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What Is The Best Path To Learning A Second Language?

Updated on February 4, 2018
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David is passionate about writing, music and language learning, among other things. He's been learning English for over five years.

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Learning a second language might seem like a tough path—there are a lot of words and grammar structures to learn. This might be the reason that could make anyone feel discouraged. For instance, it might be expected to rely on a specific course of action that really leads to the language learning success.

That being said, is there a definite way? Is there an established path to learning a language? I don't think there's a perfect way to proceed. But along the way, I’ve realized about ways of learning that actually work. Learning has to be a friendly as an effective experience that boosts motivation, it all depends on the approach.

I don’t expect this to be a comprehensive list of steps. I’ve figured out the aspects below because I consider these are the ones of key importance for a successful learning, based on my own experience learning English. I think these aspects can be applied to the learning of Spanish and any other language as well.

BEGINNING WITH THE BASICS: A systematic approach

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As every discipline, the most important thing is getting started with the basics. This means learning the basics of the language, such as grammar, vocabulary, idioms, pronunciation, and the most common expressions. All this will serve as the starting point for a continuous development of the different language skills.

The process of learning is something you can do on your own by looking for a course with a systematic learning on the net. Duolingo is a really great app to get started with any language since it’s interactive and measures your learning progress.

However, if possible it would be a good idea to enroll an intensive course where you can have a guided and tutored study. But at the end, the real investment to learn a language is the effort you put on it—no course is a substitute for that. We are going to talk about other complementary and practical resources later and in future hubs to talk specifically about resources that I’ve personally found really useful.

In the meantime, Duolingo can be a very great option to get going!

A little bit every day

It’s better to set aside some time each day to learn than trying to digest a lot of information once a week. That’s simply not how language learning happens. It’s important to have a fresh review of the previous lessons to learn something new and gradually improve your comprehension. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to attend a class every day, but you have to commit yourself to invest quality time daily in practicing—two hours, an hour, thirty minutes, or even fifteen minutes, depending on your spare time.

As you learn in a consistent way, you’ll begin to familiarize yourself with the language, understand more, and for instance, you’ll get to have a more gratifying experience which will motivate you to adopt a positive intent and get even more dedicated to learning.

Don't get complicated

Something that used to happen to me at the beginning is trying to understand the literal meaning of every expression I found. Then I realized that you don't have to figure out how every single grammar structure works, especially when it doesn't seem to make sense when translating it into your native language. Simply learn it, being aware of the practical use of such expression. Understand that every language has its own traits and unique ways of arranging words.

How long does it take to go from a basic to an advanced level?

When taking an intensive course that guides you in a systematic way, I would say it might take about eight months to gain the necessary grammar and vocabulary knowledge to communicate to a good extent. But develope a good comprehension and fluency can take much more time, and that's why it is important to make learning a more natural approach once you've achieved the necessary knowledge. We'll talk about it in our section "Developing language skills".

It’s better to set aside some time each day to learn than trying to digest a lot of information once a week.

LEARNING BY CONTEXT: Don't just pick up separate words

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You don’t have to get overwhelmed by an endless list of words to learn. That’s simply not how learning a second language happens. Trying to memorize a list of random words will never result in a consistent learning. Here’s where learning by context comes in. When learning by context, new words stick more easily in your mind, and you know how to use them accordingly.

When you learn a new word in its context, it will stick more easily in your mind and you'll know how to use it properly in similar contexts.

How to learn by context?

When getting started it means learning expressions and sentences rather than separate words. For example, you could learn the word "house". You can add a verb and an adjective to that word: "The house is blue", then add more elements like a subject: "Tom lives in the blue house". The use of sentences reinforces the learning of new words since you study them in a coherent relationship with others.

Then it is good to move on and learn through dialogues and readings. Illustrations can be a great deal to help you figure out the scenario of a dialogue. Then acting out is a great way to put into practice the new words and expressions.

Look up new words in the dictionary

When you come across a new word, it is a good idea trying to figure out the meaning by context. But then, it's important to check in the dictionary its correct meaning. It will also help you to know what kind of word it is.

For example, for an English learner, it might be difficult to notice the difference between “good” and “well”, or “advice” and “advise”. That’s why looking for a good definition that tells you whether a word is a verb or a noun, an adverb or an adjective, and provides you examples of the use of such word in the proper context is really important. Bear in mind that the same word can have a different meaning in a different context.

When getting started it is useful to use a bilingual dictionary or translator from your native to the target language (and vice-versa). Once you have gained enough knowledge you should move on and use a common dictionary to see the definitions of the new words directly in the language you are learning.

Here are some really good dictionaries that can serve this purpose:

Google Translate

Merriam-Webster

Diccionario de la Lengua Española WordReference

Diccionario de la Real Academia Española

Just a few words at a time

It is also recommended to limit the number of words to learn to just a few ones every day. It may vary, it can be 5 to 10 but don't exceed this limit. When you try to learn a lot of words at once it's more likely that you'll forget them and end up frustrated. It's better investing more time in studying a few words and the context in which are used. Then reinforce the learning by using them in real life situations.

When learning by context, new words stick more easily in your mind, and you know how to use them accordingly.

DEVELOPING LANGUAGE SKILLS: Immerse yourself in the language

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Every language skill —listening, reading, writing, and speaking— is not actually separate from each other. The development of a skill contributes to the development of the other ones. For example, when you read, you’ll increase your vocabulary and improve your grammar in a more natural way, and for instance, you’ll be prepared to better understand what you hear and how to express yourself.

Of course, only reading won’t guarantee you’ll speak perfectly, it’s only a complementary skill, you have to speak in order to put into practice the structures you learn. It’s also a good idea to read aloud what you read so you can improve your pronunciation and fluency. You have to make sure to invest enough time in every skill, especially in listening and speaking.

A practical approach

Once you have gained enough knowledge you should move on to expose yourself to a real-life language context in which you can develop every skill in the most natural way possible. At first, it might be really frustrating not being able to understand everything you hear and only catch up some basic words.

But don’t worry, that’s how learning works—gradually. I’ve realized that the more you listen —even though you don’t understand everything—, the more your ears get used to the language, and you’ll soon realize how your comprehension greatly increases. Now I would say I understand about an 85% of what I hear in English, depending on the context.

The same we can say when it comes to speaking, to improve fluency there’s no other path than simply speaking as much as possible. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes! Again, that’s how learning works. If we don’t make mistakes, then there isn’t a road to a constant improvement.

Create your own learning environment

When you don't have access to a real-life language context in which you can talk directly with native speakers, a great option is taking advantage of every kind of media such as youtube, blogs, chats, reading books, and so on. The more you expose yourself to this kind of media, soon it will become a second nature to understand the language you are learning. You can find a friend who's also learning the language to practice with. In the web, there are many sites in which you can practice your speaking with other users and even with native speakers looking for a cultural exchange, such as Wespeke with a large community looking to improve their language skills.

Some resources to practice your language skills

To practice your different English (or Spanish) skills is a good idea to look for some graded readings and listening practice, which can be done simultaneously. This way you’ll reinforce the vocabulary you know and learn new words in their proper context.

The following resources can be useful to help you with your goal of developing your language skills:

British Council Learn English

Practical Spanish

FluentU

You should move on to expose yourself to a real-life language context in which you can develop every skill in the most natural way possible.

Learning is an endless path. The aim is making language learning a more natural process in which you can use the language as a tool—rather than merely a subject of learning—that helps you know other cultures, original literature, meet new people around the world, and even a simple way to stimulate and challenge your mind.

Surely, there's much more to say about language learning since there's always something new to learn. I hope to share more tips, experiences, and resources I’ve come across during my journey. I'd also like to know your views. What has been your own experience in learning a second language?

© 2018 David Mejía

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