How to Learn a Language in Lockdown
Access to the internet is a great equalizer. More information than we could ever process is out there — just waiting to be discovered.
Something I’ve found a personal interest in is languages. I particularly enjoy the romance languages that roll off the tongue like velvety chocolate.
But as much as I’m an idealist and like to say things like “velvety chocolate,” I’m also a practical person. Ultimately, I’m not as interested in fancy classroom language as much as I’m interested in useful language. This is a lesson that came clear to me after 8 years of studying French in school on my first trip to France.
I could read books and write stories in French. I excelled in class and would have dreams completely in French. I could understand most of what was said to me. But I still found myself lost and struggling to put together sentences in person when put on the spot. I could conjugate a verb in nearly a dozen different tenses, but that matters very little when it’s not the word you need.
When it really mattered, the bottom of the 9th, bases fully loaded, I couldn’t communicate. And wasn’t that the entire point?
That’s what made me wonder if there had to be a better way.
And I do think I’ve found it.
Disclaimer: I won’t claim to be an expert, and I still wouldn’t say I’m fluent in any language beyond English (and sometimes that one’s a little iffy), but this new way of looking at language learning has been really helping me in the journey, so I thought I’d share just in case it helps you too.
Embrace the Mindset
One of the most important things about learning a new language is ensuring you have a deep relationship with the language. A strong reason why you want to learn it to hold on to through the good days and the bad.
In the beginning, it’s fun and easy to learn new vocabulary words. But there will be days that aren’t fun — they’ll be downright frustrating. You’ll feel like you’re completely wasting your time and wonder why you started.
You have to keep reminding yourself that you aren’t wasting your time. That is unless you use the frustration as an excuse to give up on yourself. In that instance, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
So understand that learning a language — really learning it to fluency — takes time. We supposedly “absorb language like a sponge” as a child, but it takes us over a decade to read and write with any decent level of mastery. And that’s in our native language.
Be realistic and patient with yourself and remember why you started.
Application: Set a strong reason for why you want to learn this language.
Do you dream of owning a Tuscan villa? Or want to communicate with your grandparents or in-laws in their native language? Are you planning to explore a country where English may not be available? Are you in love with foreign films?
Even if it’s a casual reason, make sure it resonates deeply (i.e. make it resonate deeply).
Starting at the Beginning
As infants, we develop language skills in the most natural possible way. We start by uttering basic nouns we pick up from the cues around us. “Ball,” “dog,” “mama.”
Eventually, we start to pick up a bit more.
“Big ball,” “good dog,” and “no mama.”
Soon we’re stringing together sentences, then paragraphs, and eventually, we’ve got it. (Ok this isn’t exactly how it goes, but you get the point).
I think one of the major problems we face in classroom language learning is that we start with something that should come last — grammar and sentence structure.
Perfect sentence structure isn’t needed to communicate. Communication is what happens when the other side understands you. As children demonstrate, that bar is far lower than we set it.
Application: Use sticky notes to label things around the house in the new language (Sticky notes for Italian could include “couch” — “divano”, “table” — “tavolo”, “candle” — “candela”).
Use Practical Language
Another issue I have with textbook language learning is that you spend so much time learning many words you’ll never (or, I should say, rarely) use.
When was the last time you used the words, “lion,” “monkey,” or “sweater vest” in a sentence? Unless you and a friend frequent the zoo sporting the chess champion look, it was probably not that recent.
It’s estimated that if you can learn 800-1000 of the most used words in English, you’ll have roughly 75% of the useful language down. (Source).
The same principle applies to other languages as well.
So why not focus on that 800–1000 words first?
Application: Search for a credible list of the most common words in a language. Make a flashcard set of these words and work to memorize them.
Start Exposing Yourself to the Language in Use
The internet has provided us with access to things we never could have dreamed of in decades past. Use it.
Download or purchase children’s books in the language you’re trying to learn. Download or purchase some of your favorite books that you already know and love in the new language. Subscribe to podcasts in the language. Read news stories from a country that speaks the language. Watch television shows or movies in the language (use subtitles in the language as well — not English).
You won’t understand it all (likely, you will barely understand any of it). Especially at first.
But over time and without notice, you’ll start learning sounds, finding patterns, separating words, distinguishing context, and picking it up over time.
This kind of ungated access to global information is something new that we have and should use to our advantage.
Start Learning Grammar
Once you have a base level of understanding of the vocabulary, structuring sentences becomes much more accessible.
Apps like Duolingo are great for teaching you sentence structure. Textbooks are great at teaching you to conjugate and string things together in the proper order.
This is where you can start pulling it all together.
Practice with a Native Speaker
There are many exchanges online, where you can trade practice in your native language for practice in theirs.
There are also great connections available through Facebook groups — join some in the language you’re interested in to connect with native speakers or others learning the language with you.
These forums are typically a great place to ask questions or get personalized help (or just to have access to the archives of questions others have asked before you).
Learning a new language is like taking on a new identity. It takes time to become the speaker, reader, and writer you want to be. But by learning a new language, you’ll find new ways to understand, impress, and express yourself.
Give yourself time, grace, lots of practice, and patience.
Happy language learning!