5 tips for learning a language

I think that language learning = 1/3 motivation + 1/3 hard work + 1/3 smart work.  Many people are not successful because they have two out of three of these things.  Motivation and hard work are important, but they are partially wasted if you are not following an effective learning method.  Smart work and hard work are important, but they are partially wasted if you do not actually love the language.  In this article I give 5 tips for learning a language: (i) set realistic goals, (ii) have the right motivation, (iii) find native speakers, (iv) don’t rely on books and (v) turn input into output.

1. Set realistic goals

You should set realistic goals; that is, goals that you think you can achieve.  Remember that there are no right or wrong goals for language learning.  If you do not have much time, do not lose motivation by asking too much of yourself.  Basic skills will suffice in this case.  The gap between beginner and intermediate is smaller than the gap between intermediate and advanced.  This means that you will only ever reach an advanced level if you have lots of time as well as the opportunity to engage with native speakers.

If you have lots of free time (and the intrinsic motivation to make the best of it) you should aim for fluency.  The term fluency is an umbrella term that denotes a range of linguistic abilities.  In general, though, a fluent language user can maintain a conversation without any long pauses.  He or she is also able to understand most written and spoken material.  Remember: you do not know every single word in your native language.  Moreover, you get tongue-tied when you are tired and stressed.  It is impossible for a non-native speaker to have a perfect command of a 2nd-language.

2. Have the right motivation

It is not enough to be motivated; you need the right form of motivation.  There are two types: (i) extrinsic and (ii) intrinsic.  Extrinsic motivation comes from other people (e.g. parents and teachers) or from external pressures (e.g. money).  If you are extrinsically motivated, you may understand that learning a foreign language is important for your exams or for your job prospects.  But you would probably not choose to learn the foreign language in an ideal world.  You may even treat your language learning as a chore that you grow to resent.

Intrinsic motivation is a purer form of motivation, because it has its roots in personal goals and ambitions.  If you are intrinsically motivated, you will learn a foreign language as a hobby and there are not necessarily any financial incentives.   Language learners who are intrinsically motivated tend to do better than those who are extrinsically motivated.  If you have to learn a foreign language for your job, try to build your intrinsic motivation by taking an interest in the culture that surrounds your foreign language.

3. Find native speakers

Perhaps you are lucky enough to be learning a foreign language in an immersive environment.  In most cases, though, you need to actively seek out native speakers (or at least fellow language learners) to communicate with.  A native speaker will help you to maintain your level of motivation.  He or she will also help you with aspects of language learning that are difficult to learn from books, such as pronunciation and intonation.

It is now easier than ever to connect with native speakers.  If you are a student, your university may offer study abroad options.  Or, your university may offer a Languages For All program, where you can study with a native tutor.  If you are not a student, you can still consider social networking options.  There are a number of social networking sites that are marketed exclusively at language learners.  Simply state your native language along with the language you wish to learn, and the website will suggest suitable language buddies for you.

4. Don’t rely on books

A good language learning book is a real asset.  It organizes a lot of relevant information into manageable chunks and it suggests which language points you should tackle and when.  This does not mean, however, that you should only rely on books.  The problem with (at least some) language books is that they contain too much information and the jump between the chapters is too great.  By the end of the book, you may be able to read all of the dialogues in the target language, but you may be surprised at how little you can actually say.

You should use books, but only alongside other resources.  Start with short YouTube videos that have bursts of subtitled dialogue.  And remember: there is no reason why you should not have fun while you learn a language.  Learn the lyrics to your favourite foreign language songs.  Or re-watch all of your favourite movies with the foreign language subtitles turned on.  These fun methods of language learning will take more time (the amount of new language per song is low).  But the positive associations you will build with the foreign language will set you up for future success.

5. Turn input into output

It is difficult to learn a foreign language successfully at school; it is even more difficult to retain what you learn after leaving school.  The fault lies not with the language learner, but rather with the mode of instruction.  Classroom-based language learning often puts too much emphasis on input at the expense of output.  Input refers to language that we respond to; output refers to the language we produce.  It is very important when learning a foreign language to balance the two.

This means that, when you respond to input, you should seize every opportunity to turn that input into output.  In other words, understanding language (spoken or written) is only the first step.  Your practice session is only complete once you produce your own language.  Don’t just read a language book; write out example sentences based on the dialogues.  Don’t just watch a YouTube clip; record yourself speaking the dialogue.  And don’t just watch a subtitled movie; repeat the lines until you get the pronunciation and intonation just right.


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