Learning a Foreign Language? 10 Steps Guaranteed to Step Up Your Game
Learning a foreign language could be the challenge of your life. It requires focus, consistency, discipline, courage to put yourself out there and expose yourself to the target language. But what happens when you seem to have hit a plateau?
What do you do when new words just seem to have stopped getting in?
What to do when laziness takes over and you just want to close the books on everything (literally and figuratively)?
Hopefully, these tips will help you overcome the feeling of overwhelm and insecurity that often comes with adventuring yourself into new language territory.
10. One Word - Facilitate.
What do former President Barack Obama and co-founder of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg have in common? They regularly wear the same outfits.
This might sound awkward or absurd at first, but think about it - how much energy per day do you spend on small decisions, such as what you should wear that day, what type of yoghurt to buy, what book to read first, or what emoji is more appropriate for a particular text message?
Even if we are extremely passionate about the language(s) we are learning, we are still people. People are likely to feel overwhelmed. We are also likely to create excuses, complicate things, feel lazy and postpone what is in our best interest!
This is why, in language learning and in life, you would do well to plan ahead and set yourself up for success by preparing small, apparently meaningless things beforehand. Avoid decision fatigue. If there is one rule language learners should follow, it is this - simplify!
For example, let's say you are studying German (you aren't? Here's why you should!). Start by deciding what unit or topic you will focus on tomorrow, and write it down. If you work with a manual, leave the book open on the right page (or at least extremely visible on your desk), or go to your favorite practice website and leave that window open for when you wake up.
Imagine just how easy your morning will be - you just have to sit and practice, rather than wasting 2 to 5 minutes of precious time you could be using to improve your language to organize your desk instead!
9. Write Five Sentences a Day.
Language learners usually dread two things: having to speak in front of others and having to write.
The first because we are often insecure; the second, because we get easily bored, think it won't be that useful or feel overwhelmed at the thought of having to write a full essay in a language we haven't mastered yet. After all, we just want to conquer a new language, speak fluently and get compliments for how awesome we are at speaking it (hihi)!
The problem is that most people see writing as an end, not a means of achieving something else.
Writing has long been seen as a life-saving way to help us memorize important things. However, even above that, is the crucial aspect that in order to speak a language fluently, you need to move as quickly as possible from imitating others to creating your own content.
Writing 5 sentences a day in your target language is not time-consuming, and will gradually help you break that barrier and move from imitation to creativity.
It is a simple gesture that starts becoming intuitive with time - it is not as scary or overwhelming as the thought of writing an actual essay, but as 5 sentences start becoming a piece of cake, you will be able to start writing 10, and even eventually 20 with the same ease.
8. Watching Movies? You're Doing It Wrong.
Have you ever tried watching a movie in your target language (say, Mandarin) and felt completely lost and overwhelmed?
Have you ever felt tricked into thinking this was a fantastic way to learn languages, only to end up feeling like it was a waste of time?
After all, whose idea was this? Watching a movie in another language is not going to help you achieve anything, unless you already know plenty. In the end, it is a frustrating experience, showing you just how much you don't know yet!
And you are right to feel this way.
It is a common mistake to watch new movies or movies you barely know in your target language. This causes frustration and overwhelm, because you cannot understand the story and feel lost in both language and plot.
The strategy you could go for instead?
Start with movies you have seen several times already. If possible, start with animation movies, because they are simple to follow and language is generally more informal. If you choose a movie you have already watched multiple times and love no matter what, you will be able to predict what the characters are going to say, so this time you are focused mostly on the language, not on following a storyline.
If possible, take some notes during the movie and pause when you find an interesting expression you are likely to use regularly, such as "Cool!", "Where is it?", "Whatever" or "Let's go".
7. Create Your Own Language Bubble.
There is a reason people keep saying moving abroad is the best way to learn your target language.
In an ideal setting, you would have to be forced to look at/hear the language you are learning pretty much constantly. This would send your brain the message that it needs to keep up with its surroundings, and that learning this language is a must rather than an option.
The idea is to create a similar environment without moving. Since most of us cannot afford to move abroad for each language we are interested in learning, there are some simple strategies you can experiment with to achieve your goal.
The first step is [listening to music](http://scienceblogs.com/cognitivedaily/2008/06/19/does-music-help-us-learn-langu/) in your target language every single day. Sounds obvious, but you would be surprised at how many people say they get it, but just don't apply it.
Even if you enjoy listening to music in your native language or other languages, this does not have to be a replacement - just define that in one particular part of your day (for example, on your way to the gym, on your way to pick up your children, on your way home) you will listen to music in your target language only. The rest of the day, it's up to you, but remember - more exposure leads to faster learning.
Step two? Try spreading some objects around your house that constantly provide mental cues to bulletproof your brain for learning your target language.
Let's say you are learning Russian. Have a book in Russian on your nightstand, a magazine in Russian on your kitchen table (it should be one of the first things you see in the morning when you're preparing breakfast), and add your favorite news source in Russian as a bookmark on your browser.
Try going through the pages of the magazine or opening the bookmark daily to check the latest news. Your goal is to start feeling this as a natural, casual gesture, rather than a "language learning thing you have to do".
6. Discover How Practical It Is to Be Imperfect.
Too often language learners will damage their fluency and quality of interaction for the sake of being perfect.
Perhaps they don't even realize it rationally, but once you confront them on why they struggle, the answer will be "I'm just too afraid of making mistakes. I always sound stupid when I talk".
Now that is the sound of a mix of insecurity and perfectionism talking.
There is a simple rule of nature. The more an event happens, the most likely it is to fail.
You can't fail an exam unless you actually decide to take it. You can't go through a breakup unless you start dating. And the more you do these things, the more likely you are to succeed...but also to fail in general. Having said that, the more you talk, the more likely you are to make mistakes.
So, should you just stop talking and quit language learning once and for all? No way!
Think about it. Nobody expects your communication to be perfect - only effective. Even native speakers make mistakes and are not sure why grammar works the way it works. Even native speakers sometimes have questions about whether to use one word over another. Always keep your eye on the big picture - you are learning a new tool for your own benefit (a new language), and one or two moments of awkward silences or having to correct yourself should not stop you from becoming a better version of yourself.
5. Find Alternative Ways of Saying the Same Thing.
So you got over your perfectionism and finally decided it's time to start talking...
...but you still can't.
This time, the problem is something along the lines of "I want to explain something a bit more complex, and that's when I start translating things from my own mother language or forget words and end up getting stuck".
Hello awkward silence, my old friend!
This usually happens with elementary to intermediate language learners who are still adjusting to the language and throwing themselves out there. Advice? Keep it simple!
Yes, yes, it is not a very satisfactory proposal, but you'll need it as a part of your plan B.
Consider this example. You want to explain how "the other day, I developed a serious case of tonsillitis and after hours of agony, I decided to call my mother-in-law to pick me up and take me to the hospital". You end up getting stuck, because you do not know/remember how to say certain words in your new language. Well...as a last resort, this same idea could be simply turned into "The other day, I was very sick. I went to the hospital."
It is a part of human nature to want to explain complex thoughts, stories and opinions, and of course you will get there too. But if fluency is a problem for now, try this tip and think of ways you could try to convey the same idea with a couple of words you already know!
4. Watch What Natives Watch.
This goes for intermediate to advanced learners who need a challenge.
Rather than sticking to language manuals, apps, YouTube channels that teach your target language or reading short stories for non-native speakers, dare to start watching TV shows and movies that were not created with language learners in mind, and challenge yourself to read your first book in your target language this year.
A good way to start is following YouTube channels in your target language that are not related to language learning, such as beauty and lifestyle, fitness, gaming, comedy or travel channels!
Indeed, just like creating your own content is a logical next step after imitating others for some time, watching content that is meant for native speakers is also challenging but the best upgrade you could get.
3. Read (and Reply to) Comments on YouTube.
There are several advantages to using YouTube for language learning, but the language learning benefits could go beyond the video itself. That's it - start scrolling down!
Reading YouTube comments in a different language is a practical, quick way to understand how people write and interact on the web in your target language.
You will learn some slang, common expressions, and how to give your opinion about the video at hand, whether it be a song, a tutorial or political commentary. More often than not, you will realize people tend to express similar ideas across the world, especially now that memes are a thing. This will make it even easier for you to draw a parallel between your own language and the new one.
Choose simple videos, such as makeup tutorials or popular music hits to get simpler comments, and choose advanced topics - such as politics, culture or history documentaries - to find more developed discussions.
And don't forget to participate and reply! It is a cost-free way to practice your writing skills and reading skills simultaneously.
2. Read Your First Classic.
Reading a book in a new language can feel overwhelming and, at times, impossible. However, if you pick the right strategy for your level and skills, you could start flirting with the thought of reading your first classic in your target language!
If you find yourself at an intermediate or advanced level, you can either start by choosing a book you've already read in your native language or start reading one from scratch. Do not focus too much on understanding each and every single word, but do try to understand the main idea for at least 3 pages in a row. Underline all words you see for the first time or don't remember. Once that's done, check the words you couldn't understand in a dictionary and note them down. Keep this up for as long as you can.
Even if you are at a basic stage of your language learning, you can purchase a book in your target language and start translating only the index and the main titles, or the first sentences in a chapter. This is a simple way to start getting used to the language, the "feel" of the book and what you should expect from the story.
Perhaps more importantly, if you haven't reached fluency yet, you should see this method as another tool for language learning. Do not convince yourself that you are in for an effortless reading session, or that you will find the deeper meaning behind what you are reading. This will come later. For now, focus on getting the big picture to avoid disappointment, burnout or overwhelm.
1. Tell Your Story, and Your Story Only.
Speaking of overwhelm, do you still remember that massive list of Spanish verbs you tried memorizing some weeks ago?
Or that massive list of French adverbs?
Or that massive list of useful Russian adjectives?
Of course not. Because massive lists don't work for most people.
Most people will learn a language from scratch, starting with basic verbs, greetings, basic adjectives, and talking about family. This is useful and necessary, but do watch out for the moment when the thought comes: "When will I ever use this in real life?!"
From the beginning of your study, try filtring information and content by focusing on what is more important to you and your particular context. This will help you fight overwhelm when learning a new language. Customize your language learning experience to fit your needs only.
- What nouns and verbs you would need if you wanted to tell somebody your story in 10 minutes?
- What places have you been to?
- Who do you live with?
- Can you briefly talk about your own family?
- What jobs have you had, or what have you studied?
- Were there any major events that shaped who you are, such as a marriage, a divorce, the birth of a child or a loss? What are two or three dreams for your future? Brainstorm ideas that would be very important for you to express, and start from there.
- Decide what your goal is with the language: do you want to use it professionally? Learn vocabulary related to your field. Do you want to study in a particular country? Learn the regional accent, vocabulary and university-related lingo. Do you just plan on socializing or are learning the language because of a relationship? Focus on talking about yourself, your feelings and personal tastes.
This will guarantee you start using language as a tool to serve you, rather than getting lost in multiple pages of words you will almost never use.
Learning a language is synonym with consistency, immersion and customization. A very important part of becoming fluent in any language is making your own life easier with small gestures and everyday habits! These steps should help you achieve just that. Try applying them and let us know how that went on Speechling's Twitter, Linkedin, or Facebook profiles!