Four Tips For Language Learning

Photo by Avel Chuklanov on Unsplash

So you want to learn a new language, huh? Good for you, champ. Here are four tips to help you along your way. Bonne chance!

  1. Smash that vocab, like there’s no tomorrow.

As Akil rapped in the Jurassic 5 classic ‘Quality Control’, you got to have vocab. Letters make words, and sentences make paragraphs. Wise words, Akil. Wise words. He’s really advising more on matters of lyrical dexterity than learning a new language, but the principle applies all the same. Words are the bread and butter of languages. So learn them. This isn’t complicated. Just learn dem words. Here are some sub-tips that’ll help you make a start with vocab learning:

  • Focus on a limited number of high frequency words first. For instance, the most common 100 words in the French language. A quick google will pull up just such a list. For more obscure languages, it may be a little harder, but there’s bound to be some guidance out there on the web.
  • Use flashcards, or a flashcard app. Flashcards can be used to learn very effectively, particularly if you have an understanding of spaced repetition, the forgetting curve and how they contribute to your learning. Physical flash cards can work very well, but the Anki app is also an excellent option.
  • Use mnemonic devices to help you learn tricky words. Create a mental image that helps you associate a word with its meaning. For instance, when learning the Swahili word ‘kusikitika’, meaning ‘to be sorry’, I imagined myself puking up a chicken tikka on all over someone’s brand new shirt, and then apologising profusely to them. Weird? Yes. Memorable? Definitely.

2. Get over the pit of shame and embarrassment.

The number one reason that people give up languages is that they feel awkward when trying to speak them. They practice their vocab diligently, but then when it comes to actually saying something out loud, they get all shy and embarrassed and whatnot. So it’s nothing to do with cognitive ability, and everything to do with social pressure. The pressure not to look like a wally is a very strong one.

Well this is an understandable and relatable thing to go through. But, if you want to make progress in your language learning, you’ve simply got to get over it. Here are a few things that may help you to do this:

  • Imagine how you would feel if someone came up to you and said something in very broken English. For example, ‘excuse mister please to show me way to bus’. OK, it’s a fairly ungrammatical sentence, but you get the point that’s being communicated. They want to know where the bus is. Now think about your attitude to someone like this in a scenario like that which I’ve just described. Do you, a) laugh at this person, and consider them a moron? b) help them out as much as you are able, and send them on their way? Unless you are a total nob, it’s a no brainer. You’re going to help them. It’s obvious that English is not their first language, but they’re trying, and you respect them for that. You are just like this person, when you attempt to speak a foreign language to native speakers. They will be kind to you. And if they’re not, they’re not worth worrying about.
  • Get a conversation partner. You may know someone, or you may be able to find a conversation partner online. Set some parameters, such as you talking for five minutes, and them critiquing your vocab, grammar etc. Make some adjustments to your little spiel, and then try again. You will find that if you get into the habit of being corrected, you won’t take it personally every time.
  • Learn some stock phrases in your target language like the following: “Sorry for my bad _______. I am learning.”; “Excuse me, I am a student of ________, so please excuse me.”; “Please can you repeat that a little slower? I am a learner.” Etc etc. People will automatically adjust the complexity of their vocabulary as well as the speed of their delivery when they hear phrases such as these.
  • Don’t stress about your accent. It’s a waste of time trying to perfect a native language. And besides, it may actually damage your confidence a little. Think about it. If someone came up to you and said, in a perfect English accent, “Excuse me old boy, could you perchance point me in the direction of the nearest tobacconist?”, you would probably assume they were a native speaker. But if they had just rehearsed that exact line until they could repeat it perfectly, they will likely be flummoxed by your rapid response. If your accent is too good, native speakers may assume you know more than you do. An obviously non-native accent is an invitation to slow down the conversation and please avoid using any complex words and or regional idioms! Embrace it.

3. Be consistent.

Learning a language is a marathon, not a sprint. You will be better off just spending 15 minutes a day, plugging away at your studies, than spending 3 hour binge sessions once in a blue moon. Pick a target that’s achievable and then stick to it. For instance, 15 minutes a day. That’s a small amount of time, so it’s feasible to imagine that you could do that every single day. Put a 15 minute slot into your diary each and every day, and stick with it. If you can keep up a habit like that for a year, you will be in a great position.

Eventually, if you’re pushing for fluency, you’ll probably need to up that daily amount. This article suggests that an hour a day is sufficient to reach a level of fluency in a target language. Don’t try to do an hour a day from day 1. Work yourself up to a point where you are doing a little more every day, until studying for an hour a day becomes a realistic goal.

Be realistic about the time frame that this endeavour is likely to take. While there are a whole host of clickbait articles, videos and books that boast about learning a language in a week, or a month, the reality is that to reach a good level of fluency in any foreign language, starting from scratch, is going to take a number of years. So remember that it’s a marathon, and not a sprint.

Photo by Isaac Wendland on Unsplash

4. Embrace the difficulty.

Learning a language is pretty hard. It’s probably not as hard as quantum mechanics, but it is quite hard. Grammatical rules can be a headache, and the sheer quantity of words that any language contains can cause its fair share of difficulty as well. This is just a fact. The temptation is to avoid hard work because its… hard. Fight against that temptation with all your might. The reality is that a lot of things are hard work. But they’re usually worth it. It takes effort to get in shape, to maintain good relationships, to succeed in a career. The list goes on. But all of those things are good, and language learning is no different. It’s hard, but it’s good.