Tuesday, 16 April 2019

Between the Lines: Language Learning Part I - Getting Started with a Foreign Language


I adore learning foreign languages. I have done ever since I first started German at age eleven. Aside from being a means of communication, languages offer a fascinating glimpse into a country’s culture and history. Etymology shows us the roots of words, tying different tongues to a common source and showing historical connections between places. It’s a topic on which I could wax lyrical for hours. But I’ll refrain. For the purposes of this blog post, I want to consider the building blocks of language study. If you want to learn a foreign language, how should you go about it?

First, you need to pick a language. You might choose to study a foreign tongue for a number of reasons. Perhaps you have family from overseas and are looking to explore your history and culture. Maybe knowing a particular language would aid you at work. Or perhaps one simply appeals to you. If this is your first foreign-language experience, I would recommend selecting one with a similar alphabet to your mother-tongue if possible, as that’s one less thing to worry about in the early stages. For example, if you are English-speaking, French or German might be a better first choice than Russian or Mandarin. Also, bear in mind that there are more materials readily available for some languages compared to others. I find plenty of good resources for Danish, but not so many for Icelandic, and you’d find more for French, say, than Romanian.

Once you’ve made your choice, it’s time to get cracking! Now, naturally everyone learns differently. Some people are more aurally inclined. Others do better visually. All I can do is share what worked for me, and to begin with, there’s one important thing you need to know, and that’s that I am a grammar girl. You can learn a ton of vocabulary and phrases through the many apps now available, but what happens if you need to say something else? Without an understanding of how verbs conjugate or adjectives decline, you’ll never be able to advance past a parroting stage. Whereas, if you set a solid groundwork with grammar, you have the tools to say anything and can add to your vocabulary over time.

Since I am more visual than aural, I work mostly from the teach-yourself language books, alongside a good dictionary and a detailed grammar guide. Teach-yourself books usually come with CDs, to give you some aural practice too, but understanding the grammar and how to build a sentence is always my first step. You may not be able to remember all conjugations at first, so a book with some verb tables (and declension tables) is a good investment for quick reference until you commit the endings to memory.

I am very self-motivated, but if you prefer company in your learning, another good option might be to join a formal class. Do an online search and I’m sure you’ll find some classes near you. If you don’t, many MOOC providers also run language courses. The ones I see most regularly are Mandarin, Spanish and Italian, but I’ve also seen French, German, Irish, Norwegian and Dutch at different times. MOOCs can also be a good option if you are looking for something free and/or a course you can fit around a busy schedule. Plus you can use them as ‘tasters’ to see how you feel about a language before committing to longer study.

In the infographic, I have listed a few of the pros and cons for the different methods, to help you find the path to suit your needs and preferred style of working. Join me again next month, when I will consider how to expand your foreign language skills after you’ve completed an initial course.

Have you studied a foreign language? If so, how did you make a start on it? Was it at school or independently? If you don’t speak a second language, have you ever wanted to try?

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