I have a confession to make: in the years leading up to high school, I was completely petrified of the foreign language requirement. The idea of having of having to communicate with a totally different set of vocabulary made me burst out into a cold sweat. I scoured the school’s policy in a search of a loophole, anything to get me out of what was sure to destroy my chances of getting into college.
Flash forward a long way into the future. Not only have certain life events forced me to become decently proficient in four other languages, I spent over four years teaching my own dialect to learners of English as a Foreign Language. In having to face down one of my life’s most unfounded greatest fears, I’ve made two discoveries: first, that learning a foreign language, while frustrating at times, is not exactly the sort of thing over which to bite my fingernails to the stub, and second, it can be fun! Sure, tree diagramming sentences to the point of oblivion is a certain way to send students to dreamland, but when was the last time that, as an adult, you got to sing the alphabet song for your own academic pleasure?
Learning a foreign language doesn’t only offer up some benefits for your career, it makes your brain stronger. And don’t let age stop you; although children have the easiest time picking up foreign languages, anyone with a good attitude about learning and some time to dedicate can pick a language up. In fact, two of my students who picked up English the quickest were over sixty. All in all, there are plenty of things to fear in life (fuzzy spider in on the ceiling, I’m looking at you), but getting in with a new lingo isn’t one of them.
I often got asked by students for tips on the best study techniques. The ones below provoked the biggest smiles.
1. Be a kid again: although adults and children acquire knowledge in different fashions, there’s no harm in learning another language in the same way your native one! Try watching cartoon programs and reading picture books in the language of your choice, as those are dedicated towards teaching children the necessary vocabulary with simple, fluent grammar. As your level rises, it’s a smart idea to find your favorite books from elementary or junior high school in the language you’re learning. This way, you’ll already have a grasp of the plot and will be able to focus on the details of vocabulary and tense forms.
2. Don’t be afraid to get silly. A lot of foreign language teachers employ songs to help students get down the basics of grammar, and I’m guilty of that as well. It’s easier to mentally access the conjugations of verbs such as “to be” from a tune than from the cold, dry pages of a ten-pound book. When memorizing vocabulary, try out some mnemonic technics: think of a an association to help you remember words. For example, the expression for “to get married” in Japanese is “kekkon suru.” To be honest, one of my favorite aspects of a wedding is the cake, which sounds like “kekkon” (as in, “Put that delicious cake on my plate!”). It has not failed me yet!
3. Understand the difference between “fluency” and “accuracy.” One problem I often found with students is that they hesitated to speak up in class out of fear of making a mistake. As a language learner, you will make mistakes. A lot of them. And there’s nothing wrong with that! The problem is when too much focus is put on the “accuracy” portion of learning. Students do need to understand how to phrase a sentence correctly, when to use certain tenses and the difference between “seventeen” and “seventy.” But we learners also need the chance to speak or write about a topic, even our favorite colors, in an unrestrained, natural manner (not focusing on making corrections). When we do this, we approximate how we speak our own native tongue, which in turn tricks us into feeling more comfortable and familiar with the learning process. Both fluency and accuracy are important, and it’s essential not to sacrifice one for the other.
4. Get over the plateau. When you first learn a language, the improvement on even a day-to-day basis is astounding, as you go from zero skills to infinitely more than that. However, many students nearing the Intermediate level find themselves in the dreaded rut. You’re still acquiring new knowledge, but the rate of progress is going to be less drastic than when you initially started learning. The great news is that, with all this obtained knowledge, now is the perfect time to emphasize your speaking and writing skills. There are tons of websites for online language exchanges, and you could start a blog for cooking or traveling or just everyday life. Pretty soon, you’ll be merrily waving to the plateau behind you.
5. Have fun! Forget about just passing the test. Learning another language helps you to communicate with people around the world.
If anyone has any other tips, I’d love to hear them!