One of the most common New Years Resolutions, behind exercise more or eat healthier, is to learn a new language. This is something I know well and I would like to give some advice to those of you who are starting out on your own this year, but first a little back story.
Some of you might know that a couple of years ago I started learning Korean on my own. About a year after that I decided to take Chinese at school. I decided to do this halfway through the fall semester though, and the spring semester doesn’t have a 101 class it only has 102. That meant that I had to learn a semesters worth of Chinese in the span of a couple months.
While I wasn’t completely alone for that endeavor, I had a friend in the Anthropology department who tutored me, I still did most of the work on my own. Now when I got to that 102 class I was definitely behind everyone there. There were students who were Chinese decent who could speak pretty much fluently. There were students who had been taking Chinese since high school and while not fluent were still basically retaking a class they already had taken.
It was a little discouraging to be at the bottom of the class. It was also a little embarrassing to be asked to speak in front of everyone and not know simple words like telephone or car, but each class I would make a list of the words I hadn’t known in that class period (not just when asked but throughout the period) and went home and studied those on top of the words and grammar we were learning that week in class.
By the end of the semester I was about on par with the rest of the students who had started at 101. This past semester I took 201 and I started pulling ahead of those who were leaps and bounds above me the semester before. The students who were Chinese decent could speak basic Chinese but didn’t understand some of the more complicated grammar. The students who had taken Chinese before were now having to learn new words and were struggling with it because they hadn’t been studying up to this point.
When I left school this year my teacher told me that I was one of the best students in the class. I was so proud. I had gone from the bottom to the top in the span of a year. I owe this to the fact that I had been learning languages on my own as well. I knew how to spend my own free time studying so that I would best understand it.
Now I do have to say that I learn a lot faster when I am in a classroom environment. I retain things a lot faster when I hear them as opposed to reading them. My auditory memory is better than my visual one, but I can get by. I think the added pressure of grades also pushes me to do well in a class where as I can slack off a bit on my own, go at a slower pace because there isn’t anyone but me to push me harder.
In the new year I need to keep up with these languages. I lost a lot of my Korean while I was studying Chinese because I couldn’t keep studying it. I put so much time into catching up that I didn’t have the spare time to also study Korean. I still have my text books for that and am going to go back through my notes to refresh my memory before going on. I also just bought the next level of Chinese text book that I would have used had I been in school this semester. I will also need to study that.
For those of you who want some tips about studying on your own here is what I can give you, and I need to follow it myself now because I don’t have a teacher or grades to keep me honest.
- This is the most important one. You need to want to learn the language. If you aren’t motivated you will put it off and you aren’t going to learn anything, and what you have learned will start slipping away from you. You need to want it.
- Spend a little time every day on it. Even if it is just fifteen minutes. Those fifteen minutes might turn into half an hour because you want to finish the chapter. You just need to put in the time. If you can only do fifteen minutes its better than nothing because you will learn something in that time.
- Do the exercises in your book. I know a lot of people in my Chinese class wouldn’t do them because we weren’t given homework assignments. We were just expected to understand things on the quiz. However, those exercises are meant to help you learn. I know they are repetitive and that can be boring but the repetition helps you remember the grammar and vocabulary. Do the exercises. Just Do It!
- Use flash cards, or a flash card program in my case. Quiz yourself. You might not have a teacher to tell you to do well, but set a day when you will quiz yourself and study your flash cards. They actually are a really great way to learn new vocabulary.
- Write your own sentences. I find this to be really helpful. The exercises give you a structure but it isn’t until you try and make sentences yourself that you are using the part of your brain for creating language. This is helpful if you have a friend or pen pal who speaks the language to correct you as you are likely to make some mistakes along the way.
- Which leads into my next point. You should listen to native speakers. Whether you do this by signing up on a website to be a pen pal or language exchange partner or you watch their T.V. and listen to their music. It might be embarrassing but watching children’s shows in the language you want to learn is extremely helpful. When I was learning Spanish in High School I watched a hell of a lot of Plaza Sesamo. Those shows are teaching kids about words and grammar so it would make sense that you could pick up something as well. You are like a small child when it comes to your language so you should give it a try.
- Immerse yourself. Now the easiest way to do this is to visit a country that speaks the language you want to learn. I have never been able to do this. It is something I definitely want to do in the future. I have never left the U.S. and I have wander lust that is so strong I read books from the countries I want to go and watch videos. I want to travel. I can’t though so I have to immerse myself in other ways. Part of that is by consuming media like I said in the last section. I watch the television, I listen to the music. I try and surround myself with the language and the culture as best I can.
Now I’m sure that none of these are new to you. If they are I’m glad I could help, but the honest truth is that this is the way you learn a language on your own. You have to do these things. You won’t learn the language if you aren’t dedicated.
I need to remind myself of that every once and a while. When there is nothing to keep me accountable it is easy for me to slack off and fall behind. Keep yourself accountable and I will keep myself as well.
I wish you the best of luck in your endeavors!
I might try and chronicle my progress in my languages but I haven’t figured out a way to do that, that wouldn’t be boring to anyone other than myself.
Ah well, back to your regularly scheduled book content, this is primarily a book blog after all.