5 Language Learning Tips

5 Language Learning Tips

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a huge language nerd. More than grammar and vocab, language study is the exploration of another culture and a reflection of the differences in your own. It’s not just memorization and regurgitation, it’s understanding how people express themselves and how they relate to their world and to each other. At the risk of sounding too hippy dippy, foreign language study is both a challenge and a complement to our relationship with our culture and to our understanding of the world.

To bring it back down to earth, there are a lot of benefits to knowing a second, or even a third, language. Other than just feeling super cool being able to tell people you’re bilingual or multilingual, you’ll be more attractive to employers, your problem solving and creativity skills may get a boost, and other parts of the world will be open to you in a way they previously weren’t. The problem, though, is that you actually have to learn the language. It’s no Sunday stroll, but it’s definitely not as intimidating as you may think, either.

To give you a bit of history on my own experience, the first foreign words I ever learned were Finnish: my great grandpa came here from Europe and all of us grandchildren were affectionately known as either a paha poika or a paha tyttö (bad boy or bad girl). Formal foreign language study has been a part of my life for over 10 years now. I started with 2 years of French in high school, moved to Japanese in undergrad, and am now adding Assyrian to the mix. All that to say, I’ve had a lot of practice identifying and fine-tuning what works best for me. I’ve thought about the things that have really helped over the years and came up with these tips for you!

  1. Consistency
    First and foremost, if you want to get results, consistency is key. This may seem obvious, but it’s important to remember!  Schedule time to study everyday (whether it be 30 minutes or 4 hours) and stick to it. Regular exposure solidifies what you learn and keeps you progressing. This is why, believe it or not, 1 hour a day, every day, is better than a binge, 7-hour study session at the end of the week (though it’s obviously better than nothing).
  2. Realistic Goals
    We all want to be fluent now. But, even if you have the luxury of being able to study 8 hours a day and be otherwise fully immersed in the culture and language, it’s going to take some time! Evaluate where you are at right now (honestly), determine what you most want to work on, and then set realistic goals and timelines to work towards. If speaking is your goal, writing and reading may be able to take a back seat for a bit (though I would still recommend listening practice to hone your pronunciation). A comprehensive study plan (speaking, listening, reading, writing) will take a considerably longer amount of time to master (though if that’s the way you want to tackle your language–go for it!).
  3. Grammar
    The universal gripe of most language learners. If you’re a beginner and going the self-study route, I would still start out with a textbook (at a loss? Take a look at the beginner course books being used at a university). They may not be the most exciting materials you’ll acquire, but they’re developed with the general populous of language learners in mind and will provide structure while you’re feeling out what works best for you. Review the grammar points, make sure you have a decent (doesn’t have to be perfect) understanding of the meaning and then give particular care to the examples and use in the reading and dialogue sections. It will fine tune your understanding and give you a deeper feel for it’s proper use. Supplement this with native materials (kids books, easy news sources, tv shows, etc.) and you’ll get a comprehensive idea of each grammar point.
  4. Have Fun
    Just because you’re learning and studying, doesn’t mean it has to be dry, purely academic and boooooring! There are a ton of resources out there (a lot of them free!) to make it fun with the added bonus of greater retention. Look for tv shows or books that match (or are only just a little above) your level; find games that are in or that utilize the language you’re learning. Find a friend (native or fellow learner) to practice with. The key is to not just passively consume, but to actively take note and learn.
  5. REVIEW
    I can’t stress enough how important it is to review what you’re learning (the benefits of self-study is that you can set the pace). If you’re a beginner, it’s incredibly important to build a solid base of knowledge to move forward from. If you’re more intermediate, you’ll need to make sure you’re not getting stuck in the “okay plateau” (i.e: you’re good enough, can do most of the things you want to do, but are not advanced). Both require taking time to review what you’re learning. It’ll give you an honest assessment of where you are, solidify the concepts/terms that you’re learning and give you an opportunity to fine tune/reassess your goals.
  6. Bonus 6th!
    Be an active participant in your studies. Really pay attention to what works for you, what doesn’t, what motivates you and what makes you rather watch 3 seasons of an only mildly interesting show… There are a lot of studies showing what might help, what might not; different people will tell you different things that work or are useless–but the one fact is: language learning is a personal quest (however full of friends, travel, teachers, or family it might be). In short, don’t just go through the motions and expect results.  Try a bunch of things and find that magic combination!

To sum it all up: Organize and structure your learning; be an active participant; make it fun; review what you’re learning and you should be well on your way to reaching your goals!

Take a look at some of these free resources: Vocabulary (Memrise); Vocabulary/Concepts (Anki); Get corrected by native speakers! (Lang-8); Find a native language partner (HelloTalk); Listening (NHK WorldSBS Radio); Courses (FSIBBC LanguagesDuoLingo)

Do you have other language learning questions or tips of your own?

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