Learning a new language can be on of the most difficult yet rewarding things one can do with their time. If done correctly, one will fail numerous times, be able to express themselves in unique ways and have easier access to a new culture. Currently Language-learning has been quite the rage, with services such as Rosetta Stone and Rocket languages selling like hotcakes and blogs such as fluentin3months having massive success. New services, such as duolingo and italki are changing the landscape of language learning business and making language learning ridiculously cheaper, and more accessible to everyone. I’ve undertaken learning 3 different languages, with varying success in each, but with each subsequent one being much easier to learn. I’ve tried to see how fast the human mind can learn a new language, especially ones that are radically different from ones native tongue. Currently I’ve learned a good amount of Japanese, Chinese and German, with my Japanese and German being significantly better than Chinese, but still not good enough to be able to have effortless conversations, which means I must keep pressing on.
I’ve found learning languages to be a very dynamic process. Each language has its own way of expressing itself, Some are very clear, cut and use short, direct words, as I have found to be the case with Chinese. Others are more vague, longwinded, or emphasize particular things, such as Japanese having a verb ending that signals the completion of something. Regardless, learning a new language will definitely bestow you with a new way of looking at the world. Here I want to share 4 things to keep in mind that have radically helped me when learning languages.
1. Spend sometime understanding the aspects of the language you are about to learn. Specifically try to focus on sentence structure and how meaning is added to the sentence. For example, German is very similar to English, it is subject-verb-object (sometimes its gets mumbled up, but for the most part it is), is preposition heavy and is written in the same scripture, which makes it significantly easier to learn than say Japanese or Chinese. But German is also high agglunative, which means it building meaning by joining words together. German also has an emphasis on cases and gender that is not present in English.
This might seem obvious, but it is very rarely done. Before you embark on the journey of learning a language and learning detailed grammar rules for a specific cases focus on things such as how nouns relate in the sentence, where conjugation happens, and how important is it. A good exercise is usually to get sentences with varying structure and translate them into your target language, something tim ferris suggests in the 4-hour-chef. Exercises like this allow you to find the pattern that will most likely hold true in 80%+ of all sentences. This is makes for a very solid foundation that would otherwise take weeks if one were just frantically reviewing, and learning step by step, instead focus on what the majority of sentences look like, dissect the key elements, and apply them.
2. Find and use a handful of excellent resources at a time; get involved in online communities. The most important thing to keep in mind when one is beginning to learn a language is to find high-quality resources. Find online communities for your target language by googling something like “learn german forum” and see what people are saying, which books their recommending etc. Another good way to find solid resources is to go on Amazon see which books in your target language have good reviews/sales. When I started learning my first foreign language, Japanese, I bought 4-5 books on Japanese, enrolled in two podcasts, had various decks in my flash card program, ranging from beginner to advanced, and used 4 different websites. This was a HORRIBLE idea. Not only was grammar, and vocabulary introduced at different times in each book, but managing progress was very hard, with notes in one book, flash cards, on my computer, and trying to juggle which activity I should do next.
Instead, Find a solid book or two, get a translation/dictionary app for your phone, and get anki/flashcards. Then find one website, maybe two, where you can go on and track progress. For German for example I currently use duolingo as my website, a generic dictionary on my phone, anki on both my phone and computer. For books I use German Demystified and German Made Simple. For progress management I use Italki and post new notebook entries as often as I can. If you want to go all out, you can even use audio courses for when you are on the go.
3. Focus on sentences not words. I am still incredibly confused whenever I see people focusing on individual words. Studying individual words can be acceptable maybe past the intermediate state, but even then it is weak. Think about English, how much more likely are you to remember the meaning and use of a word if you read 1-3 sentences with the word? Same goes for learning foreign languages. Try to focus on sentences as soon as you can, and most of all patterns between words. I usually keep a notebook and I am constantly making connections and writing down repeated sentence structures in order to get myself thinking in the target language. For this I recommend tatoeba, its a website where you can enter a word and can back and assortment of sentences with that word, Take your time and copy paste at least 2 sentences with your word into a spreadsheet or a flashcard program. At first you will think you are learning less because you don’t know the same amount of words, but remember we aren’t playing cram words here, we are playing understand a new language, and a language is more than words.
4. Speak the target language. When I started self-learning Japanese I made solid progress very fast. It was my first language, I had no idea what to do or what to focus on. Slowly I started weeding out bad resources like in number 2, understanding how the language worked like in 1. Then after months of cramming words, I began to focus more on sentences and finally saw some solid progress, but I had yet to speak the language to anyone. I tested out of beginner Japanese in my college, solely based on what I had self studied. My writing and reading was as good as any other, and my vocabulary included very specific things such as political entities and the names of various vegetables and animals. But when it came time to speak, I couldn’t, I would do it incredibly slow and make numerous mistakes, but on paper my mistakes were seldom and usually only with new content.
Don’t make the mistake many do of cramming textbooks and flashcards and not speaking the target language. In the end, if your goal is to be able to converse with local, speaking must be done, and logically no amount of not speaking is going to make your better at speaking. Find a language group or language teacher in your area, Go on Italki and find a language partner or teacher, or best of all take a long stint in a country that speaks your target language.
Learning a language is and investment of time and focus, and as my dad always said, if you are going to do something, might as well do it right.