Let me guess.
The internet is full of one-size-fits-all strategies for language learners.
Let’s just say there are two types of blog posts floating around the web giving you language learning advice: the right ones and the wrong ones.
The wrong ones are the ones you know are wrong before you ever click on them.
They have titles like “How to Get Fluent in Just Three Hours!” and are the linguistic equivalent of fat-loss pills and miracle foods.
The right ones are normally well-researched articles that hone in on one aspect: the “trick,” the “hack,” the “secret” that the author thinks is important.
But even those are normally riddled with generalizations that don’t take into account individual differences in language learning.
So you could read every single one of those good ones, the ones that share with you some narrow slice of the truth.
Or you could learn the whole truth and nothing but the truth, the underlying linguistic truth.
In the last several decades, linguists and neurologists have worked with sociologists and psychologists and educationalists and everything in between, and the anticlimactic truth is that the puzzle is already pieced together. We already know a lot about how we learn languages, and a surprising majority of it is pretty straightforward.
So instead of reading up on the next superfood, let’s tackle how you actually learn languages by looking at what’s known about how language functions, what happens in the brain when we learn a language, and the sociology and practicals of how a new language actually looks in your life.
There are four steps here, and they’ll look different for every learner, but what your brain is doing behind the scenes is the same for everyone.
So let’s pack up, consider the path ahead and get you headed in the right direction!
How to Learn Languages Your Own Way in 4 Decisive Steps
Step 1: Learn a Little About Language
You only have to follow this step if you want to skip endless rote memorization, frustrated facepalming, moments of utter hopeless confusion and having to start from scratch every time you learn a new language.
So if you like struggling, skip on down to Step 2.
If you don’t, take a minute to zoom out and ask the big question: What is language?
You might answer that it’s the thing we use to socialize every day, the thing you’re reading, the thing I’m writing and the way we’re engaging in this exchange of ideas right now. But that’s what language does, not what it is.
We’ll get to why this is important in Step 2. For now, here’s your first big piece of learning advice: Stop thinking about language as one big monolithic thing. Forget about the forest for a second, and let’s look at the trees.
All languages are made up of five systems:
- Phonology (speech sounds): The most basic component of language is the way we push air through our mouths and noses to make sounds that have meaning. Phonology studies all the sounds of a given language, how they’re pronounced and how we use them.
- Morphology (words and word parts): The morphology (from Latin morpho, meaning “shape” or “form”) refers to words and their parts, like prefixes and suffixes. English morphemes would include words like “book” and “run,” but also particles like “-ly” or “un-” that aren’t standalone words even though they have meaning.
- Syntax (word order and sentence structure): Syntax refers to the underlying rules and logical patterns that generate that magical formula that determines the exact sequences words must be arranged in to make sense.
- Semantics (meanings of sounds, words and phrases): When we talk about “heads of state” or “heading up a committee,” we know it’s not about actual literal human heads, but rather some other extension of the semantic properties of “head.” Semantics is the relationship between the sounds, word parts and phrases we use, and the meanings they’re meant to point our minds to.
- Pragmatics (social and situational context): In language and meaning, context is key. Pragmatics is the system of language that tells us without thinking whether someone is talking about a “flower” from a garden or “flour” for baking, and the system that directs us to choose between phrases like “excuse me, I need to use the restroom” and “hang on a sec, I gotta run to the john.” It’s like semantics in context, and there’s a lot of overlap between the two.
The reason looking at language like this is so powerful is that it enables you to take something impossibly large, unknowable and unwieldy—language—and break it down into parts that you can begin to wrap your head around.
Do you still understand nothing in your French class, even after two semesters? That doesn’t mean you’re “bad at languages,” but it might mean that phonology—being able to hear and recognize the sounds of the language—is challenging for you. And that’s golden, because you can’t fix the imaginary problem of being bad at languages, but there are a thousand ways to wake up the parts of your brain that distinguish between speech sounds.
When I started learning Spanish, I used to feel like I’d never understand reflexive constructions with indirect objects, sentences like “Se le dijo que le tocó mudarse” (“he/she was told that he/she needed to move”).
For me, this problem was morphological and syntactical: I didn’t understand how the parts of a verb like decirse (the main verb of this sentence, which, thanks to Spanish morphology, doesn’t even appear in this sentence) were broken apart when conjugated, and my confusion with the word order meant I never knew what was happening to the le and which word was acting on it.
My English brain looks for a subject to be followed by a verb and then nicely tied up in an object (“they told him to sign up”) but Spanish has a different logic that was totally foreign to me. Pinpointing that problem and learning that foreign logic was the thing that saved me from hours of frustrated studying spent on all the wrong things.
If you can dedicate just one day to learning about language itself, it’ll pay off throughout your language learning career. As you pick a language and start to expose yourself to it, remember to also understand it in terms of these five systems: What are the sounds like? Are there word parts that I see occurring in many different contexts? Do native speakers find this a ridiculous word to use here, and if so what is an appropriate synonym and why?
Step 2: Embrace Your Strongest Learning Styles
That’s no typo: You’ll need to engage your strongest learning styles, plural, to learn a language.
If you think of yourself as simply a “visual” or “hands-on” learner, someone who needs to read it to understand it, or someone who lacks some nonexistent thing called “book smarts,” you’re selling yourself way too short. And that’ll get in the way of your language learning.
There are many well-known frameworks and tests out there for determining your learning style, from the VARK to the Myers-Briggs personality test. They can provide some valuable insights, but they also encourage you to think in absolutes and either-ors.
That’s a shame, because we all have multiple intellectual strengths.
My favorite framework for showing that is the theory of multiple intelligences, which holds that there’s not just one “general intelligence” that everyone has to different extents, but rather a number of specific intelligences that we all have to different degrees and in various assortments throughout our lives.
Here are the core intelligences as they relate to language learning.
- Musical-rhythmic intelligence: Also known as “aural” intelligence, this sensitivity to sound and rhythm is golden for language learning. Learners with strong musical-rhythmic intelligence might pick up new speech sounds easily, or might feel like they can hear a mental sound clip of the words or sounds they’re focused on.
These learners benefit from putting anything to music or rhythm: Watching music videos or listening to podcasts can give musically intelligent learners better grasp of things like the stops between words and phrases, and where native speakers emphasize different words and sounds in their speech.
- Visual-spatial intelligence: This intelligence understands the world like a series of pictures and images. Reading the words written down and seeing them in your mind might help you to understand them. Visually intelligent language learners do well with anything that gives them an image of a word or phrase, from video clips that show people talking about objects or acting out verbs, to making their own charts and visual dictionaries.
- Verbal-linguistic intelligence: High linguistic intelligence doesn’t necessarily make you a better language learner than others, but rather implies that you understand the world largely through words. Verbal problem solving and the relationships between word parts might come easier for those with strong verbal-linguistic intelligence.
Verbally intelligent learners may consider focusing on how their understanding of words can be used in conjunction with other intelligences for language learning in the form of language games and engaging with the written and spoken word in various ways.
- Logical-mathematical intelligence: Strong logical-mathematical intelligence might incline you to naturally understand the cause-and-effect relationships that are so important to language, and may signal that you’re fond of breaking linguistic ideas down into concrete parts, like verb conjugations and sentence diagrams.
Logically intelligent learners should struggle to understand why one verb form has an “e” on the end and another doesn’t, and generalize that information into rules about the language. Rote memorization without learning why is the logical learner’s bane.
- Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence: Learners with high bodily-kinesthetic intelligence rely on their bodies for learning. They may learn well by acting out scenarios or playing a sport they already know in their target language. Kinesthetically intelligent language learners do best when moving and working with their hands, such as building or assembling something from directions in the target language.
- Interpersonal intelligence: Interpersonal or social intelligence is learning through group relationships and interactions with other people. Learners with this type of intelligence may find back-and-forth conversation both in and about their target language to be most stimulating, and may have an easy time picking up on things like social register or level of formality and body language.
Interpersonal learners may be naturally talented at recognizing implicit meanings and connotations, and may learn better from working to understand one-on-one conversation than reading a book.
- Intrapersonal intelligence: Intrapersonal intelligence means knowing thyself, and generally entails a lot of quiet reflection and active processing. Learners with high intrapersonal intelligence may find themselves silently reviewing a conversation they’ve just had and learning from their mistakes, and may have an easier time than others in identifying when and why they make particular kinds of mistakes. Intrapersonally intelligent learners might consider trying to silently think about their target language in the language itself.
If you need help identifying your strongest intelligences for language learning, try an online quiz to point you in the right direction. Just remember not to focus on your one or two strongest learning styles or intelligence types to the exclusion of all others: Try to gain an understanding of how you learn best in different situations, and apply those different strategies to different kinds of learning tasks.
Step 3: Understand Your Motivation
So you’ve got your Linguistics 101 down, and you’ve reflected on the different ways you learn. There’s one more critical step before you crack a book or register for a class, and that’s answering the big question: Why?
If you need to learn Chinese for the boardroom and conference calls, do you think a Skype exchange with a 20-year-old student in Shanghai will give you the requisite skills? Similarly, if your goal is to move abroad and make friends and build a social life in a foreign language, a grammar-intensive semester at your local community college won’t do the trick.
So why do you want to learn your language? Is it for business? Pleasure? Both? Neither? Are you still looking for the right language learning motivation?
If you answer this question with “for my career” or “for travel,” dig deeper and strive to frame your answer in a way that lines up with the linguistic systems and learning styles we mentioned above.
So if you want to learn Arabic for business, for what about business? If it’s just to write a line on your resumé that says you speak Arabic, well that’s easy enough, but it misses the point. Will you need to read or write reports? What about giving presentations or attending conferences? Will smooth schmoozing skills open up new opportunities?
Key in on the verb phrases here—read, write, give presentations, schmooze—and think about how they relate to learning styles and the systems of language. Then fasten your seatbelt and prepare for takeoff.
Step 4: Pick an Approach
By now you’re probably wondering if all of this means that you should take a class or get private tutoring or do it all on your own or what. Well, the answer, as you might guess, is that there’s no one-size-fits-all answer.
The answer is based on your understanding of language and your insights into your own learning style and motivation for learning a language, as well as your life circumstances in the moment when you begin to learn a language.
Whatever your strategy looks like, it’ll probably include some of these elements:
- The classroom. It’s popular to hate on brick-and-mortar classrooms as outdated for language learners, but many benefit from group participation and asking questions face-to-face. Courses are typically more affordable than private lessons, and they offer the kind of structure many of us need.
- Private tutoring. Usually more expensive than a class at your local learning center or language school, private tutoring is also more personalized, and allows you to build a relationship with an expert and target the areas you need most help with. Take care in finding the right language tutor and build rapport over time.
WyzAnt is the perfect place for finding a tutor for in-person lessons. You can browse tutors and see their rates along with ratings that have been given by other learners. If you’re interested primarily in finding an online tutor, head over to Verbling. You can search tutors from all over the world and set up sessions right on the site!
- Online courses and tools. Thanks to the internet, you can now have a regular Skype class without leaving your living room or office. Digital tools also offer flexibility for busy people and those not ready for a daily or weekly commitment. You can browse online language courses or get started with some of the best language learning apps.
- Self-study. Teaching yourself a language offers the most flexibility but the least guidance. For many, relying on language learning blogs, YouTube and good old-fashioned books is the way to go.
- A combination of these approaches. For most learners, mixing and matching these approaches is just right, and FluentU is a great resource for accomplishing this. FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
With the wealth of options available today, it would seem almost silly to limit yourself to one approach or another. What follows are a couple examples of how you can mix and match language learning approaches to meet your needs.
Example 1: Shoestring Student Budget
You’re a young, broke college student with a zero dollar language learning budget, just like I was when I started learning languages, and you want to learn a language or two to prep for your post-graduation backpacking trip.
You’ve never learned a language before, so you’re not quite sure which systems of language trip you up, but your spelling in English or your mother language is not the best, and you have no idea what the past participle form of anything is.
However, you’re known for your spot-on impressions of regional accents in your country, which makes you think phonology and speech sounds might be your strong point. From there and based on the fact that you can remember anything in the world if it’s put to music, you might deduce that your musical-rhythmic intelligence is one of your best assets. You’re also one who likes to sit quietly and reflect (which by no means says that you’re unsociable), so intrapersonal intelligence might be another helpful tool on your language learning journey.
Since your ear is clearly leading the way, what with your strong musical-rhythmic intelligence and your talent for accents, let it also lead you into a new language. You might start out with a mix of music and talk radio in your target language, to get your brain’s feet wet, or you could try learning a language through music. While you build up your vocabulary with online tools and apps like games and flashcards, try to make connections to the words you’re hearing on the radio and TV. Since your motivation is making new friends in different parts of the world, you might start out with some online tools and communities that connect you to Skype exchanges with native speakers.
Example 2: The Busy Business Traveler
You work for a firm that requires a lot of travel to Japan, and you’re on the hunt for a raise. You’ve got a budget to spend on language learning, but of course hardly any time for it.
You reflect on your college language classes and remember feeling ridiculous for never figuring out how to roll your “r”s or make any of those strange vowel sounds, but that identifying word endings and being able to understand how different forms of the same verb were all related was easier, which gives you a clue that morphology comes pretty easy for you.
That’s probably because of your strong logical-mathematical intelligence that makes identifying patterns and correlations a cinch and takes all the challenge out of Sudoku puzzles. But your visual-spatial intelligence may deserve equal credit for that, since sometimes you find yourself visualizing a word in your head or needing to see it written down to understand it better.
Play to your strengths and your schedule constraints by downloading the best puzzle and game apps to stimulate the logical part of your brain while learning new vocabulary. Between your sessions with the FluentU app for iOS or Android during your morning and afternoon commutes, you can pencil in a private tutor several days a week, since they’ll normally be able to be flexible in when they meet with you.
Neither of these example approaches are meant to be exhaustive strategies, but rather beginning steps one might take to start learning a language. The point is that it should be an inductive process: Start by looking at yourself and your strengths, weaknesses and goals, rather than letting the language or the way your friend learned Spanish dictate that for you.
Language Learning Is for Life
One of the most important rules of language learning is that you’re never finished with it.
As far as the internal wiring of our brains is concerned, we all learn languages the same. The differences come with the individual language learner: Even though it’s all based on the same principles, one person’s wonder solution can be totally useless for the next.
That’s why you should never let anyone tell you about “the” best way to learn languages.
How we learn languages is by understanding languages, understanding how we learn, and understanding who we are and what we want.
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