How to Learn a Foreign Language to Fluency
If you’re anything like me, you have a fierce, constantly expanding desire to learn multiple languages, yet consistently fail to deliver on the promise you’ve made yourself. Perhaps this is due to lack of motivation, or simply because each time you undertake the task you’re reminded why you gave it up in the first place: It’s extremely difficult. However, I wholeheartedly believe that the average person can commit themselves to learning a language to fluency and deliver on this commitment, so here are my tips for completing a challenging task of which you can not only remain proud, but hopefully reap the employment and travel benefits from also.
- Practise consistently: This seems outrageously obvious and I’m a little ashamed for reiterating it so blatantly, but anyone who has struggled to learn a language before knows how easy it is to forget this fundamental step. For those of us who learn a language in our spare time, guided only by books, the Internet, and occasional classes, consistent revision needs to be slotted in between work and other studies, and often seems unnecessary and burdensome. Anyone who has fallen prey to this idea, however, knows how quickly language skills are lost, and how much effort and revision is required in order to solidify them. If you want to learn a language to fluency, you have to accept that you’re in for an uphill battle, and put in the hours. Even watching a film or reading a short book or magazine in your chosen language, or revising over grammar notes once a week, will be immensely useful in your quest towards fluency. Put in the hours and you will see results.
- Take classes: Whether you want to learn quickly and seriously via school or university, or opt for the more relaxed environment of a language school, community house, or private tutor, classes are, in my mind, a necessity. There is only so much that books and the Internet can teach you, and enrolling in a class forces you to practise and revise, whilst also allowing you to engage with others who are struggling to find the motivation and time to study. If possible, find a tutor who is a native speaker and immerse yourself in their classes and conversation. The more you surround yourself by the foreign language you’re attempting to learn, the quicker you will learn it.
- Avoid word lists: This is a point that, in my mission to learn French, I still struggle with. Word lists continue to feel like a good idea. You learn a new word, you write it down, you memorise its spelling and meaning … it’s what I’d do if I came across an unfamiliar word in English, so what could possibly go wrong? The answer to this is simply that, in an unfamiliar language, there are too many words to learn by this process. Whilst I recognise the differences, I must use English as an example. Growing up, you didn’t learn English by making word lists, you learned it through immersion and constant exposure. This is the same way in which a foreign language, difficult though it is, ought to be learned. Whilst word lists can be helpful before tests, in familiarisation with verbs, or in order to learn a certain category of words, such as those pertaining to body parts or colours, ultimately it’s going to confuse you more, as you spend your time memorising the wrong things. The semantics and mechanics of a language must be learned before it can be understood. After this, the meaning of individual words will begin to come easily. This leads me to another key idea: Don’t directly translate between languages, as each language is unique and must be treated as such.
Read as much as possible: Again, this seems obvious, but due to the challenge it poses, I feel that many who are endeavouring to learn a language often overlook it. When I reflect on how I learned English (an almost impossible task given that I am a native speaker of the language) I realise that the process of learning it was greatly simplified by my constant exposure to it in both written and spoken form. Children learn words by reading and then asking for the meaning or by contextualising. When we read books or magazines in another language, we build up these same skills, contextualising words, learning how they’re used, and familiarising ourselves with foreign grammar and sentence structure. An extremely arduous task at first, the more we read in the language of our choice, the sooner we will become familiar with the meaning, spelling, and grammar rules of individual words and sentences.
- Visit the place(s) where your language is spoken: Immersion is the best, and really the only way, to learn a language to fluency, as, whilst the classroom is essential for written skills, the nuances of the spoken word and the pace in which it is colloquially spoken and amalgamated with street slang and innumerable dialects, can only truly be learned through conversation with native speakers. Don’t be afraid to engage in conversation with native speakers, who, contrary to judging you, will likely be only too happy to correct your pronunciation and to help you out. You’ll make a good impression by trying to speak their language, and likely have fun whilst doing so. If possible, travel extensively or take a job and work for a year or so in an area where your language is spoken as, though perhaps daunting at first, you’ll be amazed how quickly you pick up the language when you’re surrounded by it everyday.
As difficult as learning a language is, the employment and travel benefits – not to mention one’s own sense of personal pride – that are received by doing so, are unparalleled. Learning foreign languages enables us to familiarise ourselves with similarities and differences across dialects, revealing the depth of our own mother tongue through loanwords, and broadening our overall sense of culture and the infinite evolution of linguistics. Although I remain a speaker only of English, still battling with the threads of incomprehension currently restraining me from the world of French fluency, I am yet to lose the motivation and focus required for completing the challenge. A difficult task and one that must be crammed into an exceptionally busy schedule, I shall continue to learn French, and would encourage all those out there currently learning or considering learning a language to take the necessary steps towards fluency. You won’t regret it. Good luck!