Learning a new language can be a daunting task, but one that can enhance your worldly travels like no other. If you decide to embark on the quest of learning a new language you might be surprised to find that you first need to learn how to learn a new language. There is a bit of a myth that says you can simply move to another country, listen to the locals and pick up a new language gradually over time. Unfortunately that not really true, I know some people who have lived in China for over 6 years and can only speak a couple sentences to get by. The truth is you need to create a system of learning for yourself because and the speed at which you learn will completely rely on how affective the learning practices you implement are.
I learned a lot about how to learn a language while studying Japanese in Canada and now more recently while learning Chinese here over the past couple months. My training in teaching English as a second language also lead me to some cool insights. I’ve also spoken to travelers who have spent loads of time becoming fluent in new languages who were eager to share what they learned to prevent others from running into the same mistakes as them.
1. Ensure you know what you’re getting yourself into
My first advice is to make sure you really really want to learn the new language. I don’t want to discourage anyone from doing it, because it’s quite a rewarding experience, but just be aware that becoming fluent in a new language is incredibly time consuming and at times can be quite overwhelming. In the vast amount of time you’ll spend learning a new language you could learn many other valuable things. Make sure you have a good reason to learn to keep you motivated, if it’s just a hobby chances are your determination will waver when things get tough. Learning a language takes hard work and dedication so ensure you’re committed to it.
2. Get the basic pronunciation first
The reason so many people develop a thick accent when speaking a second language is that they don’t take the time to fix their pronunciation from day one. Nearly all languages have a least a couple sounds that can’t be properly said using the normal English pronunciation but when reading the words they will still be written with English letters. The R’s in Japanese are pronounced closer to a combination of ‘L’ and ‘D’and a Zh in Chinese sounds like a strange ‘Juh’ sound. Find out all the quirks and new sounds you will need to get used to for your new language and practice them. Otherwise you’ll form bad habits very hard to correct in the future.
3. Basic Memorization
When memorizing a new word or phrase it’s natural to want to look at the word and say its translation over and over in your head, hoping it will stick. This is a very ineffective way to memorize something. The trick to memorization is forcing your brain to let go of the word and then perform recall on it. Take each English word put the translation in your head then let it go by looking at or recalling a different word on your list, then once you’ve forgotten the original translation attempt to recall it.
If you don’t know the word with decent certainty don’t guess at it, incorrectly guessing at new words can begin to program your brain into recalling the wrong thing when you need the word in the future. Think about it for a bit and if it doesn’t come back to you simply look at it again. This process of forgetting and recalling is what makes words stick. When learning a new group of words stick to around 10 at a time, and make sure to do it from English to the other language and then Vice Versa. It’s just as important to know the translation one way for speaking as it is the other way for listening.
4. Relating words
I find I can memorize a group of words in half the time if I use little memorization tricks. I find a way to link the new word I’m trying to learn with an English word or concept that makes me think of it. An example of this is the Japanese word ‘wasureta’ meaning I forget. When pronounced it sounds a little bit similar to “Where’s the letter?” This little association allowed me to learn the word after hearing it only once. Anytime I forgot I was reminded by saying “I forgot… Where’s the letter?” Even though the pronunciation isn’t the same it was enough to trigger the recall of the actual word in my brain. It can be hard to make associations to new words sometimes, but it gets easier the more you do it and can make memorization a lot faster.
5. Tackling it from multiple angles
Some people are better at learning with audio and others are better learning visually, however with a new language its best to learn both ways. Get some audio lessons for the language in question but also grab a good book as well. With a new language there are 4 skills in question, Listening – Speaking – Reading and Writing. You may decide that you only want to learn how to listen and speak and therefore decide the only thing you need is audio lessons, but doing this will turn out to be a mistake. Even if you will never need to read or write anything in the new language, practicing these skills will drastically improve your recall speed and fluency when listening and speaking. Why is this? Every time you read or write a word you are further engraining it into your brain in 2 new engaging ways. Even if you already know a word by listening to it and you can say it, seeing it written and then writing it yourself will lock it into your brain in a way hearing it and saying it multiple times never can. Even just listening to audio lessons and writing down the new sentences you learn can speed up your learning drastically, you’ll be amazed at how easily you remember something and how long it sticks when you practice it with all 4 language skills.
6. Choose your tools
There are many different tools available when learning a language and it’s important to find out what kind of tools will be the most useful to you. Take a look at each of the following and decide which ones you want to incorporate.
In Class Lessons, Sentence building books, Phrasebooks, Flashcards, Computer Software, Language Games, Audio Lessons, Online Lessons/Forums, Penpals, Movies, Music.
I have found the most effective audio lessons to be the ones from Pimsleur.
7. Review what you learned
There have been many times when I will memorize a list of 10 new words thoroughly, recall them multiple times then realize a few days later that I have forgotten them. The key is to force the words into a longer term memory quickly. After learning a set of words it is crucial that you review them before learning anything new the next day. A quick 5 minute review will quickly link all the words back in your head and put them into a longer term memory. Ensure at the end of the week you review each of the words you learned during the week one more time, it will only take a few seconds to reinforce each word again and have them stored in your brain for even longer but failing to do so can have them drop out of your memory quickly. Doing a monthly review is also recommended. After this you will most likely have the words stuck in your head for good assuming you use them once in a while in the future. If you have access to someone else who speaks the language you are learning use the material you want to review with them as soon as possible after learning it. Actually saying the new words in the context of a conversation helps them stick even stronger.
8. Five minutes when you wake up
The before way to begin your day is to spend the very first five minutes after waking up on the language. Keep a pad of paper with a review of the previous day’s words on it next to your bed and review them before you do anything else. The first thing you do in the morning tends to stick with you, just like how the first song you heard on your alarm clock radio gets stuck in your head really easily. Beginning the day with the new language will get your brain geared towards it and have lasting effects over the whole day.
9. Five minutes before bed
Your brain tends to process the last thoughts you have before going to bed through the night, and making the last thoughts some new words or phrases is a good way to make them stick. Try this and you’ll be surprised how well they pop back into your head in the morning.
Games are an awesome way to spice up your language learning when you’re feeling bored with your traditional methods. Matching games, Word searches, Speed challenges, and Spelling games are awesome for being engaging and interesting. Games are excellent because they don’t take a lot of motivation and they also engage your brain in different ways further reinforcing what you’re learning. If you really like gaming then know Ubisoft has an awesome series of language learning games. I own the My Chinese Coach and My Japanese Coach games and they are an awesome addition to your learning arsenal. Check them out here.
If you’re surrounded by people who speak the language you are learning the constant expose will be a huge benefit to your learning. One of the biggest benefits to my Chinese learning was meeting my Chinese girlfriend, she barely speaks any English so it forces and encourages me to improve my Chinese constantly. We also still can have deeper more meaningful conversations using google translate which is the best translation tool out there.
If you’re not lucky enough to be living in a country that speaks the language you’re learning find other ways to give yourself as much constant exposure impossible. Use an online resource to meet a friend you can language exchange with. Take a class with other people who want to learn the language and make friends you can practice with. Find penpals on who speak the language on the internet who are also eager to learn your language and exchange letters with them and correct each other’s emails. Print out new words and place them around your house so you encounter them often. Listen to music of the language, or watch movies (even if you need subtitles). Carry little flashcards in your pocket. Use any and every method you can to surround yourself with the language as much as possible.
12. Use online resources
Besides Google Translate there are a lot of other free online resources that can help you learn. Things such as flashcard websites, free online lessons, language learning forums, even interesting sites like this one which allows you to draw Chinese characters for translation can help you in your language learning pursuit. Do a Google search for your language and see what you find!
13. Thinking in the new language
During your daily routine try to think in the language you are learning as often as possible. At the beginning this will be limited, but even early on you’ll be able to count or read phone numbers in the new language. As your skill builds see how long you can make the voice in your head speak only in the new language. Even if there is large gaps in your vocabulary say as much of the sentence as you know in the new language then fill it in with English words wherever you need. Thinking in your new language is the ultimate form of constant exposure!
14. The path to mastery
Studies show when mastering new skills there is a certain curve of progress that you should be aware of. As long as you apply constant effort, your knowledge will follow a specific pattern. First will be smooth improvement, then it will slowly level out, then it will seem like your getting nowhere or even getting slightly worse then you will have a breakthrough. This pattern will repeat many times as you learn, you’ll have multiple periods of days where you’ll feel you’re not getting any better, but then also multiple breakthroughs that make you feel awesome about how far you’ve come. For that reason never give up when you get discouraged because a breakthrough is right around the corner.
15. Have fun every step of the way
While learning a language can be difficult and time consuming it can also be really rewarding. Every time you meet a new friend thanks to your new language ability it will make all the studying worth it. Don’t be too hard on yourself during real conversation, have fun with it and don’t be afraid to laugh at yourself when your ideas just aren’t getting across right, and make sure you are remember to be proud of yourself every time you effectively use what you recently learned.