Monday, August 27, 2012

How To Start Learning A (New) Foreign Language

A girl learning English in Shanghai.
A girl learning English in Shanghai. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
by Anna Tamborska



In today's post I wish to write about the very start of your adventure with a new language. If you are not sure how to begin, or don't know how to set about it at all, then this brief article is for you.

I hope that my suggestions might be useful. Also, I would like to share bits of my personal experience related to learning Spanish on my own.

When I started thinking of learning Spanish, I stuck to my action plan opting for self-study learning, then completed my resource base so to speak, and decided to find up to 25 minutes every day for learning. On the weekends, I devoted more time for studying (usually up to 2 x 2 hrs). I found that learning Spanish for 20-30 minutes a day was far more effective than studying up to 3 hours at one go in a single day.

After 1 year I could communicate in Spanish, hold casual conversations, and manage in everyday situations while being in Spain for 3 months. Later I attended a B2 Spanish language course for foreigners when I took part in the Erasmus student exchange program. After four years and six months of learning, and consistently following my action plan, I passed the DELE Superior exam with excellent results.


All right, memories aside now. Let us come back to the idea of your goal: what will it be? You may think: 'I want to learn English/Spanish/German... or any other new language of your choice. I want to know the basics, and possibly reach an A1 level* within 6 months/1 year, etc.

Ok, once you know your goal, then it is time to prepare your action plan. Bear in mind that it will depend on several factors such as the method of study, i.e. if you intend to study on your own, or prefer to choose a language school and attend language lessons there, or maybe you would like to opt for private tutoring.

Of course, every method has its pros and cons, but you need to choose the best option for you. Another issue worth considering seriously is your 'resource base' - having the right language learning resources is also decisive. At the beginning of my learning process I usually like to have those books by my side:

- A bilingual dictionary (I like to have a traditional hardcover dictionary with a CD);
- A general textbook for beginners (a follow-up on how to choose a good, learner-friendly textbook for beginners will be outlined my next post);
- A grammar reference book (also for beginners) with explanations in my native language, so for starters, I can quickly grasp the new rules and don't get discouraged by lots of unknown new words of L2. Once I reach A1 level I usually opt for an elementary grammar book in the target language;
- A reference book with basic vocabulary such as the most common used words in the language I am going to learn. I believe it is good to begin with it and with time switch to more advanced vocabulary sources.

Moreover, I buy vocabulary learning software to install on my laptop and computer, and use it as often as I can. I also install a vocabulary learning app on my smart phone.

As you can notice, the 'resource base' can be helpful as in case of doubts you can always consult your dictionary, see explanations in the grammar book and step by step absorb the vocabulary chunks from your vocabulary textbook. In the meantime, you can study new vocabulary units by means of your software and cell phone.

Numbers speak louder than words...

Finally, time and vocabulary management is another extremely decisive issue. In everyday, fast-paced environment we definitely lack time, struggle with our duties, work, or studies, but to succeed with your overall learning process you need to find at least a tiny bit of spare time during the day (at least 20-25 minutes every day throughout the week to learn something new or possibly review what you have learned), and up to 1.5 hr everyday during the weekend, if you can manage it. If you think that 20-25 minutes daily is not enough, let us focus on the following example.

Given that you are going to study for 25 minutes for 5 days in a week, and 4 hours at the weekends:
25 mins. X 5 days per week = 125 mins. X approx. 52 weeks in the year = 6.500 mins. ~ 108 hrs
4 hours X 52 weekends in a year = another additional 208 hrs
TOTAL: 316 hrs

To my knowledge, those 316 hours would be enough to reach A2 level, as approximately 100 learning hours is needed to reach A1 level, and 200 (200 in total) for A2.*

Please, keep in mind that not only the amount of time devoted to learning, but also the time of the day when you learn is crucial. I felt more relaxed and was willing to learn at night. Well, if you don't want to burn the midnight oil, you can learn during early morning hours. It is totally up to you to find the most convenient time to learn. If you commute to work by bus or other public transportation means you can always have some notes with you and do a quick lesson.

As for the vocabulary management concept given earlier, I recommend setting a MNNW (minimum number of new words learnt every day). Yes, it does matter to progress with your knowledge of new words on a daily basis. Let us analyze the following example:

Assuming that our minimum number will be just 5 words per day, then you could learn 1825 new words in a year. Of course, you are free to learn as many words as you wish, but let e.g. those 5 words be your minimum per day. Remember, rain or shine at least 5 new words each day!


1. Your goal is set: get to know the basic understanding of Spanish (or any other L-2).
2. Preparation of your ACTION PLAN.
3. Your Resource Base.
4. Time and vocabulary management.

Copyright by My Foreign Language Craze

* A1, A2 acronyms refer to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. I will try to write more about it in my next posts.
** L-2 is an acronym used for the language you are learning.

Please feel free to find more information on my language learning blog. You are invited to visit my blog for all foreign language geeks! Hopefully, everybody will find something useful on language learning strategies, resources, and other tips.

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