Flashing back to 2006, little Middle-School Austin had never taken a foreign language course before, but given the choice of German, French, and Spanish, I ended up picking German because I wanted to be able to one day talk to my Grandfather in German. I had a great time learning German all through High School, and I was often asked how I remembered so much. I usually just shrugged my shoulders; I didn’t know either! I just said it was luck!
Little did I know that now as a senior in college, I’d be still pursuing German, but now I can also speak French, a bit of Italian, and have aspirations of learning Russian too! When I tell people that I’m taking all of these language courses (as electives no less) they give me a sort of sideways glance as if to say, “well…better you than me…” which never quite made sense to me, since I always thought language courses were the best part of the day! Looking back though, I think I was pretty fortunate to have stumbled upon the tips I’m going to present below, and I think they’ve served me pretty well. So without further ado…
1. Find a Good Teacher
This is maybe the hardest one on the list. In a pinch, books can work well as teachers, but the problem is that while books can teach grammar and vocabulary, they cannot teach accent (which arguably renders the last two less effective). I think the real benefit of a teacher is simply feedback. They can correct you – because you’re going to make mistakes learning a language. Maybe that’s saying a word incorrectly or trying to Anglicize (impose English language patterns on) a sentence or thought. It’s all a part of the process! So even when you’re wrong, don’t forget to smile, because you’re learning. A good teacher will be able to teach you pneumonic devices, songs, and more to help you remember things. I still remember my German teacher singing the Accusative prepositions in German to the tune of “Deck the Halls”. Was it ridiculous? Of course! But that’s why it’s memorable. To learn a language, you have to think differently than you do in your mother tongue; it is necessary to think in terms of new word order, new words, idiomatic expressions, etc. so having a good teacher helps drive these things home.
2. Think in the Language. Talk in the Language.
Resist the urge to leave what you’ve learned in the classroom. Think in the language at home. Speak to your friends in the language just for fun, no matter how broken or bad it is! Inevitably you won’t know how to say every word, so you can look up those you don’t know (or even make them up to keep the conversation rolling [as long as you go look up the real word later!]). This exercise helps because it is less about words and grammar, and more about gaining confidence speaking. As the African proverb goes, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together”. This applies to languages in this way, because learning with friends will push your learning to the next level, and make it less lonely. Heck, I sometimes address my dogs in German or French! Practice really does make perfect, so why not make it sort of like a game too?
3. Get Cultured.
We live in a global society now, with the world at our fingertips, and media everywhere you look. We here in America aren’t the only people creating content! Check out books, social media, news, music, and every form of content that you can find! This is how you unconsciously learned as a child: by reading, hearing, and seeing your language. By doing this in the foreign language, you will get to see how real people talk, think, and feel (not just the people in a textbook), which will be invaluable for your writing, reading, understanding, and accent. So next time you’re on Instagram looking up pictures of dogs, try looking up #hund, #chien, #cane, or even #собака!
4. Realize the differences
A foreign language is made up of a lot more than just different words. As I mentioned above, it is necessary to change the way you think, because that’s what a foreign language is – an entirely new worldview and an entirely new mode of thought. Going along with this, know what your new language boasts that differs from your language. If it’s Latin, German, Russian, or similar languages, it may have grammatical cases (which are simultaneously helpful, yet infinitely distracting for English speakers).
Most every other language will have gendered nouns too! For example, in Spanish, car [el coche] is masculine; in French, car [la voiture] is feminine; in German, car [das Auto] is neuter. The closest thing we have to this in English is when we call a boat “she”. Learning the genders of nouns and other grammatical nuances may seem trivial, but again, it’s an important thing to learn to understand another culture and language.
The three big pillars of language (I would argue) are: vocabulary, grammar, and accent. Missing any of those makes it hard to understand others and be understood (think of the last time you met something with a REALLY thick accent!). Again, language is a process. You learn new words every day in your own language, so you’ll have the same experience with foreign words.
Ultimately no system of language is right or wrong, they’re all just different modes of thinking, and they often reflect how the culture itself works. Knowing another language is like a window into the minds of others.
5. Keep Motivated
I’d say that this is the most important part of learning a language. I cringe when I hear people say they want to learn a language because “it sounds beautiful”, because I would argue that every language is beautiful in some way, and this might not be a strong enough reason to keep you interested long-term. Another pitfall is assuming that you should learn a language simply for practicality (I hear all the time, “well I guess I’ll just take Spanish because so many people speak it”). Find something you connect with, and make a real goal of what you want to do with it! Find a part of this culture that you connect to and want to be a part of. Why just learn a language because it “sounds pretty” when you can understand opera, art, and the many other great cultural achievements of that culture first-hand? Every culture has many great things about it. Don’t take a language because you feel obligated – take something because you want to, whether that’s Finnish, Swahili, or Greek. Naturally there’s nothing wrong with taking a language for practical reasons, I simply mean that if you’re interested in what you’re learning, you’re more likely to stay engaged long term.
I would say if there are two words you should take from this, dear reader, they should be, “stay curious”. That is at the cornerstone of learning a language – always being curious and wanting to know, much like when you were a child learning your mother tongue. At the end of the day, the triumph should be your own. Everyone has his/her own varying level of language competency and interest, and that should be an important part of your ultimate goal for the language. Keep it realistic, but most of all, have fun. Remember you’re looking through the glasses of another culture, a set of glasses that have been developing for millennia – from the time that man made the first word. Happy learning ! 🙂