Have you ever seen language experts online, on TV, on the radio or somewhere else talking about their careers, and all the languages they know? Some of them can quote double figures when answering the question “How many languages can you speak?” How is it even possible to learn 7, 9, or 13 or more languages, anyway? Do these experts have some secret method that none of the rest of us are privy to? Actually, they kinda do. We don’t call them language “experts” for nothing!
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So, what do experts say about how to learn a new language? Let’s take a closer look at some prominent viewpoints from languages’ leading lights.
Learn Language in Segments
Seonaid Beckwith is the founder of the website Perfect English Grammar, as well as an author and graduate of the University of Cambridge with a master’s in English and Linguistics. Her take on this subject is that it’s best to “learn chunks of a language” as one’s main method. What exactly does she mean by “chunks”? What she’s referring to is learning phrases and even full sentences of language rather than focusing just on individual words.
This is a sound approach because what learning in chunks does is to better show learners how words fit together, how they’re structured and how words can and do modify each other. You can never learn all that from a single vocabulary word, but you can from phrases and sentences, or perhaps even short paragraphs for more advanced learners.
Open Your Mouth and Speak (Even If You’re Wrong)
According to Michael Geisler, vice president for language schools at Middlebury College in Vermont, “A lot of people don’t make progress if they don’t open their mouths.” What he’s talking about is students who go to class, listen intently, but because of crippling shyness or a fear of getting something wrong, don’t open their mouths to ask or answer questions.
Geisler went even further on his point of how important it is to take that leap and speak up, saying “If you are not willing to put your identity on the line, progress will be slower.” What he means here is that if you’re never willing to make any mistakes, then you simply won’t improve at the pace you want. Getting things wrong is the most efficient route to progress and improvement.
Total Immersion is Key
This is another key point from Michael Geisler, but it’s also a commonly held belief that’s not unique to him. Immersing oneself in a foreign language is the only practical way to really learn, and it’s what experts do. Of course, one can’t always indulge in the experience of immersing oneself in a country where that target language is spoken, so one must be proactive in taking steps to find other ways to experience immersion, such as through reading, making use of free online resources, watching TV series and movies, and most important of all is talking to native speakers of that language.
Judith Meyer is a computational linguist with skill in some 13 different languages. She’s also an author and is currently on the team of the Amikumu app. Her most important advice for people learning a foreign language is regarding attitude and practice. She first advises students to maintain a positive, even “giddy” attitude when it comes to language learning. The idea that you just keep learning and waiting for things to happen is completely wrong-headed.
As for practice, it’s critical that one finds every single opportunity to practice using the language they are learning, however small an opportunity that might be. She brought up one example before of a local supermarket in your hometown having a cashier who recently moved to the area from Mexico. If you’re a learner of Spanish and don't take every opportunity to visit that supermarket, do your shopping and take the chance to talk to that cashier, even for just a few moments, then you’re a fool.
Keep At It Every Day
Finally, the founder of Actual Fluency and the host of the Actual Fluency Podcast, Kristoffer Broholm, is a multilingual language learning expert who has one more key element that he and his fellow experts are all clued in on: you have to be committed to keeping up your language learning every day. If you can’t find even 10-15 minutes in the day to do a little language practice, then you are likely not going to succeed. The best languages don’t just find time, they make time!
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