Want to Learn A New Language? Here’s what to do first….

Most preschool children learn the language(s) of their family and their friends without very much conscious effort. Adult language learners are on a different journey.  For us, learning another language is a conscious decision; it is something that we have decided that we want or need to do.

Here are 7 common reasons why we might start thinking about learning another language:

  1. Travel: Be able to ask for directions or other (tourist) information, order in a restaurant, check into a hotel…
  2. A New Retirement Home: You dream of moving to a warmer/cheaper country on retirement, but “you don’t speak the language.”
  3. Family: Your son or daughter has married someone who speaks a different language from yours. You want to be able to communicate with your new family member in his/her first language.
  4. Study: You want to be able to study at a college or university in your new target language (TL).
  5. Professional Requirements: You need to learn a new language for business or professional purposes.
  6. Brain Health: You have been reading about the benefits of language learning for brain health and you want to give it a go because it will be a fun, intellectual challenge.
  7. International Crisis: You have unexpectedly had to leave your home country because of war/famine and find yourself desperately needing employment in your new country- but you don’t have the necessary language skills.

These are all valid reasons for language study. But what percentage of students in each of the scenarios above will succeed? We may enroll in a class with great enthusiasm, but before long abandon the whole notion- telling ourselves

  • “I’m not good at languages”
  • “I don’t have time to practice or do the homework assignments”
  • “She/He wasn’t a good teacher”…
  • I’m too old (stupid, busy, tired…)

What’s sad about this is that the success rate for language learning will be much higher simply by thinking about these two things BEFORE start your program:

  1. Time Frame
  2. Learning style

Let’s look at these two points in more detail.

  1. Time Frame: How much time to you have on a consistent, daily basis to devote to language study? It doesn’t matter if you are starting at zero and want to be able to work as a neuroscientist in your target language—we all have to start somewhere. But the key question is- how much time can you put in every day (or at least 5 days/week)? Clearly, the more time you can devote to the task the better- but consistency is really the key. A minimum time frame might be 20 minutes/day. On the other hand, if you are free to go all out, a maximum, realistic time would probably be 4 hours/day- It takes a lot of effort to concentrate in a new language, and after about a half-day, fatigue sets in.

Once you have a daily and weekly amount of learning time in mind, what can you realistically accomplish in three months? You need the big picture, but you will lose sight of that and get disheartened without a short-term, more immediate plan. Think about what you want to accomplish in your first three months.  This gives you a starting point, and fairly specific goals. Now, how are you going to do it?

  1. Consider your learning style: Are you a self-directed learner? Can you work independently? Do you like working online? Would a computer program work for you? Or are you someone that enjoys the camaraderie of a face-to-face class and the accountability of a teacher that you meet in person? Do you think you are best suited to using a traditional textbook with workbook exercises or would you prefer to learn a language by watching movies and TV programs in your target language? The good news is that this is a very exciting time to learn a new language. There are resources and tools of every type available online, and many of them are free. You can connect with an online learning partner, you can access movies, TV programs and podcasts, and you can download apps for your phone.

You don’t have to decide everything at once- just make a three-month plan, try out some things and see how it goes. (Don’t forget to reward yourself if you achieve your short-term goals). For example, in the next 3 months I want to complete 75 hours of Spanish study and have a coffee visit with a Spanish-speaking friend without using English. Once I have done that, my reward will be a weekend away in a nearby city- complete with a meal in a Spanish restaurant that I have picked out.

What do you think?  Would you like to learn a new language? Do you need help getting started? Put your comments below.

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