There are many ideas around learning a new language. “What’s the purpose of studying a language that isn’t useful for business?” “English is the only language you need to know” “It’s hard to learn a new language” “Are you bilingual yet?” Depending on the language, you hear these phrases more or less often. Behind these prejudices, there is the common belief that learning a language demands a lot of effort during a long period of time. However, it doesn’t have to be that way.
Forming the Habit
Learning a language can be easy if you devote time daily and efficiently. Besides, you don’t necessarily need to practice up to the point of being bilingual or resembling a native speaker. That is why we have to set a clear goal for studying a new language.
Once we define our goal, we need to form a habit. Ideally, we should practice every day. Otherwise, we will be compromising our goal and that will work against our progress. If we practice on a daily basis, the moment will come when we can include the habit into our routine as we do with other habits of our life like eating, working, keeping relationships, etc.
If we cannot form the habit, we should ask ourselves whether we truly want to learn a language.
How to Start Learning a New Language
In IT, we often say that once we master a programming language, it’s easy to learn another one later. Why is that? Because learning a programming language involves learning about algorithms and logic, and that is something common to all programming languages, it’s only the form that varies. It’s the same for learning other languages: it gets easier if we already know how to analyze syntactically (not as detailed as we used to do at school; what I mean is to understand basic structures). Knowing syntactic analysis helps us learn a language’s structures, detect patterns in order to better assimilate those structures, and understand how native speakers think in the language, among other things.
Useful Tools and Resources for Learning a Language
- Listening to music
Listening to music in the language that we’re studying, even if we don’t understand everything that’s being said, is advisable because we can appreciate the intonation and speaking rhythm. Besides, it’s likely that we will remember some words we hear when we learn about them later. Learning a song by memory will then help us recognize structures we can use in other contexts.
- Writing something every day
I don’t mean a compulsory text we have to write on something that is of no interest to us. I mean writing about what we did today, what we want to do after or what we are currently watching on Netflix. The aim is to find an excuse to write, and find a balance between applying what we already know and searching for new words in the dictionary (that is, between learning and motivation). We should not reach the point when this becomes a tedious activity, since we could compromise the habit.
- Keep a notebook with new vocabulary
Classifying vocabulary by categories helps us connect words and detect patterns. For example, in Chinese, some characters represent general ideas, and the meaning of a phrase becomes more specific with the following character. So, the first character opens the door to learning a lot of new words. In the case of German, it’s useful to write down nouns specifying their gender and highlight them with different colors for each gender.
- Watching educational videos
There are videos online that depict familiar situations where we can listen, observe and read in the language. In addition, we can grasp colloquial or popular expressions that sometimes we don’t get to learn from textbooks. Images provide context to dialogues and make word retention easier.
- Set our cellphone in the language we want to learn
We spend most of the day interacting with our cellphones, which leads us to make decisions all the time. It’s very likely that we will learn words and structures in a passive way. In fact, there is an app for learning English that displays a new word for us to learn every time we unlock our phone.
- Reading books
It’s very helpful to become a member of a library that lends books in the language we want to learn or directly to purchase books. As time goes by, we will become more fluent readers and speakers.
- Browse sites in the language we want to learn
If you want to learn vocabulary about houses, for example, search real estate websites where, aided by images, common sense and what you already know, you will be able to infer lots of new words. You can even start grasping the difference between how language is taught and how it’s actually spoken out there, since language is dynamic and in constant change.
- Create a profile in Italki
Italki is a free social network where everyone can share texts to be reviewed and corrected by other students or native speakers. You can also read and correct texts from others and consider the different versions suggested by each native speaker, since there is no single way of saying things and learning a language is also about learning through diversity. Native speakers can contact you to keep practicing through other networks as well.
- Watching videos on culture affairs
Learning the culture of the language is important to explore the vocabulary, for example. When I was learning German, I found out that cucumber in Germany is a vegetable of great importance, and that they prefer butter over oil. So, many German dishes will include cucumber and probably many communicative situations will feature this vegetable instead of others that maybe in my culture are more important. That’s useful also for learning words that don’t exist in your language or in the language you want to learn. There is a German word that means approximately this: the fear of opportunities narrowing down as we grow older: Torschlusspanik. In French, there is no specific verb to say you miss someone, so they have to say something like “you are missing in my life”: tu me manques. In addition, learning through stories helps us consolidate knowledge, because we remember the sensation we experienced when we found out something surprising for us.
- Having a global view about the grammar of the language
Knowing about connectors, declensions, conjugations, types of verbs, word order and structures is helpful for reading a text and avoid making frequent pauses because we aren’t familiar with the arrangement of words.
- Learning the most frequently used words
There are lists of words classified by frequency of use in movies’ dialogues. So, we can learn those words first, because they will help us better understand situations in various contexts.
- Learning from one’s own context. What vocabulary words do I find interesting? What do I want to write about or learn how to express? A kind of thinking to avoid: “This is too hard, I will learn about it eventually, in the next level.” If my goal is to learn a language as fast as possible to be able to maintain a conversation at work, do I need to devote time to learning vocabulary related to cooking or food? It’s best to survey which words commonly appear in the communicative context I will be in.
- Accepting that you won’t always understand, and still keep going. You don’t have to understand everything you read or listen, or know how to say everything you want to say. You will learn a bit more each day: that’s the important thing.
- Making mistakes is okay! To learn is to overcome mistakes, and the only way to overcome them is to make them.
- Avoiding excessive strain. It’s better to practice during short but effective periods of time than to devote an entire day to learning, because we can easily get overloaded and distracted.
- Plunging into the language in every possible way. If we were to live in a country where people spoke the language we want to learn, we would be forced to learn it. We should emulate that circumstance in order to learn more quickly.
- Avoiding being influenced by the ideas of others. Some people may consider the language you are learning rather useless, while others may regard it as hard to learn. The only thing that matters is what the language means to you.
All of this can be implemented in just 30 days. If you are truly committed, during that period of time you can get organized and follow a defined action plan. There will always be excuses to procrastinate, that’s why the essential thing is to form the habit in the first place.