Mystified by how to learn foreign language? Read on! 🙂
Many English speakers dream of learning a foreign language, but never get past the first hurdles. People often ask me admiringly how I learnt Spanish. If I’m honest I made so, so, SO many mistakes, that I’ve written this article to help other people.
We’ve all done it. “Oh, if I buy this pack to learn language x in 30 days, I’ll be ready for my holiday to country x”. Or “I’ll do these grammar exercises. Then I’ll be ready to communicate on my trip”. Cue disappointment and shame spiral. Sadly, there are many industries built on these happy fantasies. As a self-employed teacher, my ethos is not to have students over a long period of time, but that my students learn what they need from me and then pass on my information to their friends and colleagues who are in need of a teacher.
I arrived in Spain in 2010, with a degree in Linguistics, a job teaching English, and not a clue about Spanish (or a similar language). In 2015, I did a masters in Feminism and Gender, all in Spanish, at the University of the Basque Country. Along the way I learnt French, some Basque, and have learning to communicate in Chinese on my to do list.
GRAMMAR AS AND WHEN
Modern language teaching methods use grammatical exercises as a test of what structures have been absorbed, but not as a way to teach. If you’re interested in the theory, google Krashen’s studies, which basically show that learners using “context based methods” (reading and listening, not doing grammar exercises) do 30% better than learners who follow mainly grammatical methods.
Here are some analogies.
If you want to learn how to dance, do you:
A) study physics or
If you want to learn how to drive, do you:
A) learn how an engine works or
I’m now a strong believer in “functional learning”. Think about how you learned to use your phone. Did you read the entire manual cover to cover before turning it on? Chances are, you turned it on, fiddled about, using the knowledge you already had about phones in general, and “hey presto!”. Later, when there was a problem, like you didn’t know how to do something, you went back to the manual.
A good teacher, like a personal trainer, can carefully select grammar exercises that are exactly what the student needs at that time, and at that level.
The Silent Period
It’s quite a simple equation. The more you can understand, the more you can speak, and the brain absorbs structures by being exposed to them. So, how do you learn how to understand that blur of sound coming at you?
A. Listen, listen, and… listen some more!
When you listen to music, listen to a band that sings in the language. Try to watch a show you already know, like Friends, in Spanish. It will sound like gibberish at first, but gradually, over months, you will start picking out words.
One of the first things I do when I’m learning a new language is I put subs in the target language while watching in English (Netflix is wonderful for that). So, for example, I watched the whole of “The Wire” in English, reading the French subs as I went.
Read something easy every day. Reading the “Guardian” or “The Times” is great in your native language, but when you’re reading in your second language, find something simpler, like The Huffington Post.
NOTE: If you’re actually living in the country already, pace yourself. I find that if I know I’m going to be hanging out with people in Spanish, then reading/listening all day might tire my poor little brain too much.
THE BEST ADVICE EVER!
The best advice anyone ever gave me about reading in foreign languages was: “Don’t use the dictionary”. I scoffed at the time, but 5 years later, I value that advice. When you are reading, even if you understand little, your brain is doing something crazy cool that you aren’t even aware of. It’s like you’re feeding it jigsaw puzzle pieces, and gradually, oh so gradually (some may say painfully slowly…), the language center in your brain is assembling them. It’s frustrating, and it’s sometimes downright boring, but it’s 100% true.
You Can’t Hurry Love
Do not stress out about not understanding or about being “slow”. You are training a muscle (e.g. your brain) and, if you don’t know a similar language to the one you’re learning, it will take at least 12 months before you are able to understand a basic program, like a kids cartoon for 11 year olds.
There are tonnes of people who magically “learn Spanish in just x amount of time”, and you know what? They are liars! Or at least, they are not telling the whole truth. They might have grown up with French, or Portuguese, or saying they learned in a very short time in order to impress someone, and look more pious, like a “better”, more “conscientious” foreigner. Whatever their story is, don’t feel bad.
It’s a process, and (in my opinion) “intensives” are marketing gimmicks from language companies, and won’t help. 30 minutes a few times a week for 12 months is better than an hour a day for 2 months.
Motivation is the first step, but habit is key. Here are habits that I use in the first stages of learning a language.
A) On weekdays, I only listen to music on my mp3 in the target language. (Spotify is wonderful for this. I particularly like the playlist from a show called Alt-Latino. Great range of music from around the world, mainly in Spanish)
C) When I sit down to watch TV at night, the first show I watch is something in the target language, unless I’m really really tired. The first year, I watched things for small children like Pocoyo, or Dora the Explorer. Then I graduated to Spongebob. After about a year I could watch a show I had already seen, but dubbed into Spanish (like Friends, or the Simpsons)
D) Flashcards. Anki is great, and you can download other people’s decks. I’ve also heard Quizlet is a good one too. Making vocab and structures a game is essential. Stick them where you can’t avoid them, like by the bathroom mirror so you can have a look at them while brushing your teeth.
Listen to Other Learners
At first, understanding natives might seem impossible, so have a look on a website like Meetup to see if there are a bunch of people meeting up in your area to chat in the language. Joining a class can be good, but if everyone speaks English, you might not speak that much of the target language in the class.
Language Exchanges – Beware!
If you are an English speaker, you are in luck: there are tonnes of people who want to learn your language, so you can do an exchange with them! There are lots of websites to find language exchanges, so you can meet up with someone for coffee or, failing that, go online and use Skype.
But be warned: As a beginner, people will try to use you to speak English. This is why I preferred speaking to people from all around the world in my language classes. Also, some places have a very negative stereotype of English speaking foreigners as being “Erasmus”, and if you’re a woman, guys might think you are “easy” and be weird.
Check out this great TED talk about language learning. While I don’t agree with his use of the word “native”, I have now adopted the “language parent” aspect in my own teaching and language learning.