Nine Tips on Learning a New Language

The title of this piece comes from an advert that I once saw.  A Spanish hotelier was trying to encourage me to come to spend a week at his hotel and he had obviously been working hard with the English dictionary.  The copy said “Our chef is a genius – his cooking will leave you stunned, stuffed and well fed-up”.  Not quite the shade of meaning he intended to convey and certainly not enough to get me on the plane to Spain.

It comes down to the fact that learning a second language can be hard work and the slog of doing so may indeed leave you “well fed-up”.  So what can one do to take out some of the sweat and inject some fun into it?  It is like climbing a steep hill – hard on the way up but an excellent view when you look back on what you have achieved.

Eiffel Tower(89637)

1. Have A Realistic Ambition

Yes, you want to learn a language – but what are you learning it for?  I will assume for this article that you do not have any deadline.  Instead you would like to acquire a new language rather than being able to read difficult technical or literary material quickly.  So start with the ability to get by conversationally and only when you feel confident decide whether you wish to go on to the next level.  Give yourself a few months to get that far and check how you are doing regularly.


2. Choose The Right Materials

You will want to learn how to read the new language and this depends on the language.  It may be difficult, either because of a new alphabet, or because of strange sounds, or because spelling does not seem to follow straightforward rules.  You do not have to learn to read it first.  Remember, the first alphabet you ever learned was from the standpoint of knowing the language and learning how to read, rather than learning how to read in order to learn the language.  So although reading the new language will be essential, decide the best time to learn reading the new language.

We are fortunate in living in times in which there is an abundance of suitable materials.  There is audio and video material, printed material and on-line forums in which you can connect directly with native speakers.  Give some thought to what will suit you both in channels with which you are comfortable and with the level of material.  Go for the simple stuff first, you will learn it quickly and be able to build on it.

3. Have a Strategy for Learning Vocabulary

There is a statistic that about a third of what we say is the commonest 25 words, half is the commonest 100 and two thirds the commonest 300.  Those commonest 25 are in order:

“the, of, and, a, to, in, is, you, that, it, he, was, for, on, are, as, with, his, they, I, at, be, this, have, from”

Twenty five words is not a lot to learn by rote, so on the plus side, you should be able to acquire them quickly in the target language.  On the minus side, looking at these words instantly tells you that you are not going to be able to say much with them – they are more for connecting other words.

However, you can choose the words that they will connect and learn those.  To begin with these will be basic words like “house, road, city, grass, car, shop” etc. and if you identify useful words, you can learn those in blocks of ten to twenty at a time, consolidating them as you go.  Having themes like parts of the body, colours, furniture can further help.

As you progress in the new language, developing your vocabulary, you will be surprised to find that the places in which you repeatedly get caught out are things which are extremely hum-drum, and therefore probably under your attention radar.  You will suddenly discover that you are speaking a fluent sentence when you crash into the fact that you never learned words like “stir” or “sugar cube” or “cling-film” and therefore you grind to a sudden halt.  So keep an eye out for these “little” words and make sure that acquiring them is part of your vocabulary strategy.

Paris Metro(89638)

4. Extend Known Languages to Unknown Ones

You may gain assistance in your vocabulary strategy if you already know a language similar to the one you are trying to learn.  There are similarities in romance languages which are obvious, and much of the work of transferring between one and the next can be done by inferring rules about how the same thing is said in the two languages.  It will not be perfect, but it will help you understand a good deal more than you did before.  Tune up your mind to listen to the new language and relate it back to a language you know.

5. Immerse Yourself in the New Language

Take every opportunity to immerse yourself in the new language.  This can be listening to audio material, and, when you gain the confidence to speak it, practising with native speakers.  You learned your first language this way, and not all of that ability has disappeared now you are mature.

When listening, take care to choose your material to be something that you would naturally want to listen to.  There are plenty of foreign language radio stations around, but the rule is that if you would not listen to that station if it were in English, you are not going to have the patience to listen to it in your chosen new language.  So take some time to scan what there is, and to settle on something with which you are comfortable.  That will engage you, and with time, you will find that you understand a good deal more than you did simply by having it in the background.  I have found that initially it is tricky as you do not separate out the words in the new language, but after a couple of days, your brain will naturally do this for you and things will fall into place.

A very effective method of extending this idea is to obtain a favourite audio-book in the new language.  Since you already know the story, much of the work is done for you, and you can understand far more when you hear it in the new language.  The audio-book will not run away so you can listen to it as many times as you like and pick up many standard expressions. 

Use this method intelligently, though.  If you like a good thriller, you do not want to come away speaking with the vocabulary of the hardened gangster who constantly uses slang.

Note, of course, that by listening in this way you implicitly pick up much of the grammar and syntax rules.

Folk Dance(89639)

6. Understand Levels of Comprehension

Much of the trick of relaxing enough to absorb the new language is to be prepared to tolerate your failures.  You will find that it is frustrating to hear a news bulletin in which something important is announced, of which you understand 90%– but not quite enough to understand the crucial point.  So let this flow over you – comprehension will come with time.

Similarly, I have read a Maigret story in the original French and been able to follow the plot almost independently of the rather idiomatic vocabulary.  Oddly, as I reach a point in which the plot becomes particularly exciting I discover that I can read a paragraph and know what is going on without understanding more than 20% of words in the paragraph.  The remaining 80% I would have to look up in a dictionary, but for understanding the book (as opposed to the words) I do not have to.

Again, books will not run away, so you can re-read them, and iteratively pick up the meaning of the more difficult words.

7. Use Dictionaries Sensibly

Dictionaries are very useful but have their pitfalls.  The same applies to Internet translation services.  Nowadays very good dictionaries are available free on-line, but just like a printed dictionary you need to keep an eye out for oddities. 

I have a printed dictionary which is too comprehensive, and if you look up the word “blue” it not only gives two shades of blue, but also the word for “depressed” and a word for “lewd” as in “a blue film”.  So check the context – it is a very good thing to look up the English equivalent of the unknown word, and then immediately look up the answer you get in the other end of the dictionary.  This will flush out problems and give you much more confidence.

8. Look At Advertisements

Advertisements are another easy way to pick up idiomatic phrases.  They are designed to be attention grabbing and therefore memorable, and they are everywhere.  You will pick up many down-to-earth snippets of vocabulary with little effort.  Again use this knowledge carefully – you do not wish to speak like an advertising hack.

9. Make a Fool Of Yourself – But Safely

Inevitably you will make mistakes, but the more quickly you make them, the more likely you are to have them corrected.  That leaves you with useful knowledge for next time.  The trick is to do so in a safe environment, for example with a sympathetic native speaker who will put you right and will not consider you a fool for trying. 

The problem with our Spanish hotel keeper at the beginning of this article was not that he made the mistake, but that he put it out as advertising copy without checking it.  He made a fool of himself publicly.

So I hope that the points I have raised in this article will encourage you to learn a new language and that you will move from being fed-up with the difficulty to stunned at what you have achieved.