effective language learning

If you decided to learn a new language, congratulations! A whole new world is just opening up for you. But you also know how easy it is to screw up such an amazing experience as learning a foreign language – most probably you have such a story yourself and certainly you know many people who started learning a language and basically just wasted their time.

What to do to be successful at learning a new language and not to lose the motivation somewhere on the way? In this and the next article I’ll share my personal tips and tricks which have helped me learn foreign languages (with little budget and mostly without even leaving my country).

  1. Fall in love – that’s the best start! Fall in love with the language, obviously. If, accidentally you also fall in love with a native speaker of this language, it’ll speed up the process ;). But still the most important thing for you is to, at least, like the language. Emotions prove to be the best motivation-driver.So before you begin with anything, ask yourself a question: „Why do I want to do it?” If the answer is „I have to”, it’ll be very hard for you to succeed, unless you also find some other, more personal reasons which will motivate you. Personally, I am mostly driven by the beauty of the language and the satisfaction speaking a foreign language gives me; for example, I decided to learn Portuguese while listening to a live performance of a song!

  2.  Clear goal – just as in anything else that you embark upon, the key to success is to set a clear goal – challenging but realistic. The goal could be, for example, being able to communicate on a basic level in Italian before you go on holidays there this summer; or being able to make a short conversation with your Italian friend in 3 months. Specifying your goal might be the hardest point on this list, especially that we’re not used to doing this with learning languages – a bad habit developed at school which imposed on us a specific curriculum. But now it’s your call – what do you really want to achieve?
    Ok, do you have it? Now, write it down and share your goal with a friend, and inform her/him how your progress is, ideally on a weekly basis. Research shows that just by doing so, you will be 33% more successful than those who just have the goal in their head. The next step is to prepare a plan of achieving your goal, to review it as often as possible, and to track your progress (and adjust the plan if necessary).

  3. Practice every day – no, I’m not kidding. You need to be in touch with the target language every day, even if you can only spend 15 mins on it! Reserve some time to actively learn new elements of language but also to revise and repeat what you already learnt. I noticed that my brain absorbs most just after waking up and just before falling asleep, so I try to revise then. Many people fail in learning a foreign language because they think just attending the course is enough. It is most definitely not. I’d especially advise not to attend weekend courses, where learning material from several sessions is squeezed into one, long and exhausting session. When you have classes twice a week, and you also have to prepare for them on other two occasions, this already makes it 4 times a week when you learn the language.
    I remember my rough beginnings with now-beloved Spanish: it was an obligatory second language course at the university, once a week, in a basement without natural light or oxygen. „Lektorat” is none of the students’ priority, let alone those with English major and sophomore year’s workload. Exposure to Spanish once a week didn’t result in absolutely any progress, even though I can’t say I was not willing or interested. Only when I started learning it almost every day, everything suddenly started to make sense.

  4. There is no „miracle” method – methodologists agree that communicative method proves to be the best. This means that you should work on a variety of skills, including speaking, from the very beginning. Grammar and skills learning (listening, reading, writing, speaking) should always aim at communication and not be a goal on its own. In practice it means that throughout the class you should have frequent occasions to speak, even if this particular class is focused on one skill development. This said, memorizing, learning just from a grammar book or almost-automatic repetition techniques are not effective methods of learning English or any other language.

  5. You need a guide - combine structured, guided learning with self-study, revision and practice. You do need a guide when you begin with the language, while at a later stage you can learn quite autonomously. By structured learning I mean regular classes, private lessons, language tandem or self-study professional course. At least 50% of your learning should happen on your own, outside of the „classroom”. That’s why having even the best teacher cannot guarantee you success. At an intermediate and advanced level, your involvement should be actually much higher (about 80%).

  6. Do it smart way – use technology! There are many free resources out there. No more excuses that you have no time or money to practice every day :) My favorite app is Duolingo (available for almost all Western languages), which makes you study for a short time every day and rewards you accordingly. So that’s my trick to study every day (and it’s pure fun)!

  7. Be bold - use every possible situation to practice the new language. Talk to the taxi driver, and make a hotel reservation in the local language; talk to people in their native language even if you know you could communicate in English. It is hard to start but you will remember these lessons forever!

  8. Do not lose momentum – everybody is quite enthusiastic in the beginning of the learning journey so enjoy it and keep it going. But also prepare for the moment when the enthusiasm is gone; avoid long breaks (going back to point 3…), so have a plan for your school’s holidays or your tutor’s absence. If you feel you lose your momentum, actively seek motivation, for example by asking your teacher/tandem partner for feedback.

  9. Surround yourself with the language – though not so easy when you just begin with the language, it’s important that you make your learning as „real” and practical as possible. Find what suits you best, what you normally like doing, and try to do it as early in the target language as possible. A textbook should not be your only resource. Maximize the exposure to the language by listening to songs, browsing websites, watching cartoons, chatting with friends – whatever you like.

  10. Talk to yourself! – you may laugh, but I love this method, especially when my language capability is still very low and I’m really ashamed to talk in public! When I talk to myself, though, I am really forgiving ;) I do it often before classes to practice what I am going to say; it’s also a great exercise for the tongue to get ready to pronounce different sounds. If talking to yourself is weird for you, you sure talk to your pet, don’t you?