How To Learn A Language: Five Tips From A Language Expert
With many people considering moving abroad due to the rising cost of living among other factors, searches for keywords around how to learn a language are up almost 22% globally compared to last year. Not speaking the native language can make life harder when visiting or moving to a new country, so financial services provider for immigrants, Remitly, has enlisted the help of Morgane J., a polyglot language expert with a PhD in linguistics.
Written for Expat Network by Remitly
Morgane’s tips and tricks are aimed at anyone looking to learn a language, and cover the things she picked up through learning English, German, Japanese, Afrikaans and Belarusian.
Tip 1: Consume language inputs regularly
Immersing yourself in a culture is a great way to learn a language. Consuming a large amount of input (stimuli that learners take in, such as hearing or reading) is necessary to build a larger vocabulary and to learn grammar implicitly. By regularly exposing yourself to these language inputs, you will learn without feeling like you are studying. This can be through watching TV, videos on YouTube, listening to podcasts, or reading books on topics that you enjoy, that aren’t language guides, to make the process more engaging
Experiencing material exactly at your level of learning or below can help to practice fluency, for example practising reading at a faster speed, or watching TV without subtitles. You can then gradually introduce more advanced materials to help you to learn new words and grammatical nuances, as you gain confidence.
However, if the gap between the level of the material and your own language level is too wide, you will not be able to understand enough content to notice and analyse new words or grammar appropriately, so it’s important to be patient and consistent with your efforts. You can start using more complex resources as your language level increases.
Some learners make the mistake of choosing materials that are too complex for them, especially if they live in the country of their target language where they have access to a lot of books or TV shows aimed at native speakers. Regular TV shows and novels can be too difficult for beginners.
If you are in the initial stages of your language journey, a great tip is to watch cartoons and read graded readers, which are novels or short-story collections written specifically for language learners, to help get the basics before progressing to more advanced materials.
Tip 2: Study grammar, but don’t worry about making mistakes
Learners who focus solely on exposing themselves to stimuli in their target language can often neglect to study grammar, especially at the beginner level, when grammar can actually be incredibly useful in your language journey.
Studying grammar will provide you with a solid foundation to process higher amounts of language stimuli correctly. A lot of studies show that learning a language through input alone (watching TV, reading books etc) is not as effective as they don’t have a baseline understanding of grammar and can find it difficult to understand the nuances of a language’s grammar and dialect.
That being said, aiming to have this baseline of grammatical knowledge in your language learning routine doesn’t mean trying to speak or write without any grammatical mistakes!
Making mistakes is unavoidable in language learning. Usually, mistakes correct themselves through time, more as the result of extensive input exposure, i.e., through a lot of reading and/or listening in your target language, rather than as the result of intense grammatical training.
The main aim of studying grammar is to process input more efficiently, not to produce perfect language.
Tip 3: Interact with native speakers or advanced learners of your target language whenever you can
A plethora of academic studies highlight the benefits of interaction for language learning. Interaction offers a very interesting combination of input (listening or reading) and output (speaking). Native speakers tend to naturally adapt their speech to the level of the individual they are speaking to, which means that in such interactions, input is at the perfect level for the learner.
Many cities host language exchange events, so if you have recently moved to a new country where your native language is not spoken, it could be helpful to find such an event. Alternatively, many websites, such as italki allow you to search for an online language partner.
And if you feel too shy or that your level is too low to speak, online text interactions can be a great alternative to build up your confidence. Apps like Tandem allow you to interact with native speakers in writing, instead of speaking. This allows you to have a less intense interaction by reading, instead of listening to the native speaker’s input, which gives you more time to process it. That also holds true for your output. By writing your answer, you can take more time to plan your speech more easily and correct if needed.
At the beginner level, it might be useful to have one main interaction partner, as they will be very familiar with your language level and will be better able to adapt to you and to your current language needs. When you become more advanced, it is better to interact with different people. This way, you can become familiar with how your target language sounds with different voices and with different ways of speaking.
Tip 4: Review vocabulary daily with a spaced repetition software
Without vocabulary, it is impossible to either understand or speak your target language. Vocabulary is hard to memorise and easily forgotten. While you can learn new vocabulary through input, some words do not occur often enough to ensure strong retention in the long-term memory.
One way to make sure that you remember the words you study is to use a spaced-based repetition app, such as Anki. In such apps, you can make flashcards with the words you want to learn, and during your daily session, the app will show you some cards to review. The app will show you each card at an increasingly longer interval, distancing repetitions from days to weeks to months. This type of spaced repetition was shown by several studies to maximise memory retention.
These apps work best if used daily so that the algorithm computing the interval lengths remains accurate.
Tip 5: Don’t neglect writing
While a lot of learners manage to include reading, listening, and speaking in their learning routine, they often neglect writing. Writing involves less pressure than speaking, so it gives you the opportunity to practice new words and grammatical patterns with more ease.
Learners who take in second language information through listening and reading and then produce their own writing or speaking tend to process grammatical information better than those who learn through listening and reading alone.
An easy way to integrate writing into your language routine is to keep a journal. You can write about your day and what you did to practice these skills. You can also write summaries of books you read or of shows you watched in your target language. This will create a synergy maximising the memorisation of new words and grammatical patterns.