Learning a foreign language

Language Learning

Planning to study, travel, or work abroad? Desire self-improvement and cultural immersion? To master one or more foreign languages remains a key milestone in any person’s development but, similar to most crucial skills, most seem persuaded that this goal is beyond reach. True, learning a language is hard and requires both determination as well as a methodical approach. If you are a learning your first foreign language, consider the following before enrolling in your preferred language course.


Perhaps obvious but it is vital to recognise why you wish to learn the language, even more so if you are teaching yourself. Set up inspirational posters if you must but do write down those reasons and refer to them during the times you lack motivation, which will come sooner than you think.

Objectives – real and specific

Now that you have chosen the language, before enrolling in a course – unless you are self-learning – and before picking your learning materials, you must set small and manageable goals that you can achieve over a few months. Avoid merely being ‘fluent’ as one of your goals since this is very generic, wildly optimistic at the beginning, and ignores the cultural immersion portion; instead, setting tangible goals, such as the ability to read a news article in your target language without referring to a dictionary, is an excellent way to keep your motivation levels high by enabling a sense of accomplishment. Remember that you will be learning the language for a number of years and it is crucial to your learning that the enthusiasm remains high.

The material is very important

Typically, this discussion drifts into the benefits and shortcomings of traditional and technological methods but should really focus on choosing the learning materials with care: most language courses on the market are far too straightforward and do not offer sufficiently deep immersion. As with most critical skills, resources that seriously challenge your cognitive abilities are the best if you really wish to improve. Additionally, do realise that a single company – Rosetta Stone and Pimsleur, for instance – will not contain everything and it is essential to search and acquire more material. Assembling and working through several courses from various publishers over time reinforces the fundamentals; however, do ensure that they contain the following:

  1. Dialogues, with recordings, for various situations: basic social situations, at the doctor’s, at work, renting, music, dating, repairing a vehicle, discussing politics, health, education, current events, and much more. Without the recordings, the entire course becomes pointless; listening to them and repeating them aloud in front of a mirror enables you to converse with yourself, study your expressions and voice while speaking, and helps you to remember the dialogues. The course material should use the target language: for instance, if you are learning Italian, then the entire text should be in Italian.
  2. Sufficient margins to write notes and the words that you do not know. When coupled with a notebook, reviewing the phrases and the unknown words becomes much easier and you do not need to scramble in search of a dictionary simply because you forgot what tauschen means.
  3. Apart from a variety of good books and recordings, a grammar reference is essential, particularly as you progress to the intermediate and advanced stages. If you encumber yourself with too much grammar at the start, then you risk retarding your learning. Your aim is to learn the language, though the pedant inside you might also want to learn the language roots and etymology of words. Leave this for when you are beyond the advanced stages.
  4. As you progress, good-quality annotated readers, together with explanatory notes, should become central since these contain article selections from the media, history, legends, education, art, and other broad cultural topics. Exposing yourself to a wide vocabulary range from different fields of interest will enable you to both understand and converse confidently with native speakers.
  5. Flash cards are beneficial if used properly, complementing your learning during free time. They ought to contain more verbs than nouns, since knowledge of the former facilitates sentence construction in various tenses and latter are do not vary too much.
  6. Generally, older books are better than their newer reprints due to the rigour imposed on the learner, as opposed the ‘feel good’ factor in newer books; remember, the more challenging the material, the more you will improve.

Pleasure reading and contextualising the vocabulary

Reading a book, no matter how facile, introduces all sorts of vocabulary that is both situational and applicable to your experiences; it may not be spoken in daily life but allows an understanding of complex grammatical structures. Additionally, you can motivate yourself to read a book in a foreign language, which is quite an achievement in itself.

Learning is irrelevant of age but know your native language

The “learning a language is much harder when older” is a pervasive myth introduced as an excuse by those too lazy to put in the effort. Adults and children learn differently – children learn organically and through instinct – and, as an adult, you learn systematically. Combining the two with the background experience of understanding and contextualising sentence structures, social situations, and the associated emotions in your own native language, you have no excuse to not learn another language. The basic structure of your native language should be understood to facilitate the learning of another.


Many instructors will emphasise correctly – if you attend language classes – that you do not translate or transliterate the phrases and words but rather contextualise them and form a mental picture to form associations with those phrases and words. In the later, more proficient stages, it is important to undertake translation exercises, which help not only in overcoming a natural plateau that every learner reaches but also in understanding the original author’s intent and exposes you to different writing styles. Use news websites to translate current events, economics, health, culture, sport, and a plethora of other topics to improve your vocabulary; reciting the original article aloud enables those grammatical structures and idioms to become entrenched in your mind, while improving your oral skills.


Perhaps not applicable to everyone but travelling to the country where the language is native greatly improves your abilities and complements your learning; language learning never stops since you learn about different cultures, discover your own abilities and growth, and continuously improve your skills.

Though crucial, it is important to realise that being amongst native speakers will not enable you to learn simply though exposure: this learning technique works predominantly with children. Do not consider them to help you, or more appropriately, watch you struggle with vocabulary and sentence structure; you must do the heavy lifting and use native speakers as a test and to polish your knowledge.

In addition, do not delve into the various regional dialects since these will muddle your learning. There are cases where different registers of the languages are used: one for formal and the other for informal contexts – ensure that you use the formal contexts in conversation with natives unless you are friendly with them, in which case you can work on the informal context. Learn the two and do not be too concerned with the vernaculars.

Request native speakers to correct your mistakes during conversation immediately since this will prevent errors from becoming embedded in your dialogue.

Breaks and Plateaus

As mentioned before, it is very common to expect plateaus in learning a language or anything else for that matter. Therefore, it is imperative that you rest your mind occasionally to prevent stagnation and allow it to absorb the material learnt – a week to ten days every few months is sufficient and the zest will return. Typically, these plateaus will include limited vocabulary, certain entrenched errors, and not knowing enough grammar to articulate your thoughts completely. Overcoming this stagnation also requires motivation: sweating it out daily for approximately an hour or so keeps the interest high and forces you to commit.

Use news websites, television, movies, podcasts, radio, the Internet, and other forms of the spoken language to immerse yourself in the language and its culture – use subtitles if available but do not overtly rely on them. Learning a foreign language can become tiresome on occasion so maintain your motivation levels to rise above the obstacles. Ultimately, when you are in a foreign land and effortlessly conversing with native speakers, you know that all your efforts and time will have come to fruition.


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