Awhile back, guest blogger Penny Milbouer wrote about why it isn’t so common to study languages in the United States. Studying languages may not be supported in schools, but what can you do if you want to learn a new language on your own?
Obviously, the best method is to live in a country where they speak the language (unless, of course, you want to learn Latin or another language that is rarely or never spoken now). Being surrounded by the language in question and having to use it to buy groceries, go to the doctor, socialize, or participate in other everyday activities forces you to improve your language skills quite quickly. A problem can occur here if you move to a country where everyone wants to learn your native tongue and insists on speaking with you in that language instead. That’s a common problem for people who have English as their mother tongue. When I moved to Sweden, I found it challenging to practice my Swedish, since so many people could speak English and enjoyed doing so. “It’s so fun and cool to speak English,” I was told a number of times, despite the fact that I thought it was more fun and useful to speak Swedish.
It’s not always possible to move to another country to learn a new language, so in my opinion, the next best tip is to read books voraciously and actively. When I first learned Swedish, I studied a book on grammar and vocabulary. At the same time, I read lots of children’s books. Sure, there were times when I felt a little silly carrying a big pile of picture books through the library, but it was definitely a great way to improve my Swedish. Children’s books use simpler language than books for adults do, which naturally makes it easier to read them, plus there are pictures that help explain what is going on in the story, which then helps you decipher any tricky words. If you can find a native speaker to read those books aloud to you and to listen to you attempt to read them, that’s an extra bonus that benefits your pronunciation and listening skills. Plus, story time is definitely not just an enjoyable treat for kids!
Once you have grasped the basic grammatical rules and have memorized plenty of vocabulary, and once you can read and understand works for children and young adults, you can move on to periodicals and books for adults. I enjoyed looking at Swedish food magazines, and of course the pictures and the format of such magazines helped me learn more words. Other people have told me that they liked starting out with magazines on fashion, cars, gardening, or other topics that often are accompanied by illustrations, before attempting to read articles on culture or politics. Some countries also offer easy-to-read periodicals aimed at teaching immigrants both the language and about the culture. Similarly, there are many easy-to-read novels, often shortened versions of classics, so those are worth trying. As for adult literature, I remember how proud I was when I completed my first novel in Swedish (it was a translation of Norwegian author Erlend Loe’s enjoyable novel “Naïve. Super.”) and how eager I was to keep reading literature in Swedish. A mistake many of my students make is to feel they have to understand every single word they read, so they get bogged down by looking up each difficult word they encounter when reading and they eventually give up, believing they just aren’t good enough yet to try reading in English. However, many words can be understood from the context, and guessing often is good enough. I recommend only looking up words you can’t figure out from the context or words that seem particularly interesting for whatever reason. If you stumble across a foreign word in context enough times, you’ll gradually get a good understanding of what it means and how it is used by native speakers. Also, reading teaches you grammar, almost without you being aware of it. You see what is accepted as correct and that soon influences how you write and speak in the foreign language.
While I am not so impressed by much of what is shown on television and don’t even own one, I do think that watching tv or movies can sometimes be a useful way to improve language skills. Depending on what is available where you live, start by watching a program or film in which the people speak your native language but the subtitles are in the language you are learning. Subtitles are generally simplified versions of what is being said, which makes them easy and fast to read. Eventually you should try to tune out or turn off the spoken language and only concentrate on the subtitles. Next, you can watch programs in the foreign language and have the subtitles either in your native language or else in the same language you are learning (DVDs often seem to have this option these days), for extra reinforcement. Besides helping you improve your skills in general, watching television or movies can also expose you to different dialects, which is also important. Some of my students definitely appreciated the idea that they were doing homework by watching tv shows in English!
One of the biggest challenges, I think, in learning a new language, is being able to understand people on the radio. Talking to people in person or listening to someone on tv or in a film is difficult, too, but at least there you are helped by the way their mouth moves, other facial expressions, and body language. When listening to the radio, you only have the voice to go by and people often speak more quickly on the radio, so it important to train your listening skills from early on. One semester, I brought in a CD of news, interviews, and other radio programs in English to one of my intermediate classes. The students were pretty confident about their language skills and they spoke without too much hesitation, but they nearly all failed to answer the questions on the worksheets I gave them about the radio programs. They needed to listen to each show at least 5 times before they started understanding what was being said. But when I incorporated using the same CD in class with a group of students who were just beginning to learn English, I found that they were soon able to summarize each radio program after hearing it just once, and that they could answer most of the questions correctly after listening to it twice. So I recommend buying a similar CD or else making one yourself by recording radio shows and listening to them multiple times. Some countries have easy-language radio shows specifically for foreigners, so you could begin with those. Unless you are planning to just read in the new language, being able to understand what people are saying is an essential skill to possess.
In the next post, I’ll give some more tips for learning a new language or for improving your skills in another language.
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