When you’re a beginner in a language, and you meet someone who’s studied it for years, it can be a bit of a shock.
You wonder: “How are they so damn good?”
It feels like they’re leagues ahead of you.
How can you hope to stay motivated all that time and catch up with the more advanced learners? Maybe you’re thinking that none of your hard work is going to pay off for months or years! Why even bother?
Here’s why. First of all, you don’t have to wait months or years to be able to use your new language effectively. You can start right away! Even if you’re a beginner, there are some powerful language hacks you can employ that will have you speaking on par with, or even outsmarting, those more advanced learners that you feel are impossible to compete with right now.
How can you outsmart more advanced learners? Easy, if you have the right attitude, study the right resources, and learn some speaking and listening techniques to convince other speakers that you’re not a beginner at all.
Let’s get to it! As a beginner you can outsmart advanced learners because you can…
1. Ignore the Academic Textbooks and Study the Vocabulary You Need
So much time in language classes (and to an extent, even with tools such as DuoLingo) is wasted studying vocabulary you’ll almost never need, at the expense of vocabulary that you’ll definitely need on a daily basis when using that language. Unless you plan to spend most of your time working in an office environment where you’ll be immersed in your target language, how often are you really going to need the vocabulary for “stapler”, “chalk”, or “three-hole puncher”? These words are generally taught in the classroom because they’re items commonly found in classrooms. But isn’t the whole point of learning a language so that you can use it outside the classroom?
Too many language learners get to an “advanced” level in their courses without actually being able to converse about topics that are relevant to their lives. You can avoid this pitfall right from the start. Don’t get stuck in the trap of learning vocabulary “suitable” for your level. Learn what you actually need, and use it! Think of your main goal of language learning, and head in that direction right away.
Do you want to speak the language while on holiday? Then learn vocabulary commonly found in phrasebooks. Yes, believe it or not, you can start learning phrases like “When will the restaurant close?” which contain the (gasp!) future tense, even if you haven’t yet learned the names of all the colours!
Perhaps you want to learn the language in order to work as an au pair in another country. In that case, you’d focus on vocabulary relevant to households and childcare. You might even get hired over a more advanced speaker who can conjugate verbs perfectly in every tense and yet can’t talk about any topic that wasn’t in their course curriculum!
Sure, if you want to work in an office or a school overseas, then learn that vocabulary like “stapler” and “chalk”. The point is, learn vocabulary that’s relevant to what you plan to do with the language, and your competence in that language will surpass that of the advanced students who refuse to deviate from their rigid lesson plans.
2. Adopt the Homer Simpson Method and Make the Most of the Vocabulary You Have
In The Count of Monte Cristo, Edmond Dantès met a fellow prisoner, the wise Abbé Faria, who told Dantès that he was constantly improving his Greek language skills. When asked how that was possible in prison, Faria replied, “Why, I made a vocabulary of the words I knew; turned, returned, and arranged them, so as to enable me to express my thoughts through their medium….I cannot hope to be very fluent, but I certainly should have no difficulty in explaining my wants and wishes; and that would be quite as much as I should ever require.”
I believe every language learner should put these wise words into practice.
Even if your beginner vocabulary is limited, there’s no reason why you can’t arrange the words you do know, with a little practice, to make yourself understood in your target language almost as well as any advanced speaker.
A good way to start practicing is to look at an object that you’d like to know the name of – Google image search is a convenient tool for this – and try your best to describe it without looking up any new words. Don’t know the word for “house”? Try, “thing that people live in”. “Telephone”? What about, “thing to talk to people far away”?
Soon you’ll be able to do this with any new object you see. You might need to get creative to make yourself understood in conversation, but trust me, it’s better than stopping mid-sentence every five seconds to look up the right word, or worse, not speaking at all and never learning the word! Once the other person understands your meaning, they’ll immediately tell you the correct word, and then you’ll never forget it.
A friend of mine once referred to a “tube that gives water in the kitchen” in their target language because they hadn’t yet learned the word for “tap”. And Homer Simpson once forgot the word “spoon”, but he made himself understood by asking Marge for that “metal…dealy…you use to…dig…food”. It wasn’t very elegant, but we both got what we needed in the end!
3. Take Advantage of the Goldmine of Online Language Resources
Even one year ago, there weren’t nearly as many language-learning resources available online as there are today. I regularly write articles directing my readers to hundreds of language-specific resources available online, just to try to keep up with all the new ones being released! Even endangered languages, like Occitan and certain indigenous languages of the Americas, are gaining more and more language learners thanks to the internet.
There’s never been a better time to start speaking a new language. Those speakers who started years ago might be more advanced than you now, but you can learn faster than they did thanks to the boom in high-quality online language-learning courses and free resources. And as with any project, when you see measurable results quickly, you become far more motivated to keep working toward your goal. And motivation is half the battle!
4. Steer Well Clear of the Need to be Perfect
Advanced language learners generally aren’t used to making mistakes. Many of them feel like they left “that phase” behind them long ago. But this often means that if they want to say something that they don’t know all the right vocabulary and verb conjugations for, they might just keep their mouth shut and not say it at all rather than risk saying it incorrectly and shattering their “perfect” image. They’ll stay trapped in the safe world of familiar words, reluctant to venture outside of their comfort zone, lest they feel like a beginner all over again.
Meanwhile, as a beginner, you don’t have the luxury of knowing enough grammar and vocabulary to not make any mistakes. Since your comfort zone is so small, everything you say will start out imperfect. But as long as you make it a habit to keep speaking and don’t let your mistakes discourage you, you’ll quickly get used to that feeling and you’ll never be afraid to get outside your comfort zone and say something new, even if you don’t know all of the correct words or grammar. Before long, as you keep talking with native speakers, these mistakes will simply disappear from your vernacular, maybe even without you realizing.
Make it a habit to forget about perfectionism from the beginning, and you’ll soon be learning at an exponential rate, while the more advanced learners who never got into this habit are stuck in a rut.
5. Fake it ‘til You Make it
You don’t need to be an advanced speaker of a language in order to sound like one. Learn how to inject personality into your conversations, and your ability to converse in that language will instantly hit the next level. Instead of stumbling through your sentences with ums and ahs that’ll make the other person lose interest faster than you can say, “The word is on the tip of my tongue!”, you’ll keep them engaged and maintain the conversation’s momentum, giving you far more speaking experience in the process.
Try these techniques to outshine more advanced speakers in your conversations:
The dramatic pause. If you don’t know exactly how to correctly finish that sentence you just started, don’t just halt mid-way through with a “sorry” while you gather your thoughts. Make the pause sound like a natural part of the sentence, as if you did it on purpose! Don’t just say, for instance, “I read about it in my…hang on…what’s the right word…oh yeah! Textbook!”. Instead, say, “I read about it in my – you guessed it – [dramatic pause] – textbook!” and you can bet that the other person will still be paying attention, and might get a chuckle out of your quirky speaking style, which will keep them coming back to speak with you more.
Conversational connectors. This is another phenomenal way to fill the gaps in a conversation while you’re planning what to say. Instead of one word answers to the other person’s questions, followed by “And you?”, which sounds very unnatural in almost any language, add a connector such as, “That’s a great question, thanks for asking”. Not only does the conversation sound more natural, and flow back and forth between the speakers, but you can spend those moments when you’re using conversational connectors in order to think of a good reply to the question.
6. Polish up Your “Contextese”
Even if you can’t speak your target language at an advanced level, doesn’t mean you can’t understand it at an advanced level, once you get some practice filling in the blanks when you don’t understand every word you hear in a sentence. I call this unspoken communication “Contextese”, because you’re relying on things like the body language of the speaker, the tone of their voice, and the few words in the sentence that you do understand – in other words, the context of the sentence.
So many advanced language learners spend all their study time on vocabulary and verb conjugations, and then are completely lost when they try to have a conversation where they don’t understand every word. They focus too much on just the words, instead of on everything else. Learn to see the big picture in a conversation, and you’ll stun advanced learners speechless with your level of comprehension.
Conclusion: Beginner’s Mind Can Make You a Cunning Linguist
Every language learner, no matter how advanced, was once a beginner in their target language. How long you remain a beginner, however, will depend on how cunning you are in your study techniques, and how much you use the language for actual communication. Whatever your level is now, don’t let advanced speakers scare you away from using your target language; with these language hacks, you can start using your language on par with them right now, and go from seeming more advanced to being more advanced in far less time than you would with traditional approaches.
Remember: whether you achieve competence in your target language in weeks or years is up to you. Which will you choose?