Changing the way you think about foreign language learning

Do you think of foreign language learning as sitting in your boring, stuffy high school Spanish class repeating “Yo me llamo. Tú te llamas. Él se llama” in Spanish?

Boring, right?

Having labored through many dull language classes, I have seen how ineffective rote memorization techniques alienated and discouraged students. Foreign language learning, as discussed in yesterday’s blog, is important to your future as a project manager. Don’t let any prior experience in a foreign language course that substituted for sleeping pills deter you from launching into a new language. Studying a foreign language doesn’t have to be a remedy for insomnia. Just like you have to sometimes change the way your team sees a challenge or project problem, you may have to alter they way you think of languages. It can awaken a new part of you. A new language is a new soul. Music and media are excellent ways to learn languages.

Turn up the stereo and it will be much easier.

I know this from experience. My parents stuffed Russian grammar down my throat when I was a kid and I hated it. But I went on to speak seven languages (English, Russian, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and Serbo-Croatian) with perfect or almost perfect accents.

How did I do it?

Was it by burning the midnight oil with conjugation charts and boring foreign language pronunciation CDs that broke my CD player?

Ha ha ha!

Answer: Music and other media!

I did study grammar, but I got into the groove of my target languages by passively and actively listening to lyrical music in those languages. You can do the same to have fun learning a foreign language.

1. Change the way you think about music (lyrical songs)

Think of your target language like music. In his book, Musicophilia, Neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks has shown that music engages more parts of the brain than language. You are more likely to remember new words if they hear them in a song rather than memorizing a word list.

Children seem to remember musical tunes and jingles quite well. Listen to music in other tongues and you will automatically sing along without any understanding of the meaning. When you find the English translation of the foreign language lyrics, you will understand what the song lyrics are about.

Music is fun. We are all musical beings even if we can’t dance to save our life or we can’t even sing “Happy Birthday” in tune!

It is one of the easiest ways to learn. Most of us remember the ABC song we learned as children, but it is not uncommon for people to forget what their spouse asked them to buy at the grocery store, much less remember the order of the periodic table. Perhaps if there had been a “catchy” tune presented in our chemistry classes, we just might be able to recite that table as adults.

Music sticks. Let the sticky power of songs get your target language to stick in your brains.

2. Make it fun.

Think of speaking sentences in Japanese as singing a song. It’s a lot more enjoyable than only concentrating on grammar and vocabulary. When you get frustrated with the language, remind yourself that it’s just a game.

When US figure skater Sarah Hughes was the surprise gold medalist at the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in 2002, journalists asked her how she won it despite all the stress and media attention. She said she was just having fun on the ice and didn’t let herself cave into the pressure of winning. This is a great attitude to have to keep your cool. There will be times where you won’t understand or will mispronounce things. Laugh it off. Learning can be enjoyable.

3. Listen passively and actively.

Learning a new language means you have to change your key and tune. Dancing the cha-cha to waltz music is like speaking a new language while still using the rhythm of your mother tongue. Let yourself take in the sounds of the language as though you were listening to a new piece of music.

Even if you are just a beginner and barely know any words, you can still learn by listening. Pay attention to how people speak. Does it seem like they are reading a phone number or rattling of a list of numbers? Are they angry? Happy? Sometimes, you have to shut off your brain and inclination to interpret to analyze. Listen to the words spoken to you and listen to your intuition.

Find music in your target language that you like. It doesn’t matter if at first you don’t understand the lyrics. Pick music you like. You may start singing along without even knowing what you are singing. That’s fine. You are not only learning the rhythm of the language, you are learning new vocabulary.


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