When we are young, so much is open and possible. It was as a toddler that I picked up my own first and second language more or less simultaneously. English from my parents was first but Romanian came from my grandmother who didn’t speak English. As such I didn’t chose to learn it so much as it was taught to me before I even knew what language was.
I have heard many people say “I can’t learn languages” in much the same way they might say they can’t draw or paint, to which I will always respond that it’s less about ability and more about the opportunity to learn. Any kind of learning we do, has, at its core, our willingness to open up and forget the judgments most of us carry. That is what makes learning as a child so much easier, because children don’t put limits on themselves, so everything appears possible. As adults we carry baggage and doubts about failure which are often unfounded or inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. So, to begin learning a language you need to get back to that neutral and open mindset and accept that you may not be perfect but that you will be able to achieve what you set out to do. Consider the learning environment. If you fail at learning a new language will it have a huge impact on you? Will the reality you know be altered significantly if you don’t manage to speak Spanish perfectly? The answer is usually no, and hopefully that will take off some of the pressure and make learning more enjoyable.
Next comes goal setting. Toddlers don’t really plan to learn or set goals, they just do it. However, as adults this process will always be a little different, and one has to take into consideration all other impacts in your life and how much time you can give to learning a new language. Find time each day and make sure you keep up with practice regularly much as you would work away at things growing up.
Once you have the time allocated, immersion and actual lessons can start. Enroll in a class, find a conversation buddy or download a language app. Then as you progress through your classes work, give some time to finding ways to immerse yourself and use your new vocabulary outside of the lesson setting. Label things in your house, in the way early school adds picture cards of the alphabet around a classroom to teach reading. Label your cupboards, your food and your household items where possible, and look at them every day and repeat the words. Add more as your vocabulary increases. Make sure to write out everything phonetically to remind yourself of the correct pronunciation as you get used to the sounds of the language. Another way to immerse yourself is by watching TV in the language. If possible, look for something fairly simple like a soap opera which usually has relatively basic language and a lot of gesturing which can help show what is going on emotionally. When you start to get more comfortable, turn off the subtitles.
The last aspect of immersion may not always be feasible for everyone. It is to find a way to put yourself in a situation where you can only communicate in the language you are learning. A trip somewhere is obviously ideal, but in its place, you might consider trying to find people within your city with whom you can practice. Many cities have cultural clubs that function in their particular language. A pen pal on computer could be helpful as well. Consider asking a friend to learn a language with you and practice together as you learn the language. As with most things that need perseverance and continuous work, having a person going through it with you can be a great way to keep motivated (think keeping up with going to gym).
Learning a new language won’t happen overnight but with continuous practice and immersion it can become easier. Here are the key points to learning a new language:
- Identify a language goal and look at what barriers real or perceived that you may have used in the past to justify not learning that language.
- Set aside time each day to practice. Start small and build up. You can always go longer on days when you feel more inspired, but try not to miss any day even if it means just practicing for 15 minutes.
- Identify what your primary learning platform will be.
- Immerse yourself
- At home with labels, TV and lessons.
- In another setting where you don’t have anchors or aids to guide you.
Over the years I have learned three languages and gained a basic understanding of a few others. Any lack of mastery on my part has come entirely from not keeping up with the basic principles of consistent practice and immersion. I believe that immersion is the only true way to really understand a language. Being able to write in a language is just one step, speaking can be far more valuable especially since most of us are not setting out to become translators. A new language is something that can give its speaker the ability to travel more confidently, communicate with more people and hopefully see the world in new ways. Maybe its just my own experience, but every time I learn a new word and find its links in other seemingly unrelated languages (i.e. Slavic vs. Latin base languages) I am amazed. I wonder how that came to be, and what led to this overlap? It allows us to realise similarities where we didn’t imagine them.