There are a lot of opinions out there on how to learn a second (or third, or fourth) language. While there are likely some that are a bit more misguided than they are helpful, for the most part they’re all valid as long as they help you reach your goal. In all my time researching languages, studying all the ways people acquire languages, talking to successful polyglots and becoming one myself, I’ve noticed a common thread that runs alongside all the success stories – including my own.
The common denominator was that regardless of the learning methods people used, all of them adhered in one way or another to these six key principles. No matter what your personal study method is applying these six pieces of advice will go a long way to making you another one of the success stories.
1. Start Speaking Immediately!
This is the very first of the six key principles because it’s not only the most helpful, it also is the one people seem to have the most trouble with. That’s also why it gets the exclamation point, I am yelling this at you from my computer. Can you hear it?
The fact is, if your goal is to speak a second language fluently, then you need to be speaking it. I’ve talked before about how language is a skill – if you want to learn a skill you start practicing that skill right off the bat. Putting it off doesn’t make any sense, you will never improve until you start practicing.
If you wanted to learn to play the guitar you wouldn’t set out to learn all the scales and chord progressions before you ever put your fingers to the fret-board – that would be crazy. If you want to learn to play the guitar you pick up a guitar and start practicing. Sure, at the beginning, you’re going to sound horrendous. Who cares? The longer you stick to it the better you get.
Languages are just like that. If you want to speak, you need to start speaking right away. Only know how to say hello? So what!? Go find a native speaker and say hello. Practice is always more valuable than study.
Putting it into practice
If you literally know not one single word in the language you’re learning, go to the list of phrases on Omniglot.com and memorize as many as you can (I particularly recommend ‘My hovercraft is full of eels’). Then go out and find someone to use them on. Maybe it’s at a local international restaurant or market, maybe it’s on Lang-8, maybe elsewhere. The point is to get speaking right away.
2. Relax. Mistakes Happen.
This ties very, very heavily into step one above. Being scared of making mistakes is the single biggest reason people don’t start speaking from day one. They’re scared.
“I’m not ready to start speaking yet,” I hear, “what if I make a mistake?”
“People will laugh at me!” they squeal. “If I don’t perfectly speak my target language every time I open my mouth everyone will think I’m an idiot!”
First of all if you met someone who you knew did not speak your language natively but was in the process of learning it and they made a mistake in their speaking, would you think they are stupid, mock them, think less of them, laugh at their mistake? No. (Incidentally, if you would do those things, please go away. I don’t want you on our website.) You wouldn’t do those things because they’re horrid. Of course someone who’s learning a second language is going to make mistakes, it’d be even weirder if they didn’t.
So if you understand that you and every other decent human being would never even consider mocking or thinking less of someone who made a mistake while speaking a language they’re learning, why do you expect it to happen to you?
In my experience it’s a much bigger problem that people are too polite. Native speakers will gloss over my mistakes and ignore them for fear of offending me by pointing them out, when what I really want is to have my mistakes pointed out!
On top of everything else, mistakes are how we learn. Your brain is wired to better remember things that have a situational or emotional attachment. When a native speaker corrects you on something, you will remember that grammar point forever. Learn it from a book and it might be gone before you’ve finished your morning coffee tomorrow.
Putting it into practice
Learn to accept your mistakes for what they are, positive and valuable learning opportunities. I love making mistakes. I feel that way because I know when I get corrected I’ll remember what I made a mistake on – guaranteed.
If you have a severe paralyzing fear of making mistakes then I suggest you go and practice making some mistakes. Yep, that’s right, practice making mistakes. Find a controlled environment (Lang-8 is a good choice again) where you can consciously or otherwise make a few little mistakes and know you aren’t going to get burned at the stake for it. If you need to, say something wrong on purpose.
After a while, you’ll find you don’t worry so much about it and can start trying new grammars and things without having any idea if you’re doing it right in the hopes that you’ll be making a mistake and getting a correction.
3. Surround Yourself In The Language.
Most people accept that a great way to learn a new language is to go live in a place that speaks that language natively. While this is hardly a magic pill solution, you can mimic the same conditions without ever leaving home.
As we mentioned in key number one, the most valuable way you can spend your language learning time is practicing. That being the case, doesn’t it make sense to restructure your environment so you’re almost constantly practicing your target language?
When you surround yourself in your target language, you can’t help but be practicing. You get on the computer, you’re reading your target language. You listen to music, it’s in your target language. You write a shopping list, you write it in your target language. You get the point. You are always practicing.
Putting it into practice
The easiest way to put this into practice is to go through every thing you have control over and change it into your target language. Start reading the news in your target language, start playing video games in your target language, looking up recipes in your target language etc. The more things that you can change into being in your target language, the more practice you’ll be getting – that means more and faster improvement.
4. Get social.
The point of learning another language is to be able to communicate. Sure, you may be learning it because you like movies in that language or literature in that language, but if your goal is fluency it’s because you want to talk to people. So go find some people to talk to!
The value of having a native speaker is immeasurable. A native speaker is a walking grammar reference. Not only that, they’re the best kind – an implicit grammar reference. They may not know what the conditional past-participle subjunctive is, but who cares!? They can listen to you say something and then tell you, “No, that sounds funny. We would say….” In that one little sentence is a billion times more help than in stacks and stacks of grammar books.
As if that weren’t reason enough to make friends with a native speaker, they also are a walking dictionary. The time it takes to ask a native speaker, “Hey, how do you say…?” and get an answer is always going to be shorter than the time it takes to look a word up in a dictionary or with an electronic translator. Even if you could look it up faster than you could ask, with an actual human you get synonyms, antonyms, slang versions and example sentences. Win.
Now, don’t take what I’m saying the wrong way. At the risk of sounding a bit ‘after-school special’ the biggest, most important benefit you get from being social with your language learning is friendship.
Well, friendship and someone to practice with…
Putting it into practice
Even if you aren’t a very ‘social’ person, it’s easy to meet new people to practice speaking with. The easiest, lowest commitment way is to send a message to one of the people who has corrected one of your posts on Lang-8 and politely inquire if they would be interested in exchanging Skype info.
Now don’t expect everything to be about you. They’re going to want to practice speaking your native language as much as you want to practice using theirs. Usually you can agree on a good 50/50 split, if need be agree to switch languages every other time that you chat.
The slightly more advanced method is to use Couchsurfing.org to find language partners. Sign up, search in your city filtered by language and ask to meet for a coffee. Remember, unless you’ve agreed beforehand on some kind of teaching arrangement, if you badger them with language questions and demand they fulfill the role of unpaid tutor they may not agree on a second meeting. Treat it as a friendly chat and if you feel like they’ve gone out of their way to be helpful, buy them a coffee or something. The point is still to make new friends, not find a free teacher.
Find Real Motivation.
Learning a new language is hard work. Now, that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun, enjoyable and rewarding hard work – but it’s still hard work.
If you really want to be successful, you have to make sure your motives are the right ones. It might be hard, but you need to be really honest with yourself here. Some people may be able to pull it off, but I’ve found that for most if you have the goal of speaking another language fluently just because you ‘think it would be cool’, than you probably aren’t going to have enough drive to get there.
If you want to become fluent, you need to live it. At every second you should be thinking about or in your target language, when people walk into your house they should feel like they needed to have their passports stamped at the front door. This kind of dedication is crucial if you want to be more than a little successful. This kind of dedication is hard to maintain if you don’t have what you consider a really good reason for doing it.
Now, this is a subjective thing – I’m not going to pass judgement on the validity of anyone’s motivations. If you are the kind of person who is seriously driven to impress people by learning a second language and showing off is your sole motivation than that’s fine. The key is to be honest with yourself.
A student of mine once told me that even though he was taking an intensive one-on-one conversational English course, he was learning Italian a lot faster through self-study than he was learning English. He figured it was because Italian was a lot more similar to Spanish (his native language), but when I asked him about his motivations I got to what I think was the real cause.
Asked why he wanted to learn Italian, he became wide-eyed and gushed about his dream of touring through Italy, his love of Italian food and how all of the best movies and books were Italian. He was seriously driven to ‘be Italian’. Then I asked him why he was learning English.
“Oh, I have to for business,” he curtly replied. “It’s a requirement for my company.”
See the problem?
Personally, my motivation is a combination of love and fascination for languages themselves (hence my linguistics degree), and the drive to meet people and have fantastic experiences. For me languages, as much as I love them, always wind down to just being the tools necessary for really communicating with new, awesome people in different, awesome cultures.
Putting it into practice
This one is simultaneously the easiest and the hardest to put into practice. Easiest because putting it into practice only requires you to take a minute to sit down and examine your motivations, hardest because we have a bad tendency of being more dishonest to ourselves than anyone else.
Sit down for a minute and think about why you want to learn a new language. Be honest with yourself. Write down your answer even. If you find that it’s something you really genuinely are passionate about than this exercise will not only have confirmed your dedication but strengthened it by identifying what really motivates you.
If you find that your motives don’t really hold up to your own honest scrutiny, then you may want to try and find new motives or just accept that you may not have the drive to go all the way yet. Really, if your motives are that weak, it’s probably not a big deal to you if you quit anyway.
Yes, I am yelling at you again. For good reason though, too many people forget this part of language learning and it is as huge of a determiner of success as the other five.
If you’re going at learning a new language like it’s a chore, work or something you have to do – then the whole experience is going to be like pulling teeth. That’s bad. Do you know what happens when a task is tedious, tiresome or boring? You don’t do it! You procrastinate, you make excuses, you forget about it completely; none of these behaviors are conducive to learning a new language.
Imagine two people, one commits to 1 hour of language study per day because they have to do it. This person rigidly schedules each study session and is bound and determined to grind their way through it. The other person doesn’t set any specific study time but every day they find that at some point they really want to do something in their target language. In the end, they only spend about 30 minutes a day working with their target language, but they’re excited to do it. Who do you think will have progressed more after a few months?
Putting it into practice
Have fun! I know this sounds contrary to everything you’ve ever been conditioned to do courtesy of public education but don’t study! If you force yourself to study when you don’t want to, you’re just going to continue to build anger and resentment around your target language – not a good thing.
Instead, go find something you already think is fun, and do it in your target language.
Do you love to read? Go find some of your favorites that have been translated into your target language and work your way back through them, or go find some new favorites. Do you obsess over martial arts? Go find some tutorials or watch some videos about your art in your target language. Are you the most hardcore knitter on Earth? Guess what? Run some knitting terms through Google Translate, do a search, and dive into your target-language-knitting wonderland.
When I was studying Japanese, I did two things that made me want to study – I found the Harry Potter series translated into Japanese and I found a bunch of old SNES games in the original Japanese. Which sounds better, learning Japanese slaving over a grammar book and kanji lists, or playing Chrono Trigger in Japanese with a dictionary sitting next to you? Exactly.
Like I said, in general the method doesn’t matter so long as it really helps you meet your goal. No matter what method you use though, implementing these six key tips will make your path to fluency not just shorter – but a whole lot more fun too.
Have you given any of these a shot? Do you think it should have been 7 key things? Let us know in the comments!
Photo Credit: Danielle Margaroli