In an ever more global and connected world, knowing a foreign language is becoming a more valuable and necessary skill. Fortunately, the modern age has added a new dimension to language learning and today’s learner has more tools at his disposal than ever before, all thanks to the Internet. But at the end of the day, it’s still the same old problem that you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. Learning a language still takes persistence and the willingness to learn, and unfortunately there is no tool yet invented to combat that, and I don’t think there ever will be, but the problem in successful language learning may lie in us purposefully choosing the most difficult path.
So what does it take to learn a language? Let’s start by admitting that if you’re above the age of six, or so, it is not an easy feat. The natural affinity of children to learn and absorb a language has almost disappeared by the time they reach teenage years, which is often when many begin to learn a foreign language in schools throughout the world. However, rather than learning from the best and most capable at the task, we often don’t even look at the way we learned our first language before trying to learn another.
By ages 6 to 8, the average child has a vocabulary of 10,000 words and it’s only around that time that, depending on where they live in the world, they first start learning about grammar and the workings of a language. Again, that’s 10,000 words before anyone teaches them about nouns, proper verb usage, and sentence structure. Sadly, that’s what your typical language learning course centers on – the rules and regulations before you have enough tools in your language toolbox to work with them.
English is now the lingua franca of the world, the international language of entertainment and business alike. In many places around the world, it’s taught in elementary schools, but I doubt that most non-native English speakers will say that that’s where they really learned it. Rather, it was through cartoons, movies, and TV, and nowadays the Internet, how they absorbed the language. Immersion was their true teacher.
So if I were asked – how does one learn a foreign language – my first tip would be that you’re not going to do it with just three lessons a week from a teacher in a classroom setting, or something like that. You have to surround yourself with the language, make it a part of your daily life, something that you can’t run away from or ignore in your more lazy moments. You have to make it a race that you keep stepping into. Make yourself learn, and like I said before, the Internet has many tools waiting to be used.
The first step can start with the way you access the Internet. The browser you are using probably has English as its language, but that could be changed to the language you’re trying to learn, though that’s only a good idea if you’re familiar enough with it to let memory guide you. Similar things can be done with many websites by changing the interface language. The same could be done for many of the computer programs that you use in your daily life. Have you, despite reaching adulthood, still not lost your love for cartoons? Try re-watching them in the language you are learning, as their simple dialogue and short duration could be perfect for a beginner like you. In short, find the familiar stuff and make them teach you new things.
I truly believe such passive learning is necessary, but it is not sufficient. You will have to do some hard, active learning by expanding your vocabulary, and for that, there are plenty sites out there. Memrise is one of the better ones, and it has thousands of courses in many languages created by regular users just like you. There are courses for all difficulty levels, from beginners to advanced speakers, but you should probably find a good course aimed towards beginners, or perhaps one with the 1000 most common words of the language. Learning just a few words, but doing it every single day, can help you quickly progress towards fluency.
Once you have gained some vocabulary reading and analyzing, the written word is the next step. Do you read the news often? Try to find a news website in your foreign language, preferably one that is written in simple enough language for a novice to understand. Spend your time reading the articles. If you come across a word you don’t know – look it up. In fact, whether you’re using Chrome or Firefox, you will no doubt find plenty of apps and extensions that look up words in a dictionary at the click of a button. Make it a habit of yours to read in the language every single day.
But reading alone isn’t enough because you also need comprehension, and the best tool for that would probably be YouTube. Since you might not have the luxury to travel to a different country to learn a foreign language, then absorbing it through videos might be the next best thing. If you already watch YouTube videos for entertainment, then try to find their equivalents in the language you are learning. Nowadays video game let’s plays make up the bulk of YouTube’s most popular videos. Watching a let’s play, especially if it’s a game you are already familiar with, can provide you with an environment that is familiar enough to make learning new words and concepts easy.
Now, at first you might feel discouraged by your inability to comprehend the words said or the full meanings of sentences, you might think this would be a lot easier if everyone just spoke slower, but don’t let that keep you down. Just relax and remember that learning a language is ultimately a passive endeavor and you can’t force understanding to come to you. With time, your ear for the language will become keener and sentences will no longer be puzzles that have to be deciphered.
In summary – build up your vocabulary, learn the words first and then go out into the world to absorb it in the wild, and only then try to tackle the beast of proper grammar. However, the most important thing is to have fun and love what you are doing. Without those things, learning a language will become a grueling task that you will abandon out of frustration. Know your limits and don’t force yourself to take on more than you can handle. Remember the old fable of The Tortoise and the Hare – slow and steady wins the race – and there is no race harder, where victory is more ill-defined than learning a foreign language.