How to learn a foreign language: Tips and advice for language learning
How to learn and improve a foreign language
If you are someone who has tried learning a foreign language, you will probably know firsthand how difficult, daunting and frustrating it can be. Most of us have had the opportunity to study in a foreign language in high school and in college, but not many have managed to learn it well enough to be considered fluent. The United States is still considered largely monolingual; yet, I think the majority of us would like to learn a foreign language whether it is for personal enjoyment or for more employment opportunities.
I am lucky to have been born to a mixed marriage and was raised to be bilingual (English and Thai) from the start. I believe, and many studies have shown to be true, that having been brought up speaking two languages has made my acquisition of a third language (Japanese) far easier than someone who is a monolingual trying to learn a second language. This is not to say that I have not had my fair share of struggles and frustrations because I have. As a matter of fact, I still struggle with my third language on a daily basis, and I have been living here in Japan for, oh, 11 years or so. However, over the years of struggling to be a trilingual as well as having been an ESL teacher, I have a few tips on how to make learning a foreign language easier.
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1. Immerse yourself in the language
This is the single best thing you can do, which is what I did. I got myself a job and moved to the country where that language is spoken (Japan). If you are a native English speaker and just starting out in your career, the most obvious and easiest job you can find, as long as you have a college degree, is an English teaching job. The salary is generally relatively good compared to other entry jobs in the destination country. For me, my Japanese improved by leaps and bounds within my very first year in Japan (granted, I had already had 2 years of Japanese in college and as I have mentioned, languages come easy for me).
If you are still in college or even in high school, there are many homestay opportunities available. An extended stay with a family will allow you to experience the culture and language and will be an invaluable experience of a lifetime for you.
2. Make friends with a native speaker of the language you are trying to learn and/or find a language exchange partner.
This suggestion probably works better in a college setting where there is a presence of students of all nationalities and languages. Most international students are probably struggling with English themselves. They might be feeling homesick and/or having problems trying to fit in, so if you befriend them, I think they will be very generous with their help.
3. Utilize the media (TV programs, movies with subtitles, music, books, etc.)
Personally, I believe that reading books in the foreign language is the best way to passively learn the new language. Start with easy books. Children's books (or in the case of Japanese, easy manga or comics works wonders) are great because the text is simple and words and sentence structure are repetitive. You learn grammar and spelling this way. TV programs and movies are also wonderful tools for listening practice (at native level speed and pronunciation) and they usually are highly entertaining and provide you with a glimpse of the culture.
4. Connect and associate new words in the foreign language with words you already know. I think this comes more readily to people who already know two languages and working on a third because you basically have more to work with. Does the word in the foreign language sound like another word with similar meaning or has a close association in your native language? For example, the word "douro" in Japanese means "road" in English. If you say "road" backwards with an extra "o" at the end, it sounds like the Japanese word. It doesn't have to be just the sound. Another example is the Vietnamese word for "water", which is "nuek". "Nuek" actually sounds like the word "to think" in Thai. So, to remember the word, I imagined that thinking (Thai word) clearly is like cool, clear water (Vietnamese word).
5. Make mental image of words.
In this case, action words (mainly verbs) are much easier to mentalize (sorry, I just invented that word, I think). You can also try to act out the new word as you say the word out loud. This is based on the Total Body Learning children use when they sing and act out songs like "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes". Adults can do it, too!
6. Talk to yourself in that language.
Count things in the foreign language (numbers are surprisingly extremely hard to remember). Make simple sentences in the foreign language based on a grammar point to reinforce it. I think it works better if you say it out loud so you can actually hear what you are saying, too.
7. Ask, ask, ask.
Do not be shy. Do not pretend to understand something when you don't. When you do not know what something means, ask someone who knows or consult a dictionary right away. Never be afraid of making mistakes. People are generally very happy to help, especially when they know that you are making an effort to learn their language. In some countries (like Japan and Thailand), people will probably laugh at your mistake (NOT at YOU), but it is genuinely good-hearted. Actually, making mistakes are considered "cute" in Japan. As a matter of fact, I noticed that, at least with me, the more mistakes you make, the faster you learn!
Trust me. If you make an effort using the above tips, you can learn to speak a foreign language fluently, too!
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