by María L. Trigos-Gilbert

Foreign languages are those “mysterious” and external words to one’s own country and culture. Furthermore, languages are undoubtedly the most important accomplishments of human beings for a variety of communicative purposes. The Random House Webster’s Dictionary gives us the following definition for language: “A body of words and systems for their use common to a people of the same community or nation.”

Hours & Requirements Needed to Learn a Foreign Language
Learning a foreign language is like most of the things in life. It requires good practice and quality time, but beyond those two facts it begs for one’s faithful determination. While you live in your native country, speaking on a daily basis your mother tongue, it would be ideal if you take at least an hour every day to practice. You should divide the time up in intervals of 30 minutes. You will take the first 30 minutes to practice your reading and writing; the other half hour will be to practice your verbal acquisition.

Select an hour that does not interfere with your other responsibilities. Be sure to have a comfortable and a quiet place where your verbal practice is not disturbed by some outside noises. This last point is fundamental because it will help you to be aware of how good or bad your foreign words may sound to you. You ought to be concerned for the correctness or incorrectness of your pronunciation at all times. You do not want to become a deep-seated person in your mispronunciation. It is a lot easier to learn something correctly than to correct a bad habit. This is not to say that you won’t make grammar or verbal mistakes. In fact you will make mistakes. Human beings learn through analysis, trial and error, correction, and constant practice.

Since to learn a foreign language is one of your educational goals, I will make a list of some important tools that you will use along the process:

• A bilingual dictionary: The language being studied and your native language.
• A bilingual thesaurus: This is extremely important because it helps you choose one word among some others. You may select the easiest word for you until you get acquainted with some other words.
• A notebook of your preference to keep all your notes organized and in one place. Be sure to date them. When time passes, I encourage you to check your old notes and see how far you have come.
• A book with colored pictures is relevant where subjects and points are well defined in each chapter. A foreign language book without visuals is next to useless.
• A 60 minute tape and a tape recorder: This is a fantastic tool to help your pronunciation. Your private tutor or your language professor will be glad to pronounce those words that are difficult for you. Just remember to ask them.
• A highlighter: This is the color of your choice. Be sure to use a color light enough to be able to read what is highlighted.
• Index cards: These are very useful to review your vocabulary. On one side write the foreign language word, and on the other side write your native language word. Certainly both of them will mean the same but in different languages.
• An index card box: This box will keep your index cards clean and safe.

Note: The amount of synonyms and antonyms varies from one language to another. In some languages synonyms and antonyms are reduced to one or two words.

Reasons for Studying a Foreign Language
The reasons for studying a foreign language are very vast. Yet two of the most important reasons are the following:

1. Professional reasons, including religious missionaries.
2. Love reasons, people falling in love and marrying other people with different languages.

Many years ago the matter of speaking and writing foreign languages were activities for the wealthy people. They used to send their children to foreign countries, and at times the reasons were more political than religious or any other need or want.

Nowadays most people feel the need to speak a new language for personal and professional aims. These aims are the following:

• More employment opportunities
• Better salary prospects
• Higher chances for business success
• Further understanding of someone else’s culture

Certainly some people learn a new language because they marry a person with a different language. Therefore, their mission is more subjective than objective, though the meaning is still the same.

We must keep in mind the religious missionary groups. They spend at least one year studying their new language in their native country. Then they go to a foreign country to preach their beliefs whatever their denomination may be. This third group is very successful because they deal with a lot of people. These are poor, rich, uneducated, or educated people. The religious missionaries learn the new language together with the country’s culture. They are eager to understand people’s needs and wants while sharing their faith with them.

Therefore, it would be nice if you start becoming a little more related to people’s history, present, and future. It would be better if you change the concept of learning a foreign language for the concept of adopting a new language. You don’t want to become like a bilingual encyclopedia, or a bilingual walking dictionary. By doing so this will be a promising recipe for failure, disaster. I know that you want better results.

How to Practice Your Foreign Language
• Make an appointment with yourself and be faithful to it on a daily basis. Set a time for it.
• Start from the beginning. You should not study the present perfect if you have not mastered the present tense. This is common sense, and I know that you have it.
• Make notes in your notebook of the most important points of your book’s chapter. They do not necessarily have to be grammar formulas, but all those facts that make up a language.
• Match your learning with written exercises from your book or workbook. This will help you very much to see how much you understand so far. Do not get discouraged or impatient when you find mistakes. A true learner makes mistakes and corrects them.
• Verbalize your written exercises with your teacher, tutor, or a friend who knows your new language well. Do not be stubborn or defensive when one of them corrects your pronunciation. Do not reject a knowledgeable recommendation.

Computer Tools
I realize that this is an era where all things in a person’s life style are very digital. Therefore, I will mention some computer tools that you may want to use to make your studying more interesting and easier.

• A computer foreign language program written in your own language. This is like having a book that one inserts in a computer’s hard-drive.
• A floppy disk or a blank CD to use for backing up and saving your written work.

Note: You do not necessarily have to get a floppy disk if you do not want to save your work on your Desktop or in a My Documents file. It all depends on your needs, though I highly recommend the floppy disk or blank CD in case your computer crashes.

The process of learning a language with a computer program tends to get a bit tricky if you do not turn off the spelling error option. A good number of people depend too much on their spelling option; this does not help them to master their foreign language. This will not assure your true learning when it comes to writing it down by hand and on paper. Your doubts seem to multiply themselves while thinking about the right spelling of a word. Therefore, be honest with yourself and get your work done.

How Long Does It Take to Learn a Foreign Language?
It is a fair question if I answer this title’s question with another question. How long have you been speaking your native language? It will surely take you at least a year to learn the basis, without taking into consideration your pronunciation and your fluidity. Reality tells me that in order to learn a new language well you must commit yourself for a life time. There will be times when you encounter new words in your reading, or hear new words while someone speaks. This is nothing to make you afraid; on the contrary, be willing to find out the meaning of those new words. It is part of the deal, your language acquisition.

You ought to be willing and dedicated to your new language; this will make it easier on you. Of course, you could make use of a calendar in your bedroom or at your office. This will tell you about your progress in a time frame. For example, let’s suppose that you start studying Spanish or French in 1999. Now picture yourself in the year 2001. By this time you should know the basis and perhaps a bit more. A time frame always helps to analyze one’s improvement.

Doing It Systematically Doesn’t Mean Boring
Listen to your professor’s or tutor’s pronunciation and repeat what you hear. This is a difficult part for most adults because they do not want to sound “funny.” Painstakingly you must practice your pronunciation with the ones that know more than you do. You want to overcome your fears to get the right sound of any given word.

Become like a child. Certainly you are about to throw this guide away because now I am asking too much of you. Still keep reading please, this will make a lot of sense to you pretty soon. I have the following good reasons:

• Physiologically and psychologically children by the age of five or six are adept at speaking their own language and some even before that.
• The capacity of learning a language is generally transmitted like the shape of one’s eyes or nose, or the desire and ability to walk at a certain age.
• The human brain is pre-programmed, in a sense, to construct “rules,” or strategies for interpreting and producing speech.
• Maybe the one that is going to impact you the most, is the one that language does not necessarily depend on intelligence, since even the mentally retarded often learn to use language quite well and sometimes before the expected age, time.
Yet, when a person reaches puberty, he or she loses the capacity of producing new sounds. This is the big why it will be ideal to become like a child while learning your foreign language. Children are not afraid of imitating the sounds they hear. Furthermore, they do enjoy it like playing a game with a lot of enthusiasm. Children are simple; they are not double minded. They are very direct toward their needs and wants, though they may not know the difference between the two. This is not your case.

Note: I am not asking you by any meanings to act childish. I am asking you to be open minded and willing to produce distinctive sounds which will make sense to the ears of a native speaker of the language that you may be studying or about to study.

You do not want to just learn your new language, but indeed you want to adopt it. It won’t be anymore a foreign language, but yours. At first write what you hear. Do not worry about the right spelling, you may check it later. This is not a bad idea at all because children at first write just what they hear. With the passing of time they learn the correct spelling of the words.

Read What Interests You the Most
It would be tiresome to read an unappealing article in another language. So the best thing to do is to read articles that interest you the most. For example, if you like computer magazines, buy computer magazines in the new language. If you like art magazines, buy art magazines in the new language. This is a smart move and a lot less boring.

Do My Learning Strategies Count?
Absolutely, they do count a lot. Right position of the body. Well lighted room. Your best time for studying: Morning, afternoon, evening, or night. Clean and organized material.

Phonetics of Languages
Let’s examine the following examples:

“Seven days without praying makes one weak.” Isn’t this interesting? Somehow in our minds we are looking to modify the word “weak”, it does not fit our train of thought. Yet phonetically speaking the word “weak” and the word “week” sound just alike to one’s ears. So the only way to differentiate both words is by context.

“I C U later.” “This is 4 U.” These are two other examples that help us realize that languages are not just about grammar, but indeed very phonetic. It doesn’t matter how you write. It matters how it sounds. At times it is not enough to hear the word, but we need context in order to make sense of a person’s speech. Of course, we are not saying that this is the correct way of writing. I am just showing you how sounds of words are at times almost identical if not the same.

Let’s revise these Spanish phonemes:

“Ka” is an equivalent of “ca.” “Ke” is also an equivalent of “que,” a Spanish subordinate conjunction or a question mark if it is accentuated in the last vowel. Now let’s see some words examples:

Karate and casa (the last word meaning house in English) the first syllable of each word sounds the same, although spelled differently. Once again this is about phonetics.

At times many students find it very interesting to study phonetics in their own language as well as in their foreign language. This helps them to understand their foreign language sounds. They learn where the sounds come from, and how they are produced in the vocal track. They start understanding the differences between their native language and their new language. They are a lot more aware when they are making the wrong sound, perhaps an interference of their native language versus their foreign language. Yet the time comes when they master the sounds.

Languages are far from simple because they are adapted to people’s needs and times. Languages are pretty sensitive to a nation’s finances, politics, and indeed religions. Learning a new language is an exciting adventure. The better and the more you know about it; the more interesting it gets. After a person learns a foreign language, that person is never ever the same. The person’s mental frontiers have expanded, becoming, in a sense, a mature person. He or she is a lot more understanding and sensitive to someone else’s language and culture.

I do really hope that this guide has helped you target your foreign language studies. Remember that an empire is not built in one day and with just one strategy. It takes time and effort to accomplish mastering a foreign language. This is why it will take almost all your life to fully understand your new language. The pretension that we will fully understand everything about a new language in a year or so is almost out of reach, unthinkable. Yet we should work toward such pretension. I know that it sounds as if I am contradicting myself. Yet give me the chance to explain to you my thoughts.

We do not know that we are not perfect people. Yet the ones who work toward perfection are the ones who at least get half the job done! It will take all your strength to speak and understand well a foreign language. Now the good news: It is not impossible.