You started learning a foreign language some time ago, maybe in high school or college; or, maybe, you took a course at a language institute.
This was a few years ago and you haven’t really kept up with the language.
But recently, you got interested again.
Maybe a friend suggested an online course and you even subscribed to it for several months; or you signed up for a course at a local community college; or someone gave you a some language CDs; or maybe you even joined a language community on Facebook.
Whatever the tools or methods you’re using to start again, remember these tips:
- Surround yourself with the images and sounds of the language you’re learning.
This will boost your motivation and enjoyment. There’s a reason why Instagram is so popular. Pictures speak directly to us and engage our imagination and emotions.
For hearing the language as it’s spoken, listen to radio programs or podcasts. You can easily do this on the go, when you’re busy in the kitchen, walking or jogging outside, or waiting in line somewhere. (TuneIn on your iPhone or iPad is a great resource for foreign language radio programs).
Not to forget music! Listening to songs – and better still, singing them too – is a powerful and enjoyable way to learn the sounds, intonation, and yes, also the vocabulary of a language you’re learning.
Getting the sounds of the language into your brain really helps with your learning, even when you don’t understand some of the meaning of what’s said.
- Allow yourself to make mistakes.
No one is error free from day one, when learning a language. This includes young children, teenagers, and adults of any age. Learning means making mistakes, trying things out, getting corrected, and trying out new things with what you learned.
We recently attended a talk by Dr. Frank Gunther, a Professor at Boston University, MA, How the brain produces language – and What can go wrong. In the question-and-answer session afterwards, he talked about errors in speech and error correction. While particularly important in understanding the causes of stuttering, his findings also apply to speech production in general.
In simple terms: To correct your errors, you have to speak consciously and hear yourself making errors. But speaking consciously means speaking less automatically, and thus less fluently.
On the other hand, when you speak automatically – and more fluently – you don’t usually hear yourself making mistakes and therefore won’t try to correct your errors.
When learning a foreign language, my advice is: Go for it – make those errors, and speak as much as you can. At this stage, that’s the way to make huge gains in your language acquisition.
There will be time and opportunities to correct your mistakes, as you dive deeper into the language and understand grammatical rules and pronunciation nuances.
But don’t let the fear of making mistakes inhibit you from speaking and trying out sounds and word combinations! Accept corrections by your speaking partners graciously. They’ll help you learn.
- Find many ways to engage with your language.
I’m a big advocate of using multiple resources. There are lots of reasons for this. Using a language – your own as well as a foreign one – involves a set of many different skills. To learn these, you need to engage different regions of the brain, most of your senses, and a whole host of different muscles.
There is some overlapping in different skills, but there are limits. For example, even if you read a lot and become highly proficient in reading, you still won’t learn to speak a language – if you don’t practice speaking. On the other hand, if you already speak pretty fluently, reading a lot will definitely increase the vocabulary you use in your conversations.
Another example: To truly understand spoken language as it is used naturally by native speakers, you have to listen to a wide variety of speakers, accents, and even regional dialects. Each program you use or listen to adds to your spectrum of voices that you hear. As a result, it increases your understanding of the language as a whole.
Think about it: Even just when you engage in a conversation, you activate multiple faculties and senses:
- Your brain converts what you intend to say into words.
- You listen to what the other person has to say, but at the same time hear what you say yourself.
- Your mouth, jaw, and tongue move in the right way to make the sounds that express your thoughts. (Read my post about Mouth Mechanics!)
- You make body movements that are in sync with what you’re saying.
- At the same time, you see the facial expressions and gestures of your conversation partner. You interpret these and react to them, etc.
It’s a complicated skill-set to master. Fortunately, we can add all kinds of fun and interesting resources to more traditional learning.
It’s best to use a variety of different resources: In addition to meeting with friends who speak the language and travel the country, you have videos, tv programs, flashcards, language exchanges, various types of online programs, skype lessons, audio books, ebooks, language chat sites, news programs, online news sites.
Your brain loves activities that build on each other. With them your language skills are bound to grow.
Haven’t I mentioned the “daily habit”? Just doing a little bit every day will reap you huge rewards. For many, acquiring the habit of practicing a foreign language every day may be the hardest challenge.
It’s no secret that successful language learners have found ways to do just that. And they most certainly will have used one or all of the tips above.
After a teaching career, Ulrike Rettig continued to pursue her interest in applied linguistics. She has authored and edited numerous foreign language audio programs. She is a co-founder of gamesforlanguage.com, and, together with her husband Peter, blogs extensively about language learning. You can also follow her on Twitter and Facebook.