So, the 1st of January arrived and you made the big decision to start studying a language. Congratulations! Amazing! But, after the initial shock and excitement has worn off, it is easy to feel a little lost and wonder what do do next… What do I need to learn? How do I learn it? Should I buy some courses?
All of these questions are important and I want to help you navigate these early stages to set you up for success. So here are my 8 Top Tips to get you started on your language journey.
1. Choose your vision of the future
I have talked a lot about language learning goals in previous blog posts and I think this a vital step for your future success. You need to be really clear on what you want to achieve before you can really understand what you need to be working on and how your journey ahead will look.
Just take a moment and close your eyes. (Trust me, it will make sense in a moment.) Now, imagine that you have learnt the language you have chosen. All the hard work is done and you have crossed the finish line. What do you want to do with the language now? Maybe you want to go travelling to the country and meet the locals or binge your favourite Netflix series. Study, travel, love, adventure…. the list is endless but what is yours?
Let’s start with my vision… travel! I close my eyes and imagine myself sitting in an Italian restaurant, ordering food easily and making small talk with the waiters and other customers in the restaurant. To achieve this there are a number of things I will need to focus on, so let’s break it down.
Speaking and listening will be invaluable because conversation can’t happen without them. I will need to know basic expressions for ordering food, food vocabulary and topics like my work, the weather and what we are doing on holiday for general conversations (small talk). I will also need a little reading to choose my meal from the menu and reading the road signs to find the restaurant in the first place. In this example writing isn’t going to be vital because I won’t be ordering my food by postcard.
This technique will let you find your real motivation and the things you need to focus your studies on.
The internet is packed full of different language learners, polyglots and travellers that each talk about their own language learning methods. In the early stages, one of the big things you will need to overcome is not knowing whatto learn. In school they rarely touch on how you learn and finding the best method to absorb the information. This is where a little research comes in handy.
Before you dive in at the deep end, it is a good idea to see how other people do it. They have a lot of experience and will be able to help you avoid some of the common problems that come your way. This will save you valuable time and maybe even money.
Here are some other great people to follow; Lindsay does Languages, Joy of Languages, Fluent Languages and Fluent in 3 months as they are all very different but offer so much advise… And the best part about this stage is that it is completely free. Bargain!
3. Be Open Minded – Try everything
During your research you will find countless apps, books and websites to help you start learning your language. If you have chosen a really popular language like Spanish, French or German then the list of resources will be almost endless. This is where my next piece of advice comes in. Try everything!
From my experience, there is no “perfect” way to learn a language and no single technique that will cover everything you need. So, it is best to try a little of everything. Get a feeling of what you like, what works and what is mind numbingly dull. Not everything will work for you and that is ok. If you like it, great! Add it to your list and keep using it. If you hate it then bin it and try something new.
Another benefit of this is that you can always find something new and interesting. I have been learning Italian, and many other languages, for years now but I always manage to find new techniques, new resources and apps that I find helpful and add to my routine. You may know all the things that work but there could be something even better waiting just around the corner.
As you develop, grow and have more experiences the way you learn may also develop. What works now, might not work in 2 months! For example, when I started learning Italian many moons ago, I started with only podcasts. Listening to them on my drive to work and repeating it back. This worked great at the time, but with experience I have learnt that I need to supplement this with some additional vocabulary and speaking practice to see the benefit. That allowed me to learn French and German at a much faster pace. Each lesson I learn helps to evolve my process to be even more effective for me.
4. Understand your strengths and weaknesses
Nobody is perfect, myself included (just ask my other half!). This will naturally mean there are areas of language learning that you are great at and others that you find really tricky. Understanding these differences will make a huge difference to your progress.
Personally, I find developing my listening skills really difficult. Sometimes I even think I need to get my hearing checked because everything sounds like I have my head underwater. Speaking follows as a close for me second because (as a natural introvert) it is really tough to overcome this fear and to strike up a conversation and then to keep it going. On the other hand, I generally find reading and writing a little easier. I have more time process the information and think about the best way to structure my thoughts.
My mantra is:
Focus on your weaknesses. Play to your strengths.
Weaknesses aren’t always a bad thing though! (Knowing the things I find difficult helps me to focus my attention in the right places.)
So, try to spend more time working on the things you find difficult. It might sound a little strange, but it works! Let’s take my example again where listening is hard and reading is easy. When I first started learning I spent a lot of time reading because it was easier. I was comfortable with it and I was making a lot of progress. But when it came to conversations I came completely unstuck.
We were walking down the river on our first trip to Rome and we were stopped by some native speakers looking for directions. All of that passive vocabulary decided to hide as soon as I opened my mouth and the things they said to me sounded like something transmitted at light speed. I was stuck, my confidence was knocked and I didn’t want to speak Italian for the rest of the day.
That’s when I changed my approach. I spent the majority of my time listening with a little reading to boost my vocabulary. Progress felt a lot slower but I quickly noticed that my listening was catching up with my reading. For most language learners, they avoid the things that are tough and so they never seem to improve, and are only holding themselves back!
After focusing on my weaknesses I try to do it by playing to my strengths. Doing activities that I am good at or that I really enjoy. If you love the subject you are learning about it will be much easier to stick with it, even when it is really hard. With amazing resources like Youtube or Google at your fingertips you can easily search for any subject followed by the language you are learning and find an endless stream of fun stuff to learn.
Some Italian Youtubers that I have found recently are The Lone Gamer and Cucina da Uomini. I simply typed in Ark Italiano (a video game I enjoy) and ricette italiane (Italian recipes) to find these and they are great!
5. Spend your money wisely
The traditional idea of learning a language is that you buy a book or pay for a course and follow their step by step instructions. You pay for the privilege of everything being fed to you in bite size chunks. However, it isn’t always as easy as that. Courses are not all made equal and don’t suit every learners circumstances or goals.
I know many people that have paid for an expensive course or book that promised the world and fell very short. This isn’t always the fault of the resource though. Sometimes you find it boring. It might not be taught in the way that works for you or the content simply isn’t appropriate enough for your needs. That’s why exposure and research is so important at the beginning of your journey.
We all work hard for our money, I know I do, and if I am going to spend my hard earned cash on something I want it to be worth it. I have been guilty in the past of buying some grammar books because that is what I am “supposed” to do. Then they collect dust on my shelf because I don’t like doing grammar drills. That’s not the books fault. The information there is perfect, just not right for me.
That’s why I recommend starting with as many free resources as you can. Most websites and apps are free (or at least have free trials) and the list of podcasts to help language learners are pretty extensive. Then after lots of trial and error you can consider if you want to shell out your cash for more access or information. There are a few apps that I pay for but that is only after weeks, or even months, or testing to check that I will actually get my value for money. I will often pay for one month at a time and then I can cancel it if I don’t think it’s right for me anymore.
6. Use your time effectively.
Your second most valuable commodity is your time. The most common excuse for people to stop learning a language, or not start in the first place, is that they don’t have enough time. I promise you that isn’t true. Even when I used to work 60 hours a week I still managed to squeeze in some language learning. It wasn’t hours of dedicated study. More like a collection of 5 minute bursts throughout my day.
Listening to music or a podcast in the shower or on your way to work. Practising some flashcards while you wait for your dinner to cook or kettle to boil for a much needed brew. All these things will build up and help you make progress.
When you do have more time you can book a lesson with a tutor, do some detailed listening study, write in your journal or even sit and read a book. It’s all about using the time that you have to the best of your ability. Filling those gaps that might normally be filled with scrolling down Facebook or deep diving through cat videos on Youtube. (Each to their own!)
7. Create your own recipe
Learning a language is a lot like cooking. Every chef will create a different recipe based on their own tastes and the things they like. They will do it their own way and produce something they like. You need to do the same.
Finding the things that you enjoy, techniques that work for you and videos you like to watch, will all come together to make your own unique language learning “recipe”. People are as unique as snowflakes and so your approach needs to match that. It’s all about trying everything you can and seeing what sticks.
8. Have fun!
I have left the best, and most important, piece of advice for last. Make sure you have fun! Too often, I hear people say they hate studying a language. “It is boring” and reminds them of being at school. Do you know what I tell them? They are doing it wrong!
Language learning has been my hobby, and now my career, for so long because I love doing it. That isn’t to say that I haven’t found parts of it hard or boring, but the overall process is amazing. The key is to do things you love.
Write a list of all the things you like doing in your free time. Watching Netflix, playing video games, cooking, reading comics or even drawing (which I do in my language journal all the time!). All of these things can be part of learning a language and key to using the language you are learning. When you start to use the language to do the things you love it will feel a lot more real. All that hard work will make sense you and will want to keep going.
Going back to the “recipe” idea, you only keep adding the “ingredients” that you like. If you are allergic to chocolate (or grammar books in my case) then stop adding them to your cake. After the first couple of times you need to realise that maybe this isn’t the best ingredient and it is time to try something different.
And there you have it. My 8 top tips for getting started with your language journey. I’d love to hear what languages are you learning. What are you finding particularly difficult? Let me know in the comments below.
Ciao for now!