So, You Want To Learn A Foreign Language

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It’s the end of the year and people are making New Year’s resolutions left and right. In the quest to improve ourselves, I have no doubt that some of you out there have resolved to learn a foreign language. Now, there is no shortage of good information on the internet about how to go about doing this—in fact, a blogger I read daily just wrote a great post on this—but I thought I’d share some tips as well. This is what has worked for me. It’s all based solely on my personal experience. (In case you’re a new reader here, I have successfully learned a foreign language: in 2008, I began learning Russian and am now fluent in it.)

Choose something you’re interested in.

I cannot emphasize this point enough. You must choose a language you are genuinely interested in. Trust me, you will need this internal motivation when you are dissecting what feels like the millionth sentence in your chosen foreign language and trying to figure out the abstruse grammar rule used when you really just want to flop onto your bed and read Vampire Academy. Internal motivation is what kept me going through the hours of Russian homework I completed after doing a ton of other homework for my classes.

Don’t choose to learn a language because your parents think you should, or someone said it was easy, or some article on the internet said speakers of that language will economically rule the world someday. These are all terrible reasons to choose to learn a language. Choose a language because you love it, because you think it will enrich your life in some way. It doesn’t matter if no one else agrees. Their opinions are irrelevant. What matters is what you think.

It may not be ALL fun and games, but it should be MOSTLY fun and games.

I probably scared a lot of you in that last paragraph, talking about all that time I spent on Russian homework and analyzing sentences to understand formidable Russian grammar. Yes, that was not always so fun—but it was worth it. It was worth it when I finally had a eureka moment and fully understood how to use a certain interrogative particle in Russian. It was worth it when I walked into my intense, native-Russian-speaking professor’s office and correctly used a case that we had not yet learned in class.

Here’s the thing: learning a language is hard work. Don’t believe anyone who says otherwise. (And yes, there are people who say otherwise. They are lying and trying to sell you crappy overpriced products.) I would say about five percent of the learning you do is not so much fun. Luckily, this is mostly in the beginning, when you have to learn basic vocabulary and grammar. Once you have that down, applying it and getting to the more advanced stuff is a ton of fun. If it isn’t fun, you’re doing something wrong. Either you need to find different material on a topic that truly interests you, or you picked a language that is wrong for you. That’s okay. There’s no shame in dropping a language that isn’t right for you.

Skip the overpriced products.

You’ve probably heard of Rosetta Stone software. It’s one of the most prominent products out there, but definitely not the only one. I’m not sure about less commonly taught languages, but for the major languages like Spanish, French, German, Russian, Japanese, etc., you can get everything you need for free or very cheap on the internet. There are a ton of good websites written by language learners. (Would it be arrogant to point our you’re reading one right now? 😉 ) There are news websites, sports websites, and websites devoted to all sorts of random things that you may like in your chosen language.

“But Natasha,” you’re probably thinking, “how do I tell the difference between a crappy overpriced product that won’t help me and something else that I may need to pay for but can actually help me?” My litmus test is this: if the product promises to make you fluent in an unreasonably short period of time (less than a couple of years), it’s probably not worth your time or money. Rosetta Stone promises fluency very early and I guarantee they cannot deliver on this promise. And don’t think it’s only unscrupulous corporate entities that do this. The sad thing about the language learning blogging community is there are fellow language bloggers who do this very thing. It makes me equally angry and sad that they knowingly defraud poor eager language learners just to make a buck that they’re too lazy to earn honestly (but that’s a topic for another post at another time).

Get a good foundation.

I credit my success at learning Russian to two things: my stubborn nature (I refused to give up, even when conjugating irregular verbs made me want to scream) and the man who gave me a solid foundation in the Russian language through his class at university. Getting a good foundation is so important because it will allow you to continue learning on your own later.

I acquired my foundation through taking a class. A lot of people in the language learning community like to dump on classes, but I do not think we should be so quick to dismiss them. In my opinion, they can be quite helpful, at least at the beginner levels. It’s very useful to have someone there to correct your mistakes and teach you the basics of the language. If you can’t take a class, there are a plethora of tutors online. I’ve never done online tutoring, but other language bloggers I trust swear by it and say it’s great.

Work on your listening.

Listening is an extremely important skill to acquire. Not only is it essential for having a proper conversation with someone else, but it helps your brain develop correct pronunciation. That’s why I advocate listening from day one. Even if you only understand a few words, don’t give up or get frustrated. Keep listening! And don’t listen to stuff aimed at beginners. Start off with stuff made for native speakers. I highly recommend the news: newscasters speak faster than the average person, which will help you develop an ear for the language spoken at a higher speed. Also, they are usually educated and have an accent that is considered neutral in the language.

I started listening in 2009, after I’d studied Russian for a year. It took me about two years to be able to understand everything I heard. My only regret is I didn’t start listening sooner!

Keep an open mind.

I used flashcards extensively when I was learning Russian. In fact, I still use them. One side of the card has a Russian sentence, the other has English, and I work on translating the Russian side into English. I didn’t think I would like flashcards before I tried them, but they completely revolutionized my approach to learning. Go figure.

A couple years ago, there was a war in the language learning blogosphere over flashcards. Some idiot said they don’t help and therefore no one should use them, someone else said don’t discount them because they can help, and a battle erupted. The whole thing was so stupid. I realize they don’t work for everyone, so it doesn’t bother me if other people don’t use them. I just post what works for me on my blog. Flashcards work for me, so I say that. Different approaches work for other people.

Language learners can learn from one another. Don’t discount other ideas without at least briefly considering them. I know some people swear by parallel texts—basically, these are books that have two columns, one side in the language you’re learning and the other side in a language you already know. I’ve tried parallel texts many times before, but they don’t work for me. (I always end up reading the English side.) Just because they don’t work for me doesn’t mean I’m going to write an obnoxious post saying no language learner should use them, though.

Never stop learning.

So, let’s say you keep your resolution and work at your language for a few years. You talk to native speakers, listen to the news, read books, and do a ton of stuff in this new language. You’re feeling pretty good about yourself because you’re basically fluent. You’ve successfully learned a language, so it’s time to move on to the next one, right?

Wrong. Okay, you can pick up a new language anytime you want (personally, I couldn’t start a new language until the one I was working on was firmly cemented in my brain, but I’ve heard of people doing multiple languages at once), but just because you’re fluent doesn’t mean the learning is over.

The learning never stops. This language learning thing lasts a lifetime. That sounds scary and intimidating, but it’s really not bad. You learn new words in your native language, right? There’s nothing wrong with that and it also applies to your second (and third, and fourth, and so on) language.

If you’ve chosen a language you truly like, it won’t bother you that the learning never stops. I learn something new in Russian every day. But since I love Russian so much, I get up excited to learn.

Are you committed to learning a foreign language? Let me know in the comments! Though I touched on some negative aspects of the language learning community, mostly it is a welcoming and encouraging place and I’ve had a lot of great conversations online with fellow language learners.

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3 thoughts on “So, You Want To Learn A Foreign Language

  1. I don’t remember the flashcard fight, but I do remember when 10,000 sentences became popular and people started insisting that you should never speak a language until after you had been listening and reading native level materials for over a year! Of course native level materials are the most valuable at improving your progress over time, but I don’t think practicing how to say “How are you?” and “Where is a hotel?” before you can read Harry Potter without a dictionary will completely ruin your chance at fluency. 😉

    I agree completely that language learning is hard work. It’s also really fun because you get to make new friends, learn about other cultures, and have access to wonderful books and movies that aren’t available in your native language.

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