Think of this as a seven-step process to learning a foreign language: Flash cards, pen pals, reading, listening, Internet radio, studying with others and fostering contact with others each can help boost your learning capacity for a new tongue. Study smart, not hard.
Learning a foreign language can be a daunting task. But when we break it down, it's really a numbers game. How much time are you putting into it and how many words do you know? In most cases, you will require a few hundred hours of study time and overall 2000-3000 words of active vocabulary to be conversational with any hope of one day being actually fluent. Once you learn it to that point, it pretty much becomes self-sustaining, if you maintain it and continue to use it.
This sounds like too difficult a task for someone who casually says "hey I'ld like to learn spanish!" but the reality is, you can learn to speak a language at a daily conversation level much more quickly if you apply a few additional techniques to supplement your language method or class. You can be functional with a lot fewer words and you can significantly reduce the number of hours necessary to learn the foundation of the language.
Pound for pound the single best and most efficient use of your time when learning a language. Ten seconds of free time becomes a quick quiz - whip card number one out of your pocket "what is the spanish word for ... food? comida? flip the card over ... correct!" Two minutes is a major review session. Look at it this way - if you spent ten seconds on one word, for two minutes - that's twelve words in two minutes. Twelve words a day for five days a week is 3000 words in one year. All the words you need to be conversational in just two minutes a day. That doesn't account for grammar and pronunciation, but still - one year to learn all the vocabulary you need. Don't say you don't have time to learn a language. Remember this the next time you are on line at the bank or the grocery store, doctors office, waiting at a red light etc.
Once you have some basic understanding of the language, get some reading material. Here's the important part - something you are interested in. If you're into gardening then get a magazine or print out an online article on gardening in your target language. You'll be learning vocabulary and phrases that really interest you, and that will help you pick it up that much quicker.
If your language method doesn't have an audio component then get one. If it does then get another one anyway. Hearing the language is the most important aspect of learning if you intend to speak it. Give yourself opportunities to use it during otherwise non-productive times like while driving or just relaxing.
Following the above advice, give yourself more (and free!) opportunities to hear your new language. Radio can expose you to new vocabulary and fresh content daily. Don't overdo it with your one audio cd. Mix up your audio with other sources, and constantly changing ones like music and internet news broadcasts from other countries. The more sources you have to hear from, the better.
This is probably the cardinal rule when it comes to learning languages. You must expose yourself to the language every day if possible. Studying ten minutes a day is better than cramming for an hour once or twice a week. Frequent review, even if only a few minutes, is essential. This is true for maintaining a language after you have learned it too. Long periods off are deadly.
Use the power of the internet to hook up with other people around the world who speak the language you are learning. They can help you immeasurably. You can help them with English and they can help you with your target language. There are plenty of free sites and forums to find people who will be happy to work with you.
Study With Others
Studying and practicing with other people can give you instant feedback and interactivity that you just can't get from a book or even audio or software. Even if you only know very little, you will absorb it quicker and with more enjoyment than just studying alone. Ultimately, that's the purpose of learning a foreign language anyway - to communicate with other people.
So, try applying some different techniques to your language learning regimen. You will probably find that you can add a few techniques without requiring any more time from your already overtaxed schedule. You may find that you can actually use less time studying as you streamline your learning process. Learn to learn more effectively and remember to keep your eye on the goal whether you put a number on it or not.
Ron Tichenor is a long-time language enthusiast, exploring Spanish, French, Swedish, Esperanto and others. Learn more about studying a language on your own at Language Learning Advisor. This guide for self- study language learners has reviews and recommendations of language learning methods and products, links to online learning resources, learning tips to maximize your study time and effectiveness and articles on language learning.