If you learned one language, you can learn another. How much effort it takes, though,
depends in large part on how well you're able to find the study techniques that fit
your learning style. Here are a few techniques I've found to be useful in my experience
as a language student and teacher.
Before launching into a study routine, get clear on your motivation and find ways
to involve yourself with what motivates you. For me, although I studied Russian in
school, I wasn't exceptionally motivated until I started spending time with native
Russian speakers and didn't like feeling left out of the conversations. A young English-language
student of mine found her motivation in learning tongue twisters.
When you're starting out, build a stock vocabulary of essential words and phrases
that fit your personal needs. For ideas beyond your textbook, read and listen to material
created by native speakers and make note of words that occur frequently. I also try
to pay attention to the vocabulary I use in everyday situations and find the equivalent
in the other language. Just keep in mind that the equivalent will rarely be a word-for-word
translation. This is why using native material and a monolingual dictionary is so
It's temping to try to soak up any and all interesting vocabulary you come across,
but in the long run, scattered study can slow you down. When you learn a word, learn
it thoroughly. Depending on the language, this means learning things like the gender
of nouns, verb conjugations and the prepositions and objects that go with those verbs.
One way to get new vocabulary to stick in the memory is to make six or seven sentences
for each word. I've found entering single words into an Internet search engine is
a useful trick for finding examples in native texts. This detail-oriented approach
might seem slow at first, but it will cut down on the review time you need and you'll
reach conversational level faster because you'll really be able to use what you know.
For the first six months at least, have some contact with the language every day.
Short, frequent study periods amounting to an hour or more a day are ideal, but even
10 or 15 minutes a day prevents what you've recently learned from fading away. I usually
carry a small notebook with vocabulary to review whenever I have a few spare minutes.
Small flash cards also work well for this. For longer study sessions, define a goal,
whether it's a set of words or a new grammar rule to learn or just review. This way
you'll be motivated by seeing that you're making progress every time you study. Try
to fit a quick review in before bedtime, too, because sleep helps consolidate memories.
If you're studying a gendered language, in your notes, make it easy to see the gender
of each noun at a glance. In my German notes, I made a column for each gender. Color-coding
is another method. To remember new words, try relating them to words you already know.
For instance, one of the few Arabic words I know is "moz" (banana) because I related
it to the Russian "mozg" (brain) with the idea that bananas are good for your brain.
It doesn't have to be logical, just memorable. When you learn whole phrases, watch
for patterns in the grammar. Do past tenses all end in the same letter? Do nouns after
a certain preposition take the same ending? Personally, I don't do well if I try to
memorize abstract rules. I have to learn phrases first and then deduce the rules from
them. I've found a lot of my students remember better this way, too. Just don't neglect
studying grammar rules altogether. Even in an immersion situation, you can still learn
bad grammar if you happen to guess the rules wrong.
Nature arranged it so that most babies learn language by listening and the same method
works for older learners. Even if you can't understand much at first, listening helps
you pick up the rhythm of the language and review the words you do know. Music is
an easy way to learn because you tend to memorize lyrics. For the first few weeks
after I moved to Hungary, a lot of my new vocabulary came from music. A student of
mine used lines from Beatles songs he'd memorized to help him learn English grammar.
If you have trouble finding recorded music in the language you're studying, try online
or shortwave radio for a wider selection. Watching movies lets you hear the language
in a realistic context with visual cues to what's being said. For review, listen to
the news or a watch movie you've already seen in your native language, so you'll know
the topic. Whatever you listen to, try to find at least some material at native speed,
rather than slowed down for learners.
If you're a visual learner, reading and writing on topics you're interested in is
critical. If you're learning a new alphabet, you might try transliterating from your
native alphabet into the foreign alphabet. Another technique is to start out with
a few letters at a time using flashcards. I found it easiest to read and look back
at my notes if I forgot the letters. This means slow going at first, but it doesn't
take long to pick up speed.
For reading material, anything you enjoy is fair game. Comics are ideal because they
use natural dialogue and you'll know if you've understood by whether or not you get
the joke. Online forums are useful for learning natural usage, but that sometimes
means less than perfect grammar and spelling. Movies with subtitles are another option.
When possible, read aloud to not only reinforce your memory, but to make sure you
can actually pronounce the words. For writing practice, having a pen pal is one of
the most motivating methods, but if you're not able to write that well yet, try keeping
a daily journal. Some of my students also found it useful to draw pictures and label
For portable practice, you can't beat just thinking in the new language, even if you
can only name objects and colors at first. Rather than labeling everything in the
house, I used to just look around and try to name and describe what I saw, then check
my notes if I couldn't remember. From there, you can move on to short sentences like
"I'm going to work now." As you progress, try to translate everyday conversations
so you'll be prepared when you face these situations in the new language.
This silent practice is important, but if that's all you do, it's all too easy to
develop a good passive understanding only to discover that you have trouble formulating
a sentence in real time. I've seen this happen to a lot of my students who started
their studies in large lecture-based language classes. Look for speaking practice
that helps you find a balance between being afraid to make mistakes and being so causal
about grammar that you're hard to understand. You might volunteer to work with immigrants,
visit a cultural center, or just spend time anywhere speakers of your new language
congregate. A friend of mine found a chess partner who was a native speaker of the
language he was learning. I once worked in a kindergarten with two boys who spoke
only Russian. Since I was the only one there who knew the language, I didn't have
time to worry about perfect grammar.
However you study, get a solid foundation by learning from native sources whenever
possible and practicing daily. If you find you're struggling with grammar or vocabulary,
try out different study methods. Once you find the techniques that work with your
learning style, you might be surprised how quickly you progress.
Marie Kirschbaum has studied German, Russian,
and Hungarian to varying degrees and has taught English as a second language for three