Learning languages

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Hitchhiking is the fastest way to learn a foreign language. Hitchhikers spend lots of time (sometimes hours) in confined quarters (vehicles) with strangers. Drivers often want to talk, and it's easy to learn about the local culture along the way.

Conversely, being able to talk to locals makes hitchhiking abroad much easier! This guide will help you prepare for travel abroad, and help you learn the most (linguistically) during your time there.

Step 1: Learn some words

You can't just go to a country and start learning the language. A good list of about a hundred first words can be found on Basic words. After learning about a hundred words, you will be able to make simple sentences. Forget that you talk like a caveman, at least you can get by!

How to learn all those words?

There's a ton of methods, of course. Old fashioned flashcards and apps work fine (there are tons). Mneosyne is open-source, well-maintained and based on (and contributes to) memory research. Anki appears similar.

The Hand Method

Starting at the top of your list, write five words on your hand with a pen. Then write the translations on the other hand. Throughout the day, when you see the markings, quiz yourself as with flashcards. (See the left hand: "What does X mean?" See the right hand: "How do you say Y?") Any situation where you reach for your phone, look at your hands first. When people ask, "What's that on your hand?" say "Oh, that's 'Hund'! It's German for... 'dog'." Then check your other hand to see if that's right.

You'll be seeing the words so much, you'll easily learn five a day. Conveniently, they will fade off your hand in about that time! If you haven't learned a fading word yet, darken it. Check the words you learn off your list, and periodically go back and make sure you still know the checked words (if not, re-hand them).

If you're a quick study (or have learned a language before) and use the hand method every day, you can learn the hundred words in about a month. That month's preparation (mostly in your idle time) before leaving home will do wonders on the road.

Step 2: Learn more words and some grammar

This is where you learn all the stuff in your textbook that you ignored in step one. Telling time, names of animals, family members, etc. You can use a textbook for this, but duolingo is excellent.

Also learn how to form questions, comparatives/superlatives, and plural nouns.

You also need to learn how to say verbs in the past, present, and future. Usually, a language will have have many different tenses, but there's often one that's obviously easier. In English, you can say "I have <verb>" to make the past tense and "I will <verb>" for the future. Conjugations are important, but you can get by with infinitives until step 4.

Using Duolingo effectively

While using Duolingo, don't rush through the exercises. Read each word and imagine the meaning. If the sentence is "The dog is blue" and the translation is "Ogdo di ooblay", read the word "ogdo" and think of a dog. What sound do Ogdos make? What do Ogdos eat? Use the new word in your thoughts like this when you read the sentence. This way, memorization will come naturally.

At some point in this step, when you are comfortable, start step 3, but continue learning vocab and tenses with flashcards or the hand method.

Step 3: Hitchhike!

This is the fun part! You need to speak the language with locals constantly. This is called immersion. You can try to learn a language with a native speaker or tutor, but there's no substitute for immersion. And if you want your immersion to be most effective, use your thumb! You'll learn the living language, from the people speaking it in their own country. The advantages of hitchhiking for learning languages are too numerous to list.

Be sure to bring a dictionary (or smartphone) and phrasebook for extra study and to help avoid miscommunications.

Use the words to their full potential

Rephrasing

If you don't know how to say something, think of another phrasing that uses easier words. Use bad grammar if you have to. Do whatever it takes to be understood.

  • In Russia I once met a fellow hitchhiker along the road who'd hitchhiked over 760,000 km without knowing a word of english! He courteously let me hitch in front of him, so I got the first lift (with only one free seat). As I passed the other hitchhiker, we waved to each other. The driver asked "Your friend?" I didn't know how to say "I just met him", but I could say "Friend for five minute." I knew those four words from my tiny vocabulary, but the driver understood me perfectly. -Keith

Modifiers (the "not" trick)

Learning the word "not" will double your speaking vocabulary of adjectives and adverbs. Don't know the word for "dumb"? Just say "not smart".

Make the locals teach you more

Many people will be willing to help you. But you can also "trick" strangers into helping you.

The psychologist's trick

When listening in a foreign language, you'll find yourself saying "I don't understand" a lot. To be more proactive, you can ask for the meaning of individual words. For example, if somebody says "I went to the store and bought tibobs," say "Tibobs?" The person will respond, "Sure, tibobs. They're yellow fruits." From this, you can infer that "tibob" means "banana". Write that one down!

This trick is excellent, not only because it directly helps you learn, but because it encourages further conversation. Saying "I don't understand," all the time only discourages it.

The description trick

You can inquire about a word on the fly if you can describe it. For example, you can say "What's that blue thing?" and point to a blue truck. The native speaker will say "What? The galdon?" Now you know "galdon" means "truck". This is why descriptive words (such as colors) and the word "thing" should be included in the first words you learn.

Step 4: Learn the rest of the language

Immersion should make it brutally obvious that there's a lot to learn. You will have frustrating conversations where you understand NOTHING. This is especially common in rural areas where dialects and thick accents prevail (and the people don't come in contact with foreigners often). Don't worry about it! Keep practicing. Supplement the immersion with additional studying. Learn (and practice using) those tenses you skipped in step 2. Keep using the hand method, and keep talking to strangers. Learn new words as you need them. Keep on trucking!