translate some stuff to your friends or to yourself. •Stay clear of traditional language courses - they might ruin your motivation and give you the feeling the language is difficult. If you're having fun there, however, they're safe to visit. You can also use them for inspiration. •If you read texts, look up new words in the dictionary - sooner or later you'll have to learn them anyway. Fill the barrel! •Let the other culture pervade your life. You never learn a language only, you also learn the culture. Eat the food, listen to the music, sing the songs, play the games, learn about the history, politics, do the sports, watch the movies, dance the dances,....!

Communication strategies
•People are happy to find somebody who speaks their language, especially when they're far away from home - give them a good time! •Immediately point out if some new word has anything to do with anything else that you know. •Tell others about your funniest/coolest donkey bridges. You'll remember those easier and you will encourage yourself to make more and even cooler ones. (more about donkey bridges under "Memorization techniques" •Ask people to correct you. •Ask people: did I say it right? •Learn funny expressions, to make people laugh. •Learn very polite/rude/cool things to say and try to find out exactly when to use them - surprise people! •Describe unknown words/concepts with simple words, then ask for the real word. •New words: immediately use and keep repeating the new words for a while, until you feel you know them well. •Ask again and again if you fail to remember a new word. You never have to do this more often than 510 times, then you'll know for sure. •Try out new structures and grammatical rules immediately with a number of different examples. The more diverse, the better. •Use mimics for words you don't know and elicit the word. •If you have a strange gut feeling about any sentence, ask a native speaker how to say it right. •If you don't understand a conversation, catch one very "salient" word every once in a while and ask what it means - you'll be surprised at how much you get through understanding single words! •Be spontaneous, follow ideas that flush through your head, ask less-than-obvious questions. •Find people who you can understand very well. Spend more time with them, they're going to teach you a lot! •Find some nice people who can speak only the foreign language so that you have to speak only that language with them. •Hang out with people who speak the foreign language, rather than people who speak your own or English, etc. •Take difficult sentences, even if you know very little of the language, and let people help you to say them, going word by word. Try to make a few very similar sentences with other words directly or shortly afterwards to establish the new achievement.

Memorization techniques
•Does the new word remind you of any other word in any language that you know? - Make the connection. •Play around with the words/the language. •Make up stories, songs, rhymes, whatever silly comes to your head. •If a new word reminds you of something, nail it down. This something can be used later on to verify whether you've found the right word when you're in doubt. •When you find a new word, build a sentence containing the word and use it. This can be the most likely sentence to happen with that word, or a very funny sentence that comes to your mind.

•When someone tells you something with a word that you have never used but you would like to know, just form a phrase asking something that contains the word, commenting on something using the word, etc. The important thing is that you start using the word immediately on the spot! This is a very effective and fast way to incorporate new things into your active vocabulary. •Make up funny, strange, emotional "donkey-bridges". A donkey bridge is a picture or expression that contains the word and is easy to remember. Example: •You could build one to exactly meet the target, but in my experience it works just as well to build them to somewhere near the target. Example: In Finnish heavy is raskas, light is kevyt. Kevyt reminded me somehow of "Kiebitz", a kind of bird. In Spanish, "rascarse" means to scratch oneself. So I imagine a guy sitting on the ground, scratching his ass, while a Kiebitz is sitting on his lap. The guy is obviously quite heavy compared to the bird who is lightweight. •If it is funny, it's easier to remember. If there is any emotion linked to the concept or picture, it's easier to remember.

Focus on the important words first
In order to get straight to your goal of becoming fluent in the new language, you should first focus on the essential words. There are about 300 words that are essential for speaking any language. You can't really do without these words (unless you use hands and feet). I have once made such a list for Indonesian (you can find it here) and am now making lists for all the languages that I know and that I want to learn. You can print that list on one sheet of paper (two pages) and always have it with you, instead of a dictionary. The great advantage of such a list is that you will have everything that you need for making sentences and actually speaking right in your hand. Yes, you will need a lot of patience. Yourself and also your interlocutors. That is because it takes some time to look up the words you are wanting to say and then to say them (and then often still to correct them again). But this investment of "waiting time" is very well worth it, because you will get fluent very fast.

•Buy a dictionary. You could learn a language without it, but it can speed up your learning a lot. Those that have sample expressions/phrases are best. Having it always with you is a good idea. This way you can contiually learn new words/expressions, verify when in doubt, fill "empty" moments with reading around in the dictionary. •If you understand German, get the Kauderwelsch book for the language in question. If you don't understand German, try to find a book that contains word-by-word translations. This "method" saves you the hassle of doing explicit grammar. Through word-by-word translations you just get the grammar naturally! •Find a book/dictionary that you like. If only looking at it and even more using it triggers positive emotions, this book is going to help you a lot in raising your motivation and really learning the language. •There is a very interesting computer program called "Rosetta Stone". You learn through pictures without any translation at all. You also get feedback for your own pronounciation. The program is quite expensive, but through emule or azureus you can also get it for free from your virtual buddies.

How to keep it up
•If you speak a language once a month for a few minutes, it should be enough to keep it up. Some expressions might be less present, but you can always reactivate stuff you once knew by looking it up or hearing it again. Remember: nothing is lost! The only problem is that access gets difficult. But with language this doesn't matter much - there are always dictionaries or native speakers to help you regain that access.

About grammar
•Grammatical structure is an issue for linguists, not for speakers of a language. You don't NEED it, just as the native speakers don't need it. There can be some cases where it helps you to understand the ways a language works. •I ALWAYS look for the examples!!! We have a built-in machine that generates grammatical structures by itself from the input we get. This is the way every child learns the grammar of its language without ever reading a book about grammar. If we skip the examples and read the grammatical rules it is like reading the menu but not eating the food.

About confusion
•You start to confuse languages ONLY when you stop speaking/practicing one while you learn the other. It could even happen with totally unrelated languages, just because they share the status "foreign language". •If you do practise several languages at the same time, they will try to mingle at times, but generally the more you switch back and forth, the faster you will develop independent "infrastructures" in your head. •Example: My Spanish was tops. Then I went to Brazil. After one month I was fluent in Portuguese. When I had the idea to speak Spanish again and tried, it was impossible!!! Everything came out in Portuguese. Not one sentence. I was really shocked. The following month I spoke Spanish to myself while continuing to communicate in Portuguese with everybody else. Now my Spanish is back to normal again, my Portuguese is good and I can switch back and forth between the two without problems.

About pronunciation
•Having an accent is not a problem. In some cases it is even an asset (if foreigners have high status). But pronouncing well brings its own benefits: even if you don't know much of a language but pronounce well, people will treat you as if you knew a lot. That helps to learn the language faster. •The tongue-R is a problem for many speakers of languages that don't have it. Germans can learn it by repeatedly and ever faster saying "T-deppe" instead of Treppe, "P-dinz von P-deussen", "T-dommel", "Bdötchen",.... •The German throat-R is equally difficult for many in the beginning. Try learning it by gargling a melody several times a day with some water. •The German Ü and Ö can be learned by holding the mouth tightly as if saying "U", but actually saying "I" -->"Ü" and "O" and "E" -->"Ö" respectively.

About myself
My name is Kjell Kühne. I am from Germany, started learning foreign languages at age 10. At age 25 I speak German, English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Chinese, Indonesian and Lingala fluently and can communicate somewhat in Finnish, Norwegian, Russian, Arabic, Japanese and Thai. I am interested in helping others to learn languages faster and easier. So I am trying to develop new methods of teaching/learning languages. I am looking for other persons who speak many languages fluently. If you know of any other people who speak lots of languages or you know some innovative ways of learning languages, please let me know! (at

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