Learning a foreign language is like learning how to drive.
And no, it’s not because it involves a parent or driving instructor yelling at you because they fear for their lives—although that can also sometimes happen when you’re learning a foreign language.
Instead, foreign language acquisition is like learning to drive a car because nobody is a pro straight out of the driveway.
It’s a process that everyone masters in their own time.
The challenge of learning a foreign language is part of what makes going through the difficulties worth it. There’s a feeling of empowerment once you master a language. Of course, it can be quite frustrating at times while you’re in the learning process. Still, each challenge helps propel you forward to fluency.
No one becomes an expert at anything overnight, so you shouldn’t pressure yourself to master a foreign language so quickly, either. It’s normal to slow down at some point during the learning process.
There are also things you can do to help combat frustration when it comes, and that’s what this post is about.
Here’s a list of five simple yet smart tips to help you along the way as you embark on your foreign language journey.
5 Doggone Easy Tips to Help with Foreign Language Acquisition
1. Know Your Own Level, and Understand That Not All Skills Are Learned Equally
A beginner isn’t going to have the vocabulary of a native speaker. Just like children learn their native tongue, absorbing new words and grammar takes time.
To learn anything new, we build up new vocabulary as we learn. Someone learning to become a geologist or a doctor doesn’t have all the tools and vocabulary they need in the beginning—but they pick it up along the way. Similarly, vocabulary is a key element to language fluency, but there are ways around having a smaller word bank at the beginning.
If you’re struggling to describe something, your pet for example, and you don’t know a particular adjective, think of another way to say it. Think “around” the new word and use what you do know.
Grammar is a little different. Languages have grammar rules in order to maintain the way they operate. In some cases, grammar is trickier to memorize. You have to give yourself the patience to absorb each new skill and incorporate it into your knowledge of the language.
Being aware of what stage you’re at with a foreign language is one of the best things you can do. Yes, it’s important to push yourself, to keep challenging what you can do. But you should also be conscious of your current skill level. It’ll help you feel more comfortable with where you are.
Language is a process, just like any new skill. Acknowledge where you are, but keep going forward.
2. Don’t Be Afraid to Speak Up—Even If You Make Mistakes!
For most of us, our goal when learning a foreign language is to fluently speak it in a real-life context. Writing and reading are often priorities too, but the main aim is usually to do things like carry on a conversation, ask for directions or order at a restaurant. Speaking aloud is crucial to mastering a language.
It doesn’t matter if at first you stumble or can’t get your mouth to make the right sounds. It happens to everyone, and you may even feel nervous and shy. But that embarrassment is going to hold you back.
A big part of learning a language is gaining confidence. You’ll never progress if you don’t try. Fake it till you make it, or so they say, and that’s good advice. You’ve already stepped outside your comfort zone by challenging yourself to learn a new language. Now you have to continue that and talk. An instructor or a native speaker is going to appreciate you trying and struggling more than you not trying at all.
3. Utilize Any Resource That Enhances Your Learning
There are a plethora of resources out there to help you acquire a new language. When you feel stuck, here are some things you can try out.
Read online articles and newspapers
If you struggle to gain the confidence to speak in the language you’re learning, try reading aloud. Anything from a newspaper article to a poem to a children’s book is going to help you practice pronunciation and transition from one word to the next. It’ll also help improve your vocabulary. Break out your dictionary and dedicate time to reading something new each day.
Still, don’t try to read a whole book in another language right away. Start small and build your way up. Beginning with magazines, articles and short writings will prep you for bigger and bigger pieces.
Watch movies (with subtitles)
Films and TV shows are great resources for two big reasons. First, they’re a different medium to learn from. Varying what you use to learn not only mixes it up and makes things interesting, it also allows you to figure out what works best for you.
Second, they provide a cultural aspect to your learning. Seeing what another culture consumes in terms of entertainment, jokes, style and history adds another layer to your knowledge of the culture. Language and culture go hand in hand. It’s very difficult to master a foreign language if you don’t have much knowledge of the culture.
Many foreign shows and movies have English subtitles available. These are great for helping you follow the plot and discern meaning from new words.
Listen to music
Listening to music in a foreign language is beneficial in a similar way to watching foreign films. It adds variety, provides a cultural experience and challenges you.
Don’t expect to understand everything right away. You may only pick out a few words you know at first but as you build up your vocabulary, understanding music, movies and books will all become easier.
Some music providers like Spotify offer playlists of popular music in different countries. Try searching for one to discover different foreign artists that way.
Use apps and play games
With the internet and smartphones, there are so many apps and other online tools you can use to learn and practice your new language. Try out a few so you can determine what works best for you and your lifestyle. And remember to play some games, too—life’s too short to be bored while you’re learning!
4. Change or Adapt Methods That Aren’t Working for You
A learning tool that works for one person may not work for you. You may find that listening to foreign songs doesn’t really enhance your learning, or that a particular app just frustrates you more. That’s OK. Simply ditch what isn’t helping you and try something new.
Play around with different methods of learning to find out what you like. Learning a language can be fun if you figure out the right learning style for you. Old-school flashcards may work better for you than games on a phone. There’s no single “correct” way to learn a language.
5. Acknowledge That Learning a Language Is Not an Overnight Experience
You’ll never be fluent in a language if you’re constantly frustrated with your progress. So remember: this isn’t a quick process. Fluency takes time, practice and consistency.
Make time every day to work with the language. The best way to keep improving is to use the language. Take advantage of the resources out there and mix things up when you can. Congratulate yourself and even celebrate when you master a new skill and incorporate it into your practice.
Finally, you can avoid running into a wall of frustration by remembering that everyone who learns a foreign language has been in your shoes. Frustration is normal, but ultimately it will hold you back from making progress.
Learning a language isn’t a race. If you work with it every day, you’ll find that you’ll get there faster.
As we’ve seen, foreign language acquisition can at times be tricky and frustrating, but you can make it easier—and even fun!—by following these tips. Good luck!
Kendall Hurley is a writer from Anchorage, AK specializing in history and language. She is currently studying Norwegian, with a background in Spanish and French.
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