In January I started a series of blog posts on learning languages, speculating how we could learn faster and more effectively. I decided to use these tips in practice to see if I could learn a new language in 6 months, and I chose Portuguese. The 6 months are over now, so I wanted to give a final update on my progress and reflect on what I’ve learned in the process about learning languages.
But first, if you haven’t been following them, I would like to invite you to read the previous posts on the topic, which you can access by clicking on the links below:
- “Dispelling 5 language learning myths”
- “5 steps to language fluency”
- “Be fluent in a language in 6 months – mission impossible?”
- “First update – two months on”
So how much have I learnt?
I can’t say I’m completely fluent, but I can have a chat on most familiar topics, understand people and most of what’s said on TV and read a book. I still make mistakes, my pronunciation is dodgy at times, I find it difficult to understand people speaking very quickly and colloquially, and I sometimes mix Spanish with Portuguese. So there’s a long way to go, on the one hand, but on the other – I’m quite happy where I am and what I’ve achieved.
And even more importantly, I learned many new things about learning languages, and this is what I would like to share with you in this post.
1. Learning new words:
- identify chunks (2 – 3 words together) and functional language (e.g. Would you like a…; Do you fancy +ing) and don’t learn isolated words
- mine reading and listening texts for lexis
- when you hear somebody use a phrase you don’t know, ask about the meaning and note it down (unless you have a good memory for sounds, you’ll forget it – so I tend to take a small note pad for my language exchanges where I can quickly jot down the new words)
- choose a lexical set that is relevant, interesting and useful – there’s no point in learning words you’ll never use!
- use mnemonic devices to boost your learning (anchor the new word to an image/sound, create a pun around it, i.e. le vol is theft in French – imagine lord VOLdemort stealing a magic wand from Hogwarts)
- 5 a day, keeps the doctor away – even such a small number of words can make a difference
- avoid the forgetting curve – use spaced-repetition:
- use Memrise to boost your efficiency and effects – for me memrise.com is an absolute winner; by combining spaced repetition with mnemonic devices it gives your memory an incredible kick – read my post on it here
- use it or lose it – no matter how many new words you manage to memorize, they’ll be useless unless you put them to good use – so go out there, and make a conscious effort to use the new phrases as soon as you get a chance
- it’s much less important than your teacher would like you to believe – especially at the beginning, the key is new vocabulary, phrases and functional language
- don’t try to be correct all the time – embrace mistakes: believe me – nobody will laugh at you!
- pay attention to what people say – listen carefully to what and how your interlocutor speaks, identify the grammar pattern and use it
- pay attention to your own mistakes – you need to learn to monitor your language to identify the slips (i.e. mistakes with language you already know)
- focused correction – tell your language buddy to focus on a particular area you’re having problems with, or you’ve recently studied (e.g. past simple), and to correct you – if you ask somebody to correct all your mistakes, you’re likely to end up silent and disillusioned after 5 minutes
- avoid ‘useless’ grammar – many grammar points have little effect on your fluency, so instead of worrying about the correct article or possessive pronouns, first get a hang of the basic tenses present and past simple, going to and present perfect – this will greatly improve the array of things you can say
- don’t wait until you know it all – start using the past simple even if you only know some regular verbs and only 1 or 2 irregular ones – people will correct you along the way, you will notice the correct patterns, and learn much more by practising it then by doing gap-fills
- use it – as with vocabulary, there’s no point in learning something if you’re unlikely to use it, so as soon as possible put the new grammar into use – if you’ve just learned a new pattern, then make a conscious effort to utilise it as soon as you get the chance
3. The input – reading and listening:
- immersion – whether you are a beginner or not, you should start listening and reading in the target language from day 1, even if it’s just 5 minutes a day, you’ll soon start to note a difference in how much you understand
- notice the language – try to pay attention to how the language is used, compare it with how you use it, note down one or two useful phrases, and use them when you get a chance
- make it fun – choose topics that are interesting for you
- connect it to vocabulary and speaking – if you’re learning football vocabulary on Memrise, listen and read some World Cup commentaries, and make it the speaking topic of your next language exchange
- choose texts that are useful and relevant – e.g. if you want to learn every day language, choose texts that reflect it
- prepare for the text – use the title, the headings, the main photo, etc. to brainstorm vocabulary that is likely to appear in the text – it will make reading/listening much easier
- main message first – focus on the overall meaning and set yourself a simple task, i.e. how many people are speaking? are they happy or sad?
- identify the difficulties and tackle them – again read/listen to the parts you found difficult a few times to discover the meaning
- this is crucial if you’re ever going to make any progress – you must SPEAK!
- language buddy – find somebody you can talk to in the target language – most cities have regular events when people meet to practise different languages
- make mistakes – otherwise you’ll never learn! But please do pay attention to the correct version as well
- relax – most adults find it very stressful to speak in a foreign language they don’t know well: now, please take a deep breath, count to 10, and relax – nobody’s going to laugh at you; actually, most native speakers will be delighted you’re trying to speak their language!
- simplify your language – your L1 vocabulary is incredibly much more varied than your beginner L2, so a good fluency trick at the beginning is to use simpler constructions and words, which you already know, to express yourself in the target language
- use fillers – long pauses can be embarrassing, so to avoid them, use phrases such as: well, you know, I mean to fill them in: right away you’ll sound much more natural and fluent
- describe what you don’t know – if you’re about to stop, because you don’t know a word, don’t – use simpler vocabulary, a synonym, describe the word you’re looking for, point to it or ask how it’s called
- it’s got to be fun – if you’re feeling tired or frustrated with studying, give yourself a break: watch a film instead, have a chat with your language buddy, etc.
- set yourself achievable, concrete and small goals – otherwise you’re risking disappointment, i.e. I will learn 5 words related to football every day for 10 days, is a much better goal then, I will learn new words
- ask yourself WHY you’re learning the language – the most effective goals are usually the ones that are intrinsic and personal
- find something you like – there must be something you enjoy doing, a great hobby you have, e.g. cooking: why not learn how to do it in a new language?
- start a diary – it’s very easy to underrate your own progress, but if you keep a diary of what you have achieved and learnt, you will be able to clearly see how much you have improved
Good luck! Boa sorte! Bonne chance! Suerte! Viel Gluck! Powodzenia!
Apart from the 4 posts mentioned above, you might find these useful too:
- learn how to be a good learner here
- Lizzy Pinnard tells us how she’s learning Italian in this post
- Sandy Millin reflects on her language learning experience here