A lot of people wonder why it’s so hard to learn languages.
The common consensus is that it takes a lot of time and energy—something that I cannot, and will not, deny. But the truth is, instead of the hardship-ridden road that people imagine it is, learning a new language can be a vibrant, colourful journey.
Currently, I speak more than ten languages, but I wouldn’t have been able to come this far purely based on passion and spending five hundred hours on studying each individual language. To help more people find the best way to learn languages, I’ve since compiled a short, 5-step “Surefire Way to Accelerated Language Learning” to get people started on learning a language.
I find that this really works for me, both in motivating me and making the journey a bit easier and more enjoyable, so I hope you’ll find benefits in following this too!
STEP ONE: SIGN UP FOR AN EXAMINATION
Okay, okay, I know what you’re going to say.
You’re learning a language for fun! You don’t want to take exams, it’s a passion project. Exams are too stressful and you’re not sure if you can pass anyway.
Before you wave me off, hear me out.
Sometimes, the hardest part about anything—a project, a programme, an exercise routine—is committing to it. Signing up for an exam would imply that you are now forced to commit, to spend time studying it and to do your best in the exam that you’ve already signed up (and paid) for.
From a Singaporean perspective, too, exams are a constant in our lives as students, regardless of the efforts to reduce them. We know that examinations are important and understand the necessity to study for them.
What better way to motivate ourselves than giving ourselves a goal (to pass a certain level of the language exam), a deadline (by the date of the exam), and a reward (the certificate you receive once you pass the exam)?
STEP TWO: IMMERSE YOURSELF IN YOUR TARGET LANGUAGE
When it comes to learning languages, comprehension (usually) isn’t the issue. Writing and speaking cause more fear than reading and listening, mainly because it involves us having to express ourselves instead of just digesting knowledge.
When expressing ourselves, we may often find ourselves lost when holding conversations at the same level as we are used to hearing in listening passages, or reading in comprehension exercises. This is because it is difficult for us to find the perfect words in a foreign language to get our message across.
To mitigate this problem, we should get ourselves used to daily contact with the target language. In this digital age, that's easier than ever.
Changing the display language of your devices (phone, laptop etc.) to your target language can help improve your reading speed and comprehension skills, as well as help you learn new vocabulary that can be used in conversation later.
Additionally, it’ll get less terrifying to use the language since you see it every day! In the exam, you’ll also find yourself with more time to check since you’ve drastically improved your reading speed.
The motivation to learn what a word means when it’s required to unlock your phone is also, I find, much more than it not serving any purpose except for you to bring your understanding of the sentence it’s in from 80% to 100%.
STEP THREE: LEARN BASIC VOCABULARY AND GRAMMAR
Unfortunately, nobody can avoid the worst part of learning languages. Thankfully, it’s also the most boring part of this 5 step Surefire Way to Accelerated Language Learning, so do bear with me here!
To advance in a language, especially if you’re self-learning it, basic grammar and vocabulary are essential. The best way to get basic knowledge of a language is to sign up for an online course (any basic one should do, but I recommend free sites such as TalkToMeInKorean), and learn the basics of the language’s grammar.
Websites explaining grammar are in abundance online, so if you ever need to check a particular tense, there’s surely to be an article for it too.
As for vocabulary, a quick search of 500 or 1000 most used words in your target language should present you with a list of words to memorise. My recommendation is you memorise them by putting them into flashcards, either physical ones or online ones such as Quizlet. Spend about 5-15 minutes on them every day so you don’t have to specially carve out a chunk of your time for it, and you’ll be able to memorise them in no time.
STEP FOUR: CONSUME FAMILIAR MEDIA
And now for the fun part!
Consuming familiar media translated into your target language is a fun way to study a language; this will help you gain a better understanding of the application of the grammar and vocabulary knowledge you have acquired in Step Three.
By familiar media, this includes both film and literature, though my recommendation is to start with film first since the scenes also help you in your understanding of what’s going on, and you don’t just have to rely solely on voiceovers and subtitles.
A book I’d like to recommend here is Harry Potter, because I’m a true Potterhead. It’s translated into so many languages that there’s a really high chance you’ll be able to easily find a translation into your target language online!
Disney animated films would also be a good choice, given that websites such as Disney+ now have official voiceovers and translation.
The reason why we’re starting with familiar media and not media originally produced in the target language is because when we re-read/watch something we already know the storyline of, all our energy can be spent on understanding and figuring out grammar rules and patterns used in context. Unfamiliar media should be another step taken towards mastery of the language, but only after we’ve gotten a bit more used to the language, since we’ll have to comprehend and digest many more things: character relationships, foreshadowing, and the entire plotline.
STEP FIVE: FIND A BUDDY
As I’ve previously mentioned, speaking is one of the biggest obstacles posed to us as language learners.
To solve this, we can find a buddy! Don’t let your first conversation be with your examiner—trust me, it does not turn out well. Free or paid, using platforms like Italki, HiNative and HelloTalk allow you to talk to a real person in your target language if you don’t have a friend who’s a native or advanced speaker.
Ask them to help correct your pronunciation, and if you still think your accent sounds a little strange you can record yourself and tweak from there! A little trick I always do is to speak into the Google Translate speech-to-text function, and if the language detected isn’t even anything remotely close to what I’m trying to speak, then something is severely wrong.
Well, I hope that this method will work for you too! As long as we’re consistent with our language learning, and we stay motivated, I don’t think any language is “too hard”, as much as lexical similarity does play a big part in determining how long it would take a speaker of one language to learn another.