I was reluctant about writing this article since I’ve never had formal training on learning/teaching languages. However, I have learned Spanish and French as an adult and at the time of writing this article, I’m learning Portuguese. In this article, I’ll share my methods of language-learning along with some tips and suggestions. If this article helps or motivates a few people to learn a language, I’d be glad.
First of all, you need patience because it takes months or even years to learn a new language. Next, you need dedication and action. Just thinking that you’ll learn a language won’t get you anywhere. Also, don’t compare your progress with that of others because everyone’s unique.
Some people believe that adults are bad at learning languages! I opine that it is untrue. Adult brains are usually more trained and developed and can learn a language faster than brains of children.
It helps a lot if you have a reason for learning the language. For example, learning Russian so that you can date Russian women, or learning Japanese so that you can watch Naruto without English subtitles. Without a proper reason, the human brain often says, “this learning exercise is useless.”
Lastly, accept that the learning process will, in a way, continue for the rest of your life. That's because languages are huge! Also, I've met people who have forgotten languages over a period of 10-15 years due to lack of practice. So, one needs to keep using languages in order to not forget them.
Step 1: Inspiration
Once I’ve chosen a language, I usually start by getting a feel of it. In this phase, I try to convince my brain that it’ll indeed be cool to learn the new language.
- Listen to some beautiful songs in the language. E.g. for Italian, I listened to the famous song Bella Ciao and Volare. The desire to understand and sing these songs motivates me to learn the language.
- Watch nice movies or TV series in the language. E.g. I would love to learn Japanese so that I can watch Ninku and Naruto without subtitles.
- Imagine how cool it would be if you met a native speaker someday and surprised them by fluently speaking their language? Or if you’re looking for a life partner from a different culture, learning their language might help impress them 😉.
If you’re not convinced that learning a language will be of benefit, it will be difficult to remember what you learn! Thus, I consider this stage very important. My brain is already quite convinced, so I usually skip this stage.
Step 2: Planning
If you don’t set measurable, achievable goals, you will not feel satisfied with what you learn. Also, without a practical plan, you’ll simply be preparing yourself for disappointment. Hence, this step is very important.
- Set your objectives: Learning 100% of a language might be impossible, so determine what you want to learn. I usually aim for the ability to do 80% of my day-to-day activities in the target language.
- Create a routine: Put aside some time for learning the language. For example, I had put aside 90 minutes every day for 4 months for learning French.
- Set a deadline: To avoid infinite procrastination, you can set a time limit. For example, I want to learn intermediate Portuguese within the next 12 months. You can sign up for a language test to motivate yourself further.
- Choose a flavour: Some languages have multiple variants, say, Brazilian Portuguese or Portuguese from Portugal. In these cases, you need to choose one of the available options.
- Find an interlocutor: Learning a language is not fun if you never get to speak it. So, you need to find people with whom you can try out what you learn, preferably, native speakers of the language.
Step 3a: Grammar
Thinking of a language, many people imagine themselves having fluent conversations. If they cannot speak well, they feel demotivated. However, one cannot speak unless one knows what they’re saying.
This part is about understanding the language you want to learn and about converting your thoughts into speech. As you learn, relate them to your language and organize the thoughts in your mind as rules.
Knowing the underlying concepts is very helpful instead of just memorizing words and expressions.
Absolute knowledge is beyond human reach, so ignore things that you’ll probably never use. Maybe you can get back to them later when you’ve already mastered the basics.
- Read a brief background/history of the language.
- Choose a base language that is closely related to the language you want to learn.
- For example, while learning Portuguese, I use Spanish as the base language because the grammar is similar.
- Learn the basics of the language, e.g. things that need to be memorized.
- The alphabet: consonants and vowels.
- The number-system.
- Names of days and months, etc.
- Reading time.
- Learn grammatical concepts. You don’t need to know the names of the concepts, but you need to know the concepts, the rules, and the exceptions:
- Nouns and pronouns, i.e. words that refer to someone or something.
- Adjectives, i.e. words that describe someone or something.
- Verbs and adverbs, i.e. words that describe activities (very important).
- Other concepts that don’t fall under the above categories.
- Relate the concepts to a language that you know.
- For example, to introduce myself in Spanish, I’d literally say, “I call myself Jerry” and not “My name is Jerry”.
- Can you count from 1 to 1,000?
- Given one form of a verb, can you guess what the other forms might be?
- Do you understand the gender concepts of the language?
- For example, in Spanish, a door is feminine.
- Given a new word, can you guess its pronunciation?
- Can you (mentally) translate basic day-to-day sentences?
Step 3b: Reading
This part greatly depends on whether the language has an alphabet similar to a language you know. For example, Spanish alphabets are similar to English alphabets, however, Chinese and Arabic have very different alphabets which might take a while to understand and memorize.
The reason I put reading before listening/speaking is because you can take your time with reading. You can also read text aloud to improve your pronunciation. Additionally, if you aim to write, you can learn spellings by reading, alongside formal and informal writing-styles.
- Read small texts on sign-boards, notices, pamphlets, advertisements, etc.
- Read long texts on newspapers, magazines, books, etc.
- I usually start with books containing fairy-tales and poetries for kids.
- Read aloud to practice pronunciation.
- When you’re confident, change your phone’s language.
- Read an interesting news article everyday to expand your vocabulary.
- Read license plates on cars to practice alphabets and numbers.
- Can you understand 90% of what’s written?
- Do you need to read more than once to understand things?
- Can you guess the pronunciation of what you read?
Step 3c: Listening
If you can listen to a conversation and understand over 80% of what’s being said, you can safely say that you understand the language. If you can’t understand others, they’ll probably switch to some other language that you understand – sad, but true.
Listening improves your vocabulary, and more notably the pronunciation and usage patterns of several words and expressions. This will also help you develop your accent in the long term. Remember, babies learn their initial words by listening to their parents!
- Learn as many words as you can, especially, words that you can use.
- If you don’t know a word, you’ll probably not understand it when someone uses it in a conversation.
- Try to relate things to your language, if possible.
- For example, in Spanish, “join a meeting” is “assist a meeting”.
- Use memorization techniques.
- For example, “friend” is “péngyǒu” in Chinese, so you can memorize it as “someone who tries to ping you” on social media?
- The more memories the word generates, the more memorable it is, but memorizing things is a different topic.
- The context usually gives away the meaning of several words and sentences.
- Remember what is being talked about.
- Notice the speaker’s facial-expression and lip movements.
- Listen to the target language on the radio, movies, etc.
- I understand better when I listen with my eyes closed.
- Having closed captions is very helpful.
- If the audio is fast, you can use software to slow it down.
- Feel free to pause and do research on words and expressions.
- Make use of the environment.
- Hang out with native speakers and listen to their conversations.
- Pay attention to public service announcements, commercials, etc.
- Can you understand 80% or more of what you hear?
- If you can’t understand something, can you understand it if it is repeated once more, maybe at a slower speed?
- Can you understand the target language despite background noise?
Step 3d: Speaking
Personally, I never say a sentence unless I understand what each word means. That said, if you don’t know enough of a language, you cannot say much in it. All you can do is imitate and say sentences that you’ve already mugged up.
Speech is merely a vocal expression of one’s thoughts.
Thus, to be able to speak naturally, one must be able to think in that language! Try to have a thought and then make a sentence in your mind to express it in the target language. Once the sentence is ready, pronounce all the words. Fairly simple, isn’t it? Initially, the process will be slow, so you will speak slowly, which is completely fine. Do not concentrate on the speed of your speech because it will eventually increase.
- Reproduce sounds that are unique to the target language.
- For example, the pronunciation of the letter "r" in French and Spanish.
- Our tongues are similar, so we should be able to make the same sounds.
- Concentrate on correct pronunciation.
- Don’t hesitate to ask how words are pronounced.
- Don't be ashamed if you mispronounce something.
- Don't get into the habit of mispronouncing.
- Don‘t assume that you can never be like native speakers. That is not helpful or correct.
- Build sentences and say them aloud.
- Keep your sentences short to make things easy.
- If you don’t know a word, look it up.
- If a sentence gets complicated, cancel it mid-way and start over!
- Once you know something, don't hesitate to use it!
- You have to start somewhere!
- Don’t save it all for the day when you’ll speak fluently.
- Don’t be ashamed or afraid.
- Take your oops moments lightly.
- In Chinese, I once said, “I want to buy a girlfriend” instead of “I want to find a girlfriend”.
- It is natural to make mistakes while learning. When you learnt your main language as a child, you made several mistakes.
- Avoid talking to close-minded, unhelpful people.
- If someone wants to talk, they’ll patiently listen to you.
- Avoid speaking with people who might make fun of you.
- Know your limits and take it slow.
- Stress makes learning difficult.
- Don’t volunteer to do public speaking in the language when you can’t even have a regular conversation 😅.
- Converse with yourself!
- Imagine a scenario and converse as both parties to the conversation.
- Give yourself a job interview or an immigration interview.
- I do this in front of a mirror, while commuting, and while doing dishes.
- Can you introduce yourself in the target language?
- Can you make basic sentences used in day-to-day life?
- Can you express the present, the future, and the past?
- Do people understand what you say?
- If you record your speech and play it back, does it sound natural?
As with anything, learning a language takes time and discipline. The amount of time and the difficulty you'll face will greatly depend on the language or languages you already know and the language that you're trying to learn. In many cases, you might not want to learn to read or write in the new language, which is completely fine. Set your priorities, set a routine, and give it a try! Besides, if you don't start, you'll never finish.
- Read about how I grew up with 4 languages and became a Polyglot.
- Read about how I moved to Montréal.
- Read about how I became a Permanent Resident of Canada.