So let’s say that you’re enrolled in a foreign language class, or you’ve bought a self-study course, such as Pimsleur’s or Rosetta Stone.
First of all, congratulations on taking that big step. Making that initial effort just to get started is an accomplishment itself.
Many people, unfortunately, don’t get the kind of results they’re seeking with their programs. They won’t make much progress, and they’ll give up and feel as if they’ve wasted their time, money, and effort.
The thing is, there are things you can do to make sure you’re getting the most of out the program or curriculum you’re following. And it’s these things that can make the difference between success or failure—or more specifically, the difference between speaking a new language fluently and not speaking it at all.
1. Take responsibility for your success.
This is probably the most important thing you can do.
There is one fundamental difference between successful and unsuccessful language learners. The former take personal responsibility for their success, while the latter depend on something external—a course, a class, or a teacher—to impart success onto them.
No one source can teach you a language. No matter how good the material, no single source can possibly:
- Teach you all the twists and turns of a language.
- Make you show up to class or adhere to the program.
- Learn the material for you.
When I was in language school, the most successful student in my class was a girl named Lauren. Lauren was naturally talented. But she also studied two to three hours a night (after seven hours of class) and never blamed anyone but herself if she didn’t understand something.
So in turn, her extra work helped her retain things from class better. And if she ever ran into something that she had a hard time understanding, she figured out a way to learn it, rather than get frustrated with the teachers. It was all on her, and in the end she was very successful.
2. Learn vocabulary in chunks.
This was something I didn’t fully appreciate until recently and which I used to help me learn a little German.
When you’re trying to build your vocabulary, don’t learn new words alone. Learn them as part of a small phrase, sentence, or clause. For example, if you’re studying English and you’re learning the word “wag,” you would learn something like, “The dog wagged its tail.” This accomplishes a few thing:
- You learn the word in its natural context, which helps you avoid saying clumsy things like, “The dolphin wagged its fin.”
- You learn the word easier with the contextual clues.
- You hear the word in the rhythms of the phrase or sentence.
Also, there’s some research that we learn language information in chunks. Luca Lampariello from The Polyglot Dream writes about using this technique, and this is how the Pimsleur courses teaches new vocab.
Note: I think it’s fine to learn some words individually, but the bulk of your efforts should definitely be with learning them in chunks.
3. Keep a language journal.
Some people have a vise-like memory that catches and retains everything. Most people, however, have a memory like a sieve, which sifts through information, discards most of it, and keeps only what it thinks is most important.
When you’re in class or going through a program, you’re probably not going to remember everything. That’s why you need to write down what you’ve learned in a language journal so that you can go through it later.
FYI, I’ve written in detail about how to keep a language journal.
4. Get constant exposure.
At my local community college, foreign language classes are typically two hours a night, twice a week. That’s four hours of class a week.
Even if the courses were perfectly designed and executed, at four hours a week you’d have long, long road ahead of you. It’s just not enough exposure.
And that problem isn’t confined to my community college. Pimsleur, Rosetta Stone, and other popular self-study courses are designed for about thirty minutes of study a day, which equals 3 ½ hours a week—no better than the community college.
You don’t necessarily need more class time or study time (even though it wouldn’t hurt). You do need significantly more exposure, though. Having more contact with the language keeps your brain engaged with the language and helps you acquire more of the language via subconscious processes.
You can easily double or triple your total exposure to the target language by doing a few things with it:
- Listen to the radio to and from work.
- Watch movies.
- Read magazines and newspapers.
- Read children’s books or novels.
- Change your Facebook settings to your target language.
- Read YouTube comments in your target language.
And you can do all this stuff even when you’re starting out. You’ll get plenty of benefits even if you can’t understand very much of what you’re taking in.
5. Be engaged.
Woody Allen said that 90% of life is showing up.
I suppose there’s a little truth in that. Doing something is infinitely better than doing nothing at all.
But the successful language learners I’ve met don’t just show up to class. They show up and engage.
They don’t just go through the motions. They really pay attention to the material and struggle to take it in, understand it, and learn it. To borrow a sports term, the best language students get in the zone. They focus—or even hyper-focus—on what they’re learning.
Sometimes it’s fine to cruise along and relax and let the info float in leisurely, especially when you’re doing things such as watching a foreign-language movie or listening to music.
But other times it’s essential to strap in and really concentrate. Being truly engaged is how you improve your current skills and build new ones. Then after you’ve done this enough times, you’ll take stock one day and realize how far you’ve come, especially when you find yourself speaking the new language with relative ease and confidence.
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