Learning A Language At Home

A guest post by Taylor from The English Voyager

No matter what language you study, or at what age you study, learning a foreign language requires a lot of work.. Learning a language on your own, without regular classes? Impossible…. right?

No, not at all! To successfully learn a language on your own will take a lot more dedication, motivation, and planning than if you were to enroll in a class that uses a preset curriculum. For those of you who are just setting out on your independent language learning journey, or who have been studying a language solo for some time,  here are some tips that can make your independent learning a success!

Line your language learning path with milestones

Many language learners tend to give up on their languages because they set unrealistic and vague goals (I’ve been guilty of this!).

You know the type of goals I’m talking about: “I want to be fluent in Arabic in one year!” or “I need to learn 5,000 words in Spanish by Christmas!” or even “I will study French for # hours everyday!” Those sound lovely on the surface, but how do you actually plan to achieve them without driving yourself bananas?

While  it would be very difficult to achieve native-like fluency in Arabic in one year, you may be able to learn several thousand words and hold your own when speaking or writing Arabic within a year (with many hours of high-quality study-time, of course). With a lot of dedication and clever memorization strategies, you could probably learn 5,000 words in one year as well. The key to achieving your goals is to be as specific as possible.

Let’s take a look at the Spanish example. Let’s say you want to learn 5,000 words within a year. But what words? Why? In what situations do you plan to use them? For the best results, I recommend making 6-month, 3-month, monthly, and weekly goals so that you can have a clear idea of what you will learn and when, although some people do fine using only weekly, monthly, or quarterly goals. Whatever works for you is fine, as long as it keeps you on track.

When setting goals, it’s also important to be honest with yourself about why you are learning a language. It’s quite common for textbooks and formal classes to focus only on one or two aspects of the language (such as speaking and listening, or improving one’s writing). A drawback to these resources, however,  is that they seldom bestow equal benefit to students who enroll in them. For example,  it’s not uncommon for students who want to improve their four language skills to enroll in a reading and writing only class, or students who just want to learn how to speak the language be in a class that distributes its time amongst all four language skills.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with classes that focus only on one or two language skills (in fact, they can be immensely beneficial); rather, an issue arises when the classes do not align with each learner’s actual goals and motivations for learning a language.  In  other words, be honest about why you want to learn the language, and that should help guide you towards the resources and strategies that will  benefit you the most.

Back to our Spanish example. Let’s assume that you have studied Spanish off -and-on for a few years, and have knowledge of the basics, like pronouns, verb conjugation, and a few hundred everyday words. You are learning Spanish mostly so that you can talk to friends and make yourself understood when you visit Spanish-speaking countries. You’re also a bit of a foodie, and love watching cooking shows and eating at restaurants that feature South American cuisine, but oftentimes, this requires specialized vocabulary that you just don’t have.

To reach your goal, you would need to learn about 420 words per month, or roughly 14 words per day. Aside from the numerical breakdown,  I also recommend breaking down your larger language goals into mini goals, or arranging your goals thematically. Here is a sample schedule for someone who wants to master 5,00 Spanish words:

Monthly Goal: Learn vocabulary about food, restaurants, and grocery shopping.

Objectives:

  • Be able to order food in a restaurant
  • Be able to tell someone about your dietary preferences and restrictions
  • Be able to purchase and identify most of the foods that you would like to purchase at a supermarket
  • Be able to follow Spanish-language recipes for foods that you would like to cook
  • Learn approximately 420 vocabulary words or expressions

Week 1: Learn 100 -200  words about different foods and beverages

Week 2: Learn verbs commonly associated with drinking and eating (“fry,” “saute,” “dice,” etc.)

Week 3: Watch Spanish-language cooking programs to reinforce previously-learned vocabulary, and learn new vocabulary as well; learn how to talk about dietary restrictions and preference

Week 4:  Visit a local restaurant or supermarket where Spanish is spoken, try to converse with others as much as possible using your new vocabulary. Try to acquire more colloquial words and phrases for talking about food/dining.

Now, this is just an example; you could have fewer monthly goals, or push yourself hard to conquer more topics each week. This is just intended as a model for what carefully thought-out language learning looks like.  If you’re having some trouble putting together a language learning schedule, feel free to shoot me an email and I would be glad to help you out!

Don’t let others influence your language learning journey

Let’s face it: it’s easy to be intimidated by all of the polyglots and super language learners online. People speaking 15 languages and learning 10 more? People learning languages within a few months? How are you supposed to compete with that?

Don’t.

True, you may want to listen to other learners’ advice and hacks for acquiring languages, but ultimately, you don’t want other language learners’ goals and ideas of success to heavily influence your own.

Why? For starters,  “fluency,” “proficiency,” and even words like “learn” or “know” mean very different things to very different people in a language learning context. Some people define “fluency” as being able to hold a general conversation for several minutes. Some people define it as having native-like skills in reading, writing, speaking, and listening. But what just does “native-like” mean, anyway?

Take me, for example. I’m a native speaker of English, but I would have some difficulty understanding English in certain everyday, commonplace situations, such as visiting a car mechanic or understanding an instruction manual to set up my computer. Does that mean that my language skills are somehow deficient, or that I don’t truly “know” English? If I never learn to talk about visiting a mechanic or reading computer instruction manuals in any of the foreign language that I speak or am learning, does that mean that I cannot be “fluent” or “native-like” in them?

Something else to keep in mind is that you don’t have to become a polyglot or superstar in your language  just because others are. It’s easy to feel intimidated when others speak 10 languages, but you are really interested in only learning one or two. Shouldn’t you be learning an insane number of languages as well? Don’t you want others to be in awe of your language learning prowess? In my own opinion, some of these super language learners may have the wrong idea about language learning. Aside from practical uses, like finding a job or communicating with others, language learning is a fabulous way to explore other cultures and ways of viewing the world. If you speak/study so many languages, how can you really have time to appreciate and explore each of them, let alone use them on a regular basis? When comparing yourself to other learners, it’s also important to remember that perhaps many of these language learners grew up bilingual, or have devised really clever learning strategies, or perhaps their goals for the language are very different from yours.  

My point is this: for people out there who want to learn  five, 10, 15 languages, by all means, more power to you. But don’t feel like you have to study additional languages, or learn to do things in your target language that you don’t really care to do (i.e. learning to speak to a mechanic, reading tech  manuals) just for the sake of appearing impressive to others.  Language learning is lifelong experience to be savored, not a competition.

Use materials that interest you

One of the quickest ways to lose motivation for learning a foreign language is to use materials that don’t interest you at all (I’ve done it several times before!).

It’s quite a common practice for students to select a textbook or a grader reader in their target language, thinking that since it was designed for non-native speakers it should be of  interest to them. But they quickly lose interest because the material is written too simply (more simply than a native-speaker would normally read, perhaps), or just because the topics are outdated and irrelevant to their interests.

Instead of just blindly selecting a practice book because it was designed for non-native speakers to learn from,  I recommend instead that you select a handful of books, movies, songs, etc. in your target language that you would actually want to read or watch even if you found them in your native language.

True, these texts will be harder to work through than what you would normally encounter in a formal classroom, but they would also be of more interest to you, and theoretically could keep you motivated to work through difficulties that you may face. Selecting materials that  were designed for native speakers could also acclimate you to encountering and using more colloquial, native-like language, and thus assist you to use the language more fluidly.  In my opinion, there is little benefit to be had from reading a story designed for non-native speakers if it is not something that has organically peaked your interest, is in line with your language learning goals, or is something that you would be willing to read in your own language/if you were a native speaker of the target language.

Organize your own language learning library

One big mistake I see many solo learners commit is not structuring their language learning. The whole point of solo language learning is that the experience is completely customized to your needs and interests, right?

However, many people take that to mean that they will just study when they please, and find study materials at their own leisure. For example, in the beginning of your language learning, you may find an app and a textbook that you like, and not add anything else to your language learning library until you complete those. That’s a big mistake for several reasons. Not all textbooks, apps, etc. cover the same material, nor do they cover it to the same depth.

For example, I have many books about Chinese grammar in my house, and all explain the usage of the grammar particle “Le” (了) in different ways, include and exclude other information that others don’t, and the quality of examples varies widely. You’ll want to have a sizeable cache of language learning materials to make sure that you learn every aspect of the grammar or vocabulary’s usage, as well as have a backup resource in case your go-to resource explains something in a hard-to-understand way.

Even if you love a certain resource, there’s a good chance that you may become  bored with it, and having a cache of resources may lowers the chances of you abandoning your language or slowing down your progress simply because your go-to book doesn’t interest you anymore. If nothing else, having many resources(not just textbooks, but also leisurely things like books or TV shows in your foreign language) ensures that you are exposed to the language used in many different situations and  in a way that native-speakers would use it, not how a textbook says that it should be used.

Find a teacher to help clarify things

I know what you’re thinking — why does a solo language learner need a teacher? Didn’t you become an independent language learner because you wanted to  learn the language on your own terms, at your own pace?

But here me out. I’m not saying that you need a teacher to tell you what and how to learn. I’m not saying that your teacher is a fountain of knowledge and only from him/her can you ever hope to learn the language. I’m not saying that you are going to crash and fail if you don’t ever consult a language teacher from time to time (but you may experience more frustration).

Language teachers are trained to help guide you through the language, often knowing specifically where students may encounter some hiccups and how to best teach really difficult aspects of the language. If your teacher is a non-native speaker of the language who has learned it to an advanced level, even better, because they know specifically what it’s like to be in your shoes and can further customize your learning experience so that you won’t make the mistakes that they once did.

Here’s what I propose for solo learners: by all means, find all of the books, apps, TV shows, podcasts, what have you, that you want to use to learn the language. Cover as much language learning as you can on your own. Reinforce what you’ve learned by chatting with others, watching programs in your target language, reading extensively in your target language( reading is a great way to learn a foreign language), etc.

Use your time with a teacher to expand upon what you learned on your own, clarify misunderstandings, and learn more in-depth usage of the grammar and vocabulary (textbooks and apps can seldom offer in-depth and comprehensive explanations).  Your meeting with a teacher don’t have to be frequent or long, perhaps only a few  hours a month. Use this time wisely to clear up misunderstandings and gain additional advice. You may also want a teacher who can serve as a language coach, or even design an entire course with your needs and interests in mind. It may even be beneficial to practice speaking or writing with your teacher, especially if you want to practice topics that conversation partners may not be improved in hearing (i.e. helping you order food at a restaurant, improve your writing in a foreign language, or help you fill out forms that you need to fill out when you visit a foreign country).

In summary, let me say this: no, you don’t have to and shouldn’t rely on a teacher to learn a language. The millions of websites, books, apps and more have made sure of that. But if you truly want to understand the language, clarify your understanding, and learn material that is interesting to you, you may want to get a teacher.

Summary

Although not exhaustive, I hope that today’s post was helpful for those of you learning a language on your own. To recap, my suggestions for solo learners are:

  • Make specific goals about what and how you want to learn
  • Don’t be intimidated or try to compete with other language learners
  • Select materials that interest you, not those that you think you have to use
  • Design a sizeable language learning library before getting too far into your language study
  • Consult a teacher from time to time for in-depth explanations and practice

 


Taylor - The English VoyagerTaylor is head teacher and founder at The English Voyager

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