I had a wonderful chat with Oscar del Ben last week. We swapped some interesting ideas, but one that fascinated me was him telling me how fast he learned English. Given I travel a lot, I was curious as to how he did it. Here's his thoughts -
Hey Sebastian, I think that in order to learn languages quickly, you have to use them. It took me a bit to learn English pronunciation, and I still make many mistakes without knowing it, but the trick is to continue despite the mistakes you make. When I was learning, my girlfriend said that there was no chance for me (bad memory, bad pronunciation), but I didn't give a damn.
Anyway, in my case I had some background from school, even though very little. What worked for me was reading tons of books in English, and then talk with other people via skype.
If you only read books, you'll be able to understand 70% of your target language in one month, assuming it's similar to ones you know (I've never tried wit very different languages). But by only reading you'll have no idea about pronunciation, so I encourage you to listen to music or audio as well. Note that you'll have to get the lyrics of the songs, otherwise it will be nearly impossible to understand, even if you already know the language.
With this, you can get very far, but you'll be missing communication abilities, because you never exercise your speaking abilities. To do that, find a friend who communicates in that language over skype (should be easy if you do english exchange), or practice alone by recording your voice.
The first time I started practicing via skype, I was a mess. I was able to write and read very well, but I couldn't speak. It took me very little to adjust my pronunciation though, so I'd say the bulk is knowing the meaning of words and then understanding their pronunciation.
The take home is that you need a reason to learn the language, otherwise it'll be harder. When I landed in Spain I didn't really learn much because I wasn't interested. In the last two months I picked up some books in Spanish and now I'm committed to learn Spanish, I like their culture and that's why I want to learn.
My girlfriend always says to start with grammar, but in my opinion you should start by understand dialog and text. If the written language is awkward, start with songs. For example japanese looks easy when spoken, but hard when written. (by easy I mean pronunciation is easy for us to make, Arabic is hard in that matter).
Finally, you'll see results gradually, but don't give up. It's harder for children to learn languages than you if you have the motivation.
P.S. if you want to practice Italian, let me know ;)
Okay, Sebastian here again.
Excellent stuff there. I'll second the start-with-words-not-grammar... grammar might be a good starting point if you're completely certain a language is going to be important to you. If not, definitely start with verbs and ways of describing things... I think it can be good to learn 50 to 150 words in a language quickly even if you don't know if you'll ever use - happy, sad, hungry, thank you, you're welcome, hello, how are you?, good, bad, some numbers, how?, what?, where?, why?, etc.
Most recent entry is about learning languages - but he's talking about programming languages this time - he codes in Ruby on Rails. I think his thoughts are useful here if you're working on learning, 'specially technical stuffs - http://blog.oscardelben.com/how-to-practice-or-learn-any-language-or-fram