Let me start of by saying that I’m a very modest guy and normally don’t tell the people I meet that I speak multiple languages unless I see an opportunity to either inspire more people to learn more languages or to practice one of the languages I speak or am learning. Many people ask me how I do it and if there are any secrets, so without further ado, here are my 4 secrets to learning languages. If you’re in the polyglot community, or have already learned a language or two, you’ll already know all of if not some of these, but if you’re just starting your first language or want to give high school Spanish a second earnest attempt, then you’re in the right place!
DON’T FOCUS ON GRAMMAR AT THE BEGINNING!
When ever I ask novice language learners what resources they use and they answer with “A grammar book”, I want to start screaming “NOOOOOOOO” like Michael Scott from the office. I’ll explain why and this will sound very counter intuitive to a lot of people and I don’t blame them. It just sounds backwards, but let me explain with a simple analogy that a wise man once said. “Studying grammar at the beginning is akin to teaching a 5 year old child with no prior grasp of mathematics, trigonometry and expecting him/her to understand it”.
Studying grammar at the beginning of a language may work for some people because everybody learns differently, but I feel like it doesn’t work for most people. What I believe you should do, and I say this because this is what works for me and most of the other successful language learners that I’ve met, is try to memorize words and phrases in context and try to learn in the exact same way a baby would. The context is the most important part. It’s easier to learn new words if they’re in context. If you take this list of random words and try to memorize them alone, you’ll most likely struggle.
But if you’re shown the exact same words in the context of a complete sentence; “The man was walking his dog and decided to stop and get groceries on his way home” it ends up being a lot easier to remember. It may seem like magic, and it kind of is. It’s the magic of context!
Anyway, back to the cute babies. Babies aren’t given word lists by their parents and expected to memorize them. In fact, babies aren’t given word lists at all. Their parents just speak to them. Sometimes in really weird sounding voices and at slow speeds. As the baby grows, the parents gradually stop using the weird voices and start talking in longer sentences. Eventually, as the baby gets older it will start to speak. Notice how the baby was never given a grammar book and never had grammar rules explained to it? It’s not a coincidence. It will just try and emulate what it learned from its parents. The baby will make a lot of mistakes and that’s normal. (For children and adults). Nobody accomplishes anything noteworthy without failing a few times. Failure is normal. Without failure the baby can’t improve and neither can you.
So just like the baby, you should try and learn as many words and phrases in context and then try using them with native speakers. You’ll feel like an idiot, trust me. But it’s okay because you’ll improve. If only you guys had witnessed my first Portuguese conversation. It was brutal and I sounded like a caveman, but I pushed through it and improved.
I’m sorry to say this and kill the happy vibes, but you WILL eventually have to study grammar. The good news is that you don’t have to do it until you either have at least a basic grasp of the language or once you’ve reach an early intermediate stage. This is what happens with children too. Once they get old enough, their parents will start to occasionally correct the grammatical errors that they continuously repeat. The reason this works at this stage is due to the fact that the child now has a rudimentary grasp of the language and is now capable of comprehending and retaining the corrections and correct grammar.
Just look at learning a language like building a house. The words and phrases are what hold the house up and the roof is the grammar. You can’t put the roof on without first building the base and the house won’t be complete without the roof. Remember, building a house takes time, so don’t expect over night success. Take your time and try to enjoy the process and before you know it, you’ll have a wonderful new house.
To summarize, all you need to do when you first start is learn as many words and phrases as you can in context and then just use them with native speakers. I’d advise that you wait until you reach a level where you can at least make basic sentences and understand at least a little bit to avoid annoying the native speaker. Most people will be patient, but if all you can say is “Bonjour” or “Hola”, you won’t get very much practice in.
Get as much input from multiple sources as possible!
This next tip is directly tied to the first one. You need to get as much input in from as many different sources as possible. When I start a language, I normally look for vloggers that vlog in the language on YouTube, I search for a couple news websites in the language and I check to see if the language is on www.lingq.com and also if Assimil, Living Language, or Teachyourself have courses for the language. Assimil is my favourite at the moment and I recommend it to all of you guys. The only problem is that some of their courses only exist in French, so if you can’t speak French, you may be unable to use the courses. I have, however, heard of people using Assimil despite the fact that they don’t speak French as it’s still a form of input even if you can’t understand the translations. Believe it or not, I’ve also heard of people learning French in order to be able to use Assimil. Anyway, you’re still training your ears and helping them get used to the new language. You may have to do a little bit of research before you actually start learning just to make sure that you can find things, but it’s worth it, trust me. I decided to try and learn Danish in 2015 and I could hardly find any resources and got discouraged which ultimately resulted in me dropping the language and moving on.
One thing that you’ll immediately notice is that you hardly understand anything. That’s normal. Babies hardly understand anything at first either. If you guys haven’t noticed by now, I’m implying that we should imitate babies as much as possible when we learn languages because babies do it very well. Just the fact that your able to understand this article is proof of that if English is your first language. Keep listening, reading and getting as much input as possible. It will seem tedious at first, but try to watch or read things that interest you. It will speed up the process and it won’t feel as much like work. Over time you’ll notice that you are able to understand more than you could when you started.
Keep in mind that you have a passive vocabulary which is made up of words that you can understand, but not yet use and an active vocabulary which consists of words that you recognize and can use at will. All this input will build up your passive vocabulary which will eventually turn into active vocabulary. The more input you get, the more passive vocabulary you’ll possess. You’ll notice that you’ll start retaining words faster as you get more experienced with the language, so don’t get discouraged if progress is slow at the beginning.
Ps, if you’re using a course book like Assimil, make sure you don’t skip anything… Especially not the parts that talk about food and recipes. I skipped the lessons that talked about food in my Italian Assimil book and it came back to bite me in the ass when I was in Italy trying to read the ingredients on the backs of things at the grocery store. I always thought I wouldn’t need to know any of that stuff, but boy was I wrong. ALL input is important!
Speak and use the language as early and as much as possible!
The third tip that I’d like to mention in this article is probably the most important. YOU NEED TO USE THE LANGUAGE! This is honestly my favourite part. It’s what I work so hard for. It’s like going to basketball practice and then stepping onto the court for your first game. It’s scary, it’s exciting and it’s exactly what you’ve put in all those hours in for.
As I mentioned before, I’d advise that you wait until you can at least speak a little bit and understand a little bit of what is said back to you because you don’t want to annoy people. Start whenever you’re ready, but don’t use “not being ready” as an excuse to procrastinate. When you should actually start speaking is a highly contested topic. Some people say you should start speaking from day one, and some people say you should wait months. I personally don’t think that there is a fixed time frame. I personally just start speaking when ever I feel comfortable. That can range from one week to a couple months. There’s absolutely no rush, just make sure you feel comfortable and that the person you’re talking to also feels comfortable. It’s should be an enjoyable exchange for both parties involved.
The sole reason that languages even exist is to allow for effective communication, so discuss as many topics as you can. Talk about things that you wouldn’t normally talk about. All of this will enrich your vocabulary which will ultimately result in you feeling more comfortable. Don’t be discouraged if you end up in a conversation about a topic that you’ve never discussed before and find that your comprehension drops dramatically. I was very confident in my German until I tried to listen into a conversation about feminism, the refugee situation and racism in German. Not being able to understand is humbling, but don’t fret because it shows you what exactly it is that you need to focus on. Keep using the language and you’ll eventually get better! It’s a very rewarding experience.
Live the language!
The fourth and final tip is probably the most overlooked. The language needs to become part of your life. A lot of people seem to think that you study a language and then just stop at some point. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. Although the actual studying part may stop, you never actually stop learning, not even in your native language. You need to incorporate the language into your life. Make friends in the language, immerse yourself in the culture and food. The food and friends are the best part in my opinion. I’ve always gotten such a high from having deep conversations with people who didn’t speak my native language. There’s just something special about having a conversation and learning something new and knowing that the only reason you were even able to learn that new thing was because you put the effort into learning the other person’s language.
Live the language, it’s now part of your life. Look at languages like children. They may grow up and move out, but they’re still part of your lives.
Alright, so those are the 4 tips that I give to anyone who asks me about language learning. They’re also the exact same things that I do when I learn languages. Follow these tips, and you too should be able to get a little bit closer to your language learning goals. Remember that learning a language is not an overnight process. It will take time, but keep at it and you’ll get it. Remember that it will honestly suck and not be fun at times. Remember that you’ll fail and make a lot of mistakes too, but most importantly, also remember that nobody every achieved anything important without failing a few times first! You can do it!