The journey of a thousand ri begins with the first step.
Often to a student, especially an adult, learning a new language can seem like an impossible, or at least very difficult and time-consuming task. When we’re just starting to discover a new language and are faced with volumes of incomprehensible rules, it’s very easy to lose confidence and drop the class. What can help in such a situation? How to master English, German, French – whatever language you want – and not feel so helpless in the first weeks of study? This is what our article is about.
It may seem self-evident, but often students don’t have a strong incentive to learn. Ask yourself the question – why do you personally learn a language? Because it will help you build a better career. Because you have the opportunity to move to a place you’ve dreamed of all your life. Because it is your girlfriend’s native language. Just for the fun of it. Even the simplest motivation like this can give you the strength to overcome the first, most difficult steps.
You should be personally interested in knowing the language well. It should be very important, or better yet, essential. Are you flying to Taiwan to head your firm’s branch office there? That’s fine. Going to the U.S. to study and you can’t even string a couple of words together in English? That’s great. As many polyglots say, it is the total immersion method to achieve the best results. Studying a language abroad, you will have to use it in the classroom as well as in everyday life. Any simple action will turn into a real challenge. Yes, at first you will feel as if you were dropped behind enemy lines armed with a toothpick, you may feel lonely because you can’t communicate properly with people. But this feeling will soon pass, because in just a few weeks or even days the total immersion method will allow you to see in practice your…
All those daily challenges that seemed insurmountable at first will soon become as natural as they are in your home country. Trips to the store or the laundry will soon become a mere trifle, because in such situations the speaker is required to use the same uncomplicated phrases. As a consequence, live communication will soon become a source of great pleasure and encouragement for further study.
You are just learning.
How often people open a multi-volume grammar book and imagine that learning it is some cruel punishment. Just listen to how awful Czech is: it has seven declensions (nominative, genitive, dative, etc.), there are unpronounceable words and sentences without vowels (how about the catchphrase “Prdrktskrzdrn, zprvzhlthrstzrn”), strange dashes over letters, confusing word order, three genders… horror!
The best solution at first would be to just turn a blind eye to all these difficulties. It’s much easier to learn the basics, and then get down to the finer points. If you’re a perfectionist, then after six months you might be able to say all the phrases you’ve learned without a single mistake. But all these six months you’ve been idle and may have missed the unique opportunity to communicate with a native speaker. And in the end that’s why you learn a language, not for perfect grammar, volumes of rules and vocabulary. It’s a means of human communication! At worst, you’ll just say something wrong. Relax and have fun communicating.
Instead of self-suffering, like in the Czech example, try to find something in the language that might help you. If you’re learning one of the European languages, rejoice because you already know a huge part of the vocabulary: flip through any book in Spanish – you’re sure to come across many familiar words: elalfabeto, lafamilia and many others. Sometimes even in a completely unfamiliar language you can guess the translation of whole sentences. If you decide to take up one of the Slavic languages, you don’t have to learn the articles. German is a phonetic language, and when you see the spelling of a German word, you can usually pronounce it, and when you hear it, you can usually write it.
Every language, even a hieroglyphic one, contains certain cues that can make it much easier to learn. And the more languages you already know, the easier it will be to learn subsequent ones. See, it’s not as hard as it seemed in the beginning!
It was said above that the best results are only possible with the total immersion method. But what if for some reason you can’t go abroad to study?
In fact, even so, you have virtually unlimited resources for learning a foreign language. The Internet age has put millions of pages of classics, music, movies, radio and podcasts from around the world at our disposal. Find what you’re interested in. Look for the words and phrases you need and want to know. Don’t wait for someone to introduce you to the language or tell you what to do. Discover the language for yourself, just like a growing child does. You can talk to foreigners as much as you like on the many forums. Talk and write when you feel like it. Constantly practice your skills.
Language skills are traditionally divided into reading, writing, speaking and listening. Typically, students spend the most time practicing speaking. You can write and read fairly complex texts, but movies and songs often overwhelm the student with an avalanche of “real-time” information. This causes great frustration and leads to self-doubt. Yes, you will not understand much of what you hear. But that’s the way it should be. Grasp the main ideas, key words, and sounds. You don’t have to think about every sentence you hear. All it will do is skip the next one. Start by watching movies with subtitles. Write down interesting phrases. If you are a complete beginner, try to catch key words and rely on the picture. Keep talking and listening and soon even that barrier will fall.
There is no point in treating learning as a race against time. Languages are practically living creatures that sometimes willingly allow themselves to be tamed, and sometimes resist doing so with “all four of them.” But no matter how difficult it may be, remember: you are moving forward. Don’t extinguish your enthusiasm and strength by comparing yourself to others or wondering why it’s taking so long. If you are tired, take a break. Give yourself time not only to study, but also to rest. As you progress, you will feel more and more comfortable in your new language environment. Soon you will find yourself transformed from an unwelcome guest to a member of your new family. Just get on with your journey and enjoy it!