There is just no way around it, the very first step to becoming a global citizen is learning another language. Not only does monolingualism prevent you from communicating with the vast majority of the world’s population; it also prevents you from truly understanding other cultures. Our cultures are deeply embedded in our languages and dialects – you can’t fully understand one without strong familiarity of the other.
I’m sure you’ve already beaten yourself up enough about not paying more attention in your high school foreign language class. Fortunately for you, it is easier (and cheaper) to learn another language today than it ever has been before. All you need are four different components: 1.) a language buddy, 2.) a bilingual dictionary, 3.) a grammar guide, 4.) an audio recorder.
Of course there is the most important component of all, commitment. Learning a second language can’t just be a romantic notion of ordering Italian food properly while you’re on holiday in Venice. Learning another language is tough work. You have to carve out at least an hour every day to practice. It takes years and years to really become fluent. Even then, you still have to practice every week or you will lose it.
Now that I’ve made it sound difficult, let’s go through each component step by step to see just how easy learning a second language has become. First step, a language buddy. You need a native speaker of whatever language you are trying to learn and, more importantly, you need someone who is just as excited to master English as you are to master his or her native tongue.
If you can’t think of anyone you already know, don’t worry, there are plenty of social networking websites specifically focused on setting up language buddies for video conferencing. Three of the biggest sites are Livemocha (free), Palabea (free), and eduFire (pay site). Be picky about who you choose. Your language buddy should be someone who you look forward to speaking with at least once a week and who is just as commited as you are. Before you go searching for that perfect person, think about what it is you want to talk about each week. After getting to know one another better, it’s probably a good idea to plan some sort of joint syllabus, then focus on one person’s language learning for 45 minutes and then the other’s for 45 minutes.
Even before finding your language buddy, you’ll need to find the resources so that you can develop your own class at your own pace. Let’s use Spanish as an example since it is such a widely spoken and beautiful language. For a Spanish-English dictionary, I use WordReference.com, which not only has a thorough dictionary of Spanish to English and English to Spanish translations, but also a Spanish monolingual dictionary, a lexicon of Spanish synonyms, conjugation guide, and a lively, supportive forum community where all of your questions will get answered within a couple hours. You will need more than just an online dictionary, however. You also want a dictionary that you can keep in your pocket for when you’re reading small books or magazines in the language you are learning. Since I always have my iPhone on me, I’ve installed the weDict dictionary application along with several Spanish-English dictionaries. If you’re without an iPhone, I would recommend buying a pocket sized electronic translator. (The Franklin ones are pretty good and available at most major drug stores.)
There are three important parts to learning a language: vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation. The dictionary will help you with your vocabulary. To come up with your own syllabus of grammar lessons, however, will require a little googling on your part. You can ‘enroll’ in a course on Livemocha. Or you can simply compile a series of lessons from the internet. For example, here are some simple searches for Spanish, Bengali, Hindi, and French. It is important to pace yourself and stay consistent. Complete at least one new grammar lesson every week.
The biggest obstacle to truly mastering another language for most people is pronunciation. Your grammar can be perfect, your vocabulary superb, but if you’re not comfortable pronouncing the words, you won’t be able to engage in fluent conversation. It takes years to lose your accent and speak like a native speaker. It requires extreme concentration to learn exactly how to shape your lips and how to move your tongue in order to pronounce each syllable of every word properly. The best way to learn pronunciation is to concentrate on exactly how a native speaker pronounces a word and compare your own pronunciation of that same word. Once again, an iPhone is a great tool to do this. You can subscribe to any number of podcasts dedicated to learning a foreign language. Then, after installing Erica Sadun’s VNotes application, you can record yourself pronouncing the same words you’ll be practicing with the podcast. Of course, if you don’t have an iPhone, you can still record yourself practicing pronunciation with a simple $5 microphone and an audio recording program like Audacity. Another excellent resource to learn the pronunciation of words in the language you are learning is Forvo, a collaborative database of pronunciations in over 180 languages.
So there you have it, a guide to learn just about any major language in the world for free. I hope you click through the links and explore around a little bit, but I would recommend that you don’t actually start learning another language until you know that you have enough time each week to commit to it. Like Linda Stone says, committing to one task implies withdrawing from another.