Immerse yourself in words. Image by Flickr user Jason Eppink.

Before coming to Africa, most of my language-learning had been in a classroom. When I studied French on my own with online software or exercise books, it was still in the very scholastic approach that I was familiar with.

This background caused some difficulty in my early language classes in Togo. In addition to becoming conversational in French, a language I’d never really practiced speaking before, I had to simultaneously try learn the local language spoken at my post, Moba. Thinking like an American, I tested the patience of my Togolese language teacher by bombarding him with questions concerning the “why” behind Moba grammar.

Togolese children learn their local language by ear. If any advanced grammar is studied in school, it is French. I’ve met adult villagers who can read and write intermediate-level French but not their mother tongue.

In this country the size of West Virginia, it is common to meet adults who speak several of the country’s local languages. How do they do it? Nowithstanding the similarities between the languages of ethnic groups in close proximity to each other, this learning is all done by ear, through immersion.

No wonder my methodical, classroom approach wasn’t working as I tried to learn a primarily oral language. I turned to my friend, fellow volunteer Sarah Slinker, for some tips on learning a language by immersion. Whether you’re learning a local language in Africa or a Romance language, these things will help you become more comfortable actually speaking in a new tongue.

1. Build Vocabulary

Even if you don’t know the alphabet of the language you are learning, carry a notebook around. Ask people how to say things, and write down the words phonetically.

Start with simple, everyday words and objects in your physical surroundings.

Nouns are where kids come in handy — they seem to have boundless patience for pointing at an object, telling me what it is in Moba, and laughing good naturedly when I pronounce it wrong. It’s a game to them, and they’ll repeat the word until I get it right. The other great thing about this is that even if the kids don’t know any French, they can play along as tutor.


When it comes to language, kids are helpful, forgiving teachers. Image by Flickr user David Fulmer.

Don’t be over-ambitious and try to cram a ridiculous amount of words into your head at once. Memorization won’t be as useful as grouping words together in like categories: farm animals, kitchen utensils, school materials.

2. Learn Subject Pronouns and Basic Verbs

It is important to know how to refer to yourself and others. After learning the names of things that surround you, work on subject pronouns and some commonplace, frequently used verbs. Verbs such as “to want,” “to go, “can,” and “to have” can help you start to make simple sentences. Don’t worry about the past/future tense yet, or correct conjugations.

3. Build Context

Grammar is useful in knowing how to speak a language correctly, but when learning through immersion, this understanding usually comes after you have some context for it.

Hanging onto the vocabulary you’ve built up in the beginning, try to get a sense of what people are talking about. You don’t have to understand an entire conversation to get an idea of the general topic. Whether you are currently in a foreign country or listening to podcasts in an effort to learn a language, gather as much as you can about what is being said. If you can ask someone else whether you’re on track and add on some new words to your vocabulary as a result, all the better.

4. Listen

This goes hand-in-hand with the last tip, but try to listen to the language in question whenever possible. It takes some mental energy, but put yourself in a position to hear the language, and instead of just letting a stream of words or indistinguishable sounds wash over you, strain to pick out the words you do know. Be an active listener, even if you can only do it for small chunks of time.

5. Have No Fear!

It has been said many times, but in order to learn how to speak a language, you have to practice it. This inevitably consists of bumbling along at first. Make short, silly sentences — “The duck wants my cabbage” — based on the simple words you’ve been writing down in your notebook and hearing along the way.

Perhaps the most important rule in learning a new language by immersion is that in order to speak, you can’t be afraid to speak! Ask friends to correct you. Laugh at yourself. Laugh along with people when they laugh at you. Pat yourself on the back for putting yourself out there to try something hard and opening yourself up to a whole new world of conversation and friends.