Have you tried and failed to learn a foreign language? Looking back, can you identify the reasons why you didn’t succeed? Here are seven tricks to ensure you stay on the track to proficiency. It’s time to try, try again!
We can safely assume that you’re reading this article for one of two reasons. Either you’re an avid reader of the Babbel Magazine and never miss a new post, or the title struck a chord with you: when listing your strengths and weaknesses, language learning falls into the latter category (not that you’d admit that publicly).
We could comfort you with those barely comforting words, you can’t be good at everything, but it’s more pertinent to say that you can’t be bad at everything. Using a language implies numerous different skills, from reading and writing to conversing, improvising, and remembering vocabulary. You’ll undoubtedly be better at some of these skills than others, and you certainly won’t be terrible at all of them.
It’s worth taking time to identify your strengths and weaknesses before embarking on a new language. Then it’s a matter of playing to your strengths and reinforcing your weaknesses.
Everyone purports to have a good memory for some things but not for others. Memory normally serves us best for the topics in which we’re most interested. If you’re a huge football fan, you’ll probably be able to remember the entire line-up of your favorite team. If you’re into music in a big way, you can probably indulge in some heartfelt karaoke without looking at the lyrics. But when it comes to grammar rules and irregular verbs, your neurons go on strike and picket your long-term memory. What’s the solution? Create connections between topics that interest you and the language you’re learning. How are you going to use the subjunctive in Spanish to express your desire to see your team avoid relegation? “¡Deseo que mi equipo no baje a la segunda liga!” And how are you going to employ German verbs to translate your favorite Britney Spears song? “Oops!… Ich habe es wieder getan, ich habe mit deinem Herz gespielt, ich habe mich im Spiel verloren…”
Perfect pronunciation isn’t fundamental to communicating in a language, but people will understand you more easily if you can train yourself to avoid the most common pronunciation errors. Just as speakers of English as a second language often possess very particular accents, English natives typically struggle with novel sounds in their learning language; the rolled r at the front of the mouth in Spanish and Italian, or the cheeky umlauts that usurp the German u, for example. Fortunately, there are always tricks to elevate you from pronunciation purgatory to enunciation ecstasy. There are specific tricks for every sound — I picked up the German r by gargling progressively smaller amounts of water while saying trinken — but it’s most important to pay attention to the way native speakers talk, and then imitate them. This may sound absurdly obvious, but many learners focus so much on their own voice that they forget to really listen.
3) Speak, speak and… you guessed it, speak!
Sitting at home and listening to French on your television, computer or smartphone is all very well, but at some point you’ll have to get out there and speak the language. For many, this is both the scariest and the most fulfilling part of learning a new language; that priceless moment when your first self-constructed sentence tumbles awkwardly from your mouth to be met with… comprehension! Get speaking and get familiar with the music of the language. Have you ever noticed how people who speak more than one language seem to have more than one voice? Sometimes they even seem to have a whole different personality. Don’t be afraid of playing with the sounds and intonations of your new language. Imitate the music of Italian, the conspicuous consonants of German, and the gentle lisps of Spanish or Danish.
4) Face your fears
The mind goes blank and one can only focus on the fear itself: Whether it’s flying, heights, spiders or a dark street, the fear response is hardly conducive to complex cognition. Everyone who’s ever learned a language knows the situation: You’re sitting in a circle and everyone’s chatting away animatedly in another language. Suddenly, someone asks you a question and all attention turns to you. You’ve understood the question, but the fear factor has invaded your brain and swept away all the vocabulary you ever learned.
Take a deep breath, remember that empathy exists and everyone in the circle will, assuming they’re capable of basic human decency, afford you the time necessary to collect your thoughts and deliver your response. Recognise also that learning a language is a humbling experience. Learn to laugh at yourself now and again, and you’ll learn even more quickly. Errare humanum est.
5) Apply your skills from other fields
Are you good at math? Programming? Cooking? Craft work? Now’s the time to identify your strengths and apply them to the world of languages. Personalize your learning techniques. For example, if you’re good at math, you may want to focus on grammar. Often you’ll hear the complaint that grammar is so difficult, but it’s nothing compared to even the most basic of equations. What’s more, understanding the grammar will provide you an entire schema into which you can slot new vocabulary. If the very thought of grammar gives you the heebie-jeebies, there are other methods you can adopt and adapt. In possession of an excellent spatial memory? Attach new vocabulary to familiar environments. More in favor of learning by doing? Write out your shopping list in your learning language, head to the supermarket, and follow your foreign language recipe. Verbalize the steps as you execute them, and then regale your dinner table audience with the process you went through to prepare the delicious meal in front of them.
6) Read and understand, and concentrate!
We often read in something of a haze, flitting between thoughts and external stimuli, returning to the book to reread the passage. This is, perhaps, one of the joys of reading. It’s relaxing. You can disconnect and let your mind wander while your body remains motionless. When you read in a foreign language, however, it takes much more effort. If you read a Spanish novel in bed, you’ll probably find it especially taxing in the morning and detrimental to staying awake in the evening. When starting out, it’s important to set aside some quiet time — free of distractions and at a time of day when you’re alert — to read. Select a topic which interests you, or an author you like, and read.
7) Don’t fret!
There’s no need to impose pressure upon yourself, nor rush toward unreachable goals. Accept from the beginning that you’re in it for the long haul, and organize your learning so that it can become as integrated into your daily routine as doing your hair when you wake up and brushing your teeth before you go to bed. Be sure to recognise and reward your progress, and you’ll soon see what you thought was impossible becoming possible.
Remember: speaking a language badly is the first step to speaking it well.