—Only children can learn a foreign language. Children do seem to learn more easily, but it\’s perfectly possible for an adult to learn a new language. And it\’s great exercise for the brain.
— Two years of high school foreign language instruction should guarantee fluency. Because of this notion, the U.S. is full of people who are convinced that they are no good at languages, when the truth is they weren\’t given a real chance to learn. Short of moving to a foreign country, the best thing you can do is to immerse yourself in the language as much as possible. Sign up for courses, both live and online. Watch kids\’ TV programs–the vocabulary and the concepts are simple, but the language is real. Movies are a great tool. Watch the movie first with subtitles, and then watch it again but cover the subtitles with a piece of paper. You may only catch a few words at first, but you\’ll be absorbing the rhythms and tones of the speech.
—You do not truly know a foreign language unless you sound like a native. This goal is unrealistic for most adults, and unnecessary. It is possible to master another language and be perfectly understood by natives without ever being confused with one. Henry Kissinger, whatever you think of his politics, is a good example of this.
–Learning a language is like learning to ride a bicycle. Actually, it\’s more like learning to play the violin. If you don\’t use it often, it will get rusty. This can happen even with your native language. The good news is that, unlike playing the violin, your language skill will come back quickly once you start to use it again.
—Learning a language is only about grammar and vocabulary. Body language is a big part of communication, so you need to be a bit of a ham. Try to impersonate native speakers. If it\’s Italian you\’re learning, move your hands; if it\’s French, shrug a lot; if it\’s Spanish, drop your American smile and look serious. A glass of wine helps with all this.
—Every word matters. Only true if you\’re interpreting for a head of state. Perfectionism is the enemy of fluency. Expect to make hilarious mistakes when speaking, and realize that you\’re not going to understand every word you hear. Aim for the gist. Be pragmatic. And leave (almost all) your pride at the door.