The first steps of learning a new language

Hello, Hola, Bonjour, Ciao, Hallo, Olá, Privet.
Learning a language from a complete beginner’s level is always a challenge, especially if you don’t count yourself within the young and lively or the naturally gifted. Still, it is possible to learn any language if you really put your mind into it and follow some basic guidelines.

If you never faced learning a new language, during your first steps you will probably experience confusion in a certain degree; depending mainly on your dedication and abilities. From the first few words or simple phrases you learn, you may feel that every time you are asked a question in your target language, your brain can give you the right answer; only not in the right language. This might feel extremely frustrating at first; but it is a completely normal step in language learning as all the languages you speak are “stored” on the same area of your brain. The good news is that this phase passes as your mind gets used to handling your target language and differences it from others.

Be certain that embarking on a language immersion adventure is the best way to learn the most in a limited period of time; and even more so if you are to take a language course. The main reason why an experience like this is the most constructive is that you make great use of your time (for when you are not studying or taking language lessons, you are relaxing in a complete target-language atmosphere) and you get used to taking in a lot of words without even realizing it.

Gag graphic of first words in a foreign language

What your native friends will teach you

You will get plenty of opportunities to talk to natives: while doing so, pay attention to idiomatic expressions and start picking up phrases; independently if you are able to use them in context yet (or even know what they mean). This “arsenal” of words and phrases you will start creating is very helpful; for these concepts will start interconnecting quickly and will sound very natural when you actually manage to slip them in conversation. If you are fortunate, you will make good friends and they will definitely get you started on slang, informal speech and heavy swearing. All the information you are exposed to daily is a lot to take in from the very beginning, but you will find that it is very much worth the effort.

If you are not lucky enough to be able to treat yourself to a language immersion journey and are trying to learn a new language on your own; then everything you can do to broaden your linguistic horizon helps, and you can really take the most out of it if you know how you learn best. For example, if you have a good ear for languages and/or music, going through word lists and vocabulary to for hours at a time might not be the most constructive of ways to learn for you. You can trade it for listening to music or TV shows in the target language, reading out loud or listening to other people speak. It might help you improve faster and, as a bonus, nail the accent and intonation.

On the contrary, if you have a way with written words, you might want to try board games, word puzzles, flashcards and all kinds of grammar exercises. I have found that reading scripts for theater or film helps you quite a lot, for you have a lot of context to relate the words you don’t recognize to. If you have photographic memory the best will always be to read and connect concepts with graphic content, placing dialogues in comic strips, revising dictionary’s diagrams, children’s books, and other helpful visual resources.

Although this personalization of methods is very practical for it will get you started in no time, remember to leave your comfort zone regularly; for doing so can only lead you to discovering new things about yourself and probably help you learn different things.

There are many recommendations that are very useful and really do help you get around, but it may be so that, at the beginning, you need help and guidance from an experienced teacher until you pick up the rhythm and sound of the language. Besides, grammar is something you don’t really learn by instinct, the instinct is something you develop AFTER having learned the actual rules. So some hard studying time is, of course, required in order to make good progress.

Some blog posts and websites recommend knowing the basic phrases and give lists of the most common words. Of course that going through a list of the most basic nouns like animals, drinks, food, etc. is useful in some point; if you are in a second language environment you will hear a lot more words and most of them will slip away just moments after you hear them for the first time.

In my experience, learning a second language is all about the impression the new words leave in your head. For example, I have met many students of different languages that had different strategies for remembering the new words they learn. Some learn them by heart, some associate them with other concepts and others place them in phrases or verses to remember the word and how to use it.

All of these strategies work to some extent; but the best will probably be the one you create for yourself. For me, there are many reasons why a word may be easy to remember: maybe it’s because it sounds funny, similar to a word on your native tongue (that probably has absolutely nothing to do with its meaning) or because it is very similar/the same as in another language you speak. If you are aware of these connections taking place inside your head, vocabulary will start really sticking to your memory in no time.

As a person who has experienced learning languages in many different stages of my life, I have come up with a list of tips for learning that have been proven useful in all kinds of contexts and situations. I hope they help you as you start a new language adventure.

  1. Listen. If you like movies or TV series, watch them in your target language. If you know people who can speak in your target language, try to make them talk to you as much as they can. Try to understand (and afterwards look up if possible) figures of speech, idioms, spontaneity. Pay attention to pronunciation and intonation, for it can make a lot of difference. Also online resources for listening and repeating could help you a lot.
  2. Practice. Use your voice. Take your time to pronounce slowly and correctly until you can reach normal speed of speech. Imitate as accurately as you can everything you hear. For example, as ridiculous as it may sound, I have learned a lot from imitating spoken announcements in public places, such as train stations or airports.
  3. Read. Newspapers are awesome. Arm yourself with a highlighter and a dictionary and read the news on your target language. You can do it online for free, but having the actual newspaper works better for me. Try to guess the meaning of the words you don’t know and compare news in different languages. You will gain extensive perspective and a lot of vocabulary.
  4. Speak! Try as hard as you might to hold a conversation with native speakers and above all make them correct you. Make them correct your grammar every time and your pronunciation often. Tongue twisters are a lot of fun too and will probably drive you crazy in a good way.
  5. Grammar is extremely important. Even if it seems a little boring or rigid at first, it will become an invaluable asset to express yourself correctly in any context, making it totally worth the time. In time, it will become more like an instinct and less like a pain in the neck, I promise.
  6. Keywords: What do I mean by this? Words, expressions, phrases and/or other forms of speech you pick up that are absolutely unrelated to each other. Try to remember as many as you can (keeping a log will help you take them in and also provide aid with spelling) for they will become very useful once you learn how to manage context and connection words. Let me give you a few examples: “excuse me”, “sorry”, directions, shapes, abstract nouns, various forms of thanking, typical dishes and/or drinks, insults and funny phrases, jokes, idioms, emotions, body parts, etc. Useful key phrases like explaining a medical condition and/or other specific and potentially life-saving matters are always a must if applicable.
  7. Don’t be shy. Being shy or unsure while speaking a new language is absolutely normal and common to all of us; but overcoming that fear of making questions or looking or sounding stupid will help you avoid making the same mistakes again. Laugh at yourself and let others laugh at you too (only with the best intentions).
  8. Be curious. Learning on your own or with a teacher is greatly improved by your own initiative to find out more about culture, history, idioms, meanings, speakers and everything else related to your target language. Despite the reasons why you decide to learn a new language, perfecting your skills always rests on your hands alone.

I hope these tips may help you out on your language endeavors, but please keep in mind that it takes a great deal of practice to reach a near native level. Even though you can learn the basics pretty fast; once you are used to speaking a language, you will be taking in new forms and vocabulary for a long time independently of your level of competence. Reading, listening, practicing, exchanging ideas with other people and, above all, trying to express yourself more and more accurately as time goes by; will help you improve your target language constantly. The database on your head must be used daily and actively to make sure you don’t lose fluency or vocabulary.

Lastly, don’t forget to reward yourself once in a while for your good efforts. This will probably keep you motivated and always willing to discover more about this crazy beautiful world of language. Stay fluent!

Which are the first words you learned in a foreign language? Which your favorite?


by: Fran Elguero

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