How to learn a language

Learning a new language can be easy if you are motivated, disciplined, and have a good reason to learn.

I have taught conversational English for almost three years and have had the opportunity to learn from my students as they learn from me. I have worked with thousands of students. Some I see regularly, others once in a while, and some only once. Many students need to improve their English skills for work, school, or because of a desire to watch American movies or listen to English language music.

Although I have never taken a formal survey, I have observed some habits that make some students excel, and others seem stuck on a basic level. These tips have inspired my language journey and have stopped me from making excuses or feeling discouraged.

So, if you are serious about learning a language, try these tips.

1.Practise.Β It’s so easy, but we don’t always do it. But the truth is, the only way to be good at anything is to do it often.

I met one student who was so passionate about learning English that he spoke with a conversational tutor for at least one hour (sometimes up to 4 hours) daily.

When I chatted with him, he had been using the language platform for two years and had a very advanced level of English. So, it’s possible, in a relatively short period, but wow, who has that much time and dedication every day??

Most of my students prefer to talk daily for 15-30 minutes or a few times a week for an hour. It’s really up to the learner. The key is to make time every day for at least 15 minutes to study the language in some form or another.

2.Β Talk to a Native Speaker.Β Have you ever studied a language and been impressed by your ability to understand it, but when someone asks you a question, you freeze? You are not alone. The most significant complaints language learners have is that they take courses and learn grammar but never feel confident or have the opportunity to speak the language. Others, like myself, have plenty of opportunities to meet native speakers but feel intimidated and discouraged. Many native speakers don’t have the interest or patience to accommodate a new learner.

I have met many students who have gone to English speaking countries to take a course and hopefully practice their new skills with locals but have spent most of their time with people who speak their mother tongue. This is where the conversational tutor is useful. Having the opportunity to speak with such a tutor means that you will talk one on one with someone happy to correct pronunciation, sentence structure, and encourage confidence.

Also, conversational tutors can help explain phrases, slang, and sayings that require context or cultural references. There are many online schools, language exchanges, and meetup groups to help your speaking skills improve. While schools and meetup groups charge fees, a language exchange is free. The idea is that you connect with someone keen to learn your language to help you with theirs.

3.Β Apps or online platforms.Β There are many great online apps or websites that have a variety of lists, quizzes, games, and puzzles to help you attain your target language. These sites are great for learning and reviewing vocabulary and grammar in a fun and time-effective way.

As well, I have recently discovered Memrise, which has dramatically improved my Spanish language learning. The app covers a variety of words and phrases with a high rate of repetition and varied situations. As well, the app has native speakers using the words and phrases with an authentic accent and pace. This is important. There is a vast difference between how a language teacher speaks or how we use a language in a business setting.

In a past job, I was part of a business meeting held partially in French and English. As the English natives spoke French, I understood and even translated notes on 90% of the conversation.

However, in the hall right after, I overhead two french speakers and could barely understand anything they were saying. Accents, slang, and regional pronunciations make learning a language much more than just understanding some words or phrases. Such an app, like Memrise or the opportunity to speak or listen to many different native speakers, is vital.

4.Β Children’s books.Β There is a reason why children’s books are read to well…children. They are useful for telling simple stories with easy sentence structure and illustrations to explain what is happening. Reading children’s books is a great way to learn the basics of a language as well as learn something about the culture or traditions from the country of origin.

5.Β YouTube channels, clips, and movies.Β Watching channels that tell children’s stories, news clips, documentaries, movies, and language learning shows are a great way to learn. Many people hope to acquire a new language for the sole purpose of being able to enjoy programs in a foreign language.

I had a student who regularly watched youtube clips of late-night talk shows and tried to understand what was happening. He would write down the time codes of what he didn’t understand, and later we would go through it together.

This is great, as he was motivated to improve his vocabulary and phrase knowledge but was also keeping up on current events and understanding what English speaking people found humorous.

The more engaged we are in a language, the more likely we are to stick with it and become fluent.

6.Β Magazines, books, and articles.Β There are many books and articles made, particularly for language learners. They use simple language that doesn’t require a lot of context or reference to understand. These are a great way to start and similar to Children’s books, except they are made for older learners. Whether it’s a collection of short stories or a website creating articles on current news events, reading should be done as often as possible.

When you feel more confident, try and find books or magazines that interest you and take your time reading through them. However, be warned that is can be discouraging if done too soon.

I had a student who loved fashion and wanted to read a Vogue magazine article. It was written to be descriptive, not just about a place but a group of up and coming designers. However, it was tough to understand. There were many indulgent details and references to past fashion trends and design styles, not only in clothing but also in architecture and music.

But my student was interested. So, we took a break and read some travel-oriented blogs created for easy reading and later went back to the difficult Vogue and New York Times essays.

7.Β Music.Β Like in childhood, music is a great way to learn a language and information about a speaker’s culture and life experience. I have learned so much Spanish from playing children’s Spanish songs on youtube for the last two years. My son and I have both learned everything from weather, clothes, body parts to wheels on a bus in Spanish and English. Of course, you will probably move through children’s songs quickly, but the same idea applies to any music. Pop songs are especially good as they usually talk about emotions, tell a story, and are very repetitive.

8.Β Mix it up!Β Think back to how you learned as a child. You didn’t spend all your time focusing on grammar or vocabulary lists. You sang, listened or read stories, and played games. The same method should apply to your learning style now. If you take a course and have deadlines, try to add other forms of learning on your own time. I have textbooks, Spanish stories on my kindle, the Memrise app, music, and speak to native speakers.

9.Β Test yourself.Β The most motivated language learners I work with are studying for a test like IELTS or urgently need to improve their language for their existing or new career positions. Some are preparing for grad school in an English speaking country, specializing in medicine or science, or immigrating. Everyone has a reason for learning, but the students with deadlines and major life goals on the line, work that much harder.

However, even if you are like me and only need a second language to make daily life easier, you can still test yourself regularly with a variety of online tests and quizzes.

As well, there are official language delegations and levels in different countries. For example, European countries have an organization called the CEFR or Common European Framework of Reference for languages. They have created language levels. A1-A2, B1-B2, and C1-C2 for beginner, intermediate, and advanced language certification.

Each level has two tests (ex. A1 and A2), so you can continually challenge yourself to learn, test, and move on to the next category. Although most people can do quite well with an A2 level of comprehension, others may need a C2 if they hope to work in a professional capacity or company in a foreign language.

So whatever your reasons or proficiency needs might be, review and test yourself often to ensure you are hitting your language milestones.

10.Β Reward yourself or plan a trip.Β Maybe you are learning a language as a hobby, for school credits, or as a bucket list accomplishment. What better way to stay motivated than give yourself rewards for your efforts or, ultimately, plan a trip to a country or region where that language is spoken.

This is a great way to enjoy the fruits of your labors and experience a country in a very different way. Depending on the level you achieve, you will be able to speak with native speakers and learn more about the destination’s culture and history.

Learning a language changes the way you think and experience life. When you learn a new language, you open yourself to people and opportunities that you never knew existed. Learning a second language is proven to have positive effects on the brain, development, and aptitude.

So whether you choose to learn a little or a lot, language acquisition is an excellent adventure and one I hope to be on for the rest of my life.

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