Advice from a language learner to get you started
This post is based on a Writing101 prompt: select one comment you’ve left on another blog and expand on it in a post.
A few days ago, I discovered Lauren’s blog girlfindsnewplacesandfaces where she relates her adventures as a British au pair in France. In her latest post, she mentioned that she wanted to take classes and, after some inquiry in the comments, dropped the magic word: language! Since the language courses she had found were too expensive, I suggested a free alternative – using online resources – on which I would like to expand below.
Questions to ask yourself
Before you start learning a language, you need to do some research and consider the following questions:
- Which language should I learn based on my needs and interests?
- What are my reasons / motivations for learning this language?
- How far do I want to go? What do I want to do with this language?
- How does this language differ from the one(s) I already know?
- How difficult will it be to learn based on these differences?
- How much time can I dedicate to it and when should I study?
Stop putting it off
While this process is important to help you get started and ensure that you stay motivated, the purpose of this post is not to guide you through it. Instead, I would like to help you realise that learning a language is much less hassle than you may think, and that there is no reason for you to put it off until some hypothetical “better time” – when you have more time, more money, or a friend to learn with – that will never arrive.
You don’t have to sacrifice every Friday night to attend some expensive course that will make you feel like you aren’t making any progress or aren’t good at learning languages. You don’t have to relive the nightmare of your school days when flawless grammar mattered more than the ability to have actual conversations.
You can take charge of your learning: decide when you want to study, what exactly you want to learn, which resources you want to use, who you want to study with, etc. Even with little time and money on your hands, by taking advantage of the tools at your disposal, you can make consistent progress on your own terms.
The following aspects of language learning are listed in no particular order. Depending on your goals, you may skip the written components (reading, writing, and translating) to focus on oral communication, especially in the case of languages that use different writing systems than your mother tongue.
The language-learning journey usually begins with a few words and/or sentences. Vocabulary acquisition is especially important in the early stages, but this process continues your whole life, even in your mother tongue.
Passive acquisition occurs when you use your target language: as you read or listen to materials in your target language, you see and hear new words and retain them without any particular efforts on your part, because they appear several times in a document, remind you of similar words you already know, conjure up images, etc.
Active acquisition requires actual efforts on your part. You most likely get your hands on a list of useful words and learn them by heart, more effectively using a spaced repetition system such as Anki (software) or Memrise (app), both of which are free, but preferably in context to make sure that you actually know how to use these words.
The more words you learn, the easier it becomes to guess the meaning of unknown words. But you have to choose words wisely, based on frequency lists and your own needs. Writing and speaking are especially useful to identify gaps in your vocabulary, as well as to practice using your new words and increase your chances of retaining them.
Finding materials online is extremely easy when you learn a “popular” language such as Spanish or French. Depending on your goals and interests, you may read the news, search for recipes, stay on top of press releases in your industry, follow lifestyle or travel blogs, look up Harry Potter fan fictions or science-fiction short stories, etc.
Think about the materials you read in your mother tongue and try to find similar materials in your target language. Or research in your target language a topic you know very well to learn the words you need to talk about it. When in doubt, turn to Wikipedia: you are sure to find something interesting to read in line with your interests.
There are a number of software and apps that can help make reading easier. For instance, Learning with Texts provides you with a definition and/or translation of any word your cursor hovers over. Several Chrome, Firefox, etc. plugins can help as well, like Mind the Word that randomly replaces English words with target-language words to teach you new words in context or Lingualy that provides definitions and translations on any page.
Texts are a great way to discover new words, but don’t fall into the trap of adding any word you don’t know to your list of words to learn. Don’t waste time with a word that you won’t ever use. It is perfectly acceptable not to look up nor attempt to retain any word from a text you read: in addition to helping with vocabulary acquisition, reading exposes you to different grammatical rules, conjugations, structures, etc. that you need to get used to.
While audio resources aren’t as easy to find, Youtube is a goldmine and might have everything you need. You don’t have to listen to native-level material right away: search for songs you like and find the lyrics to read along, or look up children’s stories and videos aimed at beginners of your target language. It is also a great source for help with grammar and pronunciation, with many short videos explaining grammar rules in very simple ways.
Another interesting source to consider are podcasts, especially those designed for learners of your target language. Look for podcasts recorded by native speakers who speak in clear voices and at a slower pace than they normally would. You don’t want it to be too slow, but you don’t want to drop the language because you can’t understand what people are saying. Of course you won’t understand native speakers at first, but starting with materials for beginners and increasing the difficulty over time will take you there slowly but surely.
Ideally, you would start by listening to materials designed for beginners, while reading a transcript of the podcast or video so that you can associate the sound of each word to its spelling. If you find audio resources that interest you but don’t come with transcripts, you can surely find someone online that can transcribe it for you. Conversely, if you have a written text and would like a native speaker to read it and record it for you, you can turn to Rhinospike.
If you think of it, there are already thousands of audio resources with transcripts available online: songs! The catchier, the better, as the higher the chances that you will remember the lyrics without trying. I learnt the lyrics to “La Bamba” effortlessly way before I started learning Spanish because its simple lyrics are repeated throughout the song, and knowing the sentence “se necesita una poca de gracia” helped me understand how to use “se” as a reflexive pronoun before I had even opened a Spanish book. And don’t get me started on “Un, Dos, Tres”!
As I mentioned above, writing is a great way to identify much-needed words that you haven’t learnt yet and to practise using new words and rules. All you need is a dictionary so that you don’t get stuck in mid-sentence, but you can always insert an English word in the middle of a practice sentence in your target language. What matters isn’t that you write perfectly but that you put in practice what you have learnt and make the most of it.
Earlier, I mentioned how diverse your reading materials can be; well, so can your writing! You can write about your day, your family, your pets, your responsibilities at work, what you have learnt during the day, grocery lists or other to-do lists, letters to your friends or future self, recipes, opinion pieces, book reviews, etc. Use prompts if you need to. You can write the silliest things and make as many mistakes as you like – what matters is that you write!
Ideally, your writing should be corrected by a native speaker. That’s what websites like Lang-8, italki and The Mixxer are for. Submit your writings for review and native speakers will kindly point out any mistakes you have made or suggest improvements to ensure that your text is grammatically correct and sounds like native material.
What might be even better, depending on your personality and inspiration, is to find penpals to make writing more interesting and always have someone to correct your texts and help you improve. We’ll dive into it right away.
When I started relearning German after a five-year break, I was motivated, determined, and dedicated. I would learn and review new words as often as I could, to the point of asking my partner to quiz me at the restaurant on a regular basis. I would read a text, look up all the words I didn’t know, add them to my vocabulary list, learn them, then re-read the text, translate it into my mother tongue, and write a summary of it. It was crazy.
After two years of proceeding this way with every text my professor gave me, I had made amazing progress. I had gone from being incapable of remembering simple words like “Welt” (world) and “Schloss” (castle) to being the top student in her class. I couldn’t believe how much I had achieve, and neither could she. It seemed like a miracle. Yet, there was one area that I had completely neglected, and that made my learning useless: I couldn’t speak.
I had all those words in my head, and all those rules that I could apply in writing, and yet I couldn’t use any of that to save my life. Whenever asked to speak in class, I would get all red in the face, start shivering and sweating, and let out some incoherent jumble of words that didn’t remotely resemble a sentence. With five minutes and a dictionary, I might have been able to speak a little, but I couldn’t understand what others said to me anyway.
All of that changed when I joined The Mixxer and italki. I found three German people who were learning French and needed to get some speaking practice as well, and we started skyping once a week. The first few conversations were difficult, but after only a month, I was amazed at the progress I had made. I wasn’t fluent or anything, but the difficulty level had gone from “impossible” to “not that bad” in record time.
Several months later, I started exchanging e-mails more or less regularly with some of my language partners, because they couldn’t skype but wanted to keep in touch, or because they wanted to practise writing in addition to speaking. At first, every e-mail took me an awful lot of time, but again, with practice, it became more natural, the words began to come more naturally to me, and I stopped considering e-mails “work”.
Finding people to practise with can be a great source of inspiration, a way to learn more about the language and the countries where the language is spoken, even a way to make friends. It complements independent learning by providing you with people that can correct your work, answer your questions, assess your progress, advise and motivate you, teach you new things, make you laugh, etc. while only asking that you do the same for them.
With translation being my job, you might have expected me to write 1,000 words to explain how translation can change your life, but as you can see, I will be quick. Translating a text from your target language into your mother tongue or from your mother tongue into your target language is a great way to widen your vocabulary, identify “weaknesses”, and practise writing in your target language when you aren’t inspired.
Translating a foreign text into your mother tongue forces you to give it your full attention, maybe more than you would if you only read it. Translating into your target language requires that you write within boundaries to express thoughts that aren’t your own on a topic that you might not have written about. Again, you can use Lang-8 and the other sites to have your translation corrected, or ask your language partners to take a look at your work.
Grammar is the last item in this list because I wanted to write about it as much as you wanted to read about it. Grammar can be painful, headache inducing, hellish, senseless, etc. but it is necessary. If you want people to understand you, learning vocabulary may be enough in some languages, but not in all of them. In languages that don’t rely on our “normal” subject-verb-complement order, grammar mastery is key to saying that your cat brought you a dead bird instead of any other combination of these words.
At the very least, you should learn proper syntax, basic conjugations, and the most important rules. Are you learning German? Make sure you understand how, when, and why to use the different cases before you learn the der die das die table by heart. Make sure to understand how the articles and adjective endings can help you decipher sentences before you drive yourself crazy trying to figure out whether to use der, den or dem.
Grammar is a necessary evil, but it isn’t as bad as you might think. You can’t escape it, but it doesn’t have to be your enemy. Make sure to find clear examples for every rule that you learn, and to get enough practise, with the help of your language partners if necessary. I know the Spanish subjunctive is going to drive me loca but I will feel so much better when my language partners won’t have to correct it all the time.
“All-purpose” apps like Duolingo are actually great to learn a language without caring too much about the grammar. The way it works, you learn new words and translate simple sentences to retain these words in context and practise using them. Some explanations are provided but it’s mostly about getting used to the language and understanding grammar rules through practice rather than theory.
So what do you want to learn?
I hope this post served its purpose and you now feel better equipped to learn a language on your own. I know this post was general and I didn’t share many resources, but there are a lot of language-specific resources out there and I will gladly share them in later posts focusing on specific language.
If you already know which language(s) you want to learn, please answer the poll below. I only listed the languages I am interested in, but feel free to add the ones you are interested in if you can’t find them in the list.
If a language turns out to be particularly popular among the readers of this blog, I will be happy to research and share some useful (and free!) online resources to help you learn it.