How to efficiently learn a foreign language
By Lauren Paulsen, Senior Columnist
Many people seem to believe that learning languages is just something some people have a knack for, but the truth is, anyone can master more than one language. Of course, learning a foreign language is not an easy task, but it’s not as difficult as many people think it is. Ruth Mandujano-Lopez, a language professor at Douglas College, says: “Everyone with the will to do it, can learn a language.”
Professor Mandujano-Lopez has been teaching at Douglas College since 2007, and has been teaching languages for 18 years. She is fluent in Spanish, English, and French, semi-fluent in Portuguese, and knows basic German, Mandarin, and Nahuatl (which is an indigenous language from Central Mexico). “We owe it to our world,” she says, referring to the reason why everyone should learn a foreign language. “In a multicultural city such as Vancouver, we need to know who are those around us, where they come from, what they think, what they want, what they dream, what they regret. It is almost a duty to learn about the others and to share what we are and have so that we are able to work and live peacefully and respectfully in our communities.” This is, in fact, a persuasive reason that you should start learning another language now.
Probably the most important thing for a person to effectively learn a foreign language is motivation. Without it, most people will inevitably give up and say that learning the language is too hard. So, really, the first thing you need to know is why you want to learn a foreign language. Just wanting to impress people is a weak reason, and you are likely to see yourself quit early on. However, if you are truly passionate about learning a foreign language, perhaps because you want to learn more about any particular culture or meet and be able to converse with native speakers, then you are more likely to succeed. As long as you are passionate, your reason can be as simple as you just enjoy learning languages.
Another really important piece of advice for students who want to learn a foreign language, says Mandujano-Lopez, is to be “open, receptive, and let yourself be captivated by what you are learning.” Learning a language doesn’t have to be a chore—it truly can be a very interesting experience. You just need to remain motivated and dedicate the appropriate time and hard work into it.
To remain motivated, it is quite helpful to set yourself a goal of how fluent you would like to become. Instead of just saying “I want to learn Spanish,” determine the level of Spanish that you would like to master. Having this concrete goal makes it easier to stay motivated. It also will keep you from feeling frustrated about never “knowing enough.” A good tool to use for this is the Common European Framework. It describes a leveling system that can help you measure your progress. It consists of six different levels: A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, and C2. Essentially, A is Beginner, B is Intermediate, and C is Advanced. This tool is invaluable for a language learner, because officially recognized institutions can test you to determine your level. You can even earn diplomas without needing to enroll this way. By using this as a guide to determine your language fluency, you can set concrete goals for yourself.
When you have these goals set, you can begin to learn whichever language you want to learn. You can learn several, in fact. “Once your mind has opened to the possibility of different structures, sounds, and cultural differences, then you are hooked,” says Mandujano-Lopez. The key to truly being able to learn a foreign language lies in how immersed you are in it. Taking the courses that Douglas has to offer gives a great sense of structure, you can find aide from the professors, and meet other students who also want to learn a foreign language. If you are really passionate about learning a language, then you need to take measures to immerse yourself outside of the classroom as well. Going to another country is the easiest way to do this, but most of us don’t have the funds to be able to do that. Instead, you can immerse yourself at home. To do that, you need to incorporate the language you are learning into your daily life.
The fastest and most effective way to do this is to speak it as often as possible. You might not be able to use proper sentences, or use appropriate vocabulary but when you speak or at least try to speak a language, your brain is able to memorize it much easier. A really useful way of doing this is to find a native speaker and ask for their help. If you don’t know any, then you can find one online who will Skype with you. There are a lot of people who wouldn’t mind speaking with you in exchange for help learning a language that you know. The native speaker can help you immensely with pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary. Most importantly, when talking with a native speaker, don’t be afraid to make mistakes. That old saying, “You can’t learn to run until you’ve learned to walk,” is true here. So be brave. No one expects you to be fluent in the beginning.
Besides speaking the language, committing yourself to it includes reading, writing, and listening to it. To begin with, try memorizing 10 words per day. Place sticky notes as labels on items around the house. Instead of seeing a list on paper, seeing these items associated with each word will help you to learn them faster. When you have some basic vocabulary down, try reading children’s books and watching children’s cartoons in the language you are trying to learn. You’d be surprised at how effectively these can help you learn. Watch movies dubbed in the language without subtitles, or if you must use subtitles, then use them in the language you are learning. Seeing the words visually on screen can help you pick up what is being said faster. You can also find songs you enjoy in the language and try to learn the lyrics. Lastly, try writing in the foreign language. Start off with something as simple as a shopping list, and move on to writing full sentences and paragraphs about yourself. Doing this can also help you speak to your language partner by giving you topics to talk about. Mandujano-Lopez recommends also finding other engaging materials, such as photos, crosswords, and vocabulary games. “There are so many engaging materials,” she says, “that it is hard to get bored… I always find in my language courses we laugh a lot and have a great time learning together.”
Lastly, it is important to make sure you practice every day. Allowing long spaces between sessions just leaves you having to go back over things you have already learned. If you don’t keep up with your lessons and fully commit, then you won’t be able to retain anything for long.
Learning a second language demands hard work, but is extremely rewarding. “Come and join one of our Spanish, Japanese, French, Chinese, and German classes!” Mandujano-Lopez encourages all. She remarks, “You won’t regret it, and you will learn a lot about the world around you and about yourself.” So commit to the task at hand and be patient with yourself. You can become multilingual and embrace our multicultural society. After all, we are global citizens now!