As language teachers, the most common question we get asked aka the hardest question to answer is this: how can I learn a new language? To start, everyone learns differently. The methods preferred by a visual learner may make a kinaesthetic learner very frustrated. Then, there are age, motivation, language exposure, L1 (first language) interference, and cognitive strategies, among so many other factors that influence language learning. However, in this post, we aim to answer this “impossible” question by distilling our best advice and strategies into 5 major principles.
1) Set realistic, tangible goals
The first question to ask yourself when starting to learn a new language is: what do I want to achieve and by when? Instead of “I want to be fluent”, a realistic, tangible goal is far more motivating and easier to manage. For example, being able to hold a 3-minute conversation with another language learner without breakdowns, read and understand a short story without looking up any words, or order food in the target language in a restaurant. This way, you’ll feel a great sense of achievement and it’ll improve your self-efficacy in the long run.
2) Lots of input
It is widely believed that input (in the form of listening and reading) in the target language is one of the most important aspects of second language acquisition. Ellis (2014, p.38) puts that “If learners do not receive exposure to the target language, they cannot acquire it.” This brings us to the question: what should I listen to/read? And how much input do I need? The answer is you should always listen/read for pleasure. Find an interesting podcast, read a piece of news that you care about, and watch a good film in your target language… These will help you develop an active interest and aid both incidental and intentional learning. You’ll also need a lot of it – try to immerse yourself in this language. The level of difficulty is also important. Study shows that the percentage of the vocabulary necessary for learners to understand written text is around 95% (Laufer, 1989). So don’t listen to/read something too difficult so that you still find enjoyment in doing so..
Learning a language is more than just memorising the words and studying the rules of grammar. It’s essential to understand the specific society’s culture and history that the language is ingrained. Knowing about the current affairs, religious beliefs, and common customs of a culture can help you understand a lot about what people say in your target language. It’s also helpful to be culturally aware – you don’t want to come off being rude by using an expression that’s inappropriate in that culture. In addition, in daily conversations, native speakers often use idioms, phrases, references, and slang naturally in their speech. If you know about the origin of certain idioms, or if you can use them correctly, it’s going to add so much flavour and emotion to your language.
4) The 5 “P”s
Namely, practice, practice, practice, practice, and practice. When you have all the input from listening and reading, it’s time to put what you’ve learned into practice. Studies show that for beginner learners, it is more beneficial to practice speaking with another language learner instead of a native speaker. To do this, you can find a language partner, join a language learning group so all of you can share progress, or use an online forum to interact with others. You don’t need to live in your target language community to immersive yourself in real-life situations.
5) Age is just a number
People always believe that you can learn a language easily as a kid, but when you are an adult – it’s getting harder and harder. However, it is a myth. Not only is learning a new language at a later age easier than you think, but it also comes with great benefits. While children acquire a language organically and instinctively, adults learn via conscious effort, strategies, and systematic structures. Studies show that some adults learn a language much quicker than children as they have developed better cognitive strategies and are much more motivated. So, it’s never too late to learn a language! You can start anytime – why not now?
Ellis, R. (2014). Principles of instructed second language learning. In M. Celce-Murcia, D. Brinton and M. Snow (eds.), teaching English as a second or foreign language (4th ed.) (pp. 31–45). Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.
Laufer, B. (1989). What percentage of text-lexis is essential for comprehension? In C. Lauren & M. Nordman (Eds.), Special language: From humans to thinking machines (pp. 316–323). Clevedon, Eng- land: Multilingual Matters.