My goal for the next few weeks is to take the "99 Things" book and see if I can put my own personal spin on each of them, and make a personal workshop out of each of the suggestions.
Suggestion #25: For non-native English speakers: Improve your English. For native English speakers: Learn another language. - Stephan Kämper
When I was growing up, I had the opportunity to take various classes in school that focused on foreign languages. In elementary and middle school, I took a couple years of Spanish. In High School, I took three years of German. During my adult life, I have, through various media interests, become very interested in learning both Japanese and Korean (as spoken and written).
To tell the truth, while I can hear a lot of these languages around me every day, and through various mediums experience Spanish, German, Japanese or Korean, and understand a fair bit of what I hear and read, I struggle with speaking it in any way that doesn't come off sounding ridiculous.
The reasons for why I'm not better with these languages are many, but I believe it comes down to one fundamental issue. We learn, and remember, what we use and directly interact with. My Spanish and German probably would be a lot better today if I had more of an opportunity (and took advantage of the opportunities that I did have) to daily use those languages. Hearing, reading, writing, but most of all actually speaking with other people in that language. The fact is, I grew up in an area where, at the time, there were not many Spanish or German speakers. Even today, while I love watching Anime and K-Drama, the biggest hindrance so far has been having access to a limited number of fluent speakers to interact with (and to be fair, would be willing and patient enough to interact with me ;) ).
Language acquisition is easiest when we are young, because we hear it while our minds are making the mental map of our world. We are able to associate sounds and actions early on, and those become part of our everyday language. Our "Native Tongue" is easiest because it's where all of our formative experience are associated. Later on in life, as we try to learn a new language, we find that we struggle to make the same kind of connections. I find myself actively translating what I hear, formulating what we want to say in English, then translate it again to say it back to the person I am speaking with. The tighter I can make that feedback loop, the more likely I will be to gain comfort and fluency in that language.
Workshop #23: Commit to Listening to, Reading, Writing and Speaking a Different Language
This workshop will not be easy, and it will not be something that can be accomplished in a short period of time. Anyone can make some progress, but to get genuinely good (i.e. fluent) could take years! While there are some software applications that can help with this (Rosetta Stone, etc.), and of course we could take language classes at a local college, I want to explore some low cost or no cost ways to do this.
The examples below are going to use Japanese because that is the language I'm currently focusing on. Anywhere you see Japanese, replace with the language of your choosing.
1. Find several books in Japanese and English (or online sites if you prefer), a translation dictionary, and some books (or sites) purely in Japanese (I've found that Manga works great for this).
2. A pad of paper and a comfortable pen. This is for me to practice regularly writing out Kana and Kanji characters. I say them out loud as I write them, and I speak out the words that they form as I do.
4. Movies, television shows and audio programs in Japanese (decades of love for Anime helps a lot here. If the option exists to toggle subtitles on or off, even better).
3. Some friends that speak Japanese fluently, and are willing to spend time talking to me. Seriously, this last one is crucial, and I know I have to be really nice to them. My plan is to buy them dinner or take them out for drinks… frequently :).
Using each of these tools, I then spend as much time as I feel comfortable listening to, reading, writing and speaking Japanese. Reading helps me see the flow of the words, and how they relate. Listening to dialogue helps me hear words in context as well as proper pronunciation. Writing things out help me recognize words as I become more familiar with them (especially true with Kana/Kanji, since they have no resemblance to my familiar Roman alphabet at all).
While all of these will be helpful, to really make it stick, having access to people who will take the time to talk to me in Japanese will be the biggest factor. Since I'm still on the early part of the learning curve, those people will need to be remarkably patient, and I will need to reward their patience and willingness to put up with me (I am totally serious about the buying dinner for them from time to time). The consistent speaking and varying of conversation, I feel, is the most effective way to really learn a language, to be able to adapt and begin to "think" in that language.
It's not enough to casually read or "get the gist of a language", I will have to do enough and be involved with it enough so that I can genuinely make it a part of my everyday interactions. Barring an opportunity to move to a location where I can be fully immersed in Japanese (I would love to move to Tokyo or Sapporo for a year or two, but that's just not practical and my wife might strenuously object), the next best option is to utilize various media and interact with real people. All of this will have me regularly reading, writing, hearing and speaking Japanese. I wish all good luck in the language you choose… and if any out there fall into the camp of wanting to improve your English, I'm happy to help where I can (I'll leave whether or not I'd be an acceptable coach as an exercise to the reader ;) ).