There have been several popular articles and books written about the importance of Motivation in Language learning, Best Language learning techniques, Top 10 most important reasons for learning a foreign language or ways of becoming a successful language learner. On my blog, I usually write articles that are quite specific and are often aimed only at a fairly narrow audience. I usually talk about various different aspects of Mandarin Chinese and other languages, which might not be that interesting to everyone, so I thought I could try to work a bit on topics that are more general just to make my blog more diverse.
I tried to keep things as simple as possible and asked myself the following question: If I had to choose only five things that would sum up all of my language learning strategies and have these five things in mind during my language studies, what would they be? As you can imagine, this was quite a complicated question and even after giving it a lot of thought I realized that naming only five was still very challenging.
I had to turn the question around a little bit. In the end I came to the conclusion that in my experience whenever something was going wrong in my language learning process, I was neglecting one of the following:
Whether it is your daily study routine or the sheer reason for which you are learning languages, motivation is the key and probably the most important factor in order for you to achieve good results in a relatively short amount of time. The easiest way to learn anything is to become completely fascinated by it. It has been said many times before and I completely agree that if you love what you do then a) you can spend as much time doing it as you want without feeling bored or tired b) the time you spend on doing what you love doing is not work c) if you study something you love you will remember things much faster and although speaking a language is a skill and only being able to remember something fast will not automatically make you speak the language well, it helps an incredible deal.
A lot of people talk about talent when it comes to language learning and while it is important too, it is the drive towards the language of your interest that is decisive in the long run. Even a talented person will achieve his goals slower, get bored soon and will end up being frustrated when studying just for the sake of studying or keeping up with a study plan
Being and staying motivated especially with more difficult languages is not an easy thing to do. Inevitably you will get into a situation where you’ll feel down and feel as if you’ve hit a wall. Here are some things can help you be and stay motivated:
- Genuine interest. As a basis, choose a language that you are driven to and are genuinely interested in, everything else will be much easier this way.
- The will to learn more. Find something that makes you want to learn more of the language: a will to be able to flawlessly communicate, be mistaken for a native speaker, the ability to read books, understand movies, write articles in that language, be better than others, impress your friends or the general public (if that’s what helps you) ect.
- Visit the country where the language is spoken. Go to the country where the language is spoken as soon as you can. Finding out that you can communicate your thoughts in a whole variety of situations with no help in a new language can be a huge motivational boost.
- Fight procrastination. If you suffer from procrastination, separate your study time into smaller time units (10 minutes), set up deadlines (try to finish a lesson/book/word list say by 4 pm), invent a task that you need to do that day that is more important than language learning (say look for a job), try to force yourself into doing it, but since you are procrastinator, you will avoid that new task at all costs and will probably study languages instead. Be impulsive and do only what you feel like doing at that very moment, but always try to do something. You can find more useful tips on how to fight procrastination here.
- Create a study log and frequently record yourself speaking in the foreign language to monitor your progress. Often when you’ll look back at your levels from 5 months ago you’ll be surprised at how much you've learned, which in turn will give you a little motivation to boost.
Lots of input
As simple and easy as it sounds, in order to learn how to speak a language, you really do need to be exposed to it, learn it from someone/somewhere and that somewhere will not be a textbook. Textbooks are a great way to get you started and help you understand the rules of a language if you can’t figure them out on your own, but they will not teach you how to speak.
- Read or listen to something you understand. It has been said before and is something I fully agree with, that you need to read or listen to something that you can understand, in order to learn language patterns more efficiently. If you listen to something you can understand you will be able to get into the minds of the speakers and realize how to produce the language structural patterns on your own more efficiently.
- Quantity. Naturally the more input you have, the clearer the patterns of a language become to you so reading and listening to as much material that you can understand is the key. This is often a problem in the beginner stages and will probably require you to create your own study dialogues or ask your native speaking friends to record them for you. You can either work on the same material over and over to internalize the structures that are in it, or work on new material every time which is something I prefer, since you are pushed more to give that little extra effort to understand something you never heard before.
- Read more. By far the best way to improve your speaking skills is reading. If you compare reading to pure listening or echoing (a simple technique where you repeat everything you hear word by word simultaneously with the material you are listening to), the advantage of reading is, that when you vocalize everything you read (either orally or in your mind only), making that extra effort in producing the sounds, spending a little more time and focus on each sentence will help you consciously and subconsciously make associations in your mind between sounds and meanings, structures and meanings, situations and expressions etc.
- Listen to youtube vloggers. They are a fantastic source of language spoken from the 1st person perspective and enjoyable to listen to. Vloggers usually talk about where they've been, what they have seen, what they have done and what they think about all sorts of topics - in other words exactly the things you need to know how to say.
- Listen to political talk shows. To perfect your language skills, listen to news or political talk shows preferably with several participants, so that you can learn from them not only how to speak on your own (monologues, direct replies to questions by the participants) but also how to talk to someone else (listening to the participants interact).
- Try to repeat or simultaneously translate what you hear. Listening to something in a foreign language that you don’t quite understand can be tiring and it can be a challenge trying to stay focused. In this case you can either repeat what you hear along with the speaker or try to simultaneously translate the material you hear. In both cases, you’ll be forced to keep paying attention to what you are listening to much more.
Lots of output
Again as simple as it sounds, speaking a language is a skill as any other and to become good at it you need to practice it. Most language learners are learning their foreign languages outside of the country where these languages are spoken so finding someone to talk to on a regular basis can be a challenge, especially with more exotic languages. Luckily with modern communication this problem can be solved to a large extent.
- Online voice and text chatting. Go to websites like italki.com and find a language exchange partner.
- Talk to yourself.
- Practice describing one topic only. Whether talking to someone or talking to yourself, try to practice describing one topic and one topic only and do not drift away in your conversation. It might seem easy, but since you are limited in your foreign language it is actually a very challenging thing to do and the ‘drift’ is basically your brain trying to take an easy way out. Try to stick to one topic for as long as you can. An especially difficult thing to do is to describe rules of complicated games.
- Talk without interruption for 5 minutes. If you have an exchange lesson over skype, try talking on your own for 5 minutes. It works miracles. If you are a shy speaker, somewhere by the second minute you will start feeling comfortable and realize that speaking is actually not that bad.
I heard a gymnastics coach say once that if you skip one practice, you’ll need one week to make up for it. If you miss an entire week’s worth of practice, you’ll need a month to make up for it and if you don’t practice for an entire month, you can start all over again.
As with learning anything, without being consistent a lot of your effort will be put out in vain and you will feel as if you’re constantly starting over. This is especially true with for language learning before you’ve reached the so called epiphany moment. Think about the epiphany moment in language learning as that moment when you first realized how to ride a bicycle and that feeling you had when you knew what exactly to do to stay on two wheels. After having reached this point, even if you stop learning the language completely, you can get the hang of it easily should you start learning it again in the future.
The whole point of being consistent is to get to a level where the language will resonate in your mind and sentences and structural patterns will appear out of nowhere until eventually one day you will reach that epiphany moment. Here are some tips to help you stay consistent with language learning:
- Build a habit. Even if you don’t feel like it very much, try to do a little bit of something every day, until it becomes a habit. Lack of motivation can easily extend for days and weeks and you’ll be right where you started in no time.
- Diversify. Try to find a lot of different things that you can do in the language, read books, watch TV, talk to people, write articles, translate, read about your school project in a different language ect. Have a list of these things posted on your desk where you can see them so that when you don’t know what to do or don’t feel like learning, you’ll have things to choose from.
- Have at least 3 lessons a week. In my case the absolute minimum study time outside of the country where the language is spoken was 3 lessons a week without additional review. Anything less than that and I felt like I was starting over again. With more difficult languages I would consider completely leaving everything behind and going to the country where the language is spoken from day one for a complete immersion.
I see review as a way to trick your brain into thinking that something is important by going through it over and over again. Once the brain thinks a piece of information is important, it will remember it. Review techniques have improved significantly over the years and there are several great SRS programs (Anki ect.) out there that can help students better organize their reviews, but as great as they are, they are only tools and in the end the work has to be done by the brain.
Some things you can do to improve your review:
- Create hand written word lists. Create good, old school, hand-written word lists based on your language conversations and review them every evening. I prefer hand written word lists to SRS because they are not so ‘sterile’ and I can remember words by a lot of memory aids that SRS does not provide me with (their position on the page, the way I wrote them, by the preceding/following set of words ect.)
- Reading review. When reading, circle-in words you don’t know, pull a line to the side of the page and write the translation over there. Review every ten pages. The circles will make it easier to find the words on the page and the reason for the translation on the side of the page far from the word is that you just won’t see it right next to your word. If you can’t come up with the translation for the word, read the entire sentence it is in. Nine times out of ten, you will remember what the word means.
- Listen to podcasts or watch recorded talk shows online in foreign languages and take notes of words that you don’t know. Pause/rewind yourself through the entire recording and then play it again. Review every evening and/or listen/watch to the same podcast over and over again.