If you want to learn to speak a foreign language, the first thing you need is words. That means you have to learn vocabulary, and, sad but true, learning vocabulary requires study, memorization in particular.
Yes, there are all kinds of books, CDs and programs out there to help you learn the foreign language of your choice-the Rosetta Stone series and LiveMocha online being the most popular ones I know. But none of these is magic; there’s nothing out there that will do all the work for you. Sorry, you still have to study.
But take heart! Once you accept that you’re going to be memorizing vocabulary, there are ways to make your memorizing easier, and almost fun!
1) Flashcards-Yep, good old-fashioned paper index cards, English on one side, foreign language on the other. You can carry them around easily, and go through them in the ten minutes or so you’re waiting at the post office or doctor.
2) Labels-Take a marker and write the foreign-language names for all your furniture and appliances on post-it notes. You’ll see them every day, and you can review them without thinking about it.
3) Funny connections-This is my favorite way to memorize. I believe it’s been proven that attaching funny, odd ideas, even songs, to vocabulary, is a great way to learn it. One example: In Korean the word for blackboard sounds like chil pahn–so I pictured a big, cold pan against a blackboard, that helps me chill out! Crazy, yes. But after I came up with that, I finally learned the word.
In high school, we had to memorize poetry and scripture verses, and I did it by attaching little melodies to them. I still remember them-the words and the music-and trust me, that was a long time ago!
4) Pictures, Diagrams, and Charts-If you’re learning body parts in a foreign language, draw a stick figure, then label it. The picture makes the words more real. Even if your textbook already has a picture, there is something about doing it yourself, and writing the new words yourself, that really helps to fix them in your mind. The same thing goes for diagrams and charts. If you like that sort of thing, make your own, and organize the words in whatever way helps you. As always, the more active you are in the learning process, the more you learn.
5) List and Group-Speaking of organizing vocabulary, I find that often, after I’ve learned a number of words in the foreign language, I start confusing them. Sometimes it’s because there are two similar-looking or -sounding ones. I’ve heard more than one student of English as a Second Language say chicken when they mean kitchen, and I’ve made similar errors: allora (well, then) for adesso (now) in Italian, or even worse, uvo (grapes) for uovo (eggs). It’s hard to make an omelet that way!
So what I do, when I notice these pairs that are getting me in trouble, is write them down. I make lists of my personal confusing pairs, and I study them that way.
Grouping similar kinds of words always helps. You could make a list of fruits, and a list of breakfast items. Texts and dictionaries do this all the time. And when you group related words, often you discover that parts of them are the same (think –ology words in English, for subjects). That too makes it easier to learn.
6) Review-Duh. I know you know that. But don’t forget to do it, regularly. You’ll recall words you haven’t used, and have forgotten-but they will be easier to remember, the second time. You’ll also make connections between old and new vocabulary. Don’t skip this. It’s important!
7) Write about the word-This takes time, but it’s fun, and it works. If you have a word that is difficult for you to memorize, try writing a little essay or story about it-in English, but inserting the foreign word over and over, throughout. This is easiest, of course, for people who are used to writing, in daily journals, for example. When I studied Spanish in Mexico, I wrote in my journal as usual, but I began inserting words and phrases in the Spanish I was picking up. Soon those words and phrases turned into paragraphs.
There’s a whole, charming book of such pieces, using French vocabulary, Words in a French Life: Lessons in Love and Language from the South of France, by Kristin Espinasse (NY: Simon and Schuster, 2006). It’s a great example of learning a language by inserting bits of it into one’s own writing.
This technique worth a try for everyone. There are a couple of things at work here-one, the power of writing in memorization, and two, the usefulness of providing a context for the word you want to learn.
8) Finally, study every day for fifteen minutes. Instead of investing money in all kinds of great language programs, invest fifteen minutes a day on your foreign-language vocabulary study, and you’ll see results! Study. Memorize. When you hit the streets of Rome, Seoul, Tokyo or Madrid-you’ll be so glad you did!