My old Italian teacher once said to us, ‘People always tell me their two biggest regrets in life – not having learned an instrument, and not having learned a new language.’
This was his bid to get us year nine kids to pick his subject as an elective. If I’m honest, it didn’t really work.
However – the regret he spoke about comes only from retrospect. If you’re lucky enough to want to learn a language at any young age, you absolutely can. How often do we see people who seem to effortlessly switch between multiple languages, talking to family at home or to friends on the phone? Doesn’t it ever make you wish you could too?
Trust me I get the envy. I had it young which is why I started studying languages. It’s been a few years now, and so people will often say ‘but… you’re good at languages!’ Frankly, this is rubbish. There is no language gene, and there is no gift.
Take Benny Lewis – a famous Irish polyglot who now speaks something like twelve languages. You’d think he would have a ‘gift’, no? Benny started in school, studied German for five years, and left speaking… nothing. Five years wasted. This is a tragically common story, and it’s the fault of the education system and our Australian, English-speaking context – not you.
Learning a new language can be daunting, especially if you’ve never tried before. However, the value that comes from speaking just one additional language is immense. You’ll make connections and new relationships you could never have imagined, see the world from a different perspective and develop an entirely new part of yourself. Consider the following tips as you navigate a new language and I promise, you won’t regret it.
Find your ‘Why’
Language learning is no formulaic, structured process – nor does it take just a few days of effort. It’s most important to find your ‘why’, your motivation and your reason for wanting to learn the language that you do. Concentrating on this and remembering it will be the driver behind months or years of learning.
This could be anything! Maybe you want to speak French with your grandparents who struggle with English. Maybe you want to speak Russian for future employment opportunities. Maybe you love the sound of Cantonese. Whatever it is, find it, write it down, and have it with you! Look back at it on the days where you feel tired or at a loss.
Build your resources, strategies and learning systems
Building an arsenal of learning techniques will be your tools to chip away at a language for a long, long time. There are literally hundreds of things you could do, and I recommend having a google to find the ones that suit you. Options range from apps through to textbooks to real people and more. Consider the following:
There are plenty of free or cheap apps out there that act as a good introduction to learning a new language. I would personally recommend Memrise. In stages of increasing difficulty, this app will take you through essential vocabulary, grammatical points and a new alphabet if your language has one. It has a great revision system to ensure you remember previously learnt concepts and words, and an overarching, logical structure.
Beyond apps, you can and should consider;
- Flashcards for vocab memorisation (paper or digital, such as Quizlet or Anki)
- Putting sticky notes up through your house to remember new words or grammar
- Watching your favourite Netflix shows dubbed in your language of choice, or shows originally in the language
- YouTube channels dedicated to the language
You can also adopt specific learning techniques, such as ‘spatial memory’. Essentially, imagine a path or place you know really well, and assign a new word to each spot. Perhaps a park bench represents the word ‘book’, the tree represents ‘food’ and the road sign represents ‘teacher’. You can construct this however you like. There are endless techniques you could adopt, so again, do some research and find what works for you.
An important note: avoid what is called ‘passive learning’. This is putting on a podcast or some kind of input while you do another activity like study and expect to learn indirectly. This is proven not to work. Active learning can be kept short and you’ll progress much further than you would doing hours of passive learning.
Consider structured training
Unless you were raised in Europe, chances are you don’t know the grammar of your own language let alone feel ready to learn the grammar of a new one. If you’ve not approached an additional language before, it can be good to get some kind of structure to guide you through the process. I want to stress – it is not necessary! It is just an option.
Options include diplomas of language studies that are offered by many universities concurrently with your main degree, choosing an elective at university, TAFE, private college courses or tutors. These do all cost money, but language learning doesn’t need to cost a bomb. You can gain structure by finding a good introductory textbook and following along! On top of this structured training, supplement your learning with your own study and immersion: music, flashcards and so on.
Speak from the get-go
Particularly in Western culture, we have an awkward disposition to approaching something new and daunting. We often want to speak perfectly before we interact with natives of the language or fluent speakers. You have to get over this. There is no stage where you will ever feel ready or perfectly fluent and then can begin speaking. Putting your new vocab and grammatical knowledge to use from Day One will help you contextualise them, increase familiarity and improve pronunciation.
Remember Benny Lewis? He speaks from the first day of learning, and often goes out of his way to make up to two hundred mistakes daily so he can improve quickly. The thing to remember is so obvious but so important - we all make mistakes. In Italian class, back in year nine, I was talking about going to the beach. What I tried to say was ‘I lay down on the sand’. What I ended up saying was ‘I undressed myself on the sand.’ It sent the class laughing to no end and was beyond embarrassing, but you can bet I never forgot how to say ‘I lay down’ ever again.
Finding people to speak with these days is easy; try friends and family first, then clubs (take a look at Arc’s own Culture Café) at uni or on Facebook, or try apps and websites such as HelloTalk or iTalki.
Surrounding yourself in the language will help ground concepts and vocab in your long-term memory much more quickly. Find music you like in the language, Spotify has plenty of options. Watch film and television, try changing your phone’s operating language once you feel ready, or follow Instagram or Facebook accounts in the language. Memes are not just an English thing.
Make it social
There absolutely no reason that learning a language needs to have you always cooped up behind a desk following a dusty textbook. You might have a friend who wants to learn the same language and could do it with you! Go for coffee meet ups to practice, drinks, or check Facebook for multilingual language groups who run great events pretty often. Try SydneyLingos!
You’ll find yourself making new connections through your new language. Take advantage of these relationships to keep up your language skills and chat with them as you would your English speaking friends.
Make it a habit
Habit is key in learning quickly – fifteen concentrated minutes a day and having immersed yourself with secondary things will take you much further than two hours every Saturday. In making it a habit you should also try to think only in the language when you speak it. No language is structured exactly as another, so trying to translate sentences word-for-word in your head won’t make any sense. This is very difficult at the beginning but given time, work with what you know in order to express yourself rather than your ‘English brain’.
Through a new language you will unintentionally create a new part of yourself. The more you delve into it the more your Indonesian or Italian brain will adopt cultural traits, ways of thinking and behaving. It will evolve as you do. It is definitely my second-favourite part of learning a new language (my favourite coming up soon).
The world will open up more and more to you with every language you learn – but a second language is a great place to start. I genuinely feel sorry for people who never try. You miss out on so much. You’ll reach out to new people, eavesdrop on conversations in restaurants and trains, perhaps cheekily talk with a friend about someone else right there (not necessarily the most ethical but definitely my favourite), find new music, media and develop an entirely new personality. So, trust me when I say it’s worth it – just get started.