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  • Writer's pictureTanya Mackenzie

Five Tips For Learning a New Language

Hi there. I am a former English teacher/tutor and a language enthusiast! I am a native English speaker, but also speak Russian and Japanese, with an interest in several other languages (because apparently I can't concentrate on one thing at a time). I assume you're here because you're interested in learning a new language but are either not quite sure where to start, or are struggling to grasp it for reasons as yet unknown. I am here to help. So let's start off with a little confidence boost, and the most important advice I have. If you read any of this article, make it...

  1. Make mistakes.

Learning a language takes time. Don't beat yourself up or rush it. Trust me, if it's been a year and you still don't get it, that is normal. It will take a long time for you to really wrap your head around a completely new language, unless you're a prodigy of some sort. It can be easy to feel disheartened when you speak with or hear of people who speak three languages by the age of ten, but they have had different experiences and opportunities from you. If you've never had the experience of seriously learning a new language before now, it is completely natural for it to seem overwhelming, and for you to be 'bad' at it at first. Don't compare yourself to others who learned several languages while growing up already. The main thing is that you're trying.

Also very important is the fact that YOU WILL MAKE MISTAKES! This is not only normal, but beneficial. I have in fact found that when I am speaking/writing in an unfamiliar language and someone corrects a mistake, I am more likely to remember that rule/grammar/vocabulary than if I were just reading it in a book. If you were talking to a foreign person, you wouldn't make fun of their English or think badly of them (because they are trying their best and already know at least one other language, which is actually quite impressive), so the person you are talking to in their language is also not going to make fun of you! If they do, they're just a jerk anyway, so best not talk to them anymore.

This leads into the next point...

2. You NEED to use the language. (Even if you're alone.)

On the subject of mistakes being a natural part of the language learning process, overcoming your shyness/embarrassment of speaking is very important. It is normal to feel this way, but if you don't overcome it at some point you will definitely regret it and learning the language will take A LOT longer.

There is a distinction between language 'accuracy' and 'fluency', and generally in the teaching world we now encourage fluency more. You can pick up accuracy along the way, and it will come to you faster this way. Basically, accuracy is the perfection of grammar, vocabulary and so on. Fluency is just the ability to use the language (with relative confidence). My best students have been those with good fluency rather than accuracy. Those with accuracy make few mistakes, but the conversation does not flow, is not interesting, and takes a very long time. Those with fluency usually improve faster because they are getting in more practice (and are more likely to make friends with the natives).

I would encourage anyone learning a new language to attend language exchanges and try to make friends with native speakers. The best way to learn a language is to speak with real people. Online exchanges are also available.

However, when not talking to actual people, I would still recommend using the language as much as possible. This sounds silly, but the thing which has helped me the most is just talking to myself/my cat/my dog/my furniture. I know, weird. But it does work. When you think of/say something, consider how to translate it into the language you are learning. For example, "hello cat, how are you today?" or "I am going to brush my teeth now" etc. Eventually, the language will feel more natural to use and it will reinforce things in your mind which you have already learned.

3. Vocabulary on doors.

This is a tip which many people already know, so I will be brief. Sticking vocabulary cards on doors is good, not only because you will look at them every time you open a door, but writing them out yourself will also help you to get the word into your brain. What I would add to this though, is that you need to force yourself to read the words each time you go through the door, as it is easy to just ignore them. You won't regret it. I would also emphasise the fact that you should ideally stick to just vocabulary, not in depth grammatical points, as these take a lot longer to read and you are more likely to just...not.

4. Grammar counts.

This point may seem to go against my opinion on fluency vs accuracy, but I did want to just explain that 'fluency' does not mean a complete lack of appraciation for all 'accuracy'. Grammar is very important too.

Of course, most people know this, but hear me out. I have observed people 'learning' a language on programmes or apps where the learning experience is more like a game. This is a good thing in a way, in that it's fun and encouraging, but also it is easy to just learn the 'system' or set phrases, but not actually LEARN the language fully. It will certainly give you a good idea of the language but not necessarily an UNDERSTANDING of how the language works. It will be very difficult, I believe, to fully learn a language without understanding why it works and what the 'rules' are. When you are reading certain sentences in these games or apps, make sure that you take the time to think about, for instance, why does this word ending change? Is it because the subject in this sentence is female? etc. You will start to see patterns and this will give you a better grasp of and ability to use the language yourself, rather than just listening and/or repeating set phrases.

5. Remember remember.

Last but not least, how to remember the vocabulary/grammar/phrases that you have now learnt. My personal favourite (and I know it to have worked for many people) is to create your own rhymes/phrases/jokes to help you remember. And the great thing is, you don't have to tell anyone how you are remembering it! It can be as silly and as rude as you like. The funnier, the better, because it will help you remember. It may also make learning more fun! I have some examples of how I've learned Japanese words and phrases, but I won't share them here. They're too rude.

Thank you for reading. I hope this helps you, or at least gives you a little confidence boost. If you have any of your own tips or tricks you would like to share, please leave a comment down below and help someone out.

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