How to learn a language

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Getting Started

Learning a language is easier than it may seem. The first step is to look at it as both fun and hard. A strong interest about learning something new is very important for making learning a lot easier.

Using cassette tapes and CDs can be of much help.

Vocabulary

  • Think in whole phrases and with feeling. Try to remember not only words but with the feeling felt. E.g. (Spanish) To remember the word 'bread' - 'pan,' memorize the sentence, 'I eat bread with butter.' --'Como pan con mantequilla.' (Imagine you are eating the bread.) Some call this Total Physical Response.
  • Imagine the word or action you learn. Can you see the bread with butter in your mind's eye, even very quickly? Include other senses too. Smell the bread, feel the bread crumbs, taste the butter, etc.
  • Repeat the whole phrase or sentence until you can say it very easily without thinking.
  • Put words from your new language into the language you speak normally. This will cause fewer problems if you keep this to conversations with people who know what you are doing. E.g. (French) To make a cheese sandwich, put fromage between deux pieces of pain. This is known as code switching.
  • Put words from your normal language into your new language. This helps learners with a small vocabulary to talk comfortably and stay confident. Learners with larger vocabularies may want to rephrase or describe a word they don't know or can't remember in their new language.
  • Read the dictionary. Make it a habit to skim or browse through the dictionary and note down a few words that are part of normal everyday speech.
  • When developing a mnemonic, humorous phrases will help you to remember the new words.
  • Write down new words in two columns, one for your native language and one for the language to be learned. Then go over them day after day in different directions and carry those words you didn't remember so far over to a new page. The repetitive writing often helps memorizing.
  • Write down words on index cards or blank business cards, the target language on one side, the known language on the other. Carry a reasonable number in your pocket, purse, etc. and study them when you have free time. You can also create your own "flashcards" online or use someone else's at flashcardexchange.
  • Try making an animated, nonsensical story based on the word. The word for bread, Pan, sounds exactly like the English word for cooking pan. Imagine batting a loaf of bread with a pan or hitting a bread monster with an oversized pan. Including all sensations to their extremes helps.

Speaking and understanding

  • While riding the train or car, walking down the street, waiting in line, etc. imagine conversations and dialogues in your head. Carry a pocket dictionary/grammar book with you for this. Talking to yourself out loud while showering will force yourself to voice sentences without making you feel ridiculous.
  • Repeat and memorize phrases and sentences which use some grammatical rules you need to remember. Grammar requires thinking before speaking, so speak from a memorized sentence pattern instead. Make a number of phrases or sentences to memorize per day, depending on your what you are doing. For most people, memorizing 1 or 2 sentences every day is not too difficult.
  • Most new languages contain sounds you are not used to. Practice them a lot. Make yourself sentences full of new sounds and repeat them all the time. For instance, in French, "Il fait de la voile" can be used to practice French f's, v's and d's, or "un grand vin blanc" for French nasals.
  • Watch movies in the language and pretend or imagine that you already understand. TV shows and radio broadcasts are also good ways to practice a language.
  • Get the melody of the language by listening to songs you like and singing them. By doing this, you can reduce your accent and almost unconsciously memorize a lot of phrases. Get the lyrics though, because it may be very difficult to understand the song without them.
  • Listen to radio broadcasts in the language through the internet. The Deutsche Welle's slowly spoken news reports (in German) or the Polish Radio in Esperanto are both good examples of what you can find out there. The international french radio [1], just like the BBC [2] also offer broadcasts in 19 languages, including one in "easy french".
  • Watch English movies subtitled in your new language and vice-versa.
  • Use your computer to help you learn that language by installing programs or games using your new language. For example if you use Firefox web browser you can install a version in your new language.
  • Speak with a native speaker. Often there are local gatherings of native speakers for the sole intent of speaking. Listening or participating can be useful.
  • While a one-to-one talk may appear ideal, it does not really help. Either the person you are planning to talk with is already a friend - i.e someone you already have started to converse with in English - which will seem fake and tiring, or he/she is a stranger to you. In this last case again, either: a) you have nothing to talk about with that person besides basic introductions; or, b) the conversation started in the new language actually gets interesting and naturally go back to your native language.

Reading and writing

  • Try children's stories first, moving on to newspapers and magazines as your vocabulary builds. Reading will improve your vocabulary, your spelling, your grammar and your knowledge of the language culture a lot. It is almost necessary for good writing.
  • Get yourself bilingual books. Or get a book in the new language and the same book in one you already know. Read them together, matching words in the two languages. It helps if the languages are quite close. For instance, learning Spanish is easier starting from French than from English, because it's easier to see the more general structures.
  • Relating to the above, you could watch a favorite film with audio in one language and subtitles of another.
  • A very good "first read" is the book "The Little Prince" by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Originally in French, it is easily available many different languages. In many languages, it is even online (legally, and can be read for free. The book is short, interesting and contains simple grammar and vocabulary. Another good book is "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" by L. Frank Baum.
  • Get a digital dictionary. The faster word look-up will make first readings much easier.Freedict offers a collection of freely available (and modifiable) dictionaries.
  • Once you get a good enough level of writing you can try to write on Wikimedia projects. You could try to add (or start) a Wikibook for learning a language, or translate a Wikipedia article of your interest, knowing that others, more advanced or native speakers, will correct you!

Polishing

When you feel confident reading, try reading a grammar book in and about the language you are learning. It is not as bad as it sounds and will help you with difficult points. It will be a review of the basic rules and an introduction to the less obvious points of every language. Looking back will make the basic rules sound more clear and natural and you will be have a lot to help you remember them. You will learn (or just review) the most basic and useful things, e.g.: what is a direct object, an adverb, a nasal consonant, an infinitive, a case, etc. Overall, you will end up with a much clearer and organized picture of the language as a whole.

Other websites

There are other Wikibooks that are like How to learn a language.
Why don't you take a look at Japanese, which you might like?