So, you have decided to learn another language. You want to understand and be able to communicate with people who speak your new target vernacular. You are excited to experience a whole new world of books, articles, podcasts, music, shows, and movies. You are full of passion, motivation, and optimism.
How do you learn another language? What are the best practices for language acquisition? Are some learning methods and practices better than others? In this article, we will discuss five techniques to help you start off on the right foot, so you can start speaking more and understanding more in your target language as soon as possible.
Let's take a look.
1. Listen to and read in your target language regularly
This one seems obvious, but there are some language learners who simply don't get enough target language input. They get frustrated when they can't speak--despite not spending adequate time receiving their target language. If you want to boost your long-term comprehension and your passive vocabulary, there is nothing more important than regular input. Does this mean you can improve your language skills by watching movies, listening to podcasts and music, and reading books and articles in your target language? Yes! Of course, you will not understand everything--that would be unrealistic--but that's okay. You are still absorbing and getting exposure to the language.
What is the benefit of regular immersion? In a nutshell, it allows you to start recognizing grammatical patterns, common words and phrases, and, in the case of listening, the intonation and pronunciation of your target language. All of this will help you to develop your passive vocabulary, and, if you are using authentic materials, it will help you to get in touch with some of the cultural aspects of your target language as well. Oh, and if you find the materials you are using to be too difficult, try something else that's closer to your level. Just remember that you shouldn't expect to understand everything, and that total comprehension is not the goal of immersion: passive acquisition is. Over time, you will understand more and be able to produce more.
2. Read out loud
Even if you're alone, the act of hearing your target language coming out of your mouth is a powerful thing. You can't strengthen your muscles if you don't exercise them, and you can't improve your speaking if you never speak.
If you can find websites that have both an audio and text component, such as the one you're listening to and/or reading right now, you can hear how words are pronounced and how the language flows. You can listen, pause, and then re-read lines, sentences, and paragraphs on your own. Once you reach a higher level of fluency and proficiency, you probably won't need to listen and read at the same time. At that point, just pick books and articles that are interesting to you, and read them out loud on your own. Reading out loud and becoming closely acquainted with the structure and sound of a language is especially useful if you do not have a speaking partner.
"But Alex, I feel weird when I'm reading out loud by myself." Get out of your comfort zone and try to get used to it.
This leads perfectly into our third technique.
3. Listen and mimic
Allow me to repeat that: Listen and mimic. A lot. This takes us back to immersion. In the case of listening, you should listen to podcasts, movies, videos, and TV shows in your target language. Pause and repeat what people say and how they say it. Listen to music you like, learn the lyrics, and sing with all your heart! These days, you can find the words to almost any song in the world for free on the internet. Why not take advantage of that?
In regard to mimicking speaking, maybe you like the sound of someone's voice, or you want to acquire a particular regional accent. Find someone whom you understand and whom you can use as a role model for your own speech. Copy their pronunciation and intonation to the best of your ability. In the end, the way you speak probably won't be exactly the same as the person you're mimicking, but you will still have a solid base to build your own speaking skills by developing your awareness and usage of word stress, pronunciation, and sentence intonation--in short, the feel of the language.
4. Don't just learn words--Learn sentences
Memorizing verb charts may help you learn vocabulary, but it won't necessarily help you speak and write. "Spoke is the past of speak." Yes, and? A sentence like "I spoke to my brother this morning" is much more useful.
Of course, you should know how to pronounce a word and have an idea of what it means, but language without context is cold language. A single word or phrase is like a puzzle piece without its adjoining parts. So, put the word into a context you will remember. If you're someone who likes using flash cards, or if you have a vocabulary notebook, don't review words--review sentences you would actually use in a given context. Are you an English learner trying to learn some collocations with the word "go"? Instead of saying "It's 'go home,' not 'go to home,'" create a sentence like "I'm going home right after work." Put the puzzle pieces together so you can start seeing the big picture.
5. Write what you hear, then write some more
Language has two main skill types: receptive skills (reading and listening), and productive skills (writing and speaking). So far on this list, we have talked about activating speaking skills, listening skills, and reading skills, but we haven't talked much about writing skills. In a world where we spend as much (or more) time texting, emailing, and messaging as we do speaking, writing is essential. So, how can you improve your writing skills?
I know that dictation sounds like an old-fashioned method, but when it's done methodically, it can be very beneficial. Listening to something and writing what you hear--whether with a pencil, pen, or keyboard--allows you to practice spelling, model different writing forms and grammatical structures, and above all, maintain your contact with the language. This is most effectively done with a language learning partner who can read a text to you (such as an email, a complaint letter, or a brief article), but it's possible to do it on your own with an audio text and a pause button as well.
Once you are immersed in writing what you hear, you can then continue your own writing. Write about your day in a journal. Write a response to what the dictation was about. Write a short story. Write your present thoughts. Just keep writing, and keep playing with your target language.
Today, there are countless resources to help us learn languages, but because of the amount of choice in front of us, we can still feel like we don't know where or how to start. By reading this article, I hope you feel more informed about the language learning techniques that are available to you, and that you will start using some of them today. In the end, the most important thing you can do to help yourself learn another language is to immerse yourself in it for extended periods of time on a regular basis. You won’t learn to swim well by jumping into the pool for just five minutes per day. So, jump in, get acclimated to the temperature of the water, and start swimming. I wish you much luck and success in your studies.
If this article resonated with you and you want to support my work--and improve your English skills at the same time!--please consider purchasing one of my books. They come in digital and physical formats, and they have received numerous positive reviews from English learners. Start making real progress with real language today. Thank you for your time and continued support. I truly appreciate it.