Life Wellbeing How to learn a language (and which to choose)
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How to learn a language (and which to choose)

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It slows brain ageing, simplifies international travel and, most importantly, makes you look more impressive to employers, friends and pretty much everyone you meet.

Learning a language is no doubt a worthy endeavour, but the formidable task can often feel daunting for someone who’s long past their schooling years.

Anoushka Gungadin, CEO of Duke of Edinburgh Victoria, can speak English, French, Creole, Hindi and Mandarin and has found her multilingualism to be invaluable in both business and relationships.

“Learn the phrase ‘I’m new to this language and I’m going to make mistakes’ and USE it.”

“It’s just great to be able to break the ice and engage people – you don’t even need to be fluent,” Ms Gungadin says.

Convinced yet? Here’s how to get started:

1. Choose a language (and country) you love

“The most important question when choosing a language is your purpose for doing it,” Joseph Lo Bianco, professor of language and literacy education at the University of Melbourne, says.

hands-up
A teacher will help give you structure.

While learning for work purposes is a big motivator, it’s important to choose a language you love.

Passion equates to drive and drive means learning things a lot faster. Choose a country and a language you can’t get enough of so you have reason to persevere in even the toughest moments.

2. Make a plan

With the wealth of online resources available, Professor Lo Bianco says it is possible to teach yourself, but you’re going to need help.

“You have to understand what you want to achieve overall,” Professor Lo Bianco says. “You need to devise a plan from the beginning in conjunction with a teacher.”

Even if you only meet up once, a teacher will help give you structure.

3. Start small

You may have delusions of grandeur, but it’s important to focus on learning phrases you can actually use.

“Learn the phrase ‘I’m new to this language and I’m going to make mistakes’ and USE it,” Ms Gungadin says.

Simple and relevant words and phrases will be easier to remember and a great starting point.

4. Immerse yourself

A three-week holiday can mean the difference between broken Spanish and fluency. If you can afford to, travel to the home country of your chosen language and speak it whenever you can.

If an overseas holiday isn’t on the cards, make use of Australia’s multicultural population and head to areas that you know speak the language like churches, community centres or restaurants.

5. Become an international pop culture junkie

Watch endless YouTube videos and television shows in your new tongue and fill your iPod with international hits.

“If you love the sound, you will remember the words!” Ms Gungadin says. 

6. Don’t be too hard on yourself

Fins a culture you love.
Find a culture you love.

“It’s impossible to have identical proficiency in two languages because some life experiences are in one language and some in the other,” Professor Lo Bianco says.

You might miss some in-jokes or get confused by sarcasm, but fear not: you’re never going to know your new language as well as your native language so don’t put pressure on yourself.

7. Get friendly

The guaranteed fastest way to learn a language? Fall in love with a foreigner.

If you can’t find an international lover, track down an international pen pal or Skype buddy. Maintaining a relationship in your new language will give you extra motivation.

Which language is right for you?

“Some languages are going to be harder than others,” Professor Lo Bianco says. Here are the basics for English-speaking adults of average intelligence:

Japanese

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Approximately 125 million native speakers.

Difficulty level: HARD – has three different alphabets consisting of characters.

Time commitment: 2000-2400 hours to get to reasonable conversational proficiency.

Useful phrase: “Onaka suita” = “I’m hungry”

Mandarin Chinese

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Approximately one billion native speakers.

Difficulty level: HARD – Mandarin uses characters known as Hanzi that you have to learn in order to be able to read and write.

Time commitment: 2000-2400 hours to get to reasonable conversational proficiency.

Useful phrase: “Méi bànfǎ, rén tàiduō.” = “There’s nothing you can do, too many people.”

French

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Approximately 74 million native speakers.

Difficulty level: EASY – like other European languages such as German or Italian, French uses an English script and has the same alphabet. Beware of tenses!

Time commitment: 900-1000 hours to get to reasonable conversational proficiency.

Useful phrase:Je voudrais un pain au chocolat, s’il vous plaît.” = “I would like a chocolate croissant, please.”

Spanish

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Approximately 405 million native speakers.

Difficulty level: EASY – much like French, Spanish uses the English alphabet and borrows from other European languages.

Time commitment: 900-1000 hours to get to reasonable conversational proficiency.

Useful phrase: “¿quieres bailar con migo?” = “Do you want to dance with me?”

Indonesian

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Approximately 77 million native speakers.

Difficulty level: EASY TO MODERATE – uses all the same letters as English and – added bonus – no complicated tenses!

Time commitment: 1600 to get to reasonable conversational proficiency.

Useful phrase: “Saya mandi keringat” = “I’m swimming/bathed in sweat.”

Russian

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Approximately 155 million native speakers.

Difficulty level: MODERATE – although it has a different script, Russian uses an alphabet and not characters, making it difficult but not as challenging as the Asian languages.

Time commitment: 1600-1700 to get to reasonable conversational proficiency.

Useful phrase: “ваше здоровье!” [vashee zda-ró-vye] = “Your health!” (a toast)

Arabic

 

arab-world-mapApproximately 295 million native speakers.

Difficulty level: HARD – uses a different script and reads from right to left!

Time commitment: 2400+ hours to get to reasonable conversational proficiency.

Useful phrase: “Shukran jazeelan” = “Thank you very much.”


 

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