Growing up overseas, I was exposed to several languages through environment and of course formal study in school. While this experience is a definite advantage, it is not an absolute requirement. My father grew up in Australia, didn’t leave the country until he was in his thirties, and by the time he was in his forties he spoke Indonesian and Thai.
Over the years I developed a system to gaining limited working proficiency in any language in a relatively short period of time – a couple of weeks to a couple of months. During the course of my career I shared this technique with my colleagues, and it works.
This is my technique:
I take five 5×8-inch index cards (because in the Army I learned that the world revolves around such index cards).
On the first card, I write the greetings: hello, good morning, good afternoon, good evening, good night, et al; please and thank you; prepositions (in, on, below, above, near, far, behind, in front, out of, et al); and conjunctive adjectives (before, after, now, later, yesterday, tomorrow).
On the second card, I write the number system, phrases associated with simple arithmetic and money, days of the week and months of the year.
On the third card, I write questions and answers associated with asking and receiving directions – to include the cardinal directions – and phrases involving airports, train stations, taxis, and checking in and out of hotels.
On the fourth card, I write phrases associated with shopping – to include what to ask for at a pharmacy – how to buy food in a market, and how to order a meal in a restaurant.
On the fifth card, I write useful phrases involving who, what, where, when, why and how many.
Nowadays there are numerous translation resources available online, but in the pre-internet era, doing this involved the use of a dictionary and a good phrasebook. In some ways, the old way was more effective; it required a bit more focus and effort, which seemed to intensify the learning process.
Study your cards daily and learn the “helper” phrases. The goal is to be able to experience basic day-to-day situations without breaking into English.
Advantages of learning foreign languages include widening your horizons; it’s becoming essential, you’ll meet new people, and it’s great for traveling. After learning one language, it’s a thousand times easier to learn the next one. When you study languages you become smarter, by definition, and you’ll stay smarter for longer. Speaking a foreign language boosts your creativity, builds up your self-confidence, and as an added bonus, employers love it (and they’ll love you more).
Anyone can learn a foreign language – consider; an infant can do it – and my technique really is this simple.
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Sean Linnane is the pseudonym of a retired Special Forces career NCO (1st SFG, 3d SFG, 10th SFG). He continues to serve as a security professional on six continents.