How to Learn a Foreign Language
Learning a foreign language is similar to learning math, music, and a few other subjects, in that it is a cumulative learning process. What you learn today builds upon what you learned yesterday. For example, before you can start writing in Spanish you must first be able to conjugate verbs. Before you can conjugate verbs you need to understand verb tenses. To learn a foreign language you must be consistent in your study of that language so you can develop the building blocks required for future learning and progression. Below we'll explore fundamental learning strategies that, if applied, will enable you to learn a foreign language quickly and effectively. These strategies will each be introduced as they relate to the five basic elements of language learning: (1) Listening and Pronunciation; (2) Speaking; (3) Reading; (4) Vocabulary Development; and (5) Writing.
Listening and Pronunciation
Sound is the basis of all spoken languages. Whether you pursue French, German, Portuguese, or Hindi, it's important that you (1) know what to listen for when the language is spoken and (2) become familiar with the pronunciation of words in the language. Learning what to listen for when the language is spoken by native speakers is particularly important as you strive to gain a level of fluency.
- Proper pronunciation
Proper pronunciation is one of the first, and most important, steps to achieving fluency in a language. A common mistake made by new learners is sacrificing accuracy of pronunciation for speed of speaking. Correct pronunciation requires both practice and patience. Get off on the right foot by learning the correct lip and tongue movements required to learn the language. When you speak, pay close attention to how you pronounce words.
- Practice makes perfect
When it comes to learning a foreign language their is no substitute for practice. In fact, there aren't many other endeavors, with exception of maybe learning to play a musical instrument, that require as much practice as learning a foreign language. Learning what to listen for and correct pronunciation both require practice. Practicing with native language speakers is the best way to improve your listening and pronunciation skills. Listening to records, movies, programs on the television, and other audio recordings in the language is also helpful. Repeat what you listen to out loud, reproducing sentences and words as accurately as possible.
- Listen for meaning
In addition to practicing pronunciation, focus on the meaning of what you hear and listen to. As you gain comprehension of what is being spoken, your pronunciation will improve and your comprehension will increase.
- Listen to yourself speak
Have you ever listened to a recording of yourself and thought you sounded funny? The truth is that it's difficult to know what you sound like without listening to a recording of your own voice. In addition to listening to native speakers, it's important to listen to your own pronunciation of the language. Make a recording of yourself speaking the language and pronouncing words. Critique your speaking by comparing your pronunciation to that of native speakers. Continue to practice by recording yourself speaking the language until your pronunciation of words and phrases is on par with that of native speakers.
- Focus on accuracy
As mentioned previously, when acquiring the ability to speak a foreign language, there is often a tendency for language learners to sacrifice accuracy of grammar and pronunciation for speed. In short, they speak faster than they are capable of speaking correctly. They mispronounce words, use poor gram, and speak with incomplete sentences. While this habit is a normal part of the evolution of learning a foreign language, if left unchecked, it can develop into a habit of poor grammar and pronunciation that inhibits the learner from ever gaining any level of true fluency. Learners should slow down, pay attention to their pronunciation, and speak correctly. Fluency and speed of speech will come with time and practice.
- Learn correct sentence structure
A lot of language learners focus on memorizing vocabulary (nouns, verbs, etc.) Unfortunately, knowing all the vocabulary a language has to offer won't help you gain fluency, if you can't use it to form coherent sentences. It's good to learn vocabulary, but focus first on learning how to develop correct sentence structure.
- Practice speaking
There is no better way to gain fluency in a language than through practice speaking the language. Take every opportunity to listen to and speak the language. When reading, read out loud. Practice speaking with native speakers as much as possible.
- Go to the source
The best way to improve your accent, and learn to speak like a native, is by speaking with native language speakers. Practicing your Spanish, French, Italian or Bengali with a native speaker is one of the best ways to become fluent in the language. There are nuances to pronunciation and sentence structure that only can be learned by interacting and speaking with native speakers.
- Understand grammar
It's important to develop a sound understanding of grammar in order to learn a language. Reading is an effective way to learn the rules of grammer for the language you're learning. We also recommend getting a good grammar book and taking classes in grammar for your language. As your grammar improves, so will your ability to communicate in the language orally and in writing. Your reading fluency and comprehension in the language will also improve.
- Read for meaning
When you first start reading in a foreign language you aren't going to understand everything you read. That's okay. As you read, focus on gaining an understanding of the main ideas being presented. At this stage, it's going to be tempting to look up every word you don't recognized in your dictionary, but fight the temptation. Try to figure out what words mean from the context of the text. Focus on the overall message being communicated and read for meaning.
- Read and Re-read
There is a strategy to reading when it comes to learning a foreign language. It's pretty simple. Read each passage three times. Start by reading the passage in its entirety without translating it. Then read the passage again aloud as you translate in your mind what it's saying. Finally, read the passage a third time. This time pay close attention to the meaning of individual sentences and phrases. This form of reading will improve your comprehension and fluency in the language.
- Read the notes
If there are any special notes included in the margins or within the text you're reading, pay attention them. These notes often provide insight into difficult to understand passages, phrases, grammar, or vocabulary.
As you understanding of grammar and structure of the language improves, you'll want to increase your vocabulary.
- Study grammar
Having a large vocabulary will make you knowledgeable, but it won't make you fluent. A large vocabulary is only as useful as your ability (1) to use it within proper context and (2) to compliment your ability to speak. As you augment your vocabulary, make sure you can use each new word you learn in proper context. One of the keys to vocabulary acquisition and usage is having a solid understanding of the rules of grammar for the language. The better you grasp of grammar the better your ability to learn and use vocabulary.
- Flash cards
Flash cards are an age-old study aid that are as effective today as they were in the 1920s. Using flash cards to study vocabulary is especially effective when trying to learn a foreign language. Develop your flash cards using a standard 3x5" card. Write the foreign language vocabulary word on one side and its English equivalent on the other. Review your flash cards regularly until you've mastered the vocabulary. Study sets of no more than 20 vocabulary words at a time using flash cards. Once you mastered one set of vocabulary words using flash cards, move on to the next.
- Find new words
Don't just rely on lists of vocabulary words presented in text books and study guides. Keep a small pocket notebook with you at all times to write down words you don't understand. If you're living in an English speaking country, write down words you regularly hear that you're unable to translate in the foreign language. If you're living in a country where the foreign language is spoken, write down words you regularly hear that you don't understand. Take the words you hear and write down and make vocabulary lists. Each week take some time to review and commit to memory the new vocabulary words and their definitions.
- Focus on each word
There is a five step process, that if followed, will improve your ability to learn, recall, and use vocabulary words in the foreign language. (1) pronounce the word; (2) spell the word; (3) find its meaning; (4) use the word in a sentence; and finally (5) write it down with its meaning three times on a piece of paper.
- Again, practice makes perfect. When learning a foreign language, espcially a language with a foreign alphabet, practice writing the alphabet (and its characters) until it becomes second nature.
- Develop a good understanding of the rules of grammar. Writing in a foreign language is based on the rules of grammar for the language.
- Read all textbook material you're assigned and study guides.
- Compare writing in the language to other exampes of writing in the language.