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8 Tips for Language Learning Success

 
 

Our team’s top tips for a successful language-learning journey

We’re kicking off our LanGo blog and our Spring II session with a team-compiled list of our top tips for language learning success. We’ll be honest with you -- there is no secret or “hack” for instantly mastering a language. Progress toward fluency requires real work. However, we hope these tips give you structure, motivation, and inspiration for dealing with common language-learning pitfalls, as well as strategies for more efficient and effective learning of your target language.

Tip #1: Have passion for the journey. WH_ -- don't forget the Y!

You’re about to embark on what could be a life-changing journey with your new language! This journey will be full of delightful surprises and amazing discoveries, but it will also involve moments of frustration and challenges and will require lots of hard work. The most important thing you’ll need to succeed? PASSION.

  • What is your deeper reason for wanting to learn your language of interest?

  • What do you ultimately want to be able to do with it?

Your answers to these questions are your WHY. Connecting your daily language habits to the reason why you’re learning the language in the first place will help fuel your passion so you can overcome the challenges that you encounter along your journey.

Your new mantra: “I am learning this language because __________, and I’ll do whatever it takes to truly learn it and be able to __________.” [Optional: Insert a fun exclamation in your target language that encapsulates your passionate commitment to your WHY here.]

As with anything in life, if you’re going to stick to something, you need to find a way to make it personally meaningful. Otherwise, you’ll lose motivation and burn out pretty quickly. Make your language goals deeply personal and meaningful to your life so that you not only enjoy but also commit to the learning process.

Tip #2: Plan your language-learning itinerary.

Once you’ve committed to your WHY of learning the language, spend some time planning your learning journey.

  • What knowledge or skills do you need to have in the language to be a functional communicator?

  • By when do you hope to learn them?

Set both long- and short-term goals with specific time frames. Not sure where to start? Find a language teacher or school that can assess your level, customize your learning itinerary for your specific goals and interests, and give you a structured plan for where you want to go with the language.

Next, create a personalized learning schedule based on the estimated time you can commit to language learning. Consider the frequency and duration of learning sessions and activities to complete, and how much time you can realistically commit to language learning on a daily and weekly basis. Then set reminders using a time-management system so that you’ll remember to stick to your plan. We especially like systems that let you check off completed items and give you that satisfying feeling of accomplishment (even good old-fashioned handwritten to-do lists work for this!). Whatever system works for you, use it and stick to your language-learning plan. Revisit your plan frequently to make sure you’re still on course. And definitely celebrate as you accomplish your short- and long-term milestones along the way!

Tip #3: Focus on high-frequency vocabulary.  

Your first 100 words in your target language should be the most frequent ones that occur the most in conversation. This initial set of vocabulary should consist of all the words you need to conduct basic conversations in the most commonly occurring situations. Learn high-frequency vocabulary quickly by:

  • Mastering the phrase “How do you say X?” in your target language.

  • Carrying a language dictionary (or smartphone) to look up new words you encounter.

  • Keeping a language notebook or journal to write down new words, pronunciation notes, their meanings, and example sentences.

  • Making and reviewing vocabulary lists and flashcards organized by themes or parts of speech.

  • Practicing vocabulary through conversations in the target language (see tip #8).

After your first 100 words, focus on the next 500 most commonly used words or phrases. With 500 words and phrases, you can interact in an even wider variety of situations. And once you learn 1,000 words, you’ll have enough vocabulary to do quite a lot in your target language! We recommend learning new words in manageable chunks: if you learn just 20 words a day, that's 100 words in just 5 days, and 1,000 words in just under 2 months.

It might not seem that easy when you start to study the language and every new word you encounter seems daunting. If you use a language dictionary (which we highly recommend), there may be over 100,000 word entries. For example, the Hanyu Da Cidian Chinese dictionary includes 370,000 Mandarin words! Many languages will have similar numbers of words included in dictionaries.

As a language learner, these numbers can seem downright crazy. How are you ever going to memorize that many vocabulary words? Luckily, you don’t need to learn anywhere near that many words to communicate successfully in the language. In fact, many native speakers only know a small proportion of the total number of words in their language. According to TestYourVocab.com, the average English-speaking adult only knows about 20,000-35,000 words. What’s more, it’s estimated that the most common 1,000 lexemes (words or word groupings) account for 80% of all English written texts.

So focus on learning 100, then 500, then 1,000 words in your target language, and this will get you very, very far in your ability to read, write, understand, and communicate!

Tip #4: Notice linguistic patterns.

Languages have systematic linguistic patterns at every level -- from the sounds the language uses, to the meanings associated with them, to the phrases that convey meanings apart from the words used. Recognizing these linguistic patterns can not only help you learn the sound system and grammar faster, but will also enrich your appreciation of the fascinating way that language works more generally.

One way to do this is to compare linguistic patterns in your native language to your target language and notice the similarities and differences. For instance, there may be cognates (words with a common origin or source that often have similar sounds or letters) within a language or in a group of languages. The English words “composite”, “composition”, and “compost” are all cognates within English, and they’re all derived from the Latin root “componere” which means ‘to put together’. Latin-based languages (especially the Romance languages--French, Spanish, Italian, but also other languages of western Europe) will have similar pronunciation patterns as well. For example, any English word ending in “-tion” will typically have a cognate ending in “-ción” in Spanish and “-ção” in Portuguese.

On the other hand, languages that are not closely related may have different linguistic patterns. English and Spanish both use inflection (changing the form of a word to indicate a change in its grammatical usage). In both languages, a noun can be inflected to show a change in number (singular vs. plural), and in Spanish adjectives are inflected for gender. Both languages also inflect verbs to indicate tense, mood, and person. By contrast, these linguistic patterns differ from those present in Chinese grammar, which lacks inflection so that words will typically only have one grammatical form.

Languages also have irregularity, and you’ll also need to learn about exceptions to general linguistic patterns (and there may be interesting stories behind them!). However, noticing and recognizing linguistic patterns in your target language will help you figure out and generalize the rule-governed ways in which words are formed and used. Noticing this will also likely lead to fascinating discoveries and lots of “aha” moments about the amazingly systematic structure of language.

Tip #5: Use repetition, intensity, repetition,  immersion, and repetition.

Language learning requires lots of referential experiences as well as consistent time commitment and effort. Therefore, repetition and ample exposure are crucial for building vocabulary and developing fluency in a language.

Add intensity to your learning plan by committing to frequent study and practice sessions at home or on the go. Carry a wad of flash cards with you at all times, so if you find yourself waiting somewhere, you can spend a few minutes reviewing.

As a complement to your self-study methods, enroll in private lessons or small group classes to automatically build consistency and repetition into your language learning plan. This way, there is a scheduled day and time where you’ve committed to language study. To really increase the level of exposure to your new language, consider joining an immersion language-learning program or seek out places or activities where you can be immersed in and practice your target language.

Another way to add repetition and exposure is to supplement your learning with TV shows, movies, magazines, newspapers, and online resources that help you review language basics on the regular.

Tip #6: Make LOTS of mistakes and learn to love them.

Being wrong can be painful. Nobody wants to look dumb and making mistakes feels really dumb. That’s part of the reason why many people think learning a new language is so scary. It also explains why so many people give up at the first challenge – they want to be perfect from day one.

Even so, you’re 100% likely to make mistakes as a beginning learner of a language. Making mistakes is not only part of any learning process, but it’s actually the best way to become fluent in a language. As much as we emphasize this point to our students, we always hear people talk about their fears of saying the wrong thing. Mistakes due to similar-sounding or similarly spelled words, or due to false cognates, are especially rampant in the language-learning process. An example of a false cognate that often confuses English speakers learning Spanish is “embarazada” (‘pregnant’) because it looks a lot like the English word “embarrassed”. A common mistake made is saying “Estoy embarazada” (“I’m pregnant”) for “I’m embarrassed” -- this could lead to some misunderstandings!

What if there was another way to look at mistakes? What if you could embrace mistakes with the same excitement you’d feel about winning the lottery? Mistakes help you identify areas of improvement and are actually opportunities rather than failures. Make lots of mistakes, learn from them, and appreciate them. Love your mistakes because they are your keys to future fluency!

Tip #7: Think and visualize success in the language.

Challenge yourself to think in your target language instead of your native language. How would your typical inner monologue sound in your new language? Think in your target language when you encounter different situations as you go about your day, especially ones that occur often (for example, meeting new people and introducing yourself, buying something you need, or asking for directions). Imagine possible conversations that might take place and the words and sentences you might use during these interactions.

Visualize yourself interacting with native speakers and successfully communicating exactly what you mean and easily understanding what others mean. Thinking in the language helps you internalize the language skills you’ve learned and paves the way for much easier and much less awkward conversations once you actually have them.

Tip #8: Do something fun, social, and experiential with the language -- conversation is king!

Seek out opportunities to have conversation with other learners or native speakers of your target language. Language is something that requires processing, not just memorizing. Interacting with others gives you practice connecting everything you’ve learned with actual usage. The only way to truly get the vocabulary to stick is to have these words and phrases connected to social experiences. This is why an hour of face-to-face conversation with another speaker of the language can be as good as 10+ hours of online self-study.

Why not also make your interactions in the language enjoyable? Do something fun, social, and experiential using your target language. What do you do in your free time? What are your favorite hobbies? Do you enjoy playing sports? Reading business or health magazines? Creating art or listening to music? Try doing these activities entirely in the language you want to practice. You’ll not only enjoy practicing your language because you already love these activities, but you’ll also be expanding your language skills for a broader range of (very fun) situations. This is also a great way to find a like-minded community of people who enjoy the same activities, make new friends, and connect with potential conversation partners.

A great place to find local communities for lots of different activities is Meetup. Join our awesome polyglot community of language-lovers here.

We hope these tips give you structure, motivation, inspiration, and lots of success during your language learning journey.

You can do it. ¡Sí se puede!  화이팅! Jiayou! 加油! Ganbatte! がんばって! Das schaffst du schon! Tu peux le faire!

/the LanGo Team