How to Learn a Foreign Language in just 7 days
We all know the best way to learn a language is to immerse yourself amongst local people. But if you only have a week or two volunteering on a project it might seem an impossible challenge.
I hope my experience and suggestions here can prove that it might be easier than you think to chat with locals without any lessons at all!
Learning from scratch
In Spain many years ago I found myself sharing an apartment with a lady who spoke no English whatsoever. “What’s your name?” from my phrasebook expired after its first use on day one. Afterall, how many times can you ask the same person what their name is? The question “Where do you live?” was clearly unnecessary as we were living together. And the question “how are you?” has a limitation of twice a day at best! My Spanish phrasebook was of limited help to progress further. I had no need to ask my flatmate how much was the hamburger or if service was included!
Take a dictionary!
For the first two days I sat for long periods of time with Ruth in painful silence or in painful communication. Her, straining to explain things and me in a near constant expression of bewilderment smiling through clenched teeth. Drawing pictures didn’t always help as it’s not easy to draw things like questions. I realised all I needed was a dictionary to know the word ‘when’ so I could ask when Ruth arrived in Spain.
Because I was on a tight budget, every penny counted and the only book shop I found in Madrid had over-priced and out-dated books which I was cautious about buying. I was worried I would be saying “where for art the door key?”
Make use of all opportunities to interact with local people.
Hang out with locals
Despite the difficulties of the first few hours together I do believe that adult conversation is the very best way to learn a language quickly. Try to isolate yourself from other English speakers and take advantage of any situation. I was lucky my English flatmates were out for most of the day, but you can still make use of the smallest interactions. For example, learn the word for ‘like’ then when buying a soft drink at the village shop, say to the owner, “I like” and point to their shop and smile as in “I really like your shop!” It may feel a bit cheesy for Brits but this will never fail to generate a smile. Everyone likes to receive a compliment.
Opportunities open up when you’re confident
Once you have attempted communication for the first time this should increase your confidence to interact more frequently as you will now feel less embarrassed. This can open up opportunities. Perhaps you’ll be invited to a fiesta or for a family meal!
At work with the locals in Kenya.
Key verbs to help any conversation
Next I picked up the verbs below. The first one, ‘want’ took a couple of days then it got quicker and I picked up the next three in quick succession:
Knowing these opened up real conversation and became the basis for all my chat with Ruth. Vocabulary did not cause any problems, if the object was in the room we pointed at it or drew a picture. For further practice, as we watched TV I would just point at the screen then point at Ruth “like?”, “want?” etc. She was enormously impressed with my progress and clapped enthusiastically when she understood or I got something right.
Everything is very good!
Because Ruth was saying in Spanish ‘very good’ all the time, “muy bien” was my first phrase. ‘Very good’ has got to be one of the best you can have to hand. It can be used all the time without annoyance to anyone because it is such a positive thing to say! From door frames to kitchen appliances, I was pointing and calling everything ‘very good’.
After telling Ruth her cooking was very good, well… she was even more enthusiastic, albeit I was now encouraged to take notes as she cooked and learn all the names of the ingredients. This delayed the everyday Spanish I wanted to learn but I could not take the risk of her losing enthusiasm to spend time with me so I nodded along.
Verbs and grammar
I soon noticed that she used the words like/have/want and go differently. I could hear little words in front of them and the endings changed when she asked me questions. Then it clicked, they were ‘I’ and ‘You’ and she was changing the verb at the end. In English they stay the same but in Spanish they need to change.
- I want – Yo quiero – You want – Tu quieres
- I have – Yo tengo – You have – Tu tienes
- I like – Me gusta – You like – Te gusta
- I go – Me voy – You go – Tu vas
I got them wrong a lot of the time but Ruth soon started correcting me more aggressively (in a nice way) as she knew by this stage I was ready to get them correct. By week two I felt like I had mastered very basic conversational Spanish.
Volunteers shared same experiences
What startled me a few years later was how volunteers I shared projects with, just like me, with no language skills seemed to go through the same process with local people . The “very good” was in constant use and the first verbs were near enough exactly the same! By week two all the volunteers who had gone out of their way to interact with local people on a daily basis, from neighbours to the local bar, had mastered enough to have a simple adult conversation.
Photo dictionary can be useful for pointing.
Take two dictionaries from home
In developing countries, bookshops are rare and prices can be high as there is little demand. The only customers will be ex-pats or wealthier local English teachers. A basic good dictionary in the UK might be £7.99 but abroad you could easily spend £30 for an out of date one, which if you are in Latin America, will probably be American English.
If the language is not one of the world’s main languages, then order early from Amazon as the shop/seller might not be in your home country. And make sure you have the right language! If your India guidebook has Hindi phrases at the back it is easy to miss that Tamil is the main language spoken in Southern India or that half of Cameroon speak French which happens to be where many of the great beaches are!
I suggest taking two dictionaries. Then you can look up your words while the other person is looking up theirs! Otherwise you may have to learn the phrase ‘hurry up!’
There are some good picture dictionaries around too. Dorling has a good range of photo dictionaries packed with more photos than you will ever need.
If you have time on the plane
Learn one phrase and 4 key verbs to help conversation
Forget the classic introductions, “What’s your name?” and “My name is”. You haven’t got time on a short trip and that can all be covered just as well by pointing at each other and saying your name! Instead learn the most important phrase you will need to get the locals on your side and smiling:
And memorise the basic verbs below (known as the root of the verb):
I hope the above is helpful. I would love to hear as always your own experiences of language learning as a complete beginner. Perhaps there were other phrases you needed early on. I can imagine on isolated projects needs will be different and you might need to ask your hosts “Where is?” more often for your everyday essentials.