How To Study a Foreign Language
Like math, astronomy, and many other other subjects, learning a foreign language is a cumulative process. What you learn during one lesson or study session will build upon what you learned previously. If you're not consistent, or don't keep up with your studies, you won't develop the building blocks required for a strong foundation of language learning. As you study a foreign language it's important that you learn what is being presented day by day. Below we'll explore the most effective tips and strategies for learning a foreign language as they relate to the four major aspects of language learning: listening, speaking, reading, and writing.
Listening and Pronunciation
Sound is the basis for communication in all spoken languages. Whichever language you decide to pursue, it's imperative you (1) learn what to listen for when the language is being spoken and (2) learn how to correctly pronounce the words in the language. Learning what to listen for when the language is spoken by native speakers is key to learning how to pronounce words correctly for the language.
- Proper pronunciation
One of the biggest mistakes new learners make when trying to acquire a new language is sacrificing accuracy for speed. Not only does proper pronunciation require practice, it requires patience. Slow down and learn how to make lip and tongue movements correctly. When you speak take the time to make sure you're pronouncing words correctly.
- Practice makes perfect
With respect to (1) learning what to listen for and (2) proper pronunciation there is no substitute for practice. The best way to improve your ability to listen critically and pronounce words correctly is to listen to the language being spoken by native speakers in real-life contexts. Listen to native speakers, records, tapes, movies, and television shows. Repeat what you hear aloud reproducing words, phrases and sentences as accurately as you can.
- Listen for meaning
In addition to learning what to listen for with respect to pronunciation, listen for meaning. When you're able to understand what is being spoken both your ability to comprehend as well as your pronunciation will improve.
- Listen to yourself speak
It's not enough to listen to native speakers speak the language. You need to listen to yourself speak the language as well. Record yourself pronouncing words and speaking the language. Compare your pronunciation of words, phrases and sentences to that of native speakers. Repeat this exercise again and again until your pronunciation is close to that of native speakers.
- Focus on accuracy
New language learners have a tendency to sacrifice accuracy for speed. Simply put they speak faster than they are able. In doing so they are forming a habit of mispronunciation. This habit tends to be strongest among those with just enough understanding of language to speak somewhat conversationally, but not fluently. Slow down, pay attention, and pronounce each word correctly. As you learn to speak correctly, your ability to speak more quickly will come naturally.
- Learn correct sentence structure
Knowing a lot of vocabulary is useful, unless you can't use it to form meaningful phrases and sentences. Take the time to learn correct sentence structure and word usage.
- Practice speaking
Practice is the key to learning to speak any language. Listening to the language and speaking the language constantly will lead to fluency. When reading the language, read aloud whenever possible. Converse with others (preferably native speakers) as much as possible exclusively in the language.
- Go to the source
If you want to learn to speak like the natives, then you need to speak WITH the natives. There is no substitute for hands-ons experience and practice with native speakers. Practicing a language with a native speaker will help you learn correct pronunciation and nuances to speaking that are difficult to pick up elsewhere.
- Understand grammar
At the core of any language is grammar. Understanding the rules of grammar in your own language will go a long way to helping you understand grammar for the new language you're learning. For this reason, it's often easier for language learners to pick up a third language having already learned the grammar rules associated with the second language. Keep a grammar reference guide handy as you strive to learn a new language.
- Read for meaning
When learning a new language it's tempting to look up unknown words as your read. While you need to have a basic vocabulary to read at all, avoid constantly referring to a dictionary every time you encounter a word you don't recognize. Instead, attempt to figure out the meaning of the word from the context of the sentence. As you read passages and sentences, read for meaning. Focus on the overall message being communicated by a passage or sentence.
- Read and Re-read
Read each passage you're studying three times. First, read the entire passage without attempting to translate it. At this stage you simply want to get a feel for the language used in the passage, the sentence structure, and how the words work together. Second, read the passage again translating it in your mind or as you read aloud. Finally, read the passage a third time paying closer attention to the meaning behind individual phrases and sentences.
- Read the notes
Read and consider any notes accompanying a passage. These notes often provide insight into meaning, grammar, and style that will help improve your language learning experience.
As you progress in learning a language you'll want to increase your vocabulary. Below we'll explore strategies and techniques for improving your vocabulary in a foreign language.
- Study grammar
Being able to memorize vocabulary is important, but without proper context and usage it's difficult to really "learn" vocabulary. Being able to put the vocabulary you memorize into a usable context allows you to recognize, recall and use what you're learning. Understanding the rules of grammar in the language will greatly improve your ability to learn vocabulary.
- Flash cards
Visual aids, including flash cards, are a great way to pick up additional vocabulary. To develop flash cards, take a 3x5" card and write the vocabulary word on one side and it's English equivalent on the other. Review your flash cards once a day until you've mastered the vocabulary words. Try to keep the number of vocabulary words you're working with to a minimum until you're ready to move on to new words.
- Find new words
Find new vocabulary words via your daily activities and write them down in a small pocket notebook. At the end of each day, look up any words you don't know in a dictionary, write down the definition and memorize it. At the end of each week take some time to review and commit to memory the new vocabulary words you've written down during the week. This is a particularly effective strategy for acquiring new vocabulary and learning a language when living among native speakers.
- Focus on each word
When learning a new vocabulary word (1) pronounce it; (2) spell it; (3) find its meaning; (4) use it in a sentence; and finally (5) write it down with its meaning three times.
- Make sure you have an understanding for grammar before you start writing.
- Read all textbook material.
- As you write, pay attention to sentence structure, spelling, and overall meaning.
- Compare what you write to other texts and writing samples.
The following are additional language learning resources: