Meet Our Guest Author
I’m Alex Rawlings, I’m 21 years old and I study German and Russian at Oxford University. I’ve always loved learning languages, and last year I was named Britain’s most multilingual student in a competition after being tested for fluency in eleven different languages. It doesn’t stop at eleven though, I have plans to learn plenty more! I have recently set up a YouTube channel and am keeping a blog at www.rawlangs.com. In this article and accompanying video I hope to answer some of the questions that you might have about language learning and my own experiences of it. Enjoy!
Learning languages – most of us have tried to, many of us want to, all of us need to, but why is it that it can so often seem like an impossible task? And why are some people better at it than others?
There is one simple explanation – method. How far I’ve managed to get with languages is not because I’m gifted or was born with any special talent. Linguists have proved time and time again that that just isn’t a thing. It’s down to the fact that I’ve been doing this for a long time, so I’ve had plenty of trial and error to work out where I’ve been going wrong and what I’ve been doing right. I know now what I enjoy and what I find boring. I think that definitely by the time you’re moving onto your fourth or fifth language, you should already have a pretty clear idea of how to motivate yourself and how you to get results.
This article is about the journey of language learning: what to do, what to expect, and where you can hope it’ll take you. Before we get started though, there are a few things I’d like to set out first. I’ve written more extensively about some of the reasons for these on my blog (www.rawlangs.com), but this is the mind-set I think you need to get started:
- Language learning never stops. Learning is an eternal process: no matter how far we come, there will always be more to know.
- Forget about fluency for a bit. For our purposes, fluency is the ability to form sentences independently and spontaneously, and once we’re doing that, we’re speaking the language. You can concentrate on ‘perfecting’ it later.
- Don’t worry about any letters or any numbers, and don’t use these to measure your ‘fluency’. Qualifications and certificates are a whole different kettle of fish, and are not that relevant at this stage.
Now let’s get going. The world of languages awaits.
Stage 1: Pick a language
We know we’re in this for the long haul, so let’s not make this decision lightly. We need to work out why we want to learn a language, and how we’re going to use it. Have we got friends and family that speak it? Will it help us in our working lives? Did we go on holiday and fall in love with somewhere (or someone), or are planning to make a trip there? Whatever the reasons, we need to have them. Don’t just learn a language because you started it at school. This is your chance to break free, make your own choices and discover your own worlds. Put to rest those painful memories of being cooped up in classrooms on Friday afternoons learning être and avoir.
Stage 2: Set goals
You never leave the house and just drive for a few hours if you’re hoping to get somewhere in particular. Likewise, we can’t go on our language adventure without some idea of where we’d like it to take us. Have a sit down and work out at what point you will be satisfied with what you have achieved. Will you be happy with a smattering of phrases and handful of verbs? Do you want to just cover most of the grammar and see what happens next? Or will you not rest until you’re watching the news, running a business, and writing a novel in your new second tongue? This is also a good opportunity to decide how much time you’re going to be able to dedicate to studying, and how often. The ideal that I aim for is an hour a day, 3-4 days a week, but I break that up between around 15 minutes in the morning, half an hour in the afternoon, and another 15 minutes in the evening to keep things fresh and interesting.
Stage 3: Make a start
Start listening to the language. Find podcasts, watch YouTube videos, listen to music, take advantage of the vast wealth of free language resources available on the internet these days. This is your ‘try before you buy’ period, and use it to get used to the sound of the language: the rhythm, the pronunciation, and the intonation. Learn some basic phrases like how to greet someone and ask how they are. This will give you a great head start before you really get going. Make a real effort to try and learn those first few phrases and that should give you the confidence to go on to learn more. This is also a perfect time to make sure that you like the language, and if not, to go back and choose another.
Stage 4: Get a course
We’re wading into serious territory now. There are plenty of inexpensive, well-written courses available on Amazon and at the bookstore. If you don’t want to spend money, your local library will probably have a surprisingly good selection. Strike a balance between picking out the bits that you find the most relevant for your language goals, but also trust in the course’s ability to guide you through it all. Personally I don’t focus too much on vocab at this stage – that becomes a lot easier once you’ve got a better grasp of how the language works. Try and keep to your work schedule, but take things easy. Languages are fun, remember! It’s really important to take breaks to let everything sink in as well. Make sure you’ve looked over everything as many times as possible before you move on to the next units. My acid test is to make sure I can completely understand the dialogues just by listening to them, and that I can form my own sentences with the new vocabulary I’ve learnt. But don’t forget: you’re not performing magic, you’re learning, and that needs patience!
Stage 5: Extra material
You’ve reached this stage when you’re starting to feel confident with what you’ve learnt so far. You’re getting a clear idea of the basic structures, you’ve got a decent vocabulary of 100-150 words, and it’s time to start supplementing your course with some independent learning. Find kids’ TV shows on YouTube, read children’s stories online, get hold of anything that can provide you with clear and basic vocabulary for you to learn as well. It might also be time to make more of a push for vocabulary now, so you can talk about more topics and put to use your knowledge of grammar.
Stage 6: Navigate your first mid-language crisis
Unfortunately this happens. I get these when I’ve started to get a good knowledge of the present, past and future tenses, a decent vocabulary, and can have basic conversations with a native speaker. At this point you might become complacent and get bored with the language. You might think that you’ve done enough to get by in the situations that you’ll need it for. But don’t be fooled. You’re only half way there. Think about making some changes to your schedule, tackling some new topics, remind yourself of the goals you set out in Stage 2 and work out what you’ll have to do to get there. In an ideal world, you’d also move onto Stage 7.
Stage 7: Visit the country
Obviously this can be easier or harder for you depending on where you live and your financial situation, but it is an essential pilgrimage for every serious language learner. It’s also your reward: see how your new language skills make everything easier from taxi journeys to restaurants, from bizarre transport announcements to chance acquaintances. Be prepared to hear words and phrases that your course never told you about (but don’t be angry at it! It really did have your best interests at heart.) Learn the limits of what you’ve achieved so far, and use that as your inspiration to go on to learn more. Sure, you can buy a metro ticket and ask for directions to the post office, but can you talk to locals like you could back home? You’ve got a foot in the door of your new culture, but are you really in the club?
If a foreign trip is really out of the question, check out some of the numerous free language exchange websites. You’ll find someone to exchange emails with, maybe have a few chats with on Skype, and that’ll be invaluable for making sure you’re not going wrong with your learning!
Stage 8: The confidence plateau
This is similar to Stage 6, but it’s reached at a much more advanced point in our studies. Let’s say you’ve finished your course and you now feel like you can speak the language fairly well. You can even talk about exciting topics such as the environment. This is the point where many people might just put their feet up and decide that they can leave making further progress to simple osmosis. But now is not a time to stall. We need to be much cleverer about how we approach our learning, and remember that we are nowhere near finished. Remember, language learning never stops: there’s always more to learn. It’s now all down to the crucial next two stages. These are what will take us that extra mile.
Stage 9: Immerse yourself in film, TV and news
We can stop watching just the kids’ stuff now and start becoming proper grown-ups in our new language. Watch soaps, watch chat shows, watch the news. If you don’t have a satellite connection, there is still plenty available online. Pay attention to how the language used varies in those different contexts. Take advantage of the range of different topics that are discussed, and think of other words that you’d find useful to know. Keep a good dictionary and a notepad next to you and write down, say, 10-20 new words each time, and crucially, the context in which you heard them. Go away and learn these, then come back and do it again.
Stage 10: Read literature, do translations and writing exercises
We are so close to the pinnacle now. You’ve got a big vocabulary, sturdy grammar and a good familiarity with the culture (particularly through Stages 7 and 9). This is your motivation to keep going. Start reading literature. If possible, pick a book you’ve already read in translation in English and that you know well (and really like). Don’t start looking up every unfamiliar word unless you’ve got a death wish, just look up those that are vital for understanding what’s going on, so you enjoy reading it. Again, write them down and learn them as in Stage 9. Many e-books are free, and e-readers can often be installed with dictionaries that will tell you what words mean as you go along. Reading isn’t for everyone though, and it also isn’t everything. Have a go at translating newspaper articles, speeches and things on Wikipedia both into and out of your target language. Play around with nuances of meaning and different registers. Go online onto one of the huge language learning community sites and find someone to check it all over for you. Equally, set yourself writing exercises: try keeping a short diary in your new language, write opinion pieces, obituaries, anything that’ll get you using advanced vocabulary. Initially this stage is hard – you’ll find you need words that you’d never hear or use in speech normally. But this is also the most rewarding part. By now you can proudly and deservedly take your seat, and conduct the rest of your studies from the warmth and comfort of the inside of the language club.