Today, learning a new language is one of the most valuable skills you can add to your international toolkit.
Whether you’re traveling, looking for a new job, or getting more involved in your community, having more than one language available to you grants you access to markets, relationships, and opportunities that were previously closed.
When learning a new language, the key is immersion. That’s how children learn languages incredibly fast – they have to.
From the moment they’re born, they are surrounded by a method of communication (speech) that is not yet accessible to them. Over time, they begin to develop the muscle strength needed to produce speech sounds, and they experiment.
With positive reinforcement and constant input of their caregivers’ language, they quickly internalize sounds, patterns, vocabulary, grammar structure, and intonation without knowing the exact rules. Of course, there are some grammar rules and sounds (like the American English “r”) that are more difficult or less intuitive, and caregivers correct those mistakes as they occur.
One challenge of learning a language after childhood is that if you live in a place where a majority of the population speaks your native language, you have no ‘need’ to acquire a second language. So, as a language-learner, you have to outsmart yourself. By being immersed in your target language, you convince your brain that learning it is essential.
Here are five ways you can create an environment that is conducive to learning a new language:
- Listen to music in your target language. Sites such as Spotify and YouTube offer songs in many languages. Odds are, you will be able to find genres and artists that appeal to your unique tastes. To be sure, traditional songs and classic artists are important as well; there are years of cultural riches to be uncovered by appreciating traditional music from time to time. The more you sing along, the more you can train your mouth and throat muscles to produce speech sounds out of standard order and with different intonation and speed.
- Watch your favorite movies in your target language.Movies, like music, are full of examples of your target language in various contexts. Going to a restaurant? Spending time with friends? Arguing with your neighbor? Contexts that may not be relevant while you’re studying the language suddenly become relevant when you hear a native speaker use them. My recommendation? As often as available, opt for audio and subtitles in your target language. While your brain gets used to processing the language at native speed, you can help yourself out by reading along and filling in the gaps.
- Be immersed in the culture(s) that speak your target language.Language and culture are like peanut butter and jelly. Sure, you can eat them separately, but you get a lot more flavor by eating them together. Learning about the culture of your target language allows you to connect better with native speakers and the language itself and also enables you to understand things like what kind of jokes are considered funny and why some phrases or idioms are the way they are. The more you know, the more well-rounded your knowledge and experience of the language will be.
- Write in your target language.It doesn’t need to be worthy of publishing, but writing a little bit every day slows you down and forces you to think about patterns and word order on the micro-level. By doing something like journaling about your day or hand-copying a translation your favorite book, you learn vocabulary, practice creating grammatically correct sentences, and start to notice patterns on your own.
- Find a native speaker to talk to regularly.This tip can be difficult to implement depending on your target language and how extroverted or introverted you are, but it is the tip that most strongly communicates to your brain that learning this language is essential for survival, at the least for the duration of the conversation. By interacting with a native speaker, you have to think on your feet, be spontaneous, and pull from what you’ve learned, just like you do in your native language. While this kind of environment often feels nerve-wracking and unpredictable for me, I have consistently found that people are willing to help someone learn their native language.
Have additional tips for fellow language learners? We’d love to hear from you. Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. Happy learning!
– Anna Turner