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Art of learning languages

Ever thought why almost every child learns to speak his or her mother tongue within a few years after birth, but a good number of grown-ups fail to pick up a second or a third language? Why grown-ups, even most school going children find it difficult to pick up another language as easily as they did, back when they learnt their mother tongue.

You sign up for the best courses, pay handsome amounts as fees, take personalized tuitions, and yet, learning a language seems to be a challenge. Ironically, one never heard of any toddlers who found it difficult to learn their mother tongue, be it French or German or then Amharic, Swahili or Zulu!

Why is that so? Do toddlers know something that we are missing? Is learning languages an art that we have lost or is it a science that we haven’t yet perfected? Is there a sure shot way to success?

Find out as Sandeep Nulkar, a user of over half a dozen languages himself, dwells deeper into what it takes to learn languages, English included.

Look at the hundreds of language institutes that have mushroomed in every nook and corner of every major city in India and the thousands that are queuing up at their doorsteps to learn a language.

The routine is fairly predictable. You pick an institute that is good and ‘convenient,’ pay through your nose, then spend some more on fancy books, notepads, pens and some desired paraphernalia and finally end up sitting like a log in front of the teacher waiting to be taught.

So where’s the catch?

Well, languages cannot be taught! They have to be learnt. All one really needs to do is, use them. Using is what learning is all about. Using goes beyond the notes and the memorising. Did you take notes or memorise meanings when you learnt your mother tongue as a toddler? And yet, you could speak it well by the time you turned seven or eight. Discount the first two years of your life when the learning could have been painfully slow and yet, you picked it up in only a few years.

So what are we getting at?

The point is, you can actually learn how to learn a language by observing a toddler pick it up. Toddlers remember words in a given context or with the help of a picture. So the moment they see you leaving, they will say a cute “bye,” or blurt out an even sweeter “ma ma” as soon as mommy dear appears.

There is a lesson for you here. Instead of trying to memorise words just for the heck of it, try and remember them in a given context or in association with an image or better still, as a group of words. So by memorising what the French say for good night, you will almost always come up with the correct but contextually wrong ‘bonne nuit’ The Germans or the French do not say ‘good night’ They actually say ‘good evening’ – ‘einen schönen Abend’ (German) or ‘bonsoir’ (French).

This is easy to reproduce if, instead of memorising equivalents, you simply remember that when you take leave (that being the context), bonsoir is what you say. The same applies to words. Instead of memorising the word for bread in French (le pain), you could try and remember an entire sentence ‘Au petit déjeuner, j’ai mangé du pain (I ate some bread for breakfast).’ The brain remembers a cluster of words better than isolated ones.

Don’t compare!

Comparing the languages you know with the one you are learning is PhD stuff, not what you should engage in when you start learning a language. Much like toddlers, don’t question. Accept things at face value and repeat. Had your mother called your father ‘Lala’ instead of ‘baba’ or whatever, you would have never questioned that. You would have simply repeated what you heard. Do that. It keeps things simple.

Make it your need, not your want

I don’t know whether you have realised this, but as we start speaking we stop crying in order to express. Toddlers cry because they cannot speak and they start speaking very quickly because they realise pretty soon that crying does not always give them what they want.

In that sense they do not WANT to speak the language, they NEED to speak it. If you can simulate conditions that create this need, you will pick up any language very quickly. How on earth will you do that? It is fairly simple actually. This is the best time to put your ego to good use. Go on, declare to your friends and to whoever cares to listen that in a matter of months you would be speaking whatever language. The fear of failing will get you to do all the right things. Do not also forget to take it personally if your grades aren’t good enough or if you are unable to achieve a particular learning goal.

Listen, speak, read, and write everyday, without fail

You heard me. And yes, in that order. If you don’t listen to a language being spoken, what will you reproduce? And if you don’t read enough how will you write? And if you don’t do all of this everyday, how will you learn? See, it’s not easy and perhaps that is why some people never get it. They cannot simply spare the time to do all of this everyday.

But the good news is that the time spent doing each of these is quite unimportant. What is important is that you listen, speak, read and write everyday. Listening to the news on your smartphone is the easiest and so is music. You will find many options for either of these. The news will also be easy to understand because you would know the context by generally having an idea of what is happening around you. Music needs no context. You will retain words because you heard the singer utter them.

Always speak with certain people only in a particular language. Even if there are just a couple of them, it will make a world of difference. The best bets would be your classmates. Pick the not so pretentious ones who give you the we-are-in-this-together kind of feel.

Additionally, involve your spouse or siblings and especially the children in the family. Teach them whatever little you have learnt – grammar, vocabulary, whatever, doesn’t matter. They won’t judge you, nor will they laugh at you. That is where you can gain all the confidence you need and it’s fun.

My wife and I have learnt most of the languages we know together. Much of our spoken skills came from speaking to each other in a chosen language. Even today, we use talking to each other in a language as an exercise in brushing it up or sometimes also because we do not want our daughter to understand what we are saying 🙂

Read a lot in the language you are learning. Read anything you can lay your eyes on. Only make sure the source is authentic – English (U.K.), French (France), Spanish (Spain), you get the drift, right? And don’t particularly read children’s stuff just because your Linguistic Age in that language is closer to that of a child. Make it a point to read contemporary stuff, be it news or articles, magazines or books.

And make it a point to write at least a sentence or two in the language you are learning. Write anything, doesn’t matter what.

And of course, every now and then don’t forget to take a break, a day or two or even a few. The incessant learning has to stop for a while for the acquired knowledge to seep in.

Make lifestyle changes

Don’t let doing all of this amount to studying. Make gradual lifestyle changes instead. Incorporate one thing at a time, slowly. That way, you will enjoy the change and not be affected by it.

And finally

At an event, an aspiring writer once asked Jeffrey Archer as to what advice he had for him. With a smile on his face the famous author replied, “Write!” The message was conveyed and the room was filled with silence and smiles.

Much on those lines if I were to give one piece of advice to language learners, it would be “use it!”

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Sandeep Nulkar - Founder, Chairman & Managing Director, BITS Private Limited Sandeep Nulkar started his career as a translator way back in 1993 and heads one of India’s largest translation and localisation companies – BITS Private Limited. He is a linguist by passion, businessman by choice and author by circumstances. Over the past decade, he has been working closely with the corporate world and with students and the academia to create an identity for the Indian translator within and outside India.