07 September 2010

how-to learn a foreign language

by Andrea of The Art of Staying Up All Night

Most people have attempted to learn a foreign language at least once in their lives. A lot of these experiences have ended up in a dramatic fail. It's very easy to say "I'd love to learn French, it just sounds so romantic", but that strong desire suddenly collapses when you're faced with different verb conjugations. There is no denying that learning a foreign language is hard work, especially for those starting late in life, but there are many ways of making your language learning experience, if not a little bit easier, at least more productive.

01. Keep in mind that learning a language is hard work and it can be a frustrating experience. Whenever somebody approaches me to ask about language lessons, the first thing I say is "I'll be happy to teach you if you work hard enough". The amount of my former students who thought a couple of classes a week was all they needed to learn a language is amazing. This is completely and utterly wrong. Learning a language implies a great deal of individual work and devotion. Keep this in mind when you decide to start.

02. Learn your grammar. I can't stress this enough. I know it's boring and it can sometimes seem useless, but believe me when I say it's not. Lots of people tell me that they are interested in learning to speak the language, so they don't need grammar. WRONG. You do need grammar. It's the skeleton that holds the language together and a vital part of your language learning. Now some good news for you: Its importance decreases as you learn more.

03. Keep separate notebooks for your grammar and words. This might seem stupid at the beginning, but it makes everything easier as you accumulate more notes. Plus having a small vocabulary notebook that you can carry in your bag is very useful (I learnt most of my German vocabulary between bus rides and coffees).

04. Get into the country's culture. It's useful to keep in mind that, when learning a language, we actually learn a society's way of explaining the world. Listen to music in the language, watch subtitled films, read comic books, magazines or whatever adapts to your level, change the language settings on your Facebook, etc. All these things help you to see the language as a part of your non-academic life, and it makes the language learning process less tedious.

05. Read. Read lots. As soon as you get to a certain level, you should start reading in your new language. This can be very hard at the beginning and it might make you feel bad for not knowing certain words. This is normal. Think about when you learnt to read as a child and often ignored the meaning of words, and how you learnt them as time went by. You'll find that, when reading in a foreign language, it's not necessary to know every word in a text. Try to guess them by the context and don't stop your reading to look up words constantly, then it won't seem fun. Of course, you should adapt your reading to your level, don't expect Faust to be your first German book. I always start with magazines, gossip, film or music ones where the content is fairly predictable. From then I move on to children's books and, after that, to adult books that I've already read. That way, I don't need to worry about not getting every word because I know what's happening. The wonderful part of reading in a foreign language is that you assimilate grammatical structures that you might not have studied yet. It really is exciting how sometimes we can learn without even meaning to.

06. Practice! Don't be scared to talk. Track down exchange students in your town - they're always willing to have multilingual conversations and meet locals! Check out pubs with language evenings. Use your language learning as an excuse to travel. Get some foreign internet friends. Get together with other language students.

07. Do not try to translate things literally. Seriously, if you translate something literally chances are it will be wrong. Plus it's very annoying for your teacher.

08. Never stop. This is very important. You wouldn't want to throw a few hundred dollars out of the window, would you? Learning a language and then stopping is basically the same thing. Unless you've reached a proficient level, your language skills will get rusty if you don't use them. Something as simple as checking a foreign newspaper or going through some words or exercises several times a week will do.

09. If you learn German (or any other language without set rules for genders) please make an effort to learn every word together with its article. Otherwise you'll have to learn all these words all over again, and I assure you it's a most frustrating experience.

10. Have fun. Knowing languages instantly opens doors for everyone. Take advantage and make the most of it!

image via www.flickr.com

the how-to series will continue on a weekly basis. i hope it will help encourage confidence in the creativity and skills you have to offer. i am excited to showcase your talents and unique ideas. if you have a specialty (and i know you do), please submit your how-to guest post by emailing me: marta at martawrites dot com. i will be delighted to feature your how-to in the future.

"Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do." - John Wooden


mysterymoor said...

I am so honored to be featured on your blog, Marta. It's one of the most inspiring out there. Thank you so much for this opportunity. I hope somebody finds it useful!


Clara said...

Awesome! Great tips! Andrea, you rule.

[eeny] said...

Great tips. I know that everything is so right. I have learned 3 other languages besides my mother language - but I unfortuntely stopped practicing/using French and forgot almost everything I've learned. I don't want that to happen to my Spanish skills as well so I really need to get back on track and start practicing again. And I guess I will never forget my English because I am using it every single day.

Crumbs and Quibbles said...

Do you know me? I've wanted to learn French like forever but then I think about the grammer and the practicing and the reading and all of it makes me crazy. So, I haven't even begun to learn the language. Someday though. Someday.

Jen Holtkamp said...

as a former spanish teacher, i can definitely second 'learn the grammar', understanding and basic communication is not enough if you really want to learn and master the language!

Unknown said...

This is very helpful - thank you! I got the French Rosetta Stone course for my birthday. Now I see a few more things to think about!

Unknown said...

This is very helpful - thank you! I got the French Rosetta Stone course for my birthday. Now I see a few more things to think about!

Katy said...

I totally agree with these hints, having done a degree in languages. A few things I'd add... Don't do it alone. Even if you have no-one around you who can speak the language, get someone else to test you on your vocabulary and grammar. It's actually pretty fun when they pronounce things wrong and it helps you realise that you already know more than most people around you. Great motivation, and makes it a less solitary activity. I used to test my friend on ancient Hebrew vocabulary, which I knew nothing about, and it was fun! (I was useless pronouncing it all which led to a few laughs.)

Erin said...

All these tips are right on point! I've been studying French for the last two years and learned that I really didn't get anything out of the class unless I try my best to do all of these other things along with it. It really does take A LOT of time and effort... such much that I decided not to take another course this fall... now I'm reconsidering... hmmm.

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