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Unusual Tips on How to Learn a New Language - Part 2

Updated on January 21, 2016

Part 2 of the Unusual Tips on How to Learn a new Language.

If you have missed part 1 then click the link below to head back and start there.

Tip 6. Find a way to benchmark yourself

Language learning is a slow process, and sometimes progress is gradual, sometimes it comes in jumps and starts. If you can find a way to benchmark your progress you can gain encouragement from seeing the large steps in improvement over time rather than becoming frustrated by slower day to day changes in ability. As an example, the author arrived in Germany with little or no German language skill for a work assignment and was lucky enough to attend a 3 monthly departmental meeting within the first week. From a beginning of understanding perhaps only 5-10% of the words used in the 1st meeting, to maybe 50% at the 2nd, followed by around 80% at the 3rd and finally being able to appreciate 95% of the content (without looking at the other speakers) after 1 year, the progress being made became evident. Try to find some way of regularly measuring your abilities.

Actually, life will throw these benchmarks your way regardless, and there is encouragement to be had from a great many different scenarios. It could be the first time you catch yourself thinking in the new language before or after a conversation, or the first dream you have in which you speak the language, or maybe the first time you have an argument with someone in their native language without thinking about it until afterwards. Often it is as simple as helping a tourist who doesn't speak the local language to understand a basic sign or directions. There is no greater pleasure than realizing how far you have come and what you have achieved the first time you hear a garbled tannoy rail announcement for a change of platform in your new language and you start moving before the native speakers do. Measure your Progress!

Tip 7. Find an amusing way to remember difficult words

Some words simply just won't stick in your mind no matter how many times you repeat them, and you must make a special effort to keep them there. If you can build an amusing mental picture associated with the word and it's meaning it may help you recall the word, albeit slowly, when you need it. The following are a couple of examples of German words from the author's experience:

Married (adj.) - verheiratet (pronounced: fer hire a tet) - Image - a wedding where you 'hire a tent' or marquee for the ceremony

To hurry (vb.) - sich beeilen (pronounced: bee-aye-lun) - Image - a bee making a bee-line for the hive

Make it fun!

Tip 8. Work out what kind of learner you are

There are 3 generally accepted basic types of style by which people learn, and often a combination of these will be useful to you. One style may however predominate and attention should be focused on learning stategies that complement your particular learning strengths. The styles are usually broken into the categories of Visual, Auditory, and Kinaesthetic (Touch or feel).

  • Visual people learn best when they see words, pictures, or diagrams written down

  • Auditory people learn best when they hear words spoken or sung, or they read them aloud

  • Kinaesthetic people learn best by performing actions such as typing or writing or moving about whilst learning

There are many resources available on the web to help people discover their preferred learning style, and how to adapt their learning methods to take advantage of this knowledge, and it can save you hours of frustration by placing emphasis on the correct style for you. It is very common to find visual people (the author included) who can hear a word spoken a hundred times without remembering it but see it written once and never forget it again. The converse goes for auditory people who only have to hear a word once to remember it, but could see it written many times without being able to recall it later. Play to your strengths!

Tip 9. Find a good teacher

This really goes without saying, but a good teacher is worth their weight in gold, and you'll know why once you've experienced it. You should look for a teacher who is doing the job because they love helping people learn, and not because they simply find themselves in a position where they are a native speaker in your area looking for a source of income. A good teacher will be enthusiastic and prepare specifically for your lesson. They will assess your strengths and weaknesses and adjust accordingly. They will evaluate how you best learn, and modify their lessons based on your individual learning style. They will seek out subjects that interest and engage you, in order to keep you interested in the material. They will vary the teaching methods used to find out what works best for you and ensure that you cover all aspects of reading, writing and speaking. They will adjust the pace of the lessons to push you when you need it or to give you more time to allow concepts to sink in when necessary, and they will benchmark your progress so that you can observe and celebrate success. In short they will tailor the lessons and work to your abilities and needs, and focus on how best to help you learn. Learn from the best!

Tip 10. Use the dictionary in reverse

One word may have several different meanings in various different contexts, and this is particularly true for small commonly used words. So if you look up the translation for an English word in a foreign language dictionary, you will often find various possibilities given, all with an indicated context in the foreign language. Deciding which of the various possible translations is the most appropriate for your situation is often quite difficult. As your skills as a native speaker lie in understanding the context of words in your own language, it is thus a good idea to then reverse the usage of the dictionary, and to look up each of the possibilities you have found to find their English translations. This way the descriptions and context given will be fully clear to you as a native speaker, and they will give you a much more rounded appreciation of what the foreign word actually means in various different circumstances and whether it is at all suited to the use you were intending to put it to.

As you progress in learning a language, you will anyway probably find that you are often guessing at what a word may be in that language before checking in a reference source, and you will tend to use the dictionary more in the opposite direction to that which you did when you were just beginning. The same goes for automatic translation software, where you will likely find it more beneficial to write your best attempt at a sentence in the language you are learning and check the sense of the translation in your native language than to type what you want to translate in your native language and not be completely sure whether the given translation is nonsense or not. Obviously, dictionaries and software can and should be used to translate in both directions, but that is the point, don't just stick to one direction, as you will miss out on a lot of contextual information. Look both ways!

Tip 11. Anticipate

So often you will find yourself in the situation of proudly using a perfect, pre-prepared, and correctly formed sentence, expecting the listener to simply act upon it, when what invariably happens is that they shoot back at you with an unexpected question or comment so quickly that you cannot catch a word of it. This can be demoralizing and a little embarrassing as everyone including you then realizes that you didn't understand. However, whilst this is frustrating, it does mean that your initial sentence was formed well enough that the listener credited you for a higher degree of skill in the language than you actually possess, so it means you are doing something right. The key to improving your comprehension of others is anticipation. Flowing, fluent language is not a set of discreet sounds representing individual words, but rather a rolling wave of conjoined noises and the brain uses the trick of anticipating the common types of words and the usual forms they take in following one another to help unravel this mixture and separate it into meaningful words.

In order to combat this moments of incomprehension, you can aid your brain which is not yet fully accustomed to picking apart the sound mixture of speech in the foreign language by yourself anticipating potential responses. For instance, you should expect to often receive clarification questions to any request you make. If you order water, expect the reply "Still or sparkling?" If you ask to pay, expect "Cash or credit?". If you ask for a room, you could expect to hear "Single or double?", "Smoking or non-smoking?" If you ask for directions, your mind should automatically be preparing itself for the types of words that would be used to describe a route. This is why role-play is used so often in teaching a language, as it accustoms you to the back and forth of actual conversation. Make it a habit to think how people will react to what you say, and you will find the speech of others much easier to understand. Expect the unexpected!

Tip 12. Become a grammar fiend

This will not appeal to all learners, but those visual learner types will usually find that grammar rules are a life belt to cling to in the stormy seas of a new language. Grammar is the framework on which almost all language is built, and learning the rules of a language will aid you immensely in anticipating the direction a sentence is going and thus help you pick out the words that are being spoken. If for instance you know that the form of sentence construction a speaker has embarked upon will require the use of a conditional or subjunctive form of a verb later on then you can be prepared for hearing it when it arrives. Also if you are constructing your sentences using correct grammar it is much easier for you to put your effort into finding the most appropriate words and also for the listener to overlook slight errors of pronunciation which you may make. Grammar is often less formal in spoken language where slang and dialect are common, and where small mistakes are easily overlooked, but it is often far more important to be correct in written texts where a lack of formality or correctness is much more visible. Learning good grammar keep the quality of your speech consistent, and will probably also give you an increased appreciation of your own native language. Embrace the rules!

Tip 13. Do the obvious things

Finally, do those things you know you need to do. Immerse yourself in the language, in a community or country where it is spoken if possible and spend time amongst native speakers. Take every opportunity to gain knowledge that you possibly can. Read anything and everything that you are able to get your hands on (Free newspapers, billboards, shampoo bottles, parking tickets etc.). Speak to people in queues and lifts, talk to restauranteurs and shop assistants. Write e-mails or chat online. Listen to music whilst reading the song's lyrics. Set your GPS to the foreign language. Watch TV, particularly the news or series you have seen before, or soaps where the same characters crop up repeatedly. Watch films with and without subtitles. Join social groups and attend regular meetings. Take part in local festivals. If working abroad, ask your colleagues to speak in their native language rather than practice their English with you and continue to relentlessly speak in their language even if they do switch. The list is endless. In summary throw yourself into the language and associated cultutre and give it your all, you'll be glad you did. Go for it!


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