So you have decided.
You want (or need) to learn a new language, but for the last few days you have been standing at the morning mirror, perplexed, wondering: “What have I gotten myself into?”, “Where do I even start?”, or telling yourself: “I’m not the kind of person who can learn another language.”
I am no stranger to this kind of thinking.
The first time you try anything new, there can be uncertainty. Many times when I first started learning Spanish, (and later with Japanese) I thought, “I really do want to learn the language, but I don’t know how. If someone could just show me the steps, then I could make progress.”
This led me to seek out several language gurus. I would order the textbook they recommend, or watch a suggested video series, then after some time become troubled that I was not understanding a concept, even though I was following every instruction given. I eventually saw the plurality of learning styles to be the reason for the plurality of material (and contradictory advice) on how to learn a language.
Just because a person is fluent in a language does not confirm the way they learned or are teaching to be the correct way.
However, when a teaching style and student are incompatible, it does not mean either of them are wrong; it is only that there are stylistic differences.
As soon as I understood this, things became much easier. As I explored various methods, I developed a more complete picture of the language and was able to make beneficial connections that would have been unavailable to me otherwise, causing my abilities to multiply greatly.
In an effort to save you valuable time, I have compiled a suggested list of steps to follow when beginning to learn a new language. The aim is to get you far enough along that you can start to see a path forward for yourself.
Step 1: Listen
You are already a language learning pro. Even if you do not realize it, you have already mastered one language: your native language. How did you do it? There were several things, but the first action you took was to listen. Therefore, as you begin your new language, you should do the same. The evidence of success is already there.
During your listening practice, do not focus on learning greetings, vocabulary, or even try to understand what is being said. This is not a time for serious study. It is a time to relax, and enjoy the things you appreciate about the language. The initial goal should be getting in touch with the soul (or mood) of the language, almost like you are a doctor trying to diagnose a patient, or a detective trying to solve a case. Get in sync with the language and its culture. This is a good time to learn more about the country (or countries) where your language is spoken. Who is famous there? What are the current affairs? What is the political situation? How is each region of the country unique? What are the people like? How is the climate?
Find a song. Discover a movie or TV show. Watch the news. Listen to the radio. Look at a newspaper. Do not worry that you are not understanding any of it. You must get familiar with the language so that it can open up to you, like a new friendship or relationship.
Try to listen as often as you can, but do not burn yourself out. If you feel like you are getting tired of the language, take a break. Return to it later, when you feel some interest again. Of course, if you are in a time crunch, adjust accordingly.
Step 2: Learn the Basics
Now is when to actually start the learning process. You will see that your time listening was well invested, as it will make your studies easier, and your learning more natural.
There is a wealth of information on YouTube that will demonstrate the language in written and spoken form at the same time; this is a valuable combination. Use this tool to find videos on things like letter sounds and names, simple greetings, how to count numbers, days of the week, months of the year, how to tell time, etc. As you absorb the content in these videos, take a moment to write notes for each one. (You can refer to these later.)
If your language is Korean, Hindi, Japanese, Chinese, Arabic, etc., (which all use a unique script) focus heavily on identifying characters, their sounds, stroke orders, and practice writing before proceeding to the remaining items in the above paragraph. Another suggestion you might want to utilize is posting the names of objects from around the house or your bedroom written on index cards or sticky notes. I found this quite helpful in the beginning stage, but less so as I began mastering these common vocabulary.
Remember that language learning is not a race, and the most beneficial guideline to work by is going at a pace which feels comfortable to you. This, more than anything, will allow success.
Step 3: Textbook & Audio Lessons
To build a solid structure, one needs a solid foundation. The combination of a textbook and audio lessons is the magic formula for your solid foundation. There are four categories in a language: reading, writing, speaking, and listening. The textbook covers reading and writing, and the audio lessons speaking and listening. The source for these two tools does not have to be the same. In fact, there will be a better result if they are from different sources, as discussed at the outset. Alternate between textbook and audio lessons as you like. Just make sure to get exposure to both without letting too much time to elapse between switching.
For the textbook, go through from beginning to end, following the instructions. Also, stop periodically to reread (and rewrite) sentences or passages in your target language, preferably out loud. In your notes, you may want to write down any words or phrases you especially like.
For the audio lessons, start with the lowest level if you are an absolute beginner. However, if you already have some experience with the language, choose the most applicable level for your abilities. I recommend staying within that level until you feel very comfortable with the content before proceeding. However, do feel free to sample higher lessons which peak your interest. Retain and increase your stamina by keeping it fun.
Most producers offer dialogue transcripts with their lessons. When studying with audio lessons you are going to do three separate things: listen to the lesson, read along with the dialogue, and verbalize the dialogue. (You may also want to practice writing out the dialogues in your notes. This will help increase recall when you are unaided and need to produce the language.) For efficiency, I recommend studying no more than five at one time.
Step 4: Meeting with a Friend
When you are able to independently produce most basics in the new language, making friends with a native speaker will be the most beneficial. However, if you are struggling with any content up to this point, having a friend to clarify difficulties and correct any missteps will be very helpful, fun, and motivating.
Your friend can help you reinforce and develop what you have been studying to become compatible with real life situations. Having a conversation partner will help bridge the gaps in vocabulary, and in time allow your conversations to flow, without uncomfortable, frequent stops for questions and explanations.
Be prepared. When you are going to a meeting, make notes before-hand. What have you been having trouble with? What do you want to know how to say? Which items of culture do you want to know more about? Other topics helpful for meetings with a friend might include how to talk on the telephone or how to set up a meeting time.
Use the environment of your meeting to help dictate what you discuss, learn, and practice. It can be good to hold the meetings repeatedly at the same location. This will help you become familiar with that space, and be able to operate within it with ease. In the future, you could go to a new space and do the same. (If going to a new space, look up the words associated beforehand, instead of learning them from zero upon arrival.)
During the meeting you should integrate Step 1 as one of your objectives. Pay attention to the way they speak. Where are they pausing? When do they stretch out words? What do they emphasize? Mimic this; your speech will become more natural and you will become more comfortable and confident.
Later on, having several friends can be a lot of fun. Maybe each is from a different city or region and uses unique vocabulary. Maybe they have differing interests or areas of expertise. If you all go out together, you will be able to see how natives interact together first-hand, and hopefully you will be able to join in on the conversation. This is why you are learning your language anyway, right?
With a plethora of outlets today, you can also find friends to practice and ask questions to online, if living in a place where in-person options are not feasible.
Step 5: University and Language School
Starting with Step 5, we will be getting into the territory of becoming a more serious student. Up until this point you should be approaching more or less a level of conversational fluency. If you only want to have fun with your language, you could potentially stop here and be fairly well-served by your curiosity as to the contents of this article, but for those who possess a deep interest in refining their skills towards academic or professional ends, please continue.
So now you can get by moderately well in day to day affairs, but you are consciously aware that even though you can communicate, errors still exist in your speech and writing. How can you rectify this? If one desires to become masterful, he or she must learn from a master. This is going to translate into something like university courses, classes at a language school, or lessons from a qualified tutor. The professors and instructors have either years, decades, or lifelong experiences with your language. They can speak eloquently and overcome the most difficult barriers by only giving a spare moment of thought.
One thing to remember before registering is that all teachers are not equal, so choose carefully. Many institutions will allow you to shadow a class before signing paperwork or exchanging money. Take advantage of this. These services will let you unlock the higher levels of your language and get clear on subtleties and nuances, for developing proficiency. Ask questions as much as you can. Along with this type of training, continue doing self study. Do not be afraid to bring your own questions to class and ask the instructor when the time is right. Your enthusiasm will inspire them, in turn encouraging you in your efforts.
Step 6: Reading
Although you will have undoubtedly read in your language countless times already, at the same time as the courses, or in place of them (if a more independent learner) start reading more often. You can confirm your own abilities by judging them against (preferably native) literature. Seeing the natural way a person writes (the author) or speaks (a quoted character) will go a long way to improve the way you speak and write. From exposure to actual phrasing, to being able to visualize letters as you write out a word, the benefits of reading are indeed far-reaching.
(Bonus) Step 7: Optional Native Language Reading & Speaking
From personal experience I can testify to the importance of maintaining a relationship with your native language throughout your journey with a second or third. For example, I have had episodes in the past wherein my aptitude for English faltered so heavily that when it came time to use it, I was unable to recall the spellings of basic words, or during a conversation could not phrase my thoughts the way I intended for lack of proper vocabulary. As the timeless wisdom shows: “everything in moderation” will yield the best results. This may be something to keep in mind as you advance.
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Thank you for reading.