Saturday, November 17, 2012

Understanding How to Learn a New Language

A French-speaking Canadian volunteer helps two...
A French-speaking Canadian volunteer helps two Haitian students with their English. The volunteer was in Haiti with the volunteer group EDV to help recovery efforts after the earthquake in early June 2010. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
by Jenny A Field

Just shut your eyes for a minute and imagine you can speak another language fluently.

You can order a meal, find your way around town, go into business meetings, and answer questions at the job interview, all in a language that is not your mother tongue.

A wonderful thought and it certainly would be wonderful if that could happen overnight or in our 'minute of dreaming'.

But as the saying goes, 'It takes years to become an overnight success'.

Maybe not years in the case of language learning but it just needs a little hard work, practice and dedication.

When you were two or three years old, you soaked up language. You heard an important word like 'Mum' or 'Dad' or better still 'tractor' or 'cat' and you liked or loved those things so much that you wanted their attention and therefore you labelled them and tried to say the word as best you could.

Other people reinforced this for you by repeating it so many times that you finally 'got it'. The human need for food and drink meant that language was vital for survival. You had to learn 'milk' and 'dinner' etc. rather than just cry! The need to be loved, to have attention, to survive provided the perfect motivation to learn a language.

So where does that leave us poor adults? You may need to improve your English, for example, in order to 'survive' in your new posting in Europe or you are going to begin a course at university in Britain or America. Ask yourself, how much do I need this and why do I need the language?

Firstly, the most important factor is motivation, just as our two year old was motivated to learn the word 'cat', because they wanted to stroke the cat, you have to want this language, because you want to reach out to the world. Write down the three most important motivating factors for you, keep them safe and when you are finding your learning hard, take them out and remind yourself of your reasons. Simple, but it works!

Secondly, make the learning fun for yourself. If it is going to be a bore and a slog you will always find an excuse to do something else instead. There are all sorts of strategies: write down your new words on 'Post it' stickers and dot them around your room, 'label' your furniture and objects in the room, jot down new words on scraps of paper with the translation on the back and drop them in a box and every so often empty the box and test yourself, record yourself on your mobile and play it back, watch films in the language or put the subtitles on, listen to songs... music is a great way of getting linking words to memory.

Thirdly, get yourself some structure and in language learning terms this means grammar and it does not have to be frightening. Grammar is just a series of patterns which allows you fit words into sentences. Beginners in English usually start with the verb 'to be' in the present tense: write it out, chant it over to yourself, and set it a tune or rhythm. Set yourself an aim of one new grammar point a week.

With those three strategies in mind, you are halfway there already. You will need organisational skills and practice and of course loads more learning tips. I will be adding to the ideas and tips each week to help you build up a bank of great ideas. Remember - practice makes perfect.

This article was written by Jenny Field, an experienced TEFL teacher working in the UK.

Jenny has taught Modern Foreign Languages to young people and adults for over 27 years and has a wealth of experience to share. Currently offering English lessons through Skype or telephone with a Trial lesson offered at half price. Proof reading service for members of 'The English Skyperoom'.


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