Learning a new language can be fun and exciting, but it can also be challenging and tedious. What distinguishes those people who persevere through the challenge to proficiency from those who give up in frustration and disappointment?
I managed to develop proficiency in Spanish and American Sign Language, and I am currently working on German and Polish. I discovered various tools and methods that make the process more efficient and enjoyable. Here are a few things I learned:
1) Take classes from a local college or language institute. This is especially helpful if this is your first time learning a language. Many of us were not formed well in English grammar. Formal classes take us through basic grammar, and each language functions differently from the rest. Once you learn the basics of one, you will find learning the next language to be a little easier. Classes also provide us with vocabulary lists, practice exercises, and real people who can help us learn. If you don’t live near a college or language institute, consider an online class or private instruction from someone local who already knows the language.
2) SparkCharts, SparkCharts, SparkCharts! This is one of the most valuable resources I found, especially for learning independently and for reaching beyond what formal classes offer. SparkCharts are two-page laminated cards that contain translations of verbs, nouns, adjectives, and adverbs, as well as explanations of grammar rules and even the full list of conjugations and participles for some common verbs. SparkCharts are not available for every language, but if you can find them for the language you are learning, get them! They provide the essential grammar and vocabulary you need to succeed in the language. Compare the SparkCharts website to Amazon.com and Barnes&Noble. The sites sometimes differ in which charts they offer.
3) Use lists that contain the most commonly used words. This sounds like a no-brainer, but it’s not. Here are a few lists to explore: Basic English (850 words), Special English (1500 words), Oxford 3000 (3000 words), and the Academic Word List from Oxford. If you’d rather use a list that contains words that have already been translated into English, explore a few websites until you find a list that looks right for you. Put these words on flashcards or look for an app. Learning vocab is essential for building proficiency.
4) Learn phrases. Learning word lists and grammar is not enough. When you are ready to transition from the intermediate level to an advanced one, you will have to learn phrases if you are going to read and understand conversations. In Spanish, for example, “Estoy en las nubes,” literally means, “I am in the clouds.” In English, however, we typically say, “I am daydreaming.” On rare occasions we might refer to a person as having his “head in the clouds,” but typically we use the word “daydreaming.” Looking up individual words in a dictionary is of little help when those words come together to form a meaning not found in their literal translation. You cannot become proficient without phrases, so at some point, you will have to buckle down and learn them.
5) Get a good tutor. I have used tutors to help me catch up after extended periods of absence from a language, to help me overcome obstacles that arose along the way, and to help me advance beyond what I was getting in the classroom or what I could do on my own. Even just one session with a tutor might be sufficient, depending on your needs. Tutors are more expensive than classes, but I have found that I often get what I pay for. Tutoring is one-on-one and works with you wherever you are with the language. Classes, on the other hand, require you to go at the pace set by the instructor and the students around you. After seeing how much more quickly and thoroughly I can learn a language through tutoring, I now opt for tutoring over classes (if possible). I am currently learning Polish strictly through a tutor. I have never learned a language more efficiently than I am right now. The declension system that I found so hard in a classroom setting for Latin is suddenly a piece of cake to understand with my tutor. A good tutor can take you far.
6) Get a good dictionary. There may be some good dictionaries online, but don’t be afraid to resort to old school paper copies, too. Regardless of the means, you will need a dictionary if you plan to actually use the language in a real life setting. If you read a book or watch a movie in the target language, you will need a dictionary to understand those words that context alone does not explain. If you are unsure about which brand to buy, check the syllabus of a local college offering a class in your language. Professors usually recommend the brand they consider best. Also consider the number of words contained in the dictionary. I wasted some precious dollars before learning that the dictionary with the largest number of words is generally the one I need.
7) Exhaust a source and move onto the next. I have had more classes, instructors, tutors, and resources than I care to count. Each had strengths and weaknesses, from their focus on conversation versus reading to their focus on immersion in the target language versus English. Textbooks and classroom exercises varied just as much. I found that each had something important to offer and, rather than looking for the one best method, I was better off just taking whatever each source had to offer and then moving onto the next. Some instructors and organizations will crown their method as the best; do not be fooled. No method prepares you for everything. Just exhaust a source and then move onto the next.
8) Take charge of what you want to learn. In time, I learned which sources and methods helped me more than others to reach my goals. Everyone learns differently. I suggest focusing on the things that you find most helpful. I have dropped classes and gotten refunds in order to use my time more efficiently. It’s your time and your education. Take charge and persevere.
9) Read and watch movies in the target language. I have found that reading and watching shows in the target language challenges me to develop my skills and keeps me sharp in the target language. Look for a show or book you find enjoyable. After all, learning a language should be fun!
10) Make use of free online resources. Youtube and various websites provide videos, explanations of grammar, practice exercises, translation tools, and much more. Explore the web to see what’s out there for your target language, and add those sites to a language folder on your favorites bar. More importantly, use them.
BONUS tip: Do not quit! The list that I provided above is not exhaustive, but it can get you started in learning a language. You will discover what works best for you and come up with tips of your own. Learning a language can be fun, and if you persevere through the challenges, you will certainly enjoy the reward!
The opinions expressed by the DPS blog authors and those providing comments are theirs alone; they are not necessarily the expressions or beliefs of either the Dead Philosophers Society or Holy Apostles College & Seminary.