Multilingualism is a great thing. Learning another language can make you more competitive in the job market and science has shown that bilingualism can improve your brain while holding back conditions like dementia.
As someone who learned Japanese a few years ago, I can say that while learning a language is a huge challenge, it is also immensely satisfying. Here are a few tips both from experts which can help you become fluent.
1. Know why you’re studying a language
Learning a language is not something you can just pick up and put away as you please. As Language Testing International points out, some languages can take up to 2760 hours to learn proficiently. Even easier languages like French or Spanish will still take 720 hours. No one can do that much work on their own time without serious motivation.
In my case, I am the son of a Japanese immigrant and thus gained an interest in learning the language of my heritage. That motivation kept me going during those many, many frustrating hours I spent trying to learn new kanji or going over Japanese particles.
What that motivation is, can vary from person to person, but make sure you have a real reason to learn a language beyond mere curiosity or impressing your peers. Write it down where you can see it to keep yourself motivated.
2. Learn core words first
No one can memorize every word in a language. Instead, there are a series of core words, which account for the vast majority of what we say in everyday life. In English for example, 90 percent of texts consist just 4000 words while 300,000 words make up the other 10 percent.
So learn the core words first in your language. By emphasizing on those, you can quickly get to a level where you can hold a conversation. Making visible progress like that, can keep yourself motivated for the next level.
As noted above, learning a language to a proficient level can take up to 2760 hours. If you are studying a language for two hours a day, five days a week, that is over five years of work.
That means it is critical to regularly practice. You can’t just do a lot of practice for one day and then take three days off. What knowledge you learn in that one day will decay in those few days. Set a regular schedule and stick to it. If you can make learning a language a routine, the battle is partly won.
4. Watch foreign-language media
Most people use language textbooks to learn basic to intermediate grammar and words, but there is a catch. Those textbooks only teach a very formal version of the language. The result is that when you speak like a textbook in front of a native speaker, you will sound very strange (and in Japanese, you will sound feminine).
So you should expose yourself to your studied language beyond mere study guides. Foreign media is a great way to immerse yourself. Even if you do not understand what they are saying, noticing the tone and pitch used will help.
And turn the subtitles off.
5. Don’t be scared of mistakes
Everyone believes that young children are much better at learning languages compared to adults, but one study from the journal Second Language Research has declared that “the age at which second language acquisitions begins is not a significant factor.”
So if children are not actually better at learning languages, why do we think that? One reason is that unlike adults, children do not get embarrassed when they make a speaking or grammar mistake. Adults do, and this can in the worst case scenario lead to perfection paralysis. People become so worried about making a mistake that they stop trying to move forward and improve.
Mistakes are a part of learning any language. Don’t worry about making them.
6. Speak with native speakers
When I started to learn Japanese, my mother’s side of the family and her contacts were a huge help. I regularly talked with them about everything, which bolstered my speaking skills and helped me understand various parts of Japanese which I would not have realized with just a textbook.
Talking with a native speaker is the single best way to improve your language skills, but how can you find one? Websites like italki or WeSpeke can help you connect with other across the globe. Also probe your friends and family to see if they know someone who speaks your target language.
7. Look into the foreign culture
A language represents people and their culture. If you don’t value the people or the culture, then you don’t value the language. Think about how the Eskimos have 50 words for “snow.”
So take efforts to learn about the native culture if you want to know the native language. Films and TV shows are a good place to start, but newspaper, news shows, and even Internet memes can teach you what the people you are studying are interested in. Doing so will teach you new words and phrases which you would not have learned otherwise and will help you understand that a new language can help you open up an entirely new world for you to explore.
Don’t Give Up!
According to Vamos Spanish Academy, Learning a language is a huge challenge. When you have spent hours not making any real progress and fumbling your speech, it is easy to wonder if this is really such a good idea.
But bilingualism is a valuable tool where the rewards will easily make up for the effort. Remember the reasons why you decided to practice that language and the fact that requires constant, long practice. Fluency is only a matter of time and effort. If you make a true effort to immerse yourself in the language, understand the culture, and practice as much as you can, you will find yourself knowing a language which can enrich your life and teach you new perspectives.
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