Learning a new language is an enriching experience – it introduces you to new ways of doing things, thinking about things and talking about things. It widens your horizons: it can make you attractive to a potential employer at home – or help you get that dream job abroad! Learning a language is useful if you want to travel, it can help keep your brain active and it improves your social life by letting you meet new, interesting people. If you learn a language, you will have access to new places, new sights and new sounds. And it doesn’t have to be difficult to do, if you make it into an enjoyable and intuitive experience. There are strategies you can use to help you remember what you have learned more easily. Here are a few tips to help your learning stick!
Realise how much you already know
Unless you are an ostrich, it is likely that you will hear and process lots of information every day, without even realising you are doing it. This includes words in other languages that are used all around you – just think of your local French restaurant, “Bon Appétit”, or the beauty parlour down the road called “Bella Donna”. You will be surprised how many words you already know in the language you wish to learn. Make a list of all of them – and you will see that you are not starting from scratch!
If you speak English and are learning a European language, and even if you are not, the chances are that there will be words that look like words in English – after all, the languages we speak evolved together from shared roots. An example of this is words ending in –ion(s) in English that have their equivalents in many European languages: congratulazione, imaginación, démonstration, Konversation. If you look for words you recognise, you will see that you already understand part of the text you are reading.
Relate it to things you like
Language learning is meant to be fun! So try finding out vocabulary that can help you talk about your hobbies or interests. You will remember these because they are relevant to you.
For example, if you like cycling, find out all the words for the parts of your bike and the words you will need if you want to talk about a race. If you like cooking, look up the words for the most common ingredients and cooking methods. If you like music, find artists who sing in the language you are learning and look up the lyrics online so you can sing along. If you like cinema, find your favourite film in your new language. Put the subtitles on if you need them – but in the language, not in English. That way you will know what they are actually saying and will pick up phrases. Read your favourite novel in another language. If you like keeping informed by reading the news, find the article you have just read in another language (European news websites like euronews are a good place to do this). You will understand as you already know the story – and you will learn new vocabulary.
Context is important
It is easier to learn and remember new words and grammatical constructions when you know why you are using them. Use the new words you have learned in context if you can. Making sentences about yourself with what you have learned will help the new grammar stick in your head.
A news article about a certain subject is a good way to pick up vocabulary about that subject. You will find you don’t even need to look up some of the words because you will recognise the ones that are similar to ones you have already learned.
You know that when you are watching a news item about farming or reading a novel, a particular style and vocabulary will be used, so you can work out some of what is being said.
Focus on what you know rather than on your mistakes
When you are reading or listening to a text, even if you don’t understand everything, you will be able to pick out words you do know. Focus on those and you will have the gist of what the text is about. In time you will build up your knowledge and the ratio of words you understand to those you don’t understand will increase.
If you are reading a novel, you will enjoy it less if you stop to look up every unknown word. Try to avoid this temptation and just keep reading and let the words sink in. You will still understand a lot of what is happening and you will find the experience more pleasant and less frustrating, which will make you want to learn more. Again, your understanding will improve with time.
When you are speaking, the most important thing is to communicate. You don’t need to worry about your mistakes as long as the message is there. The way to fluency is not being afraid to make mistakes. We all do it, even in our mother tongue, so it is nothing to be embarrassed about!
Look for patterns
Most languages are logical and have fairly regular grammatical rules. The language is not trying to catch you unawares! You will start to recognise the way words behave in specific situations and be able to predict what a conjugation will be, which case you need to use or what kind prefix you will need to use with which verb. Learning to spot patterns will help you feel at home in the language.
Immerse yourself in the language
You often hear that the best way to learn a language is by being in the country where it is spoken. But you don’t necessarily have to travel to be able to come into contact with your chosen language – sometimes you can even do it from the comfort of your own home! These days it is very easy to find radio, newspapers and even television in different languages online. Listen to the radio and watch videos to get used to hearing the language you are learning and read the news to get quicker at deciphering it. Find a conversation group in your town and go along – it is a way to meet people as well as perfect your speaking skills. Change the language on your phone and on your Facebook account – then you will feel like the language is really part of your life (and it is an easy way to learn without really trying). Use every chance you get to practise your new language!
Go with the flow
Learning a new language is fun. Do your homework but practise in unconventional ways too – ways that are adapted to your learning style. Use your newly-acquired skills anywhere you can!
Written by Suzannah Young