So the day has finally come. You’ve rolled up your sleeves and decided to take your first serious step to learning a new language. But before you crack open your flash cards and travel phrase books, there are a few things you should keep in mind to make sure your experience goes as smoothly as possible.
Many books and websites offer several “tried and true” techniques for learning languages. They mention things like commitment, pushing through frustration, repetition, etc. All of these suggestions are good ones, so I won’t reinvent those wheels here. Rather, I would like to share some more concrete techniques that I have learned in my years of language study that have helped me become and stay fluent.
1. Assume a New Identity
Before you go Googling “fake passports” let me explain. For convenience, let’s say we are native English speakers learning Spanish. When we begin learning a new language, we are learning more than words. We’re also learning new ways to put ideas together.
In language study, we start out learning everything through our native ears, both linguistically and culturally. In doing so, we are playing the part of the English speaker mimicking Spanish words. We tend to put ideas and words together in an English way. We remain fundamentally the same.
Instead, try pretending to assume a new identity. Imagine you are playing the role of a Spanish citizen in a play. Give him a name. As you learn new words, try to say them like he would. As you learn about the culture, try to see the world through his eyes. When you return to speaking English send him away. When you want to use Spanish again, call him back again.
This is a great way to help internalize the language. We sometimes have a natural resistance to learning something that goes against how we view it. Playing a role helps us bring it in without the feeling of compromising ourselves. Initially you may start to confuse your words and thoughts a little, but your mind will eventually sort those out.
2. Find a Native and Make Him Yours
Even if you have all of the latest study materials on the market, nothing beats having a native around. Even if they can’t grammatically explain to you why certain things are said the way they are, they’ll be able to tell you what sounds right and what doesn’t. This is invaluable.
Once you’ve secured this new friend, talk to him. In my experience, few things build fluency faster than active communication (speaking and writing.) Passive communication (listening and reading) is important too, but if you can consistently create it, it will stick.
3. English Remix
When speaking, sometimes we will come to a point where we know how to say most of a complete thought, but we can’t remember or haven’t come across a couple of key words. This happens frequently with nouns. When this occurs, I find it a good practice to fill in the blanks with English words.
I have found this to be effective for two reasons. First, not only does it allow me to finish the thought, depending on the person and the language, many times the other person may understand my meaning from the context or even the English itself.
The other reason is that if you’re anything like me, not knowing the native words that you substituted will bug you and force you to look them up more quickly, especially if it happens more than once with the same words. This problem-solving perspective works very well toward making vocab words stick as opposed to only trying to remember them from lists, sandwiched between nouns of a similar category.
4. Don’t Ignore Culture
When people give language advice, this is not stressed enough in my opinion. Knowing the most basic history and culture of a language and its place of origin can help some of the intangibles fall into place. Also, some languages have idioms and use cultural references to symbolize ideas expressed differently in English. In fact, sometimes you will encounter words that don’t have English equivalents at all.
Knowing the culture helps learners develop a frame of reference. This will prove to be a valuable tool for higher level understanding of things like jokes and sarcasm.
5. Speak Out loud
Studies have shown that we process language differently when we actually say words out loud versus saying them to ourselves. The success behind the Rosetta Stone and Pimsleur audio programs hinges on this this very concept.
If you are doing textbook exercises, trying reading the examples and sentences out loud. Fight through the feeling of sounding silly and make a habit out of it. If there are too many people within earshot, find a quiet room. You’ll find that over time you will develop a sort of mouth muscle memory with frequently used phrases and sound patterns. This is particularly helpful because it will free up your conscious mind to focus on more difficult parts of the ideas you are trying to convey.
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6. Sleep on It
Many times after we have wrestled with a difficult concept or sentence pattern for an extended amount of time, we become frustrated and start making plans to avoid it all together in the future. Perhaps doubt starts to creep in and we question our ability to ever learn the language.
Without any specific statistics or polling information, I can say with complete confidence that this happens to EVERYONE, many, many times.
Here’s I trick that I like to use that has worked well for me in resolving this. When you begin to feel that frustration, do a complete brain dump and do something unrelated, preferably something that requires active thought like cooking or playing a video game.
About 30 minutes before bed, go over the language issue one more time to the best of your ability, and then close your book and go to sleep. When you wake up, think about it casually during your morning routine but don’t study it. Sometime during the day, continue studying the next lesson without addressing the problem.
That night before bed, open your book or notes and look at the problem again. Many times it will suddenly make sense. If it doesn’t, close your book and repeat the same routine the next day until it does.
The reason this works many times is because our brains continue to process information when we sleep. In this state, our brains can pick up patterns and connections that our conscious brain can miss. Also, I have found that skipping past the difficult lesson to the next lesson often puts the brain in a sort of catch-up mode where it processes the gap more quickly. This is probably partially due to its usage in later lessons and the context they provide.
7. Keep a Journal
By this, I mean keep a normal daily journal, not a journal on your studies. The only difference: write it using the language you are trying to learn. Similar to what I described in “English Remix,” use English words when you can’t remember the new ones. Since writing is an active practice that forces you to remember, it will help draw attention to the areas where you need help and will reinforce the words you do know.
You can also use the “big deal” method of remembering words you tend to frequently forget. This is where you take an extra minute or so to dwell on one word that is giving you extra problems. Look at the word and try to think of anything that you know that can be associated to that word in any way.
For example, when learning Spanish I used to have problems with the Spanish word for “shark” which is “tiburon.” After thinking about this for a while I remembered that a friend had a blue car made by Hyundai called the Tiburon. When I thought of a shark, I imagined his car gliding through the ocean with a dorsal fin.
This is an absurd example, but the more absurd the better. The point is to make a big deal out of the word to give it uniqueness thus helping to better remember it.
8. Background Chatter
For most kinds of studying experts will usually recommend finding a quiet place for maximum concentration. However, when studying a language sometimes it’s a good idea to have it playing in some form in the background. If this is too distracting, you can always put it on when you’re not studying.
Find a movie or television show in the target language and play it at a low level. I try to avoid music because the words are frequently over-stressed and they don’t follow normal speech patters. However, others can listen to it with no issues.
This ambient talking helps with processing the sounds and speed of the language. If done regularly, this can lead to many instances where the speed of the words you understand slows down. This also aids in pronunciation.
9. Online Chat
There are several chat sites available for different languages. If you are studying a language that uses something other than the standard English alphabet (Chinese, Japanese, etc.) you may have to activate that option on your computer if you have it, or you can just download it.
This is useful for many of the reasons that I have already mentioned concerning active communication. It’s similar to holding a face to face conversation only it’s a little less stressful since you can take your time answering and there is more anonymity. Also, you always have the option of sitting back and watching others’ conversations.
However, you must be careful when participating in these chats because the speakers sometimes tend to use a lot of slang and derogatory words. You don’t want to develop bad habits.
10. Make Mistakes
This is your number one asset in becoming fluent. Many of us fear looking foolish and have a tendency to want to think our way to becoming fluent through perfect sentences and grammar. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. Behind each fluent speaker (native or non-native) there is a trail of hundreds if not thousands of misunderstandings, mistakes, embarrassments, and frustrations.
Think about it. Regardless of how intelligent you are, do you really think you can keep up with mountains of vocabulary words, verb tenses, cases, grammar rules, etc., and recall them instantly whenever you need to talk or listen? For this to work, you are going to need habits and reflex and nothing helps build these faster than getting out there and fumbling through it.
I understand that this may be difficult for those who are not outgoing by nature. It will take a conscious effort. But I promise, the more you do it the less you will care. Foreigners are surprisingly accommodating and they will appreciate the effort. Take pleasure in your victories when you correct your mistakes. Let them be fuel for you to go out and make more mistakes to fix. Pretty soon you’ll go from trying to get a simple idea across to making higher level mistakes.
Learning another language can be a rewarding experience as long as we manage our expectations and keep pushing forward. Sometimes you may have to take extended breaks from learning and that’s OK. When you come back to it, you’ll be surprised at how much you remember.
For native English speakers, there are additional pitfalls to be wary of, including over-analyzing and setting unrealistic goals. When you feel you are ready, try to look for opportunities for limited immersion. This will take you to the next level and help you internalize the language far beyond the ability of any textbook.
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