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What is the best way to learn a new language?

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Learning a new language is a skill which will enrich your life. It opens you to new experiences you didn’t know existed, gives you the ability to explore the world at your own pace, expands your horizons beyond your immediate area and, well, makes you a better person.

Tips on learning a language

The main reason most people don’t learn another language is because it feels too difficult, alien and impenetrable to get to grips with a whole new way of communicating. This feeling of dread can increase if the language you’re interested in doesn’t use the same character set as the language you already use.

That’s the reason most westerners learn languages which use Latin characters, rather than Arabic, Chinese or Korean.

We asked our expert linguists for some advice

Surprisingly enough, we know quite a few translators and interpreters who have got over the hurdles of learning a language already. So we thought we’d ask them for a few tips they used to help them hone their language skills, in the hope that it may inspire some people to learn a new language themselves.

Tess – French Translator

Establish a clearly-defined goal or purpose for learning the language

This will give the best approach to learning. For example, someone looking to travel or live in a foreign country and converse with natives is going to take a very different approach to someone who is living and working in the UK but needs to understand (though not necessarily speak) a foreign language for professional reasons.

In this instance, the first person would be better off focusing on everyday vocabulary (i.e. words needed in real-life scenarios) and conversation classes with a native speaker, whereas the second person may want to focus more on specialist terminology and grammar, to develop their “passive” understanding of the language (reading and listening).

Essentially, anyone looking to learn a language should think about what exactly it is that they want to achieve in the process.

Tackle the basics first

Again, it all depends on the reasons for learning a language, but it is generally a great deal more useful to start with the nuts and bolts of a language (e.g. pronunciation and intonation, numbers, letters of the alphabet, and simple sentences) before trying to tackle more advanced stuff. The BBC offers great, free introductory courses for a range of languages which cover the basics everyone needs in order to progress to more advanced levels.

Find a native-speaking language buddy

Attached to every language is a culture and a way of life, so it’s a great idea to try and get to know a native speaker of the foreign language to give you an insight into “how they do things” in their country. It is also invaluable to learn pronunciation from a native speaker and, more importantly, to have your mistakes corrected by one.

Thanks to the internet, it is increasingly possible to set up language exchanges with foreign language speakers in the local community, which can be used to supplement more formal, grammar-based language learning. I found my Portuguese exchange partner through Gumtree, and there are other useful websites such as www.swapaskill.com where you can swap English conversation classes for other languages.

Helen – Japanese Translator

Experience the language first hand

Of course the best way to learn any language is to live in the country and put yourself in situations where you are forced to use it, perhaps at work or as a medium for learning something else. However, as adults, it doesn’t necessarily follow that we can simply absorb a foreign language.

If you have some language-learning experience, it should be possible to pick up a Western European language to a certain level but you’ll probably need to complement this with some formal study if you want to learn a more “exotic” language.

Carl – Chinese Translator

Be interested in the language and culture

Whatever your reason for learning a language, the process requires two important and fundamental components: curiosity and persistence. To learn a language well, it is essential for me that I’m interested in it. Being genuinely interested serves to drive my curiosity, and it also makes the process much more enjoyable!

Get hold of a good language primer book

When starting a new language, I first read a primer. It’s always good to have an introduction to a language’s grammatical landscape. I will also use a recommended course book as this provides me with structure and an aim. When I start the course book, I try to set myself modest and attainable aims:

  • Complete a chapter a week;
  • Only move on to the next chapter once you’re satisfied your understanding is thorough;
  • Make sure you complete the exercises and tests.

This keeps you on track and gives your language learning much needed structure, though it will require persistence until it becomes habit.

Practice the language as often as you can

Being persistent in engaging with your chosen language keeps it fresh in your mind (and keeps it fun). To do this effectively, multiple sources are an advantage and, if you’re imaginative, it is never boring. YouTube, for example, is a fantastic place to source foreign language material. People the world over love uploading stuff, and there’s a plethora of foreign language TV programmes, films and cartoons.

If there’s a particular TV show you enjoy, see if there’s a cultural equivalent in the language you’re learning. Popular TV formats such as The Apprentice, Big Brother etc. can be found throughout the world and in most major languages.

Even if you don’t understand the majority of what’s being said, you’re still exposing yourself to the language and you can’t help but pick up on the words you’ve already learned. With each viewing you become more acquainted and confident with the sounds and styles of the language.

Make using the language a habit

Adapt your language learning to accommodate your own personal habits. If you are religious, learn how to say your prayers in your new language. If you are responsible for the shopping, try to write the shopping list in your chosen language (I’ve taught my daughter a whole bunch of Japanese nouns just using shopping lists). Music, in conjunction with the lyric sheets, is another fun and efficient way to study.

In short, use your other interests as motivation. It all helps and it makes it fun!

If you have other tips and ideas about learning language, please add them in the comments section.

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