Once upon a time, the answer to learning a new language may have been “take a class”. Not only is this advice not practical or affordable for everyone, but in these stay-at-home times, not necessarily ideal or desired. That is, if we’re talking about physically attending a class. But despair not. There are many other ways you can pick up a new language (or revisit one you’ve long forgotten). I learnt to speak Spanish when I moved to Argentina at the age of five. However, upon returning to South Africa a few years later and not being around Spanish anymore, it soon flew out the window.
Several years ago, I decided to pick it up again. After all, although I was no longer fluent, I still had a springboard of recollection buried deep in the recesses of my childhood memories. Here are some of the ways I have tried to pick it up again. I outline the ups and downs, but bear in mind that a down does not mean you should not use the method. It’s merely something you should be aware of. By remaining cognisant you can find the best way of making these methods work for you.
Use an App
This is the easiest and most efficient tool for me. There are many available, but one of the best-known and most widely used is Duolingo. I spend about ten minutes a day on the app. It’s not a lot of time, but it creates consistency in your learning. One of the most important things when learning a new language (or almost any skill for that matter) is consistency. The app is full of quick lessons that increase with difficulty as you learn and improve. As you progress, stories become available to assist with your reading and comprehension. Note: I don’t think stories are available for all languages on Duolingo – of which there are many. It even offers endangered languages like Hawaiian and Navajo, as well as fictional ones such as High Valyrian and Klingon.
Another highlight of the app is that it’s both motivating and competitive. You get notifications and reminders, if you haven’t done your daily practice. Maintaining a daily streak motivates you to return to the app every day, and the leaderboard pushes you to practice more so that you can move up your position. Another upside is that even if you go on holiday or away for work, you can keep practicing, because you only need your phone and couple of spare minutes. It’s also a great way to kill time in queues or while taking public transport.
Apps, however, don’t really enforce active participation as much as other learning methods do. Although Duolingo, for example, encourages you to write down words and phrases, the onus still lies on you to pick up that pen and paper. Furthermore, the structure and repetitiveness of the exercises make them become second nature, thus making you engage less actively in the learning process. Luckily, it’s an app, which means it’s constantly updating, expanding, and finding new ways to challenge, motivate, and include you.
Get a How-To Book
A how-to book filled with exercises requires a lot more active engagement with the language you are learning. It also requires a lot more discipline to sit down daily with a book and pen or in front of your computer and commit to reading and writing out exercises. This was how I started when I first decided to pick up Spanish again. It worked for a while, but work and life inevitably threw a spanner into my daily rhythm.
If you don’t have the time, discipline, or inclination to sit down with a how-to book, rather look to some of the other methods. Failing to get to the work time and again will discourage and demotivate you and make you feel like a failure before you’ve even really tried. If you want to give it a go, set aside a designated time or day to work at it. Even if it’s only ten minutes a day or if you commit to it once a week, it’s a good way to engage more actively and deeply with the language. But if you’re not doing it every day, try to combine this method with another one that allows you to practise more regularly.
While how-to books may improve your reading and writing skills, it doesn’t do as much for your comprehension, and does nothing for your listening skills – unless you have one of those versions that come with an audio element. But even with audio (and this includes apps), the speakers often slow their speaking in order for you to keep up, learn, and get used to the language. That’s not a downside, but it becomes impractical if you’re looking to chat casually with native or fluent speakers and they’re talking a mile a minute and all you understand is hello.
A fun way to overcome this is by watching movies and TV shows In the language you’re learning. I’m currently watching a Colombian soap opera to get used to listening to Spanish again. I watched the first few episodes with subtitles, but have switched them off now. I understand words, phrases, and even occasional full sentences, and luckily there are moving pictures to help me along. Something else you can try is watching a show in your native tongue with subtitles for the language you’re learning. The more familiar you are with the show the better, because you’ll be familiar with the story and script, allowing you to focus on the subtitles. Another way to flip this around is by watching a dubbed version of your favourite movie or TV show. I’ve done this with Monty Python and the Holy Grail and it was a lot of fun.
Listen to Podcasts
Duolingo also hosts podcasts and these are a great learning tool. As far as I can tell, Duolingo’s are currently only available in Spanish and French. There is a narrator who speaks in English, providing context to the story and the Spanish- or French-speaking person speaks naturally but fairly slowly. Once you can understand everything the person is saying, I think it’s a good idea to find a more advanced podcast, or even just a regular podcast in your new language, or start watching shows and movies. But a podcast focused on language learning is a good start. They’re great confidence boosters and make you realise how much you’ve learnt.
Reading and understanding are usually the first hurdles you overcome. Then it’s usually writing, and lastly speaking. A lot of this also has to do with confidence. We are shy about using the wrong grammar or vocabulary; about how silly our accents might sound. But it’s one of the best ways to learn, because it’s so active: you have to listen, understand, and respond. It can also be one of the most challenging because you have to find someone who speaks the language, either natively or fluently.
My parents still speak Spanish, but trying to learn with family or friends is not always effective. Force of habit will have you lapsing into whatever language you usually speak with them, especially if you’re catching up or sharing news. You either have to make a concerted effort to learn together or find someone else.
At one stage Duolingo offered calls, commecting you with native speakers for a chat. I’m not sure if they still have that function (bear in mind, I use the free version of the app). I stumbled upon it once or twice in my early days using the app and although it was incredibly daunting, it was excellent because the people on the calls will not talk to you if you revert to English or whatever language you normally speak.
Joining a group is also a nice idea. I tried this with Meetup, but in my experience Meetup groups are notoriously short-lived, breaking up after only a few meetings. And although we spoke and listened to quite a bit of Spanish, most of the people were South African and we often lapsed into English as we tried to get to know one another.
Nothing beats actually being in a place where the language you are learning is spoken. Of course, it is the most expensive and impractical option on this list (especially at the moment when travel is highly restricted). Once things return to some semblance of normal and you have the good fortune of being able to travel, why not pick a place where the language you are learning is widely spoken? Nothing will teach you quicker than having no other option but to speak, read, and listen to that language the whole day, every day.
— Claudia Hauter (@ClaudiaHauter) May 29, 2018
However, if you can speak English, try stick to smaller towns. I travelled to Barcelona and Madrid a few years ago and although I tried my best to speak Spanish with everyone, many people switched to English the moment I struggled. The big metropolises of the world are so globalised, you’d be hard put to visit a big city almost anywhere in the world and not be able to speak English.
A Few More Things
Like watching your favourite show in your native tongue but with subtitles, there are many small ways to incorporate your new language. Follow people on social media who speak it. Read children’s books. Watch YouTube videos. Read the ingredients on your cereal box. With the world as connected as it is, you’ll be amazed at where and how you find other languages once you start paying attention.
There are many and myriad ways of learning a new language. Since each method offers something different, I think it’s good to try at least two of the methods concurrently. Bear in mind, some languages are rarer than others, which will make resources less easy to come by. That’s not to say you shouldn’t learn them! It’s just something to be aware of, so you don’t become discouraged once you start your language-learning journey. Your success ultimately rests upon you: on your motivation, your goals, but above all, on your consistency. So grab a book, hop online, download an app, and start learning!