Ideas, Suggestions, and Strategies on How to Study a Foreign Language

Here are 9 ideas, suggestions, and strategies for studying a foreign language.

Learning a new language can be a daunting task.  It’s not something you can do in a day, a week, or even a month.  It’s a journey in and of itself. I enjoy learning languages although I’ve never reached fluency in anything other than my native tongue of English. It’s more of a casual hobby.

I also like learning about learning languages.

I taught English as a foreign language (and as a second  language) for many years to people from various countries and for a long time in Japan.

These ideas and suggestions are some things I’ve told my students and some things that I’ve put into practice in my own studies.  I also looked up some of the top tips around the Internet.

1. Preparation

The main thing here is to count the cost and prepare yourself for the daily grind of learning a new language.

The first few weeks and months are vital in setting up habits and routines.  You don’t want to wait forever to start, but if you’re going to Disneyland next week or if you have guests coming to stay for an extended period of time, wait until that life event is over.

However, there are always going to be distractions that you give you license to keep putting it off and putting it off.  Don’t.

However, there are always going to be distractions that you give you license to keep putting it off and putting it off.  Don’t.  Know it’s going to be hard work and some days you won’t want to do it, then start anyway. (It’s better to start and quit than not start at all, but keep reading for ways not to quit.)

Just be careful about getting overwhelmed from the beginning.

Also, in preparation, you should know your motivation.  Why are you learning the language?  Maybe you want to travel to and communicate in China.  Maybe you want to communicate with your significant other’s family.  Maybe you’re planning to move abroad.  Maybe you want to watch French films without subtitles.

Whatever it is, write down your goal and keep it in front of you.  Now, think about and write down all the benefits achieving that goal will bring.  You’ll feel safe and confident in a foreign land.  You’ll have closer and better relationships with your significant other’s family. You’ll have an advantage in the workforce.

So you’re prepared and know what you want out of this. Now tell yourself that this is not going to happen overnight. This is going to take dedication and commitment.

But don’t worry, it can also be fun and eventually something that’s on automatic pilot because although motivation is important, habit and routine are even more important.

2. Habit and Routine

Also known as consistency.

A lot of people want to know if they can learn a language in only 5 minutes a day.  The short answer is no.  Now if you changed that to 5 minutes every hour, the answer changes to yes. As you make progress, you’ll want to study for 10 minutes an hour, then 15 minutes an hour, and so on.

The only way you can become fluent is if you keep going.  The only way to guarantee that you won’t be fluent is if you quit.

No matter how much time you spend on it, you’ll want to be consistent with your studying.  Don’t let a day go by without studying something.  Even if you have the worst day of your life—you’re sick, your boss yells at you, your cat dies—don’t go to bed without learning at least one new word or reviewing just a few words from the previous day.

And if you do skip a day, get back on the language learning horse as soon as you can.  Don’t let one day turn into one week without studying.

The only way you can become fluent is if you keep going.  The only way to guarantee that you won’t be fluent is if you quit.

But how to set habits and routines?  There are books written on the subject.  There’s also an app:  streaksapp.com.  Make the habit automatic.

Everyone’s heard of Pavlov’s dogs, right.  He’d ring a bell and then feed them.  Soon, he’d ring a bell and the dogs would salivate with no food in front of them.

Find a bell, whether literally or metaphorically.  And when that bell rings, you study your new language.

Set an alarm on your phone, and study whenever you hear the chime.  Or every time, you go into the bathroom, no matter what it’s for, make sure you study for five or ten minutes or whatever it is. Or whenever you turn off your light to go to bed, make it a trigger to take out your phone and study your new language.

If you commit to this at the beginning, it’ll become automatic.  Even if you don’t want to do it, you will because you conditioned yourself to.

3. Celebrate Milestones

Even if you can get yourself on autopilot when it comes to studying, you’ll still want to reward yourself.  If you use one of the online language programs that we recommend, you can reward yourself every time you complete a level or a section or whatever it is.

If you learned the word for cake, treat yourself to some cake.

You can reward yourself every week, if you studied each day that week.  If you learned the word for cake, treat yourself to some cake.  Whatever it is, get creative.  Celebrations and rewards are great motivators.

And whenever you get down or feel like you’re not making progress, instead of looking at how many words and grammar points you still have to learn, look back at how far you’ve come in learning your new language.

If you can appreciate what you’ve done, you can move forward and progress even more.

4. Diversify

If you’re anything like me, you can get bored doing the same thing over and over.  Even with the great materials the different language programs offer, there will be times when you’ll want to step away from them (not for long, though; don’t stray too far) and get a different perspective on or hear a different voice in your new language.

Culture and language go hand in hand, so don’t forget that.

Find a free app like Lingodeer or Drops and play around with those.  You won’t become fluent just from them, but you’ll reinforce some things you already know and you’ll learn a few new things that your main language program hasn’t gotten to yet.

Watch some free language learning videos on YouTube.  You’ll find someone you like that can supplement your current studies.  Here’s my favorite YouTube channel for Japanese learning: Japanese Ammo with Misa.

Even if they’re not teaching the language per se, you can still watch things like cooking videos in your new language. Or watch some funny commercials.

Watch a movie or TV show in the language you’re learning.  Even with subtitles, hearing the language spoken by natives is beneficial to your learning. And even if it’s not in the language you’re learning, take some time to watch documentaries about the cultures where the language is spoken.  Culture and language go hand in hand, so don’t forget that.

Buy some children’s books in your new language and see how much you know. But if you don’t know a lot, don’t get discouraged.

In other words, keep it fun and interesting. As great as many of those language programs are, you don’t have to be trapped in them.  Hear another voice.  Get another perspective.  Just don’t abandon what you started.

5. Mnemonics

Mnemonics are a way to remember something more easily.  There are many different types.  You can use songs, images, poems, stories, and more to help you remember things.  For languages, you can use them for sounds and meanings.

He said, “My pa threw me against the wall and it turned red from my blood.” La pared means ‘wall’ in Spanish.

I still remember in my junior high Spanish class, my friend was telling me how he remembered the meaning of the word la pared.  He said, “My pa threw me against the wall and it turned red from my blood.” La pared means ‘wall’ in Spanish.

Right now, I’m increasing my Japanese vocabulary and reading skills, using a program called WaniKani (if you’re studying Japanese, too, I highly recommend it to diversify your studies), and it is full of those mnemonic stories and images to help learn kanji readings and meanings.  I never learned so quickly.  Seriously.

So if you can come up with songs or images or phrases to help you remember a word or phrase that’s giving you difficulty, it’ll pay dividends down the line.

 

6. Choose a Language Corner

When you study a language, you’re going to have to learn some boring stuff.  And if not boring, very basic.  Things like colors and weather and basic action words like “go” and “cook”.  But you didn’t start learning a new language, just so you could say “My dog is old.” and “It is raining today.”  You need to know how to say those things, but that’s probably not one of your goals.

But you didn’t start learning a new language, just so you could say “My dog is old.” and “It is raining today.”

So how do you spice it up?  Research.  Choose a topic that you’re really into or one that you’re studying your new language for and research it.  Break free from “textbook language” for a while.

For me, I like trains and baseball and books and beaches.  So, I’m going on my own to learn as much train vocabulary as possible while I’m still learning the basic stuff from the textbook.  After that, I’ll learn baseball jargon and so on.

So now I’ll be able to say things like “That bullet train just ran over the shortstop.”  Wait, what?  No, I’ll be able to discuss baseball in my new language.  I’ll be able to go to the Railway Museum in Omiya, Japan and understand more than I could have previously.

It’ll make learning the new language more fun while you’re trudging through the basic, boring, but necessary stuff.

7. Write It Down

You might only be learning your language so that you can communicate orally, but I still highly suggest you write things down.  Write, not type.  It’s been scientifically proven that writing things down helps with remembering them. (I’d give you a link but just know that there’s a scientific study to support just about anything.)

I’m not saying write everything down that you learn, but try to do some written exercises provided by your main language program. And if you don’t like those, find some others on the Internet.

Another thing you can do is keep a journal in your new language.  Some of the things you write will be very basic at first, but it’ll reinforce what you’ve learned.  It will also get you to learn new words that are essential to recording your thoughts about your day.

8. Surround Yourself with the Language.

Even if you’re just starting, you should surround yourself as much as possible with your new language.  If it’s Spanish, listen to Spanish music, watch Spanish language TV, etc.  Even if it’s in the background, even if you can only understand one word out of a thousand, get your ears used to hearing the language. You’ll get used to and pick up on the flow and rhythm and tones of the language.

This is how you learned your native language.  You heard your parents and people around you speaking it all the time.  You probably heard it on the radio and the TV.

9. Mimicry and Shadowing

Now that you’ve gotten used to the sounds and tones and rhythm of the language, try to mimic it.  When you speak, don’t speak just the syllables.  Speak it while trying to copy the tone and the flow of the language that you’ve been listening to.

In other words, don’t just speak Japanese.  Speak Japanese with a Japanese accent.

In other words, don’t just speak Japanese.  Speak Japanese with a Japanese accent.

The technique of shadowing goes along with this.  There are audio programs that do this, but you can also do it with videos and songs and the like.  Hear the line spoken, pause the video/CD/etc., and speak the line.  Even if you don’t know what’s being said.  Just try to copy (or ‘shadow’) what’s being said.

Now try to do it without pausing.  Do it near simultaneously with the audio you’re listening to.

Once again, this is how you learned your first language.  It’s not the only thing to do when learning a language but it has its merits, so give it a try.

Conclusion

There are many more techniques and strategies out there, but I’ll stop with these for now.  Remember, don’t get overwhelmed with learning a new language.  Create habits.  Keep learning.  And try to change things up so it doesn’t get too boring. Having fun is important, too.

Do what works for you.

Good luck, and happy learning.

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