Learning a second language is valuable for anyone. But if you are spending a significant length of time in a location where you do not speak the language, you will be continually handicapped until you learn. Learning a new language is not difficult; even a few months of immersion in a foreign language will help you learn enough to function in many situations.
Listen and Observe
Start by listening. Listen to conversations in the language, even if you do not understand them. If you are in a situation where you do not have to understand everything–such as at a meal with friends–ask others not to translate for you. Instead, listen to their conversation. At first, you will just hear meaningless sounds, but gradually you will be able to distinguish words and phrases.
Use What You Know
Many people hesitate to begin speaking in a new language until they are certain they will not make any mistakes. If you wait until you are sure you can speak correctly, then you will never begin communicating. Jump in and repeat what you hear, even if you don’t know exactly what it means. When you hear a new word or a phrase, begin using it immediately.
Never hesitate to ask questions or to admit that you do not understand something. Most people, even strangers, will be pleased that you are trying to learn their language and will be happy to help you. If adults seem unwilling to help you learn new words, ask children. Children are usually pleased and proud to teach an adult something. Learn how to say, “What is this?” and “How do you say…?” and use those phrases often.
Keep a Notebook
As you begin collecting vocabulary and phrases, start a notebook of everything you are learning in your new language. Keep a list of vocabulary and organize it in a way that makes sense to you. Write down any rules you learn about grammar in your notebook as well. Ask people to help you write things down so you spell them correctly, but also include a phonetic spelling so you will remember how to pronounce words later.
Force Yourself to Communicate
Put yourself in situations where you will be forced to speak the language. Run a simple errand, such as going to the post office by yourself, without a translator. Bring a vocabulary list if you need to, but do not just show a clerk the list. Take the opportunity to have as many real conversations as you can. You will remember vocabulary much more easily after you have used it in a situation where you really needed it.
As early as you can, start reading. Begin with something fun and simple, like children’s stories. Picture books for toddlers are perfect for your reading level, and even the simple language of these books will introduce you to new words and improve your spelling and grammar. You can also read your favorite books in translation; if you choose a book that you are familiar with in English, then you will be able to understand it in your new language. Keep a copy of the original nearby to help you out if you cannot figure out a phrase.
Try a Language CD or Software
Languages can also be learned through CDs and from online sites. Companies like Rosetta Stone, a leader in the industry, specialize in this type of language education (see link in References). Rosetta specializes in the total immersion technique and does not start with grammatical explanations. You learn by constantly interacting with the program.