Quick (hopefully useful) post before breakfast.
Several people lately have marveled at how I’m able to – seemingly almost effortlessly – converse with natives in the local tongue.
Yesterday I took a group of travel bloggers with me wakeboarding here in Thailand, and my friend Lyndsay of Discount Travel Blogger expressed amazement as she heard me converse in 4 different languages in just a couple of hours (English, Spanish, Thai, and Tagalog). I successfully asked for directions to get us home, and translated the desired foods of each member in our group at dinner.
I want to take a few minutes to weigh in on the topic.
I don’t plan to turn this in to a long comprehensive post on languages; I just want to share with you some of the things that have been working well for me.
This is a relatively short (by my standards) post to simply share some of my short cuts so you don’t have to spend a lot time sifting through a bunch of audio cassettes, YouTube videos, or language learning software. You can begin applying these immediately. Enjoy!
Language short cuts
There are several short cuts in every language which you can use to almost “hack” the language. You could call these “substitution phrases.” It’s almost like a cheat code because these words and phrases have many uses.
I’ll list a few of these and give examples in three different languages:
Spanish – Este, Eso
Thai – Un Nee, Un Nan
Chinese – Ji guh, Ni guh
These two words – this and that – have a TON of uses. If you don’t know how to say something in the target language, simply use one of these. For example, if you don’t know how to say “receipt” in Thai, you can simply say “Mai ow un nee” – “I don’t want this,” instead of saying “I don’t want a receipt.”
I am very conversationally fluent in Spanish, but there are thousands of words in Spanish that I don’t know – such as “left-handed monkey wrench.” It is very easy to substitute “this” or “that” to interchangeably describe an object in a conversation and be easily understood.
There are also phrases, such as:
“Can you help me?”
Spanish – “Puede ayudarme?”
Thai – “Chuay poom noi dai mai?”
Chinese – “Nee kuh ee bang wuh ma?”
A phrase like “Can you help me?” can substitute for many types of action phrases that you don’t know how to express in the target language. You can then ask your question, gesture, or point to a map and ask for directions.
This phrase is easy for the native speaker to understand, and it’s a wonderful introductory opening phrase which evokes compliance from the target recipient. When they see that you are a foreigner, they may be hesitant at first to engage with you in conversation (Thailand is a perfect example). But if you say this phrase, and show that you can communicate to some degree in their language, they tend to open up somewhat.
By far, one of the very best things you can do when you travel is to simply ask people how to say things in their language. This is one of the language learning tactics that my polyglot friend in Guam, Sean Perez, has used to pick up 10 different languages.
If you have a friend who speaks both the language you want to learn and English, they can teach you a lot, especially when it comes to pronouncing things correctly. If the native speaker you ask does not speak English, you can simply gesture or point to something and ask them how they say in it their language.
Thai – “Pa-saa Thai riak wa yang rai?”
(“How do you say this in Thai?”)
Spanish – “Como se dice…?”
(“How do you say this?”)
My suggestion is, learn this simple phrase in your target language. Any time you are in a situation where you don’t know how to say a word or phrase but need to, simply ask how to say it. There’s a good chance that you’ll use this word or phrase again, and you’ll know how next time you find yourself in that situation.
How to Remember Words and Phrases 99% of the Time
Next we come to mnemonics. Mnemonics are one of my favorite memory techniques. Although the name sounds technical and complicated, it’s actually very simple, practical, and easy to use. Mnemonics are a fun way to assist your memory when it comes to remembering certain words and phrases.
Here’s how I use mnemonics – when you want to memorize a new word or phrase in a new language, try to attach some familiar meaning in a language you do speak.
Here are some fun examples…
“Raww” means “wait” – sounds like “row,” as in “row your boat.”
“Pang” means “expensive” – sounds like “pain.” It causes pain for your budget.
“Touk” means “cheap.” I remember this word by associating it to the hobbits from the Lord of the Rings – ex: “Peregrin-Touk.” Little guys, little price.
“Nok nok” means “hard” or “harder.” Useful when you get a Thai massage and want them to apply more pressure. Easy to remember too – just think of someone “knock knocking” on a door.
“Khor thod” – “excuse me” or “sorry.” Second part sounds like “toad,” with a slightly different pronunciation.
“Omatase shimashita” means “sorry to keep you waiting.” *OMG* (Omatase), I’ve kept you waiting. I’m so sorry.
If a word is unique enough that you can’t find a mnemonic attachment to place to it, it’s uniqueness often makes it easier to remember. An example is “sheeyeh sheeyeh” – or thank you – in Chinese. You may not be able to apply mnemonics 100% of the time, but you’d be surprised.
That brings me to the other easy technique to remember words and phrases, which is simple yet effective…
Write things down
I like to always keep a sheet of paper in my bag where I write down common useful words and phrases. Get a sheet or two and put them inside a laminate sleeve or paper folder for protection.
Then, simply keep a log of the most useful words and phrases as you go. If I ask someone how to say something, and they tell me, chances are I’ll forget later unless I write it down. A simple sheet of paper that I can pull out any time is really useful. In my opinion, it’s better to write down phrases that you learn because they are the most useful to you.
A phrase book, by contrast, is chock full of thousands of phrases and many of them are not very commonly used. It also becomes very difficult to dig through a phrase book to find the phrases you need.
For example, a phrase book might list 1,000 Thai foods – including a ton of obscure ones that no one will request. But it fails to include the simple Thai phrase for “vegetarian” (which is “Mang Sawee Lot,” by the way). Why these phrase books fail to realize that the phrase for “vegetarian” might be useful to a large segment of their readers, I have no idea.
Finally: when you write things down, it’s important to spell each word or phrase in a way that will make it easier for you to pronounce later. Pinyin – the Romanized form of Mandarin – is a perfect example of what NOT to do, because the way that Pinyin writes Chinese words makes it very difficult for a native English speaker to understand and pronounce.
Furthermore, latinized interpretations ot other languages – such as Pinyin – generally fail to account for the long-form vowel that native English speakers are accustomed to (Here’s a little secret: Pinyin was not created by English speakers, but by Italian and Dutch speakers – whose languages use the same alphabet but whose vowels sound differently than English).
The period when you first start to learn the new language is the most difficult. I call this period “escape velocity” whenever you try something new, and it’s the hardest part. It’s like a rocket ship leaving the earth and expending so much energy and resources just in its initial take off.
Once you get some momentum – it becomes easier and easier.
As you spend more time familiarizing yourself with the language, you’ll more easily remember common words and sounds. Certain rules and syllables are used again often.
For example, Thai uses the syllable “nam” (which means water) in a variety of ways:
“Nam-plao” (glass of water)
“Nam-ron” (hot water)
The more you practice a language the deeper your association with it becomes. Over time you’ll develop to think – to some extent – in the new language.
One final note in summary: it’s very important to use a way of learning that works best for you. When people hear me talking in other languages, they ask me where I took classes. My answer is always the same: I don’t take classes.
I’ve never learned well in a classroom, going all the way back to preschool (I was kicked out of several schools by the time I’d reached 6th grade for rebellious behavior). I do, however, learn very well on my own and thoroughly enjoy self study when it’s a topic that’s interesting to me.
That’s the final secret: your ability to learn is directly tied to your level of motivation. It’s how interested you are in the target culture and language. If you simply want to learn a language just to learn a language, it makes success infinitely more difficult.
Instead, ask yourself “Why?” Why do I want to learn this language? If you have good reasons to back your desire, you’ll find the learning process to be much faster and easier. It’s funny how it works that way.
I also have strong reasons not to learn certain languages such as Vietnamese and Korean, because they just seem too damn hard. I’ve tried to pronounce simple phrases to natives in both languages, and no one understands me – so I’ve lost motivation to learn those two.
One of the best ways to accelerate your motivation is to simply move to the country where that language is spoken.
Necessity is the mother of invention, as they say, and it fosters growth. Your motivation increases sharply in an environment where you have to use the language on a day-to-day basis.
In my opinion, learning other languages is one of the most rewarding pursuits anyone can take. And indeed, learning new things and lessons from foreign cultures and adopting them as your own is one of the best ways to multiply your life’s experience.
Good luck and let me know how your own language learning experience goes! As always, let me know if you have any questions – I welcome feedback!