Did you know that you can learn to speak a language in only three simple steps? As a language nut myself, I’ve learned a few things about learning languages, and I want to share those with you, the aspiring language learner. I won’t call these “secrets,” because they’re hardly hidden, but I would guess that a lot of people have overlooked them.
I know you’re dying to know what the three steps are, so before describing them in more detail, here they are:
Well OK, I guess it’s more than just three steps when you start iterating on #3, but you get the point. Learning a language can be boiled down into these three parts, and if you leave out any one of them, you’re bound to be disappointed. Now then, let’s look at each one in detail!
Most people have this one down. Studying can involve lots of things: flashcards, language classes, text books, software, you get the picture. But don’t agonize too much over what material you choose for studying. Sure, do your research, but it’s better to just use one than to try a bunch of different ones and not make any progress, because they didn’t match your learning style exactly. Just pick one and go after it!
The purpose of studying is to learn vocabulary, and intellectually understand the grammar of the language, in order to use it when you’re practicing. The intellectual understanding part is actually kind of like training wheels at this point–they help you along, but eventually you’ll get so used to the language that you can leave them behind. Take Spanish, for example. I still remember some grammatical rules of Spanish from when I studied it years ago, but for the most part I just speak it now without thinking. Internalizing is the ultimate goal, but for now the best way to take in all that grammar quickly is to understand it on an intellectual level.
Also note that studying is only one of the steps. If you just study and never practice, you will not learn to speak the language (note: this is the voice of experience!). When I was learning Spanish, I did a lot of studying. Casette tapes, textbooks, software, I went through them all. And at the end of it, I asked myself “How come I’m not fluent yet? Maybe I need to go buy another resource that will push me the rest of the way to fluency.” I was completely wrong, but fortunately it was around that time that I started practicing Spanish, which leads us to our next point:
Now, this is the scary part, especially for introverts like me. I’m comfortable hiding behind my grammar book and dictionary, but if I have to talk to a real live person, I’d rather just stick to studying! But if you are serious about learning to speak a language, you have to practice. This is not an option. No amount of study will make you fluent; you have to actually speak a language to learn how to speak it. Funny how that works, right? We understand the concept with learning to drive, learning to ride a bike, etc., so it only makes sense that you have to speak in order to learn to speak.
Now if you just want to read a language, or be able to write in it, you can go ahead and keep studying and never say a word. But once you get over the fear of making a fool of yourself (and you will make a fool of yourself, I assure you!), it is so exhilerating to get out there and start speaking a language, even though it’s hard.
Wait, this isn’t really a step, is it? Actually this is one of the most important things in language learning: You have to keep at it. Many people have dusty language courses on their bookshelves because they didn’t follow this step, and they gave up. Keep at it! Language learning doesn’t happen overnight; it takes lots of time and effort.
I might add that your efforts will be most fruitful when this repeat happens every day. You will learn much more in thirty minutes every day than cramming for 3.5 hours on the weekend. And this goes for both studying and practicing. Since the middle of January, through some fortunate opportunities, I have been practicing speaking Korean every weekday, and it’s been doing a wonder of good for my Korean speaking abilities!
And getting into this routine of Study, Practice, Repeat is important for your longterm duration. This is how it works for me: I study grammar and vocabulary, and it’s tedious. Then the next time I practice speaking, I try out the things I’ve learned, and they get stuck deeper in my memory. Plus, I start noticing the people I talk to using the same words and grammatical forms that I’ve learned, and I think “Ah, this is progress!” So I ride that high to my next study session, where I try to work even harder to be even better the next time I practice. This is a great way to stay motivated, because language learning is hard work, no doubt about it!
Go forth and conquer!
I hope this blog post is useful to you, whether you have started learning a language and given up, or are thinking of starting soon. Just be sure to follow these three simple steps, and you will be on your way to an amazing language learning adventure!