How To Learn A Foreign Language

learning foreign languages, good mind in a healthy body

learning foreign languages, good mind in a healthy body
There is an old Czech saying: “the more languages you know, the more times you are human.” It’s true, learning foreign languages lets you expand your horizons and see things from different perspectives. More importantly, it lets you connect to people you would not be able to connect to before.

I have written about traveling being a way to see new things and expanding your horizons, however this effect is multiplied exponentially if you speak the languages of the countries you are traveling in and can thereby reach the people in their own native language and find out what they are thinking in their own words.

I can speak 6 languages fluently (level B2 and up) and am in the process of learning three more. I might be a bit special, since I come from a multicultural family and have moved around all my life, so I got some languages for “free”, however other ones I have had to learn from scratch. My only regrets are that I have always been shy and also that I tend to never finish up learning one language properly before starting a new one (classic “toward” behavior).

Learning languages is sometimes a very grueling process, however it all becomes worth it, once you start applying what you learn in practice. The best experiences traveling are usually associated with using a foreign language to communicate. Nothing beats the feeling you get after managing to get your point across to a native speaker in their country without having to resort to speaking English. The feeling of satisfaction and a job well done is the reward for all those countless hours of frustration and all those myriads of exercises you did.

Of course language learning is not all about frustration, but for many people it is an enjoyable activity. It becomes even more enjoyable when it opens up doors for you, doors that would otherwise have been shut, had you not learned that language.

So how do you learn a language?

1) why?

When learning a language the most important thing that you need to answer is: why are you learning that language? What is the reason behind you wanting to speak this language? This is a fundamental part that you need to have clear, because it is tied in with motivation.

Motivation is very important for any activity, and especially language learning. Something needs to push you to go through all those countless hours of studying, through all those times you make embarrassing mistakes or through all those times you feel clueless. A person without the proper motivation will stop the process of learning the language at the earliest opportunity when the going gets tough. They won’t be able to persevere.

In order to master a language, you need to have the right motivation. Some motivations can be stronger than others, for example living in a country and having to use the language you are learning in order to survive is a much stronger motivation than a guy who thinks it would be cool to know some foreign language and picks a random one out of a hat. With the first type of motivation you are likely to persevere, with the second one, you will most likely move onto other things fairly quickly.

Your environment and your internal state also have a serious effect on motivation. If there are outside things that are affecting your internal state, your motivation for learning might go down. For example depression can be a barrier that can keep you from continuing to learn a language, as you it brings down your motivation. However the cause and effect can be reversed. So for some people the continuous study of a language can keep their mind occupied and thereby the effect is less depression.

2) what?

Once you have the “why”, picking the language you want to learn should be easy. You should learn a language that you have a strong motivation to learn and one that you will find useful in your life. So think of what language you want to learn. Is the “why” strong enough for you that you will persevere in learning that language?

The ultimate goal of learning any language is for you to be able communicate in it. The dream of every language learner is to achieve the same type of ability with the target language as that of a native speaker. Unfortunately very few people actually get to that level.

You can judge your language activity using CEFR levels, which range from A1 to C2, with A1 being total beginner and C2 being native fluency. In between you have A2, B1, B2 and C1, with conversational fluency starting somewhere around low B2 level.

The CEFR describes what a learner is supposed to be able to do in reading, listening, speaking and writing at each level.

level group level group name level level name description
A Basic User A1 Breakthrough or beginner
  • Can understand and use familiar everyday expressions and very basic phrases aimed at the satisfaction of needs of a concrete type.
  • Can introduce him/herself and others and can ask and answer questions about personal details such as where he/she lives, people he/she knows and things he/she has.
  • Can interact in a simple way provided the other person talks slowly and clearly and is prepared to help.
A2 Way stage or elementary
  • Can understand sentences and frequently used expressions related to areas of most immediate relevance (e.g. very basic personal and family information, shopping, local geography, employment).
  • Can communicate in simple and routine tasks requiring a simple and direct exchange of information on familiar and routine matters.
  • Can describe in simple terms aspects of his/her background, immediate environment and matters in areas of immediate need.
B Independent User B1 Threshold or intermediate
  • Can understand the main points of clear standard input on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc.
  • Can deal with most situations likely to arise while traveling in an area where the language is spoken.
  • Can produce simple connected text on topics that are familiar or of personal interest.
  • Can describe experiences and events, dreams, hopes and ambitions and briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans.
B2 Vantage or upper intermediate
  • Can understand the main ideas of complex text on both concrete and abstract topics, including technical discussions in his/her field of specialisation.
  • Can interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native speakers quite possible without strain for either party.
  • Can produce clear, detailed text on a wide range of subjects and explain a viewpoint on a topical issue giving the advantages and disadvantages of various options.
C Proficient User C1 Effective Operational Proficiency or advanced
  • Can understand a wide range of demanding, longer texts, and recognise implicit meaning.
  • Can express ideas fluently and spontaneously without much obvious searching for expressions.
  • Can use language flexibly and effectively for social, academic and professional purposes.
  • Can produce clear, well-structured, detailed text on complex subjects, showing controlled use of organisational patterns, connectors and cohesive devices.
C2 Mastery or proficiency
  • Can understand with ease virtually everything heard or read.
  • Can summarise information from different spoken and written sources, reconstructing arguments and accounts in a coherent presentation.
  • Can express him/herself spontaneously, very fluently and precisely, differentiating finer shades of meaning even in the most complex situations.

source of above table: Wikipedia

There are many languages that you can learn. Since you are reading this, you probably already have a pretty decent level of English, so I won’t talk about this language. Excluding English, some very big languages are (among others) Spanish, French, Russian, Arabic, Mandarin Chinese, as well as countless others. If you manage to learn at least a few of the languages I listed, you will be able to communicate with a large part of the globe.

Each language has its special challenges and therefore there is no “hardest” language. If you see some sort of a ranking of the hardest languages, you should know that that ranking is BS, as it is usually very subjective and not based on any facts.

The hardness of learning another language depends on your background and your abilities. It will be much easier for you to learn a language that is in the same language family as the languages you already speak. It will also be much easier for you to learn the pronunciation of a language, if your own language already has the same sounds of words as your target language.

When learning a language, it is not only speaking and understanding that you will learn, but also reading and writing. For languages that use an alphabet that you are already familiar with, this should not be too hard, however for languages with different alphabets (or ones that don’t have alphabets and you have to memorize characters for different words) that might prove a bit more difficult.

You will also have to learn pronunciation, grammar rules, vocabulary and other things. Some languages might have a very easy system of verb conjugations, while other ones might not. Some languages might have noun declensions, while others won’t. All these complexities will add to the challenge of learning a language.

3) when?

It’s much easier to learn a language when you are younger, especially if you want to be as close to native fluency as possible. However even if you are older, you can still learn a foreign language up to a very high level. So don’t despair.

The best way is to be learning the language 24/7 and be in a total immersion experience. Here the when is all the time! 🙂 However most of us don’t have that luxury, so might be only able to dedicate a few hours a week for study.

The best strategy is to keep a rigorous schedule and don’t deviate from it. If you say that you are going to study a language for a minimum of 1 hour every day, then you should stick to that. Also remember to set some goals of by when you should be at what level. This will keep you motivated and on track.

4) how?

This is probably the question that every language learner is asking: How do you learn a foreign language? The answer to this is not so simple. It seems like everyone these days has some method that they promote as being the best way to learn languages, however be careful of falling into the trap of believing that someone’s method is the best. These things are very individual, and what works for someone else might not work for you.

You will need to find what works for you. How do you like to learn? Are you a visual, auditory or a kinesthetic learner? What type of a person are you? Are you shy or outgoing? All these things will have an impact on how you learn.

The best way to learn a language is to be in a complete immersion environment, however for most of the time that is impossible. So the trick here is to try to simulate an immersion environment as closely as possible. Try to listen to the target language as often as possible, by having the tv or the radio on in that language, even if it is in the background and you are not actively listening to it.

One piece of advice that you hear often is to start speaking the language from day 1, meaning you should be trying to communicate in that language right from the beginning, even if you don’t know a single word at first. The premise here is to talk in that language and not be afraid of making mistakes.

This advice can work for you, however in my opinion it’s not for everyone. Some people are just wired differently. It’s the same with babies, while some babies start talking very early and say all kinds of gibberish, other kids stay silent for longer, but when they start speaking at a later point, their sentences are much more coherent.

I am an example of a person, who does not like to communicate from day 1 in the target language. I am very afraid of making mistakes. Don’t know why, but it seems to be my internal wiring. Even to this day, I can remember some times when I either did something foolish or made a mistake and when I think of that moment, all the negative feelings that I was feeling then come back and I feel bad, even though that event happened a long time ago.

I don’t think I am the only person who has this. It’s a blessing and a curse. A blessing in that this type of a wiring allows you to remember things more easily. Studies of people with good memories showed that the reason why most of these people remember things better, is that they internally associate the thing they are trying to remember with some sort of a feeling. This process of association makes it stronger in your subconscious and therefore you remember it better. You sort of anchor it in your mind and whenever you have that feeling, the thing you are trying to remember pops up.

However that works in reverse as well. So when the thing that you are remembering pops up from somewhere (maybe you see the word written as you reading a book), then the feelings associated with that can come back as well. That’s why I hate to make mistakes, because these bad feelings get stuck in my subconscious. On the other hand, people who make mistakes and then forget about them, don’t have this problem. They can learn and forget and go on. They will have a harder time remembering things, but the trial and error way of doing things is much more suited to them.

So in deciding on whether to adopt the speak from day 1 method, see what type of a person you are, whether you are outgoing and whether you have strong associations of things with feelings and then either go for the method or go for another method more suited to you. Of course you can sometimes change your personality, but a lot of times this is very hard.

My method for learning languages is something what I like to call the 3 Wave Method. This means learn the language in three phases. This is of course an ideal state scenario, because unfortunately I don’t always follow my own advice sometimes and get lazy.

The first phase you get some sort of a learn on your own style material, like for example the Assimil or Teach Yourself series. To complement this, you also get some sort of a workbook which explains the grammar of the language and has some grammar exercises. This means that for the first phase you have these two types of materials. The first one has a strong audio (or video) component and the other one is all about grammar.

After you have this, then you set up a schedule on when and how often you will be learning that language. So for example you can decide to dedicate half an hour to the language everyday or maybe an hour 3 times a week. The exact timing does not matter, what matters is that you set up a schedule and then stick to it. Do not try to skip the time you have dedicated to language learning, since sticking to a schedule is one of the keys to being consistent and persistent.

So now you have the materials and you have a schedule. What you want to do now, is to get through all the material as fast as possible. So in this phase, you don’t have to be very rigorous (you can be if you want to though). Listen to each lesson of the audio a few times, try to understand what the words mean, but don’t worry too much. Once you have the gist of the lesson, go on to the next lesson. Same thing with grammar. Read about the grammar rules, try to memorize some things, then do some exercises, but once you have the basics of that chapter down, go on to the next chapter. The key here is to finish the material and have a basic overview of the language.

After you have done this, comes phase 2. Now you take the exact same material you used before and go through it again, this time however being much more rigorous in your approach. Why do this? What I find is that it is much easier to concentrate on the material and do it more thoroughly, once you have already seen it before. That’s why I advocate going through phase 1 quickly and seeing all the material before without concentrating on it too much.

For many people, if they spend too much time digging into the material the first time, they might get confused and discouraged and give up. However doing these two phases with the same material, lowers this factor of giving up significantly.

After you have finished these two phases, comes phase three. Now you should look at more native or at least higher level material. Maybe you can start watching some television series in that language (with subtitles or without), or reading newspapers in that language. Maybe find a language exchange buddy.

You continue on learning the grammar, however now with a different book! You will solidify your understanding of the grammar much more, if you see the same concepts be explained differently and that’s why I advocate using as many different materials as possible after you finish the initial phases. If you don’t understand a concept, go see the explanation of it in a different book. There is a wealth of resources out there, so use them!

If you can, I also encourage the use of classes. Some people are against them, however I found them pretty useful. Just listening to the teacher and doing speaking exercises with other students can be beneficial. It also keeps you honest, especially if you are lazy. With classes you have them scheduled and so have an incentive to attend them. If you are a person who has a hard time motivating themselves to study on your own, classes are a good way to push yourself.

Once you have solid grasp of the language, you should go to a country where the language is spoken on a native level. This will be the test of your skills, but also teach you a lot more of the language. You can either enroll at some sort of a language school there, or just go to the country and try to speak to the locals. A good way to practice the language is to go do something in that country that you like doing, for example martial arts or surfing or whatever and enroll in a class or an activity group to do that activity. There you will meet locals who also share your passions and you will be able to practice your language, while also doing something you love! 🙂

Don’t just sit there, pick a language and start learning!

More:
I also keep a blog where I share some language learning resources that I come across, so if you are learning languages, you could find this useful (mostly stuff for French, Spanish, Russian, Dutch, Polish, Ukrainian…plus other languages and related things):
My Language Learning Zone

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