Excerpt from the book:
MYTH: To learn a foreign language, you have to live in a country where the foreign language is spoken.
REALITY: No. I learned Spanish and Italian fluently without living in a Spanish speaking country or Italy. Plus I had almost perfect accents in both languages. If the myth were true, then all the immigrants and refugees living in the United States would speak perfect English. Many of them don’t and it’s because foreign language instruction is focused on grammar and memorization. Students get bored and frustrated with this traditional approach. They don’t learn how to appreciate the rhythm and flow of the language, nor see that it can be fun and easy to learn.
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Learning a new language means you have to change your key and tune. Dancing the cha-cha to waltz music is like speaking a new language while still using the rhythm of your mother tongue. Let yourself take in the sounds of the language as though you were listening to a new piece of music.
Even if you are just a beginner and barely know any words, you can still learn by listening. Pay attention to how people speak. Does it seem like they are reading a phone number or rattling of a list of numbers? Are they angry? Happy? Sometimes, you have to shut off your brain and inclination to interpret to analyze. Listen to the words spoken to you and listen to your intuition.
Language is music.
During my first days of my semester abroad in Budapest, Hungary in 1997, I was in the advisor’s office waiting to speak to him. He was on the phone talking in Hungarian. Even though I knew just a few words in Hungarian, I could surmise he was telling the person on the other line a phone number because of the melody of his sentence. The way he pronounced the succession of numbers sounded dramatically different from the rest of his conversation.
Relax and close your eyes. Turn off the lights. Lay down or sit in a comfortable position. Close your eyes and listen to the music. Don’t try to understand the words, just listen. You might fall asleep or day dream. Give yourself the time to simply listen and not do anything else. Your mind needs to be calm in order to absorb the sounds. Your ears need no other distractions to let them properly hear all the high, medium and low frequencies of the language. Do this regularly.
Your local library may have a foreign language CD selection. Large music stores carry foreign music sections and may let you listen to the music before buying.
You can find songs to download for a cost at
Browse music videos in the language
When you first start listening to radio broadcasts, the radio announcers may sound like they are emitting a stream or storm of sounds and not individual words. In time, you’ll hear familiar words repeated and will learn to distinguish them. Language teachers call this “acquired competence.” Like with the music section, you can actively listen to the radio attentively and take notes, listen to it in the background or just close your eyes to listen without straining yourself to understand.
For years, I listened to Rádio Comercial Portuguesa, the Portuguese radio station in San José, California. The radio station served the Portuguese immigrant community from the Azores Islands. While driving and being stuck in traffic, I listened to their local advertisements for Portuguese companies that ranged from plumbing contractors and construction supply companies to Portuguese padarias (bakeries). I could care less about construction companies and their wonderful supplies, but I listened to the announcers just to get a feeling for the rhythm of Portuguese and to learn vocabulary. Since the community was very religious, the station broadcast their Catholic mass in Portuguese at the same time everyday. I am not Catholic and was not keen on learning the “Our Father” prayer em portugues, but I listened anyway. The music was mostly not of my taste either. Old Portuguese fisherman songs and folk tunes dominated the programming. I loved melancholic fados, but they were rarely on air. It didn’t matter. I was stuck in my car and had the choice of listening to news or music in English or learning more Portuguese. I chose the latter. The station often aired radio news directly from the national news service of Portugal, giving me news about many countries in the Portuguese speaking world.
The result was that, despite the fact that I had few opportunities to speak Portuguese, I was passively learning it for years. As a matter of fact, I thought that I spoke Portuguese like Tarzan because I had mostly taught myself the language and had only taken two basic classes in adult school. In 2006, while living in New York, my Brazilian roommate Carla invited Silvia, her friend from Brazil, to visit during Christmas. Silvia barely spoke English. I had to speak in Portuguese, even though I was embarrassed for what I thought was my Neanderthal-like command of the language. To my and everyone else’s surprise, sophisticated words and long sentences came out of my mouth with ease. Carla and Silvia commented that my accent sounded like it was from Portugal. I found out that I knew much more Portuguese than I thought. All those years of listening to fisherman’s songs and Catholic masses paid off. I spoke Portuguese! I had been reinforcing the vocabulary and sentence structure rules that I had learned by just listening to the radio. The music was inside of me for years.
You can create your own symphonies as well. Just listen!
(Now, my accent is more Brazilian sounding as I have traveled in Brazil, speaking to Brazilians.)
Turn the radio dial during different times of the day to look for radio stations. Some radio stations may not have 24 hour programming as they share the frequencies with other small radio stations.
Look in your phone book under the radio section. If you are in the US, use the Yellow Pages and look under “Radio Stations.” The foreign language stations usually list their language in their title.
Go to the Yahoo Directory of radio stations:
Look up the radio stations in your area, checking for the language you are learning. It’s best to search under regions rather than your city. There might be a radio station in another city nearby that broadcasts in the language that you want. If you only look for radio stations in your town, you will not find others in your vicinity.
Let’s say you are learning Spanish. You have found a local Spanish language TV station in your area or you are watching the national Univision news. Even without knowing all the words, you will be able to get the gist of some of the news reports. The images and video footage of events already tell you what the news announcers are talking about. Tune into HOW they are speaking and the words they are using to describe the images on screen.
Even if you can’t watch TV all the time, it’s all right to do errands around the house as you listen to the TV in the background. Think of the TV as background music like you would hear in a café or restaurant. Even though it’s not at the forefront of your consciousness, your brain is still processing it and getting used to the flow of the language. Remember, we listen before we speak.
Extra bonus: Not only will you be learning how the language sounds, you will also be exposed to news you may not see on your local or national television news. If you are learning Mandarin Chinese and find a local television news station broadcasting in your area, you may learn a great deal about the Chinese community that you never saw reported in mainstream news. You will learn about what is going on in places where the language is spoken. It’s quite possible that the Italian news will have more news about other European countries than a news channel in the United States or Taiwan. So, keep your mind open. You are not only learning a language, but another view of the world.
Check your local television listings for foreign language programs or stations. If you have cable or satellite TV, you should have more foreign language options.
NEVER WATCH MOVIES DUBBED IN YOUR LANGUAGE!!!
Watching dubbed movies is a cardinal sin when it comes to learning languages. You lose most of the cultural experience when you watch a dubbed movie.
Living in Europe, I wondered why the Scandinavians and Dutch had such good accents in English, while the French, Spanish, and Italians were known for their heavy signature accents. Northern Europeans start learning English earlier than the French, Spanish, and Italians. But it’s not only their early start that gives the Northern Europeans their wonderful pronunciation. Their teachers are not native English speakers. So, they are most likely not acquiring their stellar accents from just their instructors.
The Scandinavians watch many English language television programs on their televisions and English language movies in their movie theaters, as do the Mediterraneans. However, the northern Europeans leave the soundtrack in the original language and just add subtitles in their respective tongues. The French, Spanish and Italians see English language actors speak in unnatural dubbed voices in their national languages. They are learning English in isolation from the sounds of native speakers. Learning a language in a vacuum is tough.
You can let the world into your home by watching the original versions of movies, listening to how people really speak. Stay away from dubbed movies and TV programs!
A movie that’s mostly conversation and no movement, may be hard to follow. (The philosophical French movies fall into this category.) Action-packed Indiana Jones is much easier to understand than Hiroshima Mon Amour with the long scenes of just two people talking. Comedies may have a lot of jokes that will be hard to understand. Humor does not often translate well!
You can rent foreign movies at your local library. Look for cultural organizations in your neighborhood. They might have their own libraries with films from their native countries.
These two sites have a wide selection of international movies:
If you want to just watch certain scenes from movies, you can look for them on You Tube. Just type in the name of the movie and some words pertaining to the scene you want to see:
You are busy. You want to learn Chinese while driving to work, commuting by bus or waiting at the doctor’s office. It’s possible.
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