I’ve always wanted to learn another language. Growing up in Indiana, I was blessed with a great education and a great grip on English. What I didn’t have available to me was a great learning foundation for any other language. I studied Spanish in high school but never learned more than basic greetings and how to say “apple” and “milk”. I remember struggling with Spanish but I always attributed it to the fact that I had to work a little bit harder in most of my school subjects growing up aside from maybe English and PE. (I know, weird combination, but besides the point.)
Shortly after college, I accepted a job onboard a cruise ship as an entertainer. This, of course, had to do nothing with what I studied but I was dying to get out of the Midwest. I wanted to travel. I wanted to learn languages. I figured once Spanish surrounded me, my 4 years of classes would kick in and I would have no problem at least communicating in it.
I was very wrong. For my first three months the Spanish I was literally surrounded in, in so many ways only helped me recall a few vocabulary tests and I felt less prepared to speak the language than ever before.
I thought maybe I should just be honest with myself and decided because of where I’m from; I’m one of those people destined to only ever speak one language. I’m so thankful I didn’t believe that lie too long.
Soon my ship crossed into the Mediterranean and one of my favorite perks of my job, socializing with all the passengers, escaped me. I was distraught as I learned that even though in the Caribbean season, people managed to speak English as a second language it was much rarer in Europe.
All of a sudden I was dealing with passengers that spoke Spanish, French, Italian, German, Portuguese, Russian, Ukranian, Chinese…you name it.
As if I thought Spanish was overwhelming. It broke my heart I couldn’t speak to many passengers other than a smile and a greeting. I knew to learn all the languages on board was virtually impossible and quite frankly a task I wasn’t up to take, but I wanted to be able to communicate so badly, more than I ever realized.
Speaking another language wasn’t just a “cool thing” for me to do, but it was my way to learn, develop and engage in so many different cultures. That’s when I think my urge to speak a new language was finally strong enough to propel me to genuinely learn. I went around in lots of circles to learn basic concepts.
I’ve learned how to communicate, read, speak and I did it all in a matter of maybe 6 months.
Obviously, I still have lots more to learn but I find myself frustrated that I’ve spent years “dabbling” in learning and if I had only used that time properly I could be even more developed.
I want to help you avoid that same struggle. After a lot of lessons learned the hard way, I’ve created a list of things I wish I would have known about learning a language years ago. Maybe, just maybe you can avoid the mistakes I made.
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1. Find your reason for wanting to learn.
You have to WANT to learn. This sounds silly and obvious but I’m so serious. You have to really, and I mean genuinely, want to learn the language. Language software is actually incredible nowadays and I will be discussing that later. However, if you won’t be using them to your full advantage, if you aren’t willing to learn on the platform AND outside of the platform (You’ll need to do both), please stop wasting your money.
Don’t pay for classes and tutors, only to not practice yourself. I wasted 4 years of classes because I wanted to know just because it would be cool to say I’m bilingual. Clearly, that wasn’t a strong enough reason for me to actually learn. You have to ask yourself, what’s my reason?
For example, I want to learn Spanish because I want to communicate with other cultures and invest in their lives by using a language that makes them comfortable. I want to love people in as many ways as possible.
Your reason can be anything and there is no wrong reason for wanting to learn.
I want to learn German to connect on a deeper level with my heritage.
I want to learn French to improve my resume and increase my chances of getting a multi-lingual, higher paying job.
I want to learn Japanese because I have a pen pal I want to visit whose parents only speak Japanese and I want to respect them.
Literally anything! Write it down. Keep it somewhere close and remind yourself daily of that reason. When you’re tired of studying or frustrated because you’re stuck in a rut, this reason will be your motivation to keep fighting. Because it “could be cool”, will never be enough.
2. Learning is different than memorizing
I remember when I was in high school we used to have sentences that we wrote down every day upon arriving in class. Thanks to those sentences I will never forget how to say “I have ants in my pants.” Did I know how to say, “There are ants in my pants” or “Inside my pants, I have ants” or any other variation of the same exact concept?
Of course not. I was training myself to memorize sayings but ignored the importance of understanding how sentences were even constructed. This, of course, limited me an ugly circle of memorizing and repeating. I could never create my own sentence outside of a very, very basic idea.
People have this messed up idea that learning a language is all about being good at memorizing things. This could not be further from the truth. Of course, there is some kind of vocabulary building that needs to be done, but you speaking a language is nothing like pumping words into a translator and relaying them.
What is the point of having endless vocabulary memorized if you can’t put the words into a sentence? My advice? Change your focus to a conversational mindset.
Learn basic verbs that you can use in lots of day-to-day conversation. “to need”, “to want”, “to have”, “to be”, “to put”, “to eat”, “to drink”….these are just a few examples.
As you practice (out loud!) you can start adding vocabulary and not only will you be surprised how much you can recall but you’ll have a healthier relationship with words and how to speak like a human and not a robot. Today you may learn how to say, “I’m hungry.” Tomorrow “I’m hungry for an apple” and the following day your brain will click and all the sudden it just makes sense to substitute apple for any other word.
I’m a flashcard girl. I started truly learning Spanish when I finally threw away the cards.
3. Learn to talk before you read
I really debated putting this step in the article because it can be such a tricky balance. When I started to learn Spanish I learned how conjugations work and the idea behind sentence construction. In time these proved to be strong foundations as I often went back to those basics when I started to improve my vocabulary and verb usage.
However, when it came to the actual conversation, I felt hopeless. I would miss everything someone would say and then I found when he or she wrote it out, I had no problem grasping the point. I knew a lot of words but never heard them often enough to distinguish how they sounded. Other than reading signs in the market, I found it much more important to my development to actually be HEARING new words and later learning how they were spelled out and how they look.
My vocabulary exploded once I started making “talk” my priority. I found it more useful to have a smaller vocabulary that I could use in more situations than to know tons of words that I could never properly fit into a sentence.
The moral of my story is, it is still better to progress in some way than not at all. There is really no “right” way to learn. If you’re improving at all, you’re beating most people. The goal is catalyzing that improvement and progress. I jump started my understanding when I started to speak and stopped relying on my knowledge so much of reading the language.
4. You have to study on your own
The key to learning is realizing that the process is a matter of inclines (where you’re really moving forward) and flats (where you feel like you’re just stuck.) The inclines are happy times where no matter what you do, things seem to click and little effort seems to get you far. Typically there is a big incline when you first begin to learn a language because basic phrases just make sense.
Then all the sudden you find yourself in a phase where you feel like you can’t actually “talk” despite these common phrases you were so proud of a few weeks ago. When you’re in the “flat” place it’s impossible to feel like you’ll ever progress to the next level and it is frustrating.
This is the most crucial time because unless you genuinely fight to get out of that level, you WILL be stuck there.
So how can you fight to get to your next incline? You can go to the best teachers in the world and spend boatloads of money on high-end classes but if you don’t take the simplest steps to engrain and apply what you’ve learned ON YOUR OWN, it will all slip away.
Luckily, in our age, it is very simple to start our push to the next hill. (If we’re willing to check back with our purpose for learning often.) There are lots of different styles of implication, but here are some of my favorites.
When you started to learn how to read in English you didn’t start with chapter books. You started with picture books, children’s books and by the time you were in middle school, you would boost at how big the books you were reading were. It’s the same exact process for any other language but now you have the ability to expedite that process as much as you want to.
I absolutely love my kindle for this. Download children’s books and work your way up. There are so many kinds of absolute free beginner and intermediate books available and when you’re done and ready to read something harder, you can just delete the free download and find another free or cheap read without feeling like you’re cluttering your bookshelves with books you’ll never read again. (Let alone, it’s a lot harder to find hardback books at the exact level you need on the spot in the store.)
There are a plethora of podcasts available in all languages, and difficulties. Try duo lingo as they offer free podcasts for beginners. Listen on your way to work. Download songs in other languages and look up the lyrics. Try to sing along and impress your friends. (Not to mention impress yourself later when you use a word or phrase you heard from a song in a daily conversation)
Find an app you love that annoys you every day with daily reminders to learn a few more words. I really can’t speak much higher of duo lingo. It’s absolutely free unless you want to use it off-line and it gives a fun and challenging way to improve vocabulary and basic sentence construction. You cannot learn a language solely by using an app. I repeat: You cannot learn a language solely by using an app. However, they can be a good asset to help support your already awesome learning curve.
Abuse Netflix! Watch in a different language. Watch in a different language with English subtitles. Watch in English with subtitles in a different language. Watch in a different language with subtitles in that language. Watch your favorite show or binge watch a new one. It doesn’t matter how to do it or what you’re watching your brain is constantly soaking in what it’s hearing despite you realize it or not.
5. You have to force yourself to feel silly
You will feel silly. That’s a good feeling. If you feel comfortable speaking the language, chances are you have space to develop. When I started to learn Spanish I got to the point where I had a pretty good grip on present tense-but then I STAYED THERE. Big mistake.
I felt so silly trying to talk in the past and future tenses, I would often explain to people that I couldn’t speak the other tenses and I was talking about something that happened yesterday. Then I would continue telling the story in the present tense. Something a little like this:
“Hi, I’m so sorry, I’m learning Spanish but I cannot talk in the past tense. But this story is from yesterday…yesterday I am going to a party and I am having a lot of fun. I dance a lot and am learning a new style of music. Yesterday is a good day!”
Now, how silly does that sound? Yah, sure they would understand and giggle at me, but why would I want to stay in that form any longer than I need to? If I’m going to sound silly one way or the other, I might as well at least be improving.
6. You have to surround yourself in the language as much as possible
Look for cultural nooks where you live. Research festivals, events, concerts, and other activities in your local community. Look up major holidays and see if there are any street parties scheduled where you can not only be surrounded by the language but culture as well-they do tend to go pretty hand in hand anyway. To your surprise, there is probably a higher population of nationality mixes than you ever imagined before-it’s hard to find something you’ve never looked for.
7. You need to step outside of your safety net
Find an environment that you are so immersed you feel uncomfortable. Find a friend or community that speaks the language you want to learn and only the language you want to learn. If you can always go back to English when you get stuck or can’t find the right words to use, you’ll never be able to improve let along speak completely in another language
8. It will not be easy
Ignore all those posts that say preach about how easy it is to learn a new language. Yes, there are systems and ideas to simplify the process. There are even people who have a more natural ability to learn. Even if you are one of those people, it will not be easy. You have to want it. You have to want it badly and be willing to work for it. Remember, anything worth having will not be easy to achieve.
9. You have to look back every once and a while and see how far you’ve come
Positivity is so crucial. When you’re learning you’ll have moments where you feel like you’re learning at amazing paces. You’ll read a book, have a conversation and impress yourself with your abilities. Then, you’ll have days where you can’t even remember how to order your coffee.
Don’t be too hard on yourself. Remind yourself that not too long ago you didn’t even know how to say coffee. When you start beating yourself up look back to how you felt yesterday, a week ago, a month ago…last year. Did you even imagine that you would be as far as you are? It’s a good feeling. Remind yourself of that often.
So excited that you’re ready to genuinely invest yourself in learning another language.
How many languages can you speak? What did you find the most helpful when you were trying to learn? Make sure to share this with any of your friends that want to learn another language as well!
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As always, God Bless and I hope to see you somewhere around the world.