Let’s look at one way of learning a foreign language on your own. The following eight-step method is something that I’ve personally noticed about language learning. Actually, it’s not even a method. It’s more of a flowchart of the steps we (can) take to learn a new language.
- Learn your first words. It’s the dark side of language learning due to the predominance of cuss words and anatomical synonyms.
- Learn your first phrases. This is also when you can typically start using some of the stuff you’ve learned (apart from crude insults). Mostly involves memorizing. At this point the phrases you learn don’t make much sense in your brain. They’re just gibberish, except for the fact that you’ve memorized their translations.
- Analyze the general structure of the language. You start making connections between phrases. You (often unconsciously) attempt figure out how verbs work, if nouns are declined, if there are any resemblances to other languages you know, etc. You should, however, refrain from making grammatical conclusions to avoid developing bad habits (id est, using the language incorrectly).
- Construct variations using the things you’ve learned so far. You try to expand your speaking ability by guessing. Overly self-conscious people might lose confidence upon being criticized by native speakers and advanced learners (especially the latter). The key is to accept the fact that every beginner MUST make mistakes in order to improve. Language learning is constant trial and error. Remember that YOU are the diligent person making an effort to learn a new language—not the person making the criticisms!
- Buy a textbook/audio program. When you are convinced that you want to keep learning the language you’ve been playing with, you get your hands on some material that provides comprehensive step-by-step instructions. (I’ll expand on this comment in a later post, but I must say that for beginners audio programs tend to be far superior to textbooks.)
- Watch movies in that language. For educational purposes. This conditions your ear to process and get used to the sounds used in the language. It’s also excellent for polishing your pronunciation, as long as the speakers speak the language natively (or in your preferred manner). As you get better, you start picking up new words and phrases directly from movies.
- Comprehend written language. You usually learn to comprehend written language quicker than spoken language, because you can work your way through text at your own pace. You are not required to hastily digest a chunk of words that still sounds like gibberish to your ears. Text allows your mind to comfortably analyze the content with clarity.
- Comprehend spoken language. As your ears and brain get more used to processing words, you slowly develop an ability to actually grasp what people are saying. This could be seen as the last stop of the beginner. It can take from one month to several years to reach this point, depending on how much time and effort you put into studying the language. You’ll also realize that the moment doesn’t come to you suddenly; it actually develops over time as you work your way from zero understanding to 5%, 10%, 25%, 40%, and so on.
Now that we’ve briefly covered the general process, it’s worth noting that no one will ever gain a thorough understanding of a language. You don’t just go from 0% to 100% and become perfect. It’s a continuous process, as cheesy as it sounds. Even native speakers aren’t perfect. (I know for a fact that I’m not even close to 100% in any language.)
So forget perfect. Instead, focus on continuing the endeavor. Enjoy the learning process. Take things to the next level. Learn some proverbs. If you’re learning Spanish, make friends with people from Peru and El Salvador and learn about their dialects. If you’re learning Chinese, the tens of thousands of characters alone should keep you busy for a lifetime. Even if you’ve reached a comfortable level at speaking, writing, and understanding a language, there’s always more to learn. That’s what makes language learning awesome.
I would be interested to know how you perceive language learning. Post your thoughts/stories in the comments below. Tack så mycket.