x’s tips for learning languages

For those who enjoy reading Dostoevsky in the original Russian but trip over spoken Russian like a toddler.

  • First, understand that you will not reach fluency in strictly a collegiate environment. There are kinds of fluency which are more attainable in academic spaces, but speaking and listening are likely skills you will need to improve in the field, not in the classroom.
  • Take a moment to figure out your strengths and weaknesses. If you have trouble doing this, consult your professor. It is helpful to know where you need improvement when studying languages lest you focus on one particular section and flounder in another. Unless you only need that particular section… so if you are learning Igbo so you can speak back to your grandmother when she talks to you, you may not necessarily need to know how to write or even read Igbo.
  • Don’t be a prick – everyone has a reason to study a language and some people’s reason is that they simply want to explore a new culture. Just because you are studying Mandarin so you can be a better job candidate does not mean that your interests are more legitimate or deserve more esteem than the student studying Quechua or Icelandic or Chilean Sign Language.

  • Take notes in your language, regardless of subject. Learn to interpret information in English (or your native language) in your studied language. Begin to flesh out the you which now exists in this language, even if you lack the words to necessarily describe what you need to say.
  • Try to think like a _______ person, not an English speaker. English grammar is irregular and relatively more fluid, while other languages tend to be more formulaic.
  • When you’re reading a book in your language, keep a list of words to look up. Don’t look up the word immediately unless it is central to what’s going on. When you finish reading, look up your words and write the definition in the language.
  • If you find a word you do not know, go to Google Images first before you go to Google Translate. It is better to commit an image to your mind than it is to commit text.
  • Avoid direct translation. This is the process of taking a sentence and translating it word-for-word as opposed to concept for concept. An example would be the phrase I’m coming when someone knocks at the door. A direct translation of this into French is je viens and I suppose someone would understand that, although it is better to say j’arrive. 
  • It helps to begin to see your native language as a language instead of your lived existence. When you learn languages which have features which do not exist or are uncommon in your language, it requires you to take a moment to think and see how your language functions and handles something. Take the subjunctive mood for example. In English, it exists, but it is often either ignored (“I wish he was here” [indicative] instead of “I wish he were here.” [subjunctive]) or it is only used rarely or ceremoniously. In Romance languages, the subjunctive is used for more often.
  • Begin consuming media in your language. It is helpful not only to expose yourself to the culture, but to see how the language is spoken. Your professor is trained to speak the language clearly and intelligibly, while the average Chinese person may not enunciate as much and may speak in a faster cadence. It will also expose you to dialects. Parisians do not speak in the same way that Toulousains speak, nor do either of them speak the same was as do the Senegalese or the Congolese. By watching films and television and listening to music, you will be able to understand how the language is spoken by its untrained speakers.
  • The process of creating is not simply about learning how to convert a sentence in English or Spanish into German, but learning how to convey concepts to someone else. Avoid seeing other languages as ciphers of your native language, for this will prevent you for really immersing yourself.
  • Many people learn languages for some sort of gain, me included. I study French so that I can study French literature. Some people study Japanese so that they can find jobs at Japanese firms, or study Tagalog so they can communicate with their families in the Philippines. Whatever your reason for studying a language, it is important that you keep it close to your heart during your studies as a motivation. If your motivation wanes, do not continue learning it and focus on things which are more important to you.



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