Language Learning Tips and Tricks

One of the frustrating parts of learning a second foreign language (and a third, and a fourth) is that, even if you achieved decent proficiency in a first foreign language, all following foreign languages take just as much time to learn.
Not counting high school French and Spanish (and one year of college Latin), I did achieve decent proficiency (to the point where I spoke the standard dialect better than a lot of locals lacking a high school or university education) in Chinese. And now, learning Turkish and Russian, it’s easy to forget all the hours and effort that went into attaining that proficiency, to wish I could just snap my fingers and have the language on my tongue.
But I did spend a lot of time learning Chinese, a tremendous amount of it, and that time is why I achieved proficiency. At the same time, however, I encountered many undergraduate students taking upper-level Chinese classes – and studying over an hour a day – at the top-tier school where I did two quarters of a PhD who are still struggling with basic production and comprehension outside of the classroom. Time spent is not necessarily time spent wisely. So here I’m going to give some (perhaps painful, but quite effective) language-learning tips:

Put yourself in situations where you are forced to use the language
My second time in Beijing I shared a flat with three Chinese recent university grads, only one of whom spoke English (but chose not to speak it to me). I needed to use Chinese to do everything – ask how much my share of the electricity bill was, figure out how to use the washing machine, explain that the pressure cooker had just exploded rice all over the ceiling (and ask how to fasten the lid correctly next time). At first it was agonizing, but it also forced me to speak under pressure, placing a value on clear communication. Having to apply grammar and vocabulary learned in class also made it “stick” better than mere rote memorization.

Watch TV and movies
This is a lot easier now with youtube and filesharing. When I was in Beijing I bought an entire set of a popular comedy drama and watched an episode a day with subtitles. Every time they used vocabulary I didn’t understand, I wrote it down and looked it up. Every time they used an interesting turn of phrase, I wrote it down to use later. Most of the vocabulary and grammar I had learned before in class, but watching the TV series helped me understand how people actually used it in natural speech, as well as how to appropriately adjust speech for different situations. Exposing yourself to media – even if you can’t understand all of the content – also attunes your ears to different accents, and different modes of speech befitting people playing different roles in society, which will again make it easier for you to understand the language, or at least catch the words you know, outside of the classroom setting.

Take classes or learn a skill in the target language/Do tasks in the target language
This can be harder if you don’t live in a community where the target language is spoken, but if you can do this (at a community center perhaps?) it is really effective – not only are you practicing the language, but you are creating bonds between the language and specific skills or knowledge? In short, you are training your brain to approach certain problems or a certain task in the target language. . For some people, the actual physical motion also helps them attach more real meaning to the language. Even if you don’t have the opportunity to take a class in the target language, have someone explain how to cook a dish, call a taxi, or turn on the washing machine.

Get a language exchange partner
Find someone who will practice with you and correct your mistakes. While studying abroad in Beijing the first time I met with two Chinese students twice a week each. Each time we prepared one topic, or brought a specific list of conversation-starting questions. For one hour I would help them practice English, and then for one hour they would help me practice Chinese. Most of the time we just conversed freely – and when I said something incorrectly, they would point out my mistake. Sometimes we went to eat at the school canteen or would go off on some errand, like fixing my bike, and I would learn through their guidance how to complete these activities in correct, natural Chinese. If you don’t live in a community with native speakers, there are plenty of language-exchange social websites (like Live Mocha), or CouchSurfing is a great resource – message someone who speaks the target language, and set up a Skype exchange.

Read unmodified material.
Even at the beginning stages, reading natural material will help you understand sentence structures, pick out the words you know, develop reading comprehension strategies, and learn how words are used within their cultural context. At a higher level, it’s a good way to learn new vocabulary in context and finesse appropriate use of the language. When in China I would buy magazines with short articles or stories and, as with TV shows and movies, underline interesting phrases or vocabulary I didn’t know, and then look up the later. Popular magazines are often a good place to start – the articles are shorter, and generally contain more commonly used terms and less dense or formal language.

Write your own practice sentences and dialogues.
Do read over the dialogues and practice sentences in your book. But instead of copying them over and over again, use them as models to write your own. When learning Chinese, I would write or look up ten sentences for every new vocabulary term. Putting the word in context helped me remember it (and remember how to actually use it) a lot better than just writing it over and over again (which is how a lot of students practice Chinese vocabulary). When you are done, go over your practice sentences and dialogues with your language partner. Read them out loud, and have them correct any grammar, pronunciation, or incorrect/unnatural usage.

Listen to audio or podcasts
I listened to audio from my Turkish textbook at the gym or while walking – again, and again, and again, letting the sounds drill themselves into my head. If I’m at home or alone, I will listen and repeat. I try to find material that has accompanying text, so I can make sure I understand what I’m hearing, can look up words I don’t know, and can visualize the conversation. Listening to the same material and memorizing the sounds will both familiarize you with the words and phrases so you hear them when they pop up in conversation (even if the general level of the conversation is above your comprehension), and train your brain for correct pronunciation. Generally, I listen to one thing several (or many) times, until I understand what is being said completely, and can replicate it.

Play the tour guide, translator, or tutor
Tutoring beginning learners in your target language can help cement your knowledge of grammar and force you to really examine certain aspects of the language like vocabulary use and sentence structure. My first time studying in Beijing (before I moved into the apartment with all Chinese speakers) my roommate was an American taking Chinese classes at one level lower than me. Helping her with homework or answering some of her questions forced me to double-check my understanding, refreshed my memory, and made me more careful. Later, when my mother visited me in China, I wrote her a (rather lengthy) regional guidebook and phrasebook, and played the tour guide and translator when we were out. Having responsibility for another person steps up the stakes in language use, and writing a phrasebook (or even a shorter language cheat sheet) forces you to go back and check to make sure everything you are teaching them is actually correct.

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