This article is aimed mainly at those who learn on their own (or wish to), but may well be useful for those attending classes.

"Language learning is all about ME - Motivation and Effectiveness"
. What do I mean by effectiveness? The materials you use: textbooks, audio courses, phrasebooks, flash cards, books and audio books in your target language, and so on. If you have lots of motivation and you're using effective materials, you're pretty much sorted.

"The smart man learns from his mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others".
I'm going to describe five problems I had, and how I overcame them.

1. Sticking doggedly to one material.
Different materials suit different people. Some people like lots of realistic dialogues, others like humorous conversations and a few people like plenty of drills and grammar! You'll probably want several different materials at beginner level: audio with lots of conversations, a course with lots of vocabulary (but not just word lists), a grammar book, a phrase book and so forth. This doesn't have to be expensive, particularly if you're learning a more common language like Spanish or German. There are lots of cheap second-hand materials out there, and you may even get some for free. Keep it fresh! Better to quit using a certain material than to quit learning the language altogether.

2. Vocabulary woes.
One of the toughest things about language learning is vocabulary. So many words to memorise! As with grammar, repeated exposure certainly helps. However, there is an almost "magical" way to help you remember words. The trick is to use your imagination. Here's an example:

The Spanish for woman is "mujer", which sounds quite like "moo hair". Imagine a woman sitting on a cow, as you might sit on a horse. She has very long blonde hair, and some of it is getting in the cow's eyes. The cow complains, "Moo! Hair!"

Don't worry; it only takes a few seconds to come up with bizarre imagery like this. Admittedly, the process isn't so easy for a lot of words. But you don't have to be really precise:

The German for village is "Dorf". Imagine a village full of dwarves. Your memory will translate "dwarf" into "Dorf".

Similarly, if you come across a long, difficult word, break it down into syllables. Even if you can only translate one or two syllables into images, it will be a big help to your memory.

If your language has noun gender (masculine, feminine, neuter words), you can cover this also. For masculine words, you can use macho men in your images. With feminine words, try girly women. For neuters, I like to use robots, or science-fiction scenes. You could use cold, snowy weather or whatever you like, as long as it's consistent.

"Dorf" is neuter, so imagine a futuristic village of dwarves. They have laser guns and hover cars. "Das Dorf" means "the dwarf", because "das" is the neuter form of "the".

3. Fussing too much over grammar. Studying grammar is great, but don't go overboard. If you immerse yourself in plenty of reading and listening practice, the grammar will be reinforced by repeated exposure.

4. Getting "bogged down". It's easy to become fixated with a particular aspect of language learning. As a beginner, I spent a long time trying to get perfect pronunciation in Spanish. That time could have been better spent! Just as it's good to eat a varied, balanced diet, you can maximise your results by keeping your learning varied. You can read, listen, write and talk.

5. Have fun and don't worry about mistakes! Laugh at them. They're inevitable. If you're not making mistakes, you're probably not learning. Good luck!

By the way, what's the Spanish for woman? And what's the German for village?


The ME quote comes from Steve Kaufmann.

The memorisation technique comes from various sources, but is most directly influenced by Barry Farber.