You can do it.
And yes, I’m talking to you.
Whether you flunked out of high school German, were too embarrassed to even attempt a bonjour on your visit to Paris, or were only able to stick with your New Year’s resolution for three days, you—my dear, dear reader—can learn another language!
I’m not going to pretend that it’s easy for everyone. Some geniuses seem to soak up languages like sponges, whereas people with certain learning disabilities can face significant challenges.
For the rest of us, language learning is somewhere in the middle—it can be both immensely frustrating yet also immensely rewarding, often both at the same time. It might take you months to handle a concept that someone else grasps instinctively in minutes—and vice-versa.
But whatever the outcome, the joy and benefits of communicating in another language are real and attainable. Even more importantly, the process of getting there is thrilling.
This post will take apart both of these aspects for those who are totally new to language learning, or for whom it has seemed like an insurmountable challenge in the past.
“I Want to Learn Another Language!” A Guide for the Absolute Beginner
I come at this from my perspective as a former language teacher and an experienced learner of languages, by the way, with my own set of successes and major challenges when confronting a language. (For a book-long academic take on the same subject, and one that has informed my learning style and advice, check out “How Languages Are Learned.”)
Define Your Principal Motivation(s) for Learning the Language
Having a quality reason for learning a language is central to everything that comes in the weeks, months, and, yes, years that you will later spend studying, speaking, enjoying and maintaining it.
Let’s look at some examples. What do you think about the following reasons for learning a language? Are they likely to lead to success?
- “I want to have a second language on my CV.”
- “I want to seem like a more intellectual/educated/international sort of person.”
- “I want cute guys/girls to notice me in a bar when I answer my phone in another language.”
Sure, there is no problem with folks wanting these things out of life, and the last goal even has the benefit of being specific. But language learning is a long, challenging journey, and what none of these motivations provides is a personal, compelling reason to focus on improving your communication.
Compare the motivations above with these:
- “I want to be able to flirt with the Russian girl in my yoga class.”
- “I want to place my order in good African restaurants in French.”
- “I want to understand the lyrics of marabenta music.”
- “I want to be able to make sales to clients in Brazil.”
- “I want to hang out and make meaningful friends at salsa events.”
Can you see how the latter motivations offer specific objectives for study that will keep you coming back to your grammar book with a sense of excitement rather than duty?
Language learning is tough—when you’re on your thousandth Chinese character or trying to crack the mysteries of Russian cases, it can help enormously if your overall motivation is connected in some way to the detail that you’re trying to learn that day.
And if it’s not connected, guess what: Often you can skip it! There’s no reason, for example, to spend much time with the Arabic writing system if your ultimate driving motivation is a desire to be able to chat with Lebanese relatives (whose oral language doesn’t much resemble standard Arabic).
I may always be looking to improve my vocabulary even in my mother tongue English, but I will probably never be fluent in baseball or physics jargon. I pick my battles in any language, based on what I like doing with it.
Your motivation might even mean that “fluency” (whatever that is) is not necessary or desirable; there’s immense joy and usefulness to be had with low-level, rudimentary and even silly communication in another language.
Use Your Overarching Motivation to Set Achievable Short-term Communicative Goals
This overarching motivation above can then be broken down and used to set your week-to-week and lesson-to-lesson short term goals. Such goals should of course be specific, small, compelling and fun. The connection to your overall motivation then makes them personal to you—something that you can’t wait to dive into before and will really remember after.
If my motivation, for example, concerned sales to Brazilian clients, goals that I might set for individual weeks would include, at various points in the long process:
- “I want to be able to answer the phone in Portuguese.”
- “I want to be able to exchange pleasantries.”
- “I want to properly use a formal, business register—and understand when it’s likely that I will switch to informal Portuguese with clients.”
- “I want to understand the culture of dealmaking in Brazil.”
- “I want to be able to describe our key product’s specs in Portuguese.”
All of these are great small goals that connect back to the overall motivation. For more on setting good and specific lesson goals, see the link at the top of this section.
Tools for Language Learning That Are Linked to Your Motivation
We’ve covered a lot of the best tools for language learning, but a key point to make here is that your choice of tools will vary enormously according to the motivation that is driving your learning process.
To give one example, I own a Serbian textbook that gives lots of history on old, literary Serbian that most modern speakers don’t even know or use. As interesting as it all is, my principal motivation for learning is to be able to enjoy a rakija when I’m with friends in the Balkans and to complain together about life, so I focus rather on lessons about sevdahlinka songs (tragedy-tinged Bosnian laments), which give me the vocabulary that I enjoy and am more likely to actually use. Watching videos on the Internet and pausing to analyze, look up and make sentences from the new structures is thus a very useful learning method for me.
If your overarching motivation involves listening, speaking or cultural elements, watching videos can be an important part of your learning process too. FluentU provides the perfect integrated video-based tool for language learners.
For nearly all learners, some sort of textbook and language classes or online language exchange sessions will also be appropriate. But as much as possible, try to ensure that these are geared towards the reason that you are learning the language. Grammar, for most, is a means, not an end. You don’t want to learn the literary past tense in French if you have no intention of ever writing a great French novel, for example, but you will definitely want to learn the spoken past tenses if you want to be able to hold a basic conversation in which you talk about things that you’ve done.
For those interested in oral communication, the Teach Yourself language books tend to be very good for many languages; but they should often not be your choice if your goal is to read and write the academic version of a language.
Staying Motivated as You Learn
If you have a good overarching motivation and your day-to-day goals are connected to it, your desire to learn at each lesson should be nearly automatic. That said, you’ll want to include a certain amount of variation as well as try methods like these for integrating language learning into your life.
Here are a few tips for creating a routine that you can stick with:
- Track your goals: Keep a notebook with the goals you’ve set for yourself; there’s a lot of satisfaction in being able to cross them off your list.
- Make it social: Interact with other learners, whether online or in conversation groups. And, of course, try to interact with native speakers as much as possible. Humans are social animals, so doing this project with others will make it more compelling.
- Make it daily: I’ve found that even a small amount of time every day (like a half-hour) can be far superior to setting aside a few hours once a week for a class or a study session. When a language is part of your daily life, you don’t forget your lessons as easily, and you find yourself thinking about what you’re learning and how you can use it at many points throughout the day.
- Integrate learning with your media consumption: Consuming the news, podcasts and entertainment media in your target language rather than your own language provides incentives to learn and a richer experience with the language.
Without giving any false hope for what is certainly an enormous undertaking, my wish is that you are leaving this post now with a more concrete and personally motivating desire to jump headlong into language learning.
Your fling with a Russian girl/first sale in Portuguese/conversation with the Lebanese grandparents will be a great reward, sure, but with whatever motivation you have in mind, the process itself will also hopefully be quite fun.
Mose Hayward blogs about languages, including the lack of smiling in Russian flirting, and why you thus might want to buy a gas station.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn languages with real-world videos.