If you’re reading my blog, you must have noticed that I am not posting “how to” and “tips and tricks” type of articles often. Yet recently, trying to advance my French skills, I’ve come to read a lot of such articles on learning new languages. Some of the articles were truly insightful but most of them were worthless. So, being pissed by the lousy advice and being almost fluent in five languages, I decided that I might be entitled to share the few tips that I have developed throughout the time and that never failed.
Most of the popular “tips and tricks” articles tend to diminish the role of grammar. They emphasize the efficiency of learning like kids acquire their first languages (e.g. through listening to natives and communicating in the target language overlooking the mistakes, etc.). Of course, incorporating the new language in one’s routine is of utmost importance, however, adult learners can advance their language skills much more rapidly by taking advantage of their ability to understand grammatical structures/principles. Not to go deep into neuroscience and developmental psychology, our brain digests information by categorizing. Have you noticed how kids learn? Let’s say a kid sees a dog for the first time. He/She wants to know what it is and you tell him/her that it is a dog. The next time the kid sees any four-legged animal, he/she categorizes it as a dog until you explain him/her that this one is another animal. Then, realizing that not all four-legged animals are dogs, the kid updates his/her “category folder”. The same principles work for language learning. Grammar, in essence, is a categorization. Thus, having the ready-to-fill frameworks in our brain, we can remember enormous chunks of new information much easily.
Learn phrases, not words.
One can find a bunch of books that include lists of words that are either grouped thematically, alphabetically, or in some other way. At the end of each chapter there are a bunch of exercises that makes one utilize the newly learned words to remember better. This is great, but when one tries to use these words when communicating, either the right words do not come to one’s mind, or they come but fail to fit within the context. On the other hand, learning phrases, one automatically recalls the rightly structured, to-the point phrases when an occasion arises. Moreover, learning phrases one also understand the underlying grammatical structures much better. It’s a great way to taste the language and start to experiment with it.
Make connections between the languages you know and the ones you learn.
I used to think that the more languages one learns, the higher the chances of mixing up the languages. How badly I was mistaken! Sure, if one tries to learn two languages simulteniously, difficulties may arise as our brain experiences a flow of new information. However, when we already have certain level of proficiency in one language, learning the second we merely adjust already existing grammatical structures and categorizations to the new language. The key is to not to concentrate on the similarities alone. Instead, one should try to categorize based on both similarities and differences. Every time you learn a new word, or a grammatical nuance try to compare it with the other languages you know: draw parallels and make categorizations. This will help memorize things much better as well us understand the concepts deeply.
Think in the language you are learning.
When we learn a new language our primary goal is to be able to communicate in the chosen language. This communication should not be limited to the external world. The best way of possessing deep knowledge in a language is trying to communicate in that language with ourselves. In case you are interested in mindfulness and meditation, this is also a great way of meditating and feeling present. Our mind is constantly busy with random thoughts. We always carry on having these enlightening, or, frequently, intimidating dialogues with ourselves. So, the next time you are talking to yourself, try to express it in the new language. Whenever, you feel incapable of finding a specific word or expression, just grab your dictionary, or Google it. You might feel reluctant at first but you will be fascinated how helpful and efficient it can be.
Practice. Practice. Practice!
Well, this one is cliched but the reason I am mentioning is that it is absolutely crucial. However, not every practice is effective. One can spend hours practicing the new language yet see no improvements. What’s essential is to practice actively and deliberately. Doing mechanical grammar or vocabulary exercises is not the kind of practice that one needs: it’s a waste of time, a source of exhaustion and a burial of motivation. On the other hand, active engagement with language and culture is highly effective, motivating and fun. Do you want to play a game? Play it in the language you practice. Are you looking for some motivating quotes? Search in your target language. Are you struggling to tame your mind, or are you just bored waiting around? Try to translate your thoughts into the new language. Do you feel like participating in forum discussions? Choose the ones in the your target language. Remember, at the end of the day, it’s not about hard work, it’s about smart work but practice does matter!
To sum up, although there is no advice that works for everyone, when it comes to learning languages, simple and easy techniques can help anyone maximize the results minimizing the efforts.