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Language learning is a passion of mine. It’s why I became a French teacher. I began studying French in middle school, immediately fell in love with the language, and knew I wanted to guide others on this same journey.
If you’re interested in learning a new language, check out these practical tips to get your language-learning journey off on the right foot:
1. Consider Your Motivation
Learning a language takes time. If you’re not sure why you want to learn a new language in the first place, you’re going to have difficulty setting aside time for it. So, what is your motivation? What about this new language interests you? Why now?
Think about language as a tool. How do you want to use it? Is it a key to unlock the great literary works of Molière and Victor Hugo? A gateway to travel to your dream destination? Or is your plan to woo the locals during your study abroad next semester? Get clear on what is driving your language-learning adventure before you do anything else.
2. Set Language-Learning Goals
Many people have the goal of “becoming fluent” in the language. What does “fluent” look like? Fluency isn’t a tangible, measurable thing. As an aside, I can’t tell you how many of my former students told me they wanted to be fluent by the end of the school year in middle school. They were so earnest about it, I could hardly even laugh it off. Anyways…
Set specific goals that are measurable and realistic while taking into consideration your overall motivation for learning the language. In other words, break down what you want to be able to do into simple chunks.
Let’s say that your overall motivation is that you love the language and want to be able to converse with other people your own age. Your first goal? “I can greet someone and introduce myself.”
Let’s say that your main goal is to be able to travel and use the language to express your needs. One of your goals might be, “I can let a waiter know about my allergies so I don’t have an allergic reaction in a restaurant.”
3. Keep Moving Forward
The strategies and activities that you choose to spend your time on should support your goals in some way. Of course, even if your goal is only related to speaking Spanish, some reading and writing can be beneficial to reinforce what you’re learning. Be conscious of where you are putting your efforts and make sure you are spending the majority of your time working on aspects of the language that directly serve your goals.
As people delve into language acquisition, they tend to get bogged down by grammar. In order to have a conversation in any language, you need to be able to ask questions. In French, there are 4 different ways you can format a yes or no question. Should you be able to recognize each format so that you can appropriately respond when asked a question? Yes. Do you need to be able to format a question in 4 different ways in order to have a conversation with someone? No.
Just because it’s in the textbook or on a grammar sheet doesn’t mean you need to spend time on it. You’re on your own journey, so keep moving forward after you’ve acquired what you need to for your goals. You can always circle back later if you want to add more advanced skills to your repertoire.
4. Make It Personal
Have you been memorizing lists of vocabulary just for the sake of memorizing new words? Focus instead on words and phrases that are useful for everyday life, your unique interests, and your goals. Aside from the most frequently used words in every language, the relevance of vocabulary is personal and subjective. Spend time on what matters to you. (Are you seeing a theme here?)
Every year, my students asked me how to say “rowing” in French. I’ll admit that for the first four years of teaching French, I had to look it up every year. It’s not a sport that interests me, and it’s not a sport that I talk about or hear about often. My brain didn’t want to keep it saved. Only through having to look it up every year did I finally remember how to say it. (It’s l’aviron for those wondering.)
I play badminton. I can talk about the equipment needed and I can explain the rules. If you can’t, I won’t hold it against you. Not being able to remember irrelevant vocabulary is not a shortcoming. It’s completely normal and understandable.
5. Increase Your Input
We often need multiple exposures to the same content in order to truly learn. This doesn’t mean that you need to watch the same video over and over again on repeat. If you’re regularly consuming content in your target language, you will find that there are words and expressions that get used more often than others. Expose yourself to different types of content and you’ll be surprised how much you recognize and learn over time.
Music, films, news, podcasts, YouTube videos, Instagram; there is so much FREE content out there. Switch it up and find new ways to immerse yourself in the language. There is no reason to be bored. If you don’t like one source of content, find something more engaging.
Bonus tip: Put your electronic devices in the language you are learning. I bet you’ll forget some English along the way.
6. Focus on Communication
Mistakes are a natural part of the language acquisition process in our first language. Why should learning a second language be any different? For some reason, we allow ourselves to feel stupid when trying out a second language even though we would never expect a child acquiring language skills to speak in perfect, elaborate sentences on their first go. Let’s not forget that we all make mistakes in our native language even as adults. At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is that you’re understood.
Give yourself grace and embrace your mistakes! Making a mistake means you were brave enough to give something a try. Not to mention, we often learn more through our mistakes. This one time, I was asked to describe my brother. I wanted to say that he’s an ok kind of dude and we get along sometimes. I went with, “Il est pas mal.” Basically, I ended up saying that he’s kind of hot. EW. Will never over my dead body ever make that mistake again. Like me, you will probably embarrass yourself, but even if you end up accidentally offending someone, they’ll forgive you because you’re a language learner. #perks
7. Seek Out Opportunities to Interact
Hey, you! Yes, you. I see you hiding behind DuoLingo.
Is one of your goals related to communication and being able to speak with others? If so, you are going to need to do exactly that. You won’t get better at speaking Italian if you don’t practice speaking in Italian. Furthermore, nothing can replace face-to-face conversations. You can evaluate your progress in real time based on someone’s reactions and responses. It’s exciting, humbling, and a bit intimidating all at once.
Are you struggling to speak French? Here’s why you (still) can’t speak French and what to do about it.
8. Create a Habit Around Language Learning
Language learning happens best when there is regular and repeated exposure to the target language. Practice every day if you can. It is better to practice consistently for short periods of time than to cram everything into one long practice session. This applies to other subjects as well. Just ask my old flute teacher. He always knew that I had practiced for an hour and a half before my lesson instead of the recommended 20 minutes per day.
You likely already have a daily routine so see where your new habit might naturally fit in. For example, after checking the news, switch to the news in your target language for 10 minutes. On your way to work or while you’re cooking, listen to a podcast. Schedule a conversation group or tutor and block off that time on your calendar.
If you struggle with forming productive habits, I highly recommend the book, Atomic Habits by James Clear (also available on Bookshop). He provides practical ways to break old habits and add highly effective ones to your daily life.
9. Recognize Your Progress
Learning a language is hard and reaching your goals is not going to happen overnight. However, you probably know more than you give yourself credit for. Check back on your goals regularly to evaluate your progress and celebrate your achievements. Consider tracking your growth in a language notebook so you can easily see when you hit each milestone.
Success will look different for everyone. Choose progress over perfection and communication over accuracy.
What are some of your language learning tips? Let me know in the comments below!