Chinese Tutor

Unusual Hobbies: Study a Foreign Language

One of my unusual hobbies is learning languages.  It’s a wonderful opportunity to explore other cultures, prepare for traveling abroad, and meet interesting new friends.  Aside from my native English, I know bits and pieces of Spanish, German, and Japanese just from regular exposure to them, and I have studied Latin (although I barely remember it).  In addition, I’m fairly fluent in Mandarin, and I know some Cantonese as well.

Learn Chinese in Five Minutes
Here's a quick reference for some essential Chinese phrases.

There are a lot of great reasons for learning a new language.  If you’re from the United States, I’m sure you’re aware that our nation is a melting pot.  There are a lot of people for whom English is not their first language, so learning their languages can open the door to making new friends or improving business interactions.  If you’re a bigot who thinks that everyone who comes to America should learn English, then maybe you should try learning their language, too, so you can see that it’s not as easy as you think.  If you’re planning to travel abroad, knowing some basic questions and answers will help you find your way around much more easily.

Here are my recommended steps for learning a language:

  1. Learn about the culture.  It will be much easier to understand some of the polite phrases, gestures, and other items that will help you make a good impression and avoid faux pas.  Some examples might include greeting gestures, eye contact, when it is customary to give or accept gifts, and how to politely decline hospitality.

    Guide to Gang Signs
    Some languages are all about the gestures.
  2. When you begin learning, you want to set a goal for how in-depth you want your knowledge to be.  If you’re learning so you for a short vacation, you may do fine just to learn simple words like “please,” “thank you,” and “Where is the restroom?”  However, if you’re going to live abroad, you may want to delve deeper and learn shopping terms, how to ask for directions, and how to read signs.  If you’re going to study abroad, you will want a thorough knowledge of the language so you can read and discuss academic topics in depth.  And of course, if you’re seeking a foreign lover, I recommend picking up the applicable Making Out In . . . phrase book.
  3. Once you’ve decided what your learning goal is, start working on it.  There are countless resources available on the Internet that will help you cover the basics of most languages.  It is possible to learn without spending any money at all if you find the right podcasts, Youtube vlogs, or a friend who is willing to teach you.  If you are willing to spend money, some good options include the Pimsleur series, Rosetta Stone, or taking a class.  The Pimsleur method focuses on speaking skills and common phrases, and the native speaking examples will help you sound polite, educated, and intelligent.  Rosetta Stone is a better program for learning reading, listening, and vocabulary, but it takes a while before you learn practical conversational language.  Obviously, taking a class is the most interactive, but the quality of the learning will depend on the quality of the teacher and the curriculum.  I do not recommend taking lessons from a non-native speaker.  Don’t feel limited to any one resource, either.  Try out as many methods as you can, and find the one that appeals to your learning style.

    Chinese Tutor
    This is what a high-quality Chinese tutor looks like. (She's the one on the right.)
  4. Whatever methods and level you choose, once you have met your learning goal, there is always more of the language to learn, so you can set a more advanced goal.  For example, if you have completed all the available levels of the Pimsleur method or Rosetta Stone, you may consider watching foreign language news (I recommend Voice of America, which is free and available in pretty much every language I’ve heard of).  Finding foreign language TV shows and movies are other ways to learn more advanced language.  Listening to music is also great for learning more advanced language.  One of my personal favorite ways to practice a language is to watch music videos with subtitles and translate the lyrics as I go.

Finally, here are some overall tips to guide you through the entire process:

  • Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.  You’re going to make mistakes, and if you try to be perfect every time, you’ll just become timid when speaking your new language.  If you make a mistake, laugh about it, learn from it, and move on.  Don’t let it shake your confidence.
  • If you do learn from a teacher or a friend, make sure that person is a native speaker.  If not, you’ll end up stacking accents–that is, you’ll learn the teacher’s accent on top of your own accent, and your speaking may be difficult for real native speakers to understand.
  • Practice every day.  If you don’t have a speaking partner to practice with, then talk to yourself.  It may sound a little crazy, but practicing aloud by yourself will help you get used to forming the words and listening to yourself, and phrases will come to mind more readily when you are taking part in actual conversation.
  • And speaking of conversation partners, get one.  You can ask your friends or coworkers, or you can even put out a classified ad to find a language exchange partner.  A lot of university foreign language departments also have a language-exchange program and may be able to pair you up with a speaking partner.  If all else fails, authentic ethnic restaurants can be a great place to meet potential conversation partners, and the workers often become very excited when they find out that you can speak their language.
  • Be disciplined and keep at it.  Take a few days off if you need to, but come back to your study with renewed vigor.

Language learning is a very rewarding hobby that leads to traveling, making new friends, and understanding other cultures.  The effort you put into language learning can pay off manifold ways.

What languages have you studied?  Leave me a comment to let me know.

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3 thoughts on “Unusual Hobbies: Study a Foreign Language

  1. I like this post! I am very interested in languages and I love studying; it is really a hobby – quite a strange one, I suppose, and it makes you look a bit nerdy but highly enjoyable.

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