How To Learn A Language

July 31, 2015 10:19 am

learning a languageFor any of those studying languages at degree level, you will understand the long hard slog that’s been necessary to get to this point, and you might still feel that there are mountain ranges standing between you and fluency. Most of the time you might be so dejected it’s just a case of getting through your next class test or learning what’s necessary to pass the upcoming exam rather than focusing on the original reason you probably chose the language in the first place: to actually learn the language.

As with everything in life, there are things that work, things that don’t work quite so well, and many things that are quite frankly just a waste of time. As a German graduate currently working in Germany I hope to share some of what I’ve learned before, during, and after uni, in the hope that (at least some of) you readers avoid the many pitfalls into which I and countless other language students have dived head-first in the past.

The first (and arguably most important) piece of advice I have is to not waste your time with vocabulary lists. It’s tempting during a lecture to write down every single word you don’t know, write it up as a nice neat list with all the translations, and try and learn them off by heart. But it is quite simply just going to drain all your motivation and interest, and waste your valuable time – and I can guarantee that by the same time next week, not one of those carefully learned words will come to mind. Of course, if there are some specific keywords you have to learn for a test, then learn them, but try and use the list as a guide or a starting point. Don’t just read the list, try and make sentences with the words. Write a short paragraph, or speak to yourself or someone else in the TL and incorporate those words. If there’s one thing I’ve learned whilst being out here in Germany is that I’ve been learning copious amounts of vocab just by hearing them and using them in context. Oh how I wish I’d known this during my studies!

The second point I must flag up is reading! Reading reading reading. That sinking feeling that’s oh so common when you are handed 2 pages of A4 at the end of a lecture and told to read it by the next time, or given a book that you have to have read by the end of the summer. How many hours I must have wasted tooth-combing it, underlining EVERY. SINGLE. WORD. I didn’t know and then poring over a dictionary before writing the English translation in pretty colours above said words. Not only did this mean it took me an absolute age to read ANYTHING, but I would often get to the end and wonder what the hell the article/book/story was about anyway. My reading skills were always my weakest, but since landing in the Fatherland I’ve discovered the miracle approach that’s revolutionised the way I read – do away with that dictionary. I understand that this is probably one of the hardest things you could ask a language student to do, but I implore you to try it at least once, and see how you do. Read through the text once and as you go along try and work out what words might mean using context, your prior knowledge of how words and grammar work in the TL, similarities to English words/other languages you might know, and what you can’t work out, just let wash over you. DON’T write them down. DON’T try and remember them. The words and phrases that are most frequent you might find you have a EUREKA moment about halfway through and all of a sudden it’s clear what it means (I’ve had many of these, and they do stick in your head far longer than if you’ve just looked it up, believe me), or you’ll get to the end and still not know. These few words you may look up. Then read it through again. If you’ve followed these guidelines and not cheated, you will probably find that you now understand what the text is trying to say, and you’ve saved yourself bucketloads of time. As an added bonus, you’ve learned vocab and phrases that would never have stuck otherwise, because your brain has decoded them itself.

The third piece of advice has a less specific goal, but is a great complement to those assignments and presentations you HAVE to get done: try and incorporate a little bit of immersion into your life. This doesn’t have to be a lot, but learning a language is about exposing yourself to it. Obviously, the best way to do this is to live in the country, but this opportunity will arise during your year abroad (unfortunately this option wasn’t available for my course, which is why I’m doing it now I’ve graduated), but until then, expose yourself to the TL a  tiny bit every day (even if it’s for 10 minutes). Babies learn their language by hearing it, not poring over grammar tables. You are the same – just imagine yourself as a huge baby. If you are doing a German for Business, watch a German news article about the economy. If you are reading Brecht, watch a German programme about Brecht or watch one of his plays being performed in German. Watch a children’s programme, watch a news article, find a radio station and have it on in the background whilst you are pottering about doing other things. By doing this for 10 minutes a day you’ll pick up far more than you think. There’s no excuse in this day and age – the internet is awash with things to see, you just have to find them. Also, most films are dubbed in other languages and so try and watch a few of your favourite films in the TL every now and then. When I first came here I was always knackered after watching TV, because listening to German for so long was very tiring. However, now I can watch films, soaps, news, comedies etc. etc. with no trouble. I don’t understand everything, but the more I watch the more I pick up. Again, avoid trying to remember every word you don’t understand and looking it up – let the pictures, context etc. guide you.

So that was just a few of what I consider the most important pitfalls to avoid. Unfortunately language-learning is a long, cumulative process, and not something you can ‘learn’ in the same way you do with most other subjects. However, with the right attitude, motivation, and constant practice, it’s also something that’s very rewarding when it’s done right.

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