Most of us pick up our first language(s) as kids: we soak up our surroundings, and then stumble through making ourselves understood until we are as fluent as the grown-ups we learned from. It’s the most natural, almost painless way to learn, reliant on both instincts and necessity.
So what happens if you want to learn a language, but don’t live in a country or community where it’s widely spoken? Where do you even start?
Language learning apps like Duolingo are becoming more and more popular, and although I think it’s great that people are getting motivated and excited about new languages…how helpful are these apps for people to attain fluency? Is a 50-day Duolingo streak going to give you enough vocabulary, listening experience, and confidence in building your own sentences to get you through a real-life interaction in your target language? I have my doubts.
But if these online tools aren’t the answer, what is? How can people study languages from afar without breaking the bank? I have a few ideas.
- Find a good tutor. A good tutor will be just warm enough to make you feel comfortable making mistakes and help you stumble through your sentences, and just scary enough to motivate you to keep studying! This person might be a professional teacher, or a particularly gifted and patient friend. Either way, make sure you choose someone that you think will be able to push you, and support you to work through material at a good pace for you.
- Language Apps. Despite everything I said before…I have used platforms like Duolingo, Busuu, Drops, FluentU, and LingoDeer, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with using them, as long as you are also supplementing them with other, more varied methods of language acquisition. These apps are colourful and reward achievements, which can be a really helpful motivation! They’ll get you started with basic vocabulary, greetings, and basic sentence building.
- YouTube lessons. Every major language will have keen online teachers offering free lessons on YouTube. It may not be a complete course, but it can’t hurt! They might teach slightly different vocabulary or use methods that suit your learning style better. Either way, it’s a good way to learn or revise content in a different context.
- Memorise vocabulary. Your brain isn’t used to this new language yet, so it might take some work to make your first foundation of vocabulary stick! Drill it into your brain with flashcards, by writing out lines, or by leaving little reminders to yourself around the house. Find a way that works for you. This is probably the dullest part of language learning, but the effort and drudgery will be worth it!
- Watch children’s TV. Find something on YouTube or Netflix in your target language, and see how much you can follow! Kids’ shows tend to be very visual and clearly-spoken, so they’re perfect for beginners to practice with. It’s a good idea to start listening to different people speaking as early as possible, so you can get a sense of how words should be pronounced, and how they might sound in different peoples’ voices and accents.
- Find a native speaker to practice on. No one is expecting a beginner to be able to rattle off monologues at this stage, but why not try your newly acquired sentences on a native speaker? Ask them their favourite food, where they’re from, and what they’re hobbies are. They’ll probably help you with your pronunciation and confidence, but if not, getting laughed at will be good for your humility!
So you’ve completed your language app? You have a good basic understanding, and could throw together some simple sentences? Great! It might be time to amp up your study schedule. Here are my tips for pushing your language ability from beginner towards fluency.
- Read a book. Start out with children’s books, and work your way up! I usually start by having a quick read over, getting the gist of the story and simply underlining the parts I don’t understand. Only after finishing the story or chapter would I whip out the dictionary – it’s good practice to see if you can glean meaning from context. After all, that’s what you’d have to do if someone was speaking to you in your target language! This is such a good way to introduce yourself to new grammar patterns and vocabulary, and it’s an amazing feeling to finish your first foreign-language book!
- Find a TV show or drama you enjoy. Even a dubbed animated show would work. Start out with English subtitles, but as you gain confidence, try it with subtitles in the target language instead. This is such a good way to expose yourself to lots of accents, slang, and niche vocabulary – great for your listening skills! This is also about the only time when Netflix counts as studying.
- Find a language partner. Maybe you already have a friend you can skill-swap with, or you could use a site like Language Exchange to find someone online. The idea is to start holding conversations in your target language – work on building sentences spontaneously, and on understanding a native speaker who doesn’t stick to the vocabulary lists you might have learned! This can be such a scary thing to do, but conversing with real people is the number one best way to give your language learning a boost.
- Listen to your target language. Like, all the time. Can you stream a radio station, or listen to music in the language you’re learning? Do it! The more you can swamp your brain with it, the easier it will be for you to understand and reproduce natural speech patterns.
- Learn vocabulary and grammar in context. Languages are not secret codes, replicating your own language just with different sounds. Different languages structure sentences differently, use words differently, and conjugate verbs differently. At this stage, it’s so important for you to not only learn words or grammar patterns, but for you to see them used correctly in different contexts. For example, when I was learning the subjunctive in French, I found Celine Dion’s song ‘Pour que tu M’aimes Encore’. It’s absolutely full of verbs in the subjunctive, and because they were in a catchy form, I could always remember and use them as a structure for my own verbs.
- Visit the country. These tips are all helpful and will definitely help you progress with your language learning. That said…if it’s at all possible for you to get out to the country where they speak your target language – even if it’s just for a week – do it. There’s nothing quite like being immersed in the cultural and linguistic environment for a while – being surrounded by spoken and written language, as well as opportunities for practising with locals! It may be overwhelming, but it will be worth your while.
Good luck with your language learning adventures – stay strong and power through! It’s a long, frustrating process to pick up a new language, but it’s worth all of your pain and effort.
- What tips would add to this list for people who want to learn a new language?
- What things have helped you the most in picking up languages?