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14th April, 2020

Learning a language during lockdown

The current global situation has created one of the few times in recent history where we can truly say that everyone’s in the same boat. The word unprecedented has become somewhat overused of late, but it’s an accurate description of the current times.

Now, as we begin to get a little more used to this phase, it’s important to find things to keep ourselves occupied at home. Perhaps one of the most productive ways to spend this time is to learn a new skill - in this case, learning a new language.

But how? And where to start?

Firstly, decide why you want to learn a language

As Brits, we’re lucky that our native language is spoken by so many people around the world. It means that we can travel to pretty much anywhere and be able to communicate on a basic level. But if you want to get the most out of anywhere you visit, speaking to people on their own terms is a great way to get more personal – more welcome.

If you’ve been wanting to visit Mexico forever, what better time to start learning Spanish? Think about all of the places you want to visit and see if there are common threads in the native languages.

Start by learning the most common words

It might seem like the most boring way to start, but it makes a lot of sense. In everyday speech, most of us rarely use specific words such as “unicorn” or “daffodil”. We do, however, use words like “might”, “seem”, “like”, “the”, and so on.

Spending time learning the most common nouns and verbs in a language will enable you to communicate much more quickly than starting by trying to learn every word in the language. At the early stages, don’t worry about trying to master the language - focus on getting to the stage where you can communicate.

It may seem a little funny to the native speaker that someone puts sentences together like “me go shop, hungry” - but it’s certainly better than not being able to say anything at all. So, spend the majority of your time here learning what’s going to get you the furthest.

Trying to simply memorise the top 1000 words may also get quite tedious, so try to make a game out of it. You may have to just sit and repeat sometimes but trying to make it fun will help.

A great way to make this fun (and actually more memorable) is to use visualisation and association.

It’s very hard for your brain to remember zapato = shoe because the words themselves don’t connect to anything on their own. So one thing you can do is to make a scene out of whatever comes to mind when you see the word “zapato” – anything that’s vivid and emotional.

For example, you may focus on the “zap” part and imagine someone getting electric shocks from their shoes. Or you may focus on the “pato” part and imagine something like somebody wearing potatoes as shoes and “zapping” things with them. These are silly, but hopefully you get the idea.

Spend some time on the grammar

You could know every word in a language, but if you don’t know how to put them together into a sentence then it’s not much help.

Any language uses grammar as a set of rules to enable everyone to understand what other speakers are saying. And if you’re able to put verbs into past, present, and future tenses, you’re most of the way to communicating.

So, spend some time learning how verbs are conjugated into tenses and persons. There will usually be a few general rules of conjugation that you can learn through learning some basic verbs.

It’s also worth learning all the conjugations for verbs such as “to be”, “to have”, “to go” - which, annoyingly, tend to be the irregular ones.

Use technology

Technology is your friend here. Getting familiar with how to Google things effectively will help you out hugely. As a rule of thumb, Google the exact question you have: “How to conjugate ‘to be’ in Spanish”.

A great way to build some of the more niche vocabulary is through using language learning apps, such as Rosetta Stone or Duolingo.

Rosetta Stone is billed as a high-ticket “fluency” application that focuses on speech and auditory learning. It’s used by companies across industries as varied as Calvin Klein and NASA. It comes with a price tag, but if you know that you learn well through hearing and speaking, then it’s a great option.

Alternatively, Duolingo is an app that you can start with for free. Because certain translations are automatically generated, it does occasionally ask you to translate things as strange as “my horse eats salt”, but being able to put that sentence together is actually quite valuable - regardless of whether you ever use it in practice.

There are lots of other apps and websites that you can use to help you on your journey, with things like YouTube also coming in handy. Part of the fun is trying them out and seeing how you get on - you may find that you enjoy the learning process more on one than another.

The main thing? Just be curious! Not only could you have acquired a wonderful new skill by the time lockdown is over, but your new skill could tie in perfectly with your next holiday. After all, we all need something to look forward to!

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.