Speech. The phonic frontier.
These are the adventures of aspiring language learners.
To explore strange new words. To seek out new terms and verbal expressions.
To boldly use idioms from around the world!
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Why Learn Words in Different Languages?
As a fluent speaker of your native language, you might wonder why you’d want to learn words in other languages. After all, you already have all of the words you need, right on the tip of your tongue.
Or, do you?
Let’s look at what learning words in different languages can do for you.
- Travel more confidently. When you take time to learn some foreign words before you travel, you can be more self-reliant. You won’t need to depend on the kindness of strangers for whatever you desire—whether it’s buying bus tickets, getting a hotel room or ordering food you’ll like at a restaurant.
- Establish a little more rapport. You can make a deeper connection with speakers of other languages, even with just a few words. Native speakers will generally appreciate any sincere effort you make to learn about their language and culture.
- Gain new perspectives on the world. When you learn a new language, you learn to think about common concepts in new ways. You can start to see more of the world through other cultures’ eyes. As Charlemagne supposedly said, “To have another language is to possess a second soul.”
- Find the right words. However rich your native language, it may leave some concepts less well-defined than others. To express these concepts, we often turn to “untranslatable” words from different languages, which sometimes become popular loanwords. These “untranslatable” words can save us from saying things like “unseemly joy and gratification at the misfortune of others” (Schadenfreude), “video recorded while the host was consuming large quantities of food” (mukbang) or “inherent quality inevitably provoking strong emotion in viewers of an artistic work” (terribilità).
- Boost your language learning. Perhaps you’re already a language lover in the midst of studying a target language. Learning a few words in other languages—besides the one you’re studying—could lead to deeper fluency in your target language. You might discover some cognates and language patterns that’ll enrich your main language studies.
- Stimulate your brain. Even if you’re not seriously studying any particular language right now, it’s well worth learning a modicum of words in different world languages. Language learning has many positive effects on the brain. It strengthens your memory, encourages creative thinking and makes you a better problem-solver. It can even help you understand your native language better!
How to Learn Words in Different Languages
There are many, many ways to acquire words from other languages. Mixing and matching several learning methods will keep you interested, give you varied exposures to these words and provide the repetition that’ll help you remember them.
The tried-and-true phrasebook, a companion to travelers everywhere, can be a fine introduction to a few foreign words and phrases. Sure, it has its limits—but it can be a relatively painless way to start.
But what if you eschew the traditional phrasebook as a relic of bygone days when tourists wore loud shirts, sandals and socks and clunky cameras?
Even if you’re not a fan of the typical phrasebook, you can still make learning vocabulary in another language more efficient by learning phrases by splitting up vocabulary lists and dialogues into useful chunks. Phrases couch new words in real-life, usable contexts that make the words more memorable.
Reading and reciting foreign phrases can be a simple foundation for learning new words. But to grasp the proper pronunciation and intonation—not to mention, the body language—it’s time to go multimedia.
Videos produced for speakers of other languages can show you words and phrases as they’re used naturally in various contexts. The audio from native speakers will be far superior to the questionable phonetic approximations often found in phrasebooks.
Yet, sometimes, it can be hard to break down a dialogue in a video to really understand what’s going on—especially if you’re not already conversant in the language.
That’s when it’s best to have some help. You can get more out of authentic videos with an app like FluentU.
FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
Like a trustworthy tour guide, the FluentU app won’t lead you astray. The interactive videos will give you the inside scoop on unfamiliar words, making you feel at home with another culture and language. Best of all, you’ll learn memorable words that you can use for years to come.
Flashcards have been a staple of language learning since Marco Polo took off from Venice to get some really legit Chinese food in 13th-century Beijing.
Flashcards endure because they’re so useful. If you’re wondering how to memorize words in a foreign language, it’s worth giving flashcards a try. Whether virtual or physical, they’re a simple way to match meanings with words and quiz yourself in short, effective bursts.
Some language learning apps incorporate convenient virtual flashcards. For example, the multimedia flashcards available through the FluentU app include example sentences, audio and a relevant image for each word, as well as interactive quizzes to actively test your knowledge.
Articles About Travel and Culture
Some days, you just want to take it easy while you learn.
For those days when you don’t feel like drilling vocabulary, give your brain a break. Browse through travel blogs and let your mind wander, picking up a few words from other cultures along the way.
Feed your hunger for foreign words and flavors with international recipes, like this list of “80 Authentic Recipes from Around the World” from Taste of Home or the “World Cuisine Recipes” portal from Allrecipes.
Keep your ears open to new words with round-the-world radio. There are several websites that stream stations from all around the globe. You can pick up a few new words not only from the music but also from the radio announcers who talk between the songs.
Turn to streaming services like Spotify and Pandora to find foreign-language favorites, or use YouTube to search for international music videos. Some of them even come with lyrics, which will help you learn the spelling of the words you hear.
Soon, you’ll be singing along with the songs, putting your new words into practice.
International and Multilingual Books
For more leisurely learning, try reading English translations of foreign books.
Especially if the book’s setting is an integral part of the plot, translators will often sprinkle a few untranslated words into the English version of the text. This practice can give you a soupçon (hint) of the book’s original language.
You can relax and enjoy an intriguing novel while absorbing some new words from different languages, using context clues to easily figure out what they mean.
For even more exposure to words in other languages, try reading bilingual or multilingual books.
It’s one thing to get exposure to words from different languages. Remembering those words, and incorporating them into your own personal lexicon, can be an entirely different matter.
Are you wondering how to learn vocabulary with practical tips? A multi-sensory approach, coupled with some creativity, could be your answer.
Engaging several of your senses can be a sure-fire way to memorize words from other languages. You’ll stimulate different areas of your brain, which is a powerful method to promote language retention.
Types of Words to Learn in Different Languages
When you start studying a language, you might wonder to yourself, “How many words do I need to know to be functional or fluent in this new language?”
Or maybe you’re taking a more casual approach, and you’re not even thinking that far ahead. Perhaps you’re simply focusing on which words and phrases to learn first in a new language.
As you move from beginner to intermediate to advanced, you’ll naturally become more fluent and understand more—even without keeping count of your word acquisitions. For now, check out the following types of words that’ll give you a great place to start!
Your first words in a new language will be some of the most practical.
Think back to when you were a little kid, and your parents had to teach you how to say “please,” “thank you” and many other simple words.
Now, of course, you have the ability to teach yourself—along with the experience to understand the contexts and social nuances of your new vocab.
Basic Words and Phrases
Start out with something fundamental: Learn how to say hello in different languages.
While you’re at it, why not familiarize yourself with some cool foreign names? After all, if you’re going to make new friends with people from around the world, you’ll want to start off on the right foot by pronouncing their names correctly.
Move on to some common phrases that you can use to introduce yourself, make friends and ask for necessities (such as food and directions).
As virtually any toddler will tell you, learning to say “no” in different languages is essential for clear communication.
Speaking of communication essentials, learning the word for “bathroom” in different languages has to be high on your list of necessary vocab. Wherever you travel, this one’s sure to come in handy!
Whether you count on your fingers or use a calculator app, counting in different languages is hands-down one of the most useful skills you can learn. It’ll serve you well when you go shopping, get directions or even take down a phone number as you travel.
Last but not least, learn to say “goodbye” in different languages. It’s a polite and pleasant way to close out conversations with new international friends.
Wherever you go, manners matter.
Learn the indispensable words for polite conversation:
- In case your conversation goes astray, and you inadvertently cause offense, avoid international incidents by knowing how to say you’re sorry in different languages.
Beginner to Intermediate
As you progress from beginner to intermediate in another language, you’ll have a firm foundation to build on.
You can move on to more complex and interesting topics—such as shared word origins, international cuisine and expressions for feelings in another language.
One of the truly interesting parts of learning other languages is seeing how languages relate to each other.
You may have heard of language families or language trees, such as Indo-European—which includes English, French, Spanish, German, Russian and many others—or Sino-Tibetan, best known for Mandarin, Cantonese and Burmese.
Because of how some languages evolved from common roots, you’ll find English cognates in many languages.
Learning English cognates is useful at every stage of your language journey. It can be particularly helpful for beginners because it can make a foreign language seem instantly more familiar.
Just be on the lookout for faux amis (“false friends”/false cognates), which are words that look or sound like an English word but don’t come from the same root.
Most language learners have a few embarrassing stories about accidentally using false cognates. So, if you do use one by mistake, you’ll be in good company. Plus, you’ll make a point of learning the correct word.
Even easier than cognates, there are many foreign words used in English that are borrowed from other languages. They’re called “loanwords.” They’re a rich part of English-language expression—and the more you know, the easier it’ll be to absorb vocabulary from other languages.
Food and Drink
When I was a middle-school French student, we periodically had “French cultural experiences” in the classroom. (We weren’t allowed to have “parties,” for fear of carpet stains and crumbs.) Our “cultural experiences” introduced us to French staples such as Camembert, La Vache qui rit (Laughing Cow cheese) and Schweppes, the beverage favored in all of our French textbook dialogues.
Foreign words for food and drink are a tasty part of learning another language.
Start your day with a buzz by learning to order coffee in different languages, so you can stay alert as you travel the world.
Even cooking words will enhance your understanding of other cultures. Think of la cuisine sous vide, French cooking that’s “under vacuum.” Consider korma, the braising technique that lends its Urdu-derived name to many savory dishes on the Indian subcontinent.
Get even more convivial with your conversation partners by discovering how to say “cheers” in different languages, so you can celebrate each language-learning victory with a toast.
Feelings and Emotions
As a fledgling or intermediate learner, you’ll need some words to help you describe your physical state.
From simply telling your hosts that you’re uncomfortably hot or cold to letting someone know that you’re not feeling well, words for physical feelings are an important part of your growing vocabulary.
Nurturing relationships with speakers of other languages will also mean talking about your emotions. In especially happy moments, you might feel the need to talk about love in different languages.
Emotions can run the gamut from contentment or sadness to pride or surprise. As you study these emotion words from countries across the world, you can also learn more about different cultural attitudes toward the expression of emotion.
If you’re traveling the world in the hopes of finding that special someone, don’t forget to pack your trusty list of ways to say “I love you” in different languages. After all, you’ll want to be understood when you speak from the heart.
Intermediate to Advanced
More proficient learners—even fairly fluent learners—are still learning new words and phrases all of the time, just as we all do in our native languages.
At this level, you can dive deeper into words and phrases that are invaluable for self-expression, such as idioms, colloquialisms and hard-to-translate words.
Idioms embody colorful metaphors and expressions that are often particular to a given language.
Idioms from around the world can give us a glimpse into the history and culture of different groups of people, as well as their attitudes about life. Since they often use metaphorical language to express abstract concepts, they can be tricky for beginners—but a satisfying challenge for intermediate and advanced learners.
Embracing cool words in other languages can refresh your mind like uitwaaien (out-blowing), the Dutch custom of walking or running in the cold winds of winter. It can even make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside like Gemütlichkeit, the German concept of well-being, friendliness and social belonging.
Learning “untranslatable” words gives you new ways to express yourself. You can finally verbalize your deepest feelings—including some emotions that you never even knew you had.
Whatever you’re feeling—everything from unrequited love to extreme despair to befuddled exasperation—you can find new ways to articulate it with beautiful words in other languages.
Words from different languages are as numerous and brilliant as the stars. They can take you around the world or to the innermost reaches of your heart and soul.
Michelle Baumgartner is a language nerd who has formally studied seven languages and informally dabbled in a few others. In addition to geeking out over slender vowels, interrogative particles, and phonemes, Michelle is a content writer and education blogger. Find out more at StellaWriting.com.
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