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Tips for Learning Foreign Languages Well

Updated on February 15, 2022
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Paul has spent many years teaching English as a foreign and second language. He has taught EFL in Taiwan and Thailand, and ESL in the U.S.

These are my 6th grade English students at Saint Joseph Bangna School in Samut Prakarn, Thailand.  Photo was taken in 2009.
These are my 6th grade English students at Saint Joseph Bangna School in Samut Prakarn, Thailand. Photo was taken in 2009. | Source

Studying Foreign Languages

Studying foreign languages has always been one of my interests, and it is most probably one of yours. This interest was awakened when I first studied Latin as a high school Freshman. I continued my study of foreign languages by taking another year of Latin and two years of Spanish in high school. While in college, I had three semesters of German and one semester of French. All of these language courses were taught by non-native speakers in the United States. Although I learned how to read these languages to varying degrees of proficiency, I never really became proficient in the other three skills of listening, speaking, and writing. Proficiency in all four skills didn't occur until I started to learn Chinese Mandarin at the Defense Language Institute. My initial Mandarin aural-comprehension course employed an audio-lingual approach which was interesting, exciting, and highly effective. I have employed this approach along with other steps that have aided me greatly in learning other languages during my life.

Tips for Learning Foreign Languages well

I believe the following approaches are highly beneficial in learning foreign languages.

1. You must be interested in learning a foreign language.

Are you truly interested in learning a new language, or is it something you must do to meet a school or job requirement? If you are not interested in learning, the language will not be enjoyable and probably very boring for you.

2. Learning the language must fulfill a personal need

Why have so many immigrants to the United States from around the world been able to become proficient in English? The answer is because they knew they had to learn listening, speaking, reading, and writing skills to get a job and assimilate into mainstream society. In most cases, speaking their native foreign tongues was insufficient to satisfy their basic needs in a new land. Many U.S. ex-pats living in various countries have very limited proficiency in their host countries' languages. This is because most ex-pats are married to native speakers and live in international communities where all of their basic needs are met by foreign national locals who speak English. Naturally, in a situation like this, most people become lazy and feel no need to learn the language.

3. Frequent contact with native speakers

I never became proficient in listening and speaking while studying high school and college languages, because my teachers were non-native teachers with limited proficiency, Furthermore, there was no atmosphere to immerse myself into the study of the people and cultures of the languages I was studying. After I started to study Chinese Mandarin, I was immersed in the language with five or six different native speakers six hours a day five days a week. The foreign language became part of our lives and we lived it with numerous extra-curricular activities like Mandarin movies and field trips to Chinese-speaking communities in San Francisco. Contact with native speakers and total immersion has also aided me in learning Taiwanese and the Thai language.

4. Listening and speaking should be learned and practiced first.

In high school and college foreign language classes, I was only introduced to reading and writing, and there was very little listening and speaking. I learned next to nothing about the phonetics of the languages and hence had difficulty with pronunciation, speaking, and reading aloud. I remember not having much fun learning these languages by only reading. Learning to listen and speak first in my Mandarin class was very challenging but also a lot of fun. After learning the basic sounds and tones, we started learning daily dialogs based on real-life situations. I remember memorizing the dialog the night before and then reciting it in class the next morning in the form of a role play with another student. Memorization and practice with dialogs helped me greatly in creating my original sentences and conversations.

5. Reading and writing should be introduced after listening and speaking.

I am a firm believer that reading and writing should only be taught after the student knows the sounds and basic sentence structure of the language. This approach would parallel that of a child learning his native language. If a person learns reading and writing first, he or she will probably have problems with pronunciation, intonation, and/or tones. Furthermore, in the learning of a non-English alphabet or characters like Thai and Mandarin, it will be extremely hard for the student to be learning listening, speaking, reading, and writing skills at the same time. The student should begin by reading and writing only the words or characters that he can speak.

6. One should listen to a lot of authentic foreign language material.

My favorite Chinese teacher once told me that it was necessary to listen to a great deal of authentic language material to get good at Chinese. This authentic material can come from radio and television broadcasts, the internet, songs, and merely contacts with native speakers. Don't be discouraged if you don't understand everything you hear. Just think of how long a baby and toddler listen before they say their most meaningful words and sentences.

7. One should read a lot of authentic foreign language material.

Just as for listening, a foreign language student should read as much authentic material as he or she can. It would be best to pick an interesting topic and then try reading books, comic books, newspapers, magazines, notices, letters, and any other written thing one can find. As for listening, don't be discouraged if you can't read every word. Try instead to guess the meaning of words and get satisfaction in what you can read.

8. One should practice speaking and writing as much as possible.

For most people, speaking and writing are much more difficult than listening and reading. This is understandable because speaking and writing are active skills while listening and reading are more passive. All of the good language learners I know have practiced a lot to improve their speaking and writing skills. You can improve your speaking by seeking out native speakers and talking to them in their language. If they become your friends, you can talk with them often and they could correct any pronunciation or grammatical mistakes you make when speaking. Writing is the most difficult skill to develop proficiency. One should practice writing often perhaps by trying to write emails to foreign friends.

Although there are other approaches to achieving foreign language proficiency, I feel that the above eight approaches are the most important and can help anyone interested and serious about learning foreign languages well.

Learning Foreign Languages Well

Which is the best tip for learning a foreign language well?

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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2011 Paul Richard Kuehn


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