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Top Tips for Learning a Foreign Language on Your Own

Updated on September 13, 2010

Learning Foreign Vocabulary


Top tips for learning a language on your own:

I’ve taught Spanish for over 30 years and I believe the best way to learn a language is, of course, from your parents when you’re little. Even then it takes about three years or more and half of that time you’re just listening. Second best way is to have a really great teacher who uses natural methods like TPR (total physical response) to ingrain the language in the same way you learned your native tongue. But since you want to learn on your own it’s going to be harder and I hope you are self motivated.

Tip #1 – Choose a program that incorporates listening with visual pictures.

Listening to a language, preferably total immersion in another country, is the most natural approach. When someone shows you a picture of something and you hear the word for it, your brain associates the picture and the word together. This is superior to associating the foreign word to the English word. You don’t want to be doing a running translation in your head. It’s better to just understand immediately. Example: what do you think of when I say “pink elephant”? Did your mind conjure up the written words or did you see a large rosy pachyderm? Look for an online course that links listening and seeing.

Tip #2 – Practice with pictures

This is the same concept as above. A good language teacher doesn’t hold up a flashcard of English on one side and Spanish (or French or whatever) on the other side. Instead she uses pictures or actual objects so your brain matches the object to the new word and you don’t go through that translating step mentioned above. There are plenty of picture decks made for babies and children that you can adapt by taping the target language word (and phonetic pronunciation) on the back of each picture.

Tip # 3 – Practice with someone

Use those pictures you made in tip #2 to have someone drill with you and then try to teach the words to that person. If you think of yourself as the teacher you will find that you remember the vocabulary better. If no one will help you then invent an imaginary class and be the teacher. (I said you had to be self motivated . . .)

Tip #4 – Repetition

Every teacher knows that repetition is the key to learning. Don’t just run through your vocabulary cards once. Mix them up and go through them several times. Divide them into random groupings of 5 and master each group then shuffle and try again increasing the numbers in each group.

Tip #5 – Review often

If you mastered all the vocabulary for parts of the body and then moved on to names of foods, but never went back to review the body parts, you would forget your head, so to speak. Pull out old vocabulary often and quiz yourself. (When I gave a test on chapter 6 students knew there would be items from all previous chapters and thus were constantly reviewing old material. Hence final exams never seemed harder than the last test and my students’ average grades on finals were higher than expected.)

I hope these tips help you get a good start on learning a language on your own. It’s hard, I know, as I’m trying to teach myself Hebrew.

Copyright 2010 by Debra Chapoton


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    • bigpinelodgebooks profile image

      bigpinelodgebooks 7 years ago

      Thanks, Sarah. My advice about grammar is to learn it in chunks, i.e. phrases. For example, practice one difficult phrase with multiple add-ons. In English we don't say "he buyed", we say "he bought" so practice "he bought a shirt, he bought a tie, he bought a sweater" then add more - "he bought a shirt yesterday, he bought a tie last week" and so on. A child doesn't learn grammar, he practices it. (Personally, I love grammar and all of its rules and irregularities, but language is absorbed.)

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      sarahsherlock 7 years ago

      This is good advice, although what are your thoughts about teaching grammar and sentence construction? My stepfather is French and although I know many french words, it's putting them together in the right tense and order that is the challenge!