Throw out your grammar book and start learning!

Ever wanted to learn a language and don’t want to pay for expensive classes­? No worries, just learn on your own! “On my own”, you ask, “isn’t that incredibly complicated? Don’t I need to be super talented for that?” It’s not complicated, just a lot of work. And no, you don’t need talent, just the right approach. Let’s have a look at the core elements of learning a language on your own.

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Every learning endeavor starts with motivation. If you are motivated and determined to achieve a goal, then you can. So, why do you want to learn this language? To get a better job, to impress your friends, to explore another culture, to challenge yourself? Whatever it is, take a moment, take a sip of tea and write it down. Later, whenever you feel disheartened by the challenges on your way, be it German cases or Chinese Characters, go back to the beginning and remember why you are on this journey. Now that you are motivated and ready to go, don’t just jump into the unknown, be prepared.

Make a learning strategy! Learning a language is always a challenge. There are so many things to learn and it can be overwhelming at first. Sit down before you start and choose two or three simple goals and write them down. For example: In a week I want to be able to read and write in Cyrillic. In three weeks I want to be able to introduce myself. In six months, I want to be able to read a news article. Set up some mile-stones that you can aim for. Then, look at the first mile-stone and think about how to achieve it. What do you need to learn for that. Which learning materials do you need. What kind of vocabulary, what kind of exercises are necessary. Also, how much time do you need to invest each day. Take some time to think about these things and prepare your strategy. And, as you go, adjust it on the way. Add new goals, re-think old ones.

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These milestones will help you to structure your learning but they also tie back to motivation. They challenge you to keep going until you reach the next stop on the learner’s road. But they are also incredibly rewarding when you pass them. It is a wonderful feeling to hold a full conversation in another language for the first time.

Probably the most important aspect of language learning is consistency. Learn every day, each and every day. Now that does not mean to study five hours every day. But make sure to stay in contact with the language every day!  It may seem challenging to carve out enough time for proper studying each day. The trick is to do things you would do regardless, just do them in your new language. Read in your target language, chat with native speakers, listen to songs, watch movies or play video games with subtitles.

Sure, in the beginning you will have to learn basic vocabulary and structures. But relatively quickly you will find yourself able to use the language. Start with using simple phrases and then move to very simple texts. Listen to podcasts with transcripts. Turn them to half-speed if necessary. Be creative and find ways to use the language in your daily life.

It will be initially more challenging and exhausting than doing the same things in your native tongue in the process your knowledge will increase tremendously. Make it a habit to use that language (and read my last article if you want to know all about habits (VOICES January 2019 edition)!

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on UnsplashI won’t pretend that you can only learn a language by watching series and listening to songs. You do need to study. For that find good resources and decide for one or two at a time! Nowadays there is a vast amount of language learning apps and courses and books and websites. It can be tempting do just catch them all and keep buying while not using them at all. For sure, you will need different resources. A beginner needs different resources than somebody at an intermediate or advanced stage. But settle on one or two for each stage of learning and change when you feel they can’t teach you much more.

When I studied Portuguese, initially I spend a lot of time on a site called Duolingo. It gave me a good start. But as soon as I felt that I had a grasp of basic sentences and vocabulary I started reading a bilingual book with very simple stories and made that my main source. Later I had many Skype sessions with a native Speaker and moved on to more complex stories.

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Not every method works for everyone! I am very interested in reading in other languages so I focus on books and try to get reading as quickly as possible. But for you that might be less enticing. You may want to jump right in and speak from the beginning. A friend of mine improved his Japanese by going to a pub every night while he was in the country. With his, at the time, broken Japanese he just talked to the people and picked up words and practiced while having a nice time. Or try to find pen pals in your language (a cool app for that is “slowly“). There are many ways and many methods. It is good to get inspiration from what others use, but find out what works for you, what is efficient for you and what is fun for you.

Don’t get lost on grammar, focus on sentences and learning by doing. Grammar can be a useful tool to understand a language but it won’t get you very far in speaking and writing. Especially in the beginning, forget about grammar and learn words and sentences. Sentences are important because you see words in their “natural environment” and you encounter grammatical structures in real life use instead of some declination table. Only use grammar as a reference if you find a structure in a text that you really don’t understand. For some people focusing mainly on grammar does work but from what I can tell, most people benefit from leaving it aside a little and focusing on learning by doing.

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Lastly, embrace your mistakes! Making mistakes and learning from them is crucial to successfully learning any skill. Children learn by imitating the adults around them and they try and try again until they succeed. In language learning they initially just babble away and slowly learn the correct use of the language by repeating and by making mistakes. And they don’t know a thing about grammar. It is a myth that adults cannot do the same. They might be slower in learning than children but the method of mistakes and repetition works just as well. And adults can consciously correct their mistakes and structure their learning. Go out and try to speak and write in your target language, if you make mistakes ask for correction or have a short look into the grammar.

Now, many are afraid of embarrassment and ridicule for their mistakes. But just think about how you feel if somebody else makes an effort to speak your native language, even with many flaws. Most native speakers are happy to help and won’t make fun of you. So I dare you go out and use your target language with all the beautiful mistakes you will make on the way! It can be daunting but it is well worth it.

Mathis Gilsbach

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