Language courses? Travel? Study abroad? Self-study? Let me give you my two cents. And in case you’re wondering why I’m qualified to talk about language learning, check out my recent post about Teaching English as a Second Language.
Language learning is complex, difficult, and frustrating, but because it’s good for your brain (it helps prevent dementia) and good for the connections you make with other people, it’s also rewarding. Based on my professional experience teaching language and my personal experience learning a second language (Portuguese) and studying several others, I have been able to narrow language learning down to a few general tips for success.
1) Connections are key
The more personal interest and motivation you have to learn the language, the better you will learn. Certainly people are our greatest connections, so any way you can connect with people who are learning the language and interact with them in a meaningful way is very beneficial. Push yourself to explore new topics and test new vocabulary as you are speaking. If they are native speakers of the language, explain your needs and let them help you. For example, tell them that they should speak slowly and explain things that you might not understand the first time.
Of course, immersing yourself in the new language is the best way, whether through extended travel, study abroad, intensive language courses, or being around native speakers of that language.
My greatest teacher of Portuguese has been my mother-in-law, who speaks no English and listens to all my mistakes with a patient ear. I knew I wanted to be close to her, so I learned a little and jumped in, conversing with her for years, first just a little and now in depth. What resulted is a strong relationship that provided a constant motivation for me to learn and practice.
2) Become a real language learner
What I mean by this is to look at language learning as a real learning process. Don’t expect to miraculously acquire the language like children may through exposure–instead, realize that really learning a language takes careful, consistent, conscious learning.
Develop a basic awareness of language patterns, including the rules and reasons behind them. Consider how your native language and new language are similar and different. Develop at least some regular study habits, like making weekly vocabulary sheets, that will help you keep what you’ve learned and make new progress. Remember that language includes many skills, including speaking, pronunciation, listening, reading, writing, and grammar, and give some attention to all of them.
3) Don’t aim for perfection
Remember that learning a language takes a lot of time, dedication, and motivation. You may not learn as quickly as you had expected. You will make mistakes even if you’re not accustomed to doing so in other subjects. In fact, errors are a normal part of language development and often a sign that you are trying out a new structure! Expecting to be perfect will hinder progress; instead, be courageous and test the language to your limits, mistakes and all–your skills will improve as a result.
4) Be realistic
As I already said, learning another language is hard work and takes a very long time. Research has shown that it takes 7-10 years of dedicated, consistent study to learn a language at an advanced level (meaning that you could study college-level material in the language). If you are serious about learning, try to think of it as a lifelong process, but one that will bring you many wonderful rewards. I think that way about Portuguese–my skills are good, but I will never stop learning.
When you choose a second language to learn, keep in mind that the languages that are farther from your native language will take much more time. For example, if your native language is English, Slavic languages are difficult because of their complicated grammar, and Vietnamese is difficult because of the tones and pronunciation, but Arabic, Chinese, and Japanese are even more difficult and require years of dedicated study to learn.
5) Finally, make it interesting.
As I said above, connecting with the language is key, and one way to keep that connection constant is to find ways to be with the language that you find truly interesting. First, get to know the culture. Then immerse yourself in it–watch movies, listen to music, watch TV, read magazines, join chat groups, read children’s books that you can relate to in some way, and, of course, travel to the country where the language is spoken…better yet, stay there and study at a language school while staying with a host family. I did that in Germany, and even though I didn’t keep up my German, it was a wonderful experience that left me feeling connected to the country, people, and language.
What are your favorites ways to learn language? How do you make it relevant to your life? How do you connect with it?