Learning a language can help unlock new adventures. “When you learn other languages, you open up an entirely new culture and every single person from that culture,” says Benny Lewis, author of Fluent in 3 Months. But so few of us take the trouble to try. Think it’s too hard? Convinced you don’t have the time? Read on…
How hard is it ?
While it’s not the easiest thing in the world for everyone, learning a language doesn’t have to be that difficult–the key thing is that you want to do it. “I think the biggest problem is finding the time and keeping motivated,” says Sarah Cole from online resource Teach Yourself languages. “You don’t always see results fast, so people often just give up.”
Preparation is key. Lay out a plan before you start learning, setting both short-term and long-term goals. However, make sure your plan isn’t too daunting so you’re not put off, advises Lisa Frumkes, from language learning software publisher Rosetta Stone. Once you’ve decided what your aims are, it’s all about finding the right language-learning method for you.
Ways to learn a language
There are many ways to study a new language. You can self-teach yourself – perhaps investing in interactive online learning courses or via audio CDs that you can listen to wherever you like. You can hire a teacher for one-to-one tuition or join a class to benefit from common learning. Or you could try a combination.
It’s useful to discover what type of learner you are. Are you a visual learner, someone who might improve by watching films? Are you more of an audio learner? Or do you benefit from reading a good old-fashioned textbook?
Benny reckons that one of the most effective ways is to befriend someone whose mother tongue is the language you’re aiming to learn. “Set yourself up with a language exchange person or teacher online and talk to a native. Your skills will improve through genuine use of the language.” Benny and Sarah both recommend iTalki (italki.com), a Skype-style online service via which you can have video calls with both locals and teachers for immediate feedback.
Utilise ‘wasted time’
Many of us think we don’t have time to learn a language, but there are always hidden pockets you can utilise. “Keep your learning materials handy,” says Lisa. “Then, when you have odd bits of time available – waiting in a queue, for the bus, for a meeting to start – you can steal a few minutes to study. Even five minutes could be beneficial.”
Lisa adds that regular chunks of learning are ideal: “Consistent, preferably daily, effort is key.” Little and often every day is much more effective than large blocks of learning once or twice a week.
Make it fun
The important thing to remember is to have fun. “Learning a language is hard work, but it needn’t be drudgery,” says Lisa. Include light-hearted ways of learning. If you enjoy watching films, choose the odd movie in your target language and turn off the subtitles. Or tune in to a foreign radio station. Even if you don’t understand much of what is being said, you’ll be getting used to the sounds and flow of the language.
Language teacher Kerstin Hammes (fluentlanguage.co.uk) agrees: “It’s important to remember that learning a language is suppose to be fun and not a critical survival skill.”
Don’t heap too much pressure on yourself – set realistic targets, says Benny. For example, try to learn the words for objects in your kitchen one day, before choosing a different room or theme the next. If you’re feeling confident, try to form your own basic sentences by the end of the first week, even if they’re grammatically incorrect.
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes
There is no shame in mispronouncing a word or not quite understanding a response. It’s all part of the learning process. “The more mistakes you make, the more practice you get, and the faster you will improve,” says Benny. “Don’t wait until you’re ‘ready’, because that feeling will never come. We always have more to learn.” One way to overcome this fear is to start speaking the language from day one. Don’t be afraid to try it out on a short trip or on any visiting tourists.
“I think people worry too much about their accent or wait to speak until they think they’ll be perfect,” adds Sarah. We’re not even perfect at our own language. How often do we say the wrong word or use
Practice makes perfect
To really improve and learn a language quickly, it comes down to practice. Be disciplined. When you feel at the end of your tether or a bit fed up, remember why you’re learning the language in the first place, whether that’s to turn that trip of a lifetime into an unforgettable one, or to give you the chance to strike up friendships with locals. “Language is what defines us as human. It’s what characterises cultures,” says Sarah. Just as with life, with language you will never stop learning new words or new phrases.
Keep practising; when you feel you’ve learned as much as you can, try to use the language as often as possible, so you don’t lose all that hard work! Next time you’re abroad, a local could be so impressed by your efforts they might point you in the direction of somewhere good for food or even a secret place. So decide on your method, set some targets and get started. Make learning a language your next adventure.
An expat explains how she went from fearing a French faux pas to ordering crossaints by the Seine.
Why did you decide to learn a language?
Learning to speak another language has always been on my bucket list, so I grabbed the opportunity to live in France. Arriving here with sketchy memories of GCSE French meant I was plunged in at the deep end with a lot of work to be done.
Why do you think languages are perceived to be so hard to learn?
Anything that requires dedication – such as going to the gym or learning to play a musical instrument – is always difficult at the beginning. You have to put in the time to get the results. It would be fantastic if you could become bilingual overnight but sadly there is no quick fix. You’d also miss out on the fun/frustrating journey to becoming fluent in a language.
What different methods did you find most useful when you were learning French?
At the beginning I would sit with a dictionary and an Asterix comic, working through every page. Yes, it took me five hours, but that sense of pride when I understood what I was reading was a real boost! Films, podcasts, language apps and online radio stations also helped. That way I learned much more ‘real’ French.
How did you fit learning a language into your busy schedule?
I’ve never had a formal French lesson; I just tried to use my brain as a little sponge, soaking up everything going on around me – the radio and television are always on in the background.
What are your top tips for learning a language?
Overcome your fear of making mistakes. They will happen but you will learn from them. I was so terrified of making any faux pas I kept my mouth shut for too long but now I just go for it. Even if the sentence isn’t perfectly formed, at least I’m trying!