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How To Learn Languages (And Remember, Too)

Updated on August 15, 2013

Learning foreign languages is tough. There are so many things to remember, such as vocabulary, pronunciation, grammar, conjugation and etiquette, that it can be overwhelming for a student. It makes, sense, too - after all, they are not things we think about when we're speaking our native tongues. We string sentences together without a conscious thought for the mechanics of language. I have the experience of learning foreign languages as well as being an English teacher, so I have spent a lot of time struggling with the foundations of speech.

  • Speak, speak, speak! I don't believe it is possible to become totally fluent or even conversational in any language without sufficient time spent practicing speaking out loud. Tracking down a native - or at least fluent - conversation partner is crucial, even in the beginning when you can only say a few words. Shoot for conversations only in the target language! It's difficult, but you will be forced to start thinking in the target language, and your partner can correct your sentences and get you used to the sound and feel. Don't have a conversation partner? A fellow student can help. Are you studying by yourself? That's fine! Try talking in the mirror when you're home alone. Read every sentence in your textbook out loud. Speak, speak, speak!
  • Study regularly. If you can study a little bit every day, or even every other day, you will be much better off than if you cram for an hour once a month. Because of the memorization involved, there is just no substitute for regular and frequent study. A common excuse is that it is difficult to find the time, and it really can be. The answer is to make the time. Almost everybody has a few free minutes, whether it's during your commute or waiting for the coffee machine to finish heating, glance over your notes.
  • When you learn new grammar forms, practice writing and speaking original sentences using those forms. Try your best to think of examples with the vocabulary you have. You might understand the grammar structure and example sentence in your textbook, but it will not be at the front of your mind if you just glance over it. You need to start utilizing it creatively.
  • Try flashcards for repetition. Though languages might have some grammatical patterns, when it comes to vocabulary, your task is sheer memorization. Repetition is the key. Make your own flashcards, whether on paper or with a computer or Smartphone program, and repeat them even when you think you know them. Sort the vocabulary into categories or lessons, and review frequently. The advantage is that they are easy to carry around. Do a couple of words every time you find yourself standing in line for something, and you'll be amazed at the amount of study you can get done.
  • Make it a goal to write. Start with putting together a few sentences. Even lesson one topics like self-introduction are fine, and try again for each topic your textbook covers. Then, try to make a paragraph. Next, an essay. If possible, get your teacher or a fluent friend to go over it and clearly mark your mistakes. After that, rewrite the essay correctly from scratch, and read it out loud, too.
  • Try to keep a blog in the target language. Jot a couple of sentences down about your day. You can do a diary if you prefer to avoid technology. But doing it online has a few advantages. You can do it on any platform, though there are numerous resources online for people pursuing foreign languages. Some offer correction and feedback for a small fee. But there are free options, too. Take a look at Lang8, which is made up of a community of foreign-language bloggers who will happily correct your sentences for free, hoping that you will return the favor.
  • Maximize exposure to the language by listening to CDs in the car, or on your iPod while walking. This is another way to fill "free time" that you never thought of as free time! I absolutely recommend getting a CD for your car. These days, many textbooks include them. A good CD for a beginner has lots of repetition, and pauses for you to repeat sentences out loud. Getting tracks on your iPod, too, can expose you to spoken language anywhere.
  • Don't buy materials you won't use. The temptation to buy a new textbook at the bookstore can be strong, but just remember handing over money will not automatically give you a higher level of fluency. You actually need to use and study with what you have. I made this mistake when I started studying Japanese - I bought many more textbooks than I ever used for more than a few hours, just because purchasing them seemed to validate my studies.
  • Read things you would enjoy in the target language. Depending on the language, there are a variety of materials available. Even at a beginner level, one can often find "short stories" utilizing very simple vocabulary and grammar as a fun way to keep your interest while improving your reading ability. When you get better, shoot for things you would actually enjoy in your native language, too, from books to articles. When I studied Japanese, I found the vast amount of comic books an enjoyable way to jump start my studies - the pictures helped me understand what was going on, and instead of narration, I was reading the actual dialogue of the characters.

  • Expose yourself whenever possible. Watch movies with the audio set in your target language. Even if you can't understand and choose to use English subtitles, you are exposing yourself to the rhythm, pronunciation and general feel of the language. Try to match up what is said in the subtitles to what the actors are saying, and if you really want a challenge, don't use any subtitles at all. Listen to music in the target language, too. Try to meet people who are native in the language - but be sure not to take advantage of friends by demanding free language lessons unless they offer.
  • If you can afford it, travel. A great way to ignite passion for a language is to go to a country where it is spoken. Traveling can be expensive, but it is definitely worthwhile. Even better, if you are committed enough to the language and have the time and money to spare, consider a study abroad. No, you don't have to be a university student to do it. These days, there are schools all over the world aimed at people of all ages who might study anywhere from a few weeks to a year. There is no faster way to pick up a language than to live in the culture that speaks it, and having the opportunity to use it every day for almost everything you do.

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    • Zubair Ahmed profile image

      Zubair Ahmed 

      5 years ago

      Really good information and tips thank you for sharing. I am trying to learn Arabic using Rosetta Stone and it is going okayish. Problem is making the time and sticking to it around all the other things.


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