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How to learn a foreign language

September 26, 2012

First barrier in mind we create while we think of learning a foreign language is the very word ‘foreign’.

Foreign brings exotic and no one wants to make an exotic thing a routine or daily affair.

But learning a foreign language is exactly like this : to make a foreign thing highly  intimate.

I have taught Sylheti once – to a New Yorker who was going to marry a Sylheti speaking bride in London quite informally and from that teaching, I learnt more than the student perhaps :

1. Crush and demolish the ‘foreign’, ‘exotic’ aspect completely. 

2. As soon as your student has learnt to identify the symbols / sounds of the language, introduce samples of the poetry and highest level of prose in that language. No one but a true poet has tamed a language better. Learn from the master. A true poet of any language, of any historical period will always touch the very organ of language inside us – the sixth sense.  An example

Per me si va na La Citta dolente 

Lasciate Ogni Speranza voi ch’entrate

The above is in Italian and from her greatest wordsmith. I read this when I was eight years old and did not understand anything. I don’t understand anything now as an Italian native speaker does. But I still remember the sway of the tongue and something inside me thirty years back as it does today. I ‘knew’ what these 2 lines mean by now but the experience of the first ‘sway’ still remains fresh.

Poetry appeals to us in a process which intelligence can never comprehend.

3. Drop the step-wise approach which is superfluous for the truly interested and a refuge for not so truly interested.

4. Be conservative with dictionary consulting – Massive amount of patient reading will imprint the meaning of word with context and without context. Once that level is reached, mastery is within reach – what to speak of fluency

5. Mediate on that language, culture – watch lips movement of people.

6. Consider yourself an espionage agent and any error will be punishable by death

7. If you have skipped grammar of your native language in school, work on your grammar. Grammar is the nuts and bolts of any language and they are needed for all languages. Grammar means rules of the game and if you ignore rules, how will you excel in the game ?

8. Passion is infectious – find a passionate teacher.  A very passionate teacher will make your heart pierced and the language will be grafted there. It will beat with your heart.

9. Remember – what is the time to learn a native language ? One year after birth.

10. When you find yourself in a maze or in a blind alley, remember : all learning is painful. There is no royal road for language just there was none for Plato’s academy 20 centuries back.  Our birth is so painful and we ignore it because we don’t remember.

Learning a new language is giving your mind another birth. Birth pangs are painful. Bear it.

By Wordsmith University


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