Have you ever tried to learn a new language and found that you just couldn’t get it right? You tried flashcards and rules but no matter what you did it just didn’t work. You looked at the quiz or you tried to utter a sentence to yourself and nothing, nada.
I have gone through the motions of trying to learn a language myself. I have tried to learn Spanish, French, and Korean. While the latter two are a work in progress, and I firmly believe that I have a chance of success, my failure with Spanish has taught me much about language learning. Over the years, I have collected advice from professors and even YouTubers who have spent a good chunk of their time learning a new language and I am here to share it all with you:
1. Like the language you are learning
One thing I had to learn first was that you have to like the language you are learning. I didn’t follow this advice initially and learned the hard way, and as a result had two stagnant years with Spanish. My parents had insisted that I learn Spanish, because I lived in Miami, Florida, which has a high population of Spanish speakers. Their advice made sense, and so I reasoned with myself that I should listen to them. Needless to say, I regret taking their advice. It wasn’t until I got tired of hitting the wall in Spanish that I moved on to another language I had loved much more since childhood: French.
2. Use minimum direct translation
My French professors here at Mount Holyoke all insist on avoiding direct translations into your primary language as much as possible. The only time they will allow it is if not understanding a word or phrase is keeping you from understanding a text. They essentially believe in context clues: figuring out a word or sentence based on the other words or sentences around it. To be honest, this makes me anxious, but it does work. You get less stuck on your fears about not understanding a simple word and let the gist of the word or phrase take root in your mind. You learn to get a feel for the word and the most appropriate ways to use it. This is something direct translation has never given me.
3. Interact with Native Speakers
This can be especially hard depending on where you live. However, here at Mount Holyoke, we have a variety of cultural and language clubs that can help you achieve this goal. If you happen to have an international friend who speaks the language you are learning, take advantage of that opportunity and converse in the language with them. Another option, if it is something you would be willing to do, is to live on a language floor.
Our school has Living and Learning Communities (LLCs) where students can live and bond together over a specific interest. The language floors are apart of the LLC and are currently located in the Mandelles. Each floor in the Mandelles is dedicated to a language. Bear in mind that you do not have to be a resident of the language floors in order to participate in events.
4. Think to yourself in the language
My French professor from my first year told me to think to myself in French. She told me that if I was walking to class or to lunch to try and say everything I noticed in French so I could remember them and familiarize myself with the language. One of the easiest ways to do this is to memorize simple phrases in the language. For example, to say, “It’s a beautiful day” in French, you would say, “Il fait beau.” Therefore, if it was a nice day, I would say this. This is where avoiding getting hung up on direct translation will help you. “Fait” in the French sentence above is from the French verb “faire” which means “to do” or “to make.” If I couldn’t move past this translation, the sentence would make no sense to me. This is one piece of advice YouTuber Megan Bowen gave when someone asked her for advice on how to learn Korean. I find that this advice is transferable to any language. While connecting a language to your own might be helpful for remembering certain things, it is often better to forget the rules of your own language and to not compare it to the language you are learning. Then, just as you learned your native language as a child, you will be more receptive to the nuances of the language you are learning.
5. Review what you know everyday
Review, review, review. This ties in with the advice above. Saying whatever you notice around you in the language or going over vocabulary and phrases are the best way to do this. Another way is to become invested in media in that language. This could be music, movies or literature. During my freshman year, we read The Little Prince or Le Petit Prince. I felt that I was dreaming the whole time as I was getting the gist but not the significance of the writing. Over the summer, while I was self-studying, I read it again, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that I understood the significance of the book and noticed details I had not before.
6. Like the culture(s) associated with the language you are studying
Choosing a language is not simply based on an interest in speaking it but also learning more about the cultural histories. I love French, but I am not particularly invested in French culture, and so this advice is hard for me to follow. I don’t like French music or movies and so I have to depend on reading entirely because I adore Francophone literature. Liking the culture of the language you are learning is more than helpful. It keeps you well grounded and it helps you to learn the colloquial side of the language; this helps to have more natural interactions with native speakers of the language rather than walking around using textbook phrases. Fortunately, I love Francophone literature and learning about the diverse cultures of Francophone countries. If not, continuing French would have been very hard for me.
7. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes
This was hard for me as well. Just as children aren’t afraid to make mistakes when they’re learning their native language, you need to dive in and can’t be afraid either. As hard as this seems, you have to train yourself this way to finish strong in any language. You have to know that there may be miscommunications and someone may not understand or may be offended, whether it is you or the native speaker. People may laugh or be rude. These are all things you may encounter that I cannot cover up. However, most people are patient and will appreciate it when you are invested in their language and culture. For these people, whether or not you make a mistake, you will be appreciated for making an effort to learn something new.
8. Use what you know
When it comes to speaking and writing, my French professors always taught me to use what I know. Don’t try to be like the author of The Little Prince; you aren’t, and it is very well understood that you’re not. I think as we get older, our pride stands in the way of us learning a new language. I find this especially true now that I am in college. At this stage, we somewhat consider ourselves to be a “master” of our native language or at least we hope we are. When we find that we cannot express everything we want to in another language, we may get frustrated. However, thinking we can masterfully command a language that is not our own is setting the standards too high for ourselves, especially when we have just started learning the language. A lot of people, even when considered fluent in a language, find that they are always learning, just as you may learn a new word when you are 40 years old and wonder why you didn’t know it when you were 20.
9. Find what works for you
Most importantly, find what works for you. I find that strict guidance and in-class experience is better for me. While it is good, total immersion scares me. This happened to me when I started to learn Korean this summer. I logged on to Rosetta Stone all excited and freaked out when they started teaching me with everything written in Hangul (the Korean alphabet) without initially teaching it to me. I found that to optimize my learning experience with Rosetta Stone, I had to learn Hangul first and then go back to Rosetta Stone. Even then, I had to say the alphabet everyday so I wouldn’t forget (while continuously doing Rosetta Stone) and write out the phrases I learned the previous day before continuing a new lesson. I get overwhelmed easily and this process helps me to put everything into perspective. You may find that you don’t like to be bogged down by processes and procedures and avoid what I did completely. Most importantly, go at your own pace; don’t worry about who is learning the language faster. Focus only on your own progress. This advice is essential when you are in a classroom setting. Comparing yourself to others can make you frustrated and give up on your goals.
None of this advice is scientifically proven. This is simply a list I have made taking into account all that I have learned from my failures and the advice of others that has helped me along the way. Enjoy, and if you have any advice on how to learn a new language, share it with me in the comments section!
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