One exam down, 7 more to go, woohoo!
Lots of people that I talk to about my university course look upon learning languages the same way that I feel about science or maths; completely daunting, impossible to enjoy, and just all round hard.
While I understand that not everyone’s brain is programmed to take in languages and that you might be more science orientated instead, I refuse to believe that people cannot learn more than their native language. I mean, you’ve already learnt one language so realistically it shouldn’t be too hard to learn another with just a little dedication; around 50% of our global population are bilingual!
This is probably really boring to some people but I find languages absolutely fascinating; how they’re all related, how words are formed, how learning one makes learning a second even easier because your brain forms links between patterns in words, can recognise grammar rules easier and vocab is just an absolute walk in the park!
I study Spanish and Italian at university – side note to all the science people who have ever told me this is a doss subject compared to theirs; it really isn’t!! I’ve been speaking Spanish since I was really young and would say I’m more or less fluent in it. I adore Spanish, I prefer speaking it to English and my brain often thinks in Spanish before English, which makes living in a predominantly English speaking country really annoying for me. I picked up Italian from the beginning when I started uni, and so I’m not exactly amazing at it but I’d say around A-level standard.
Having such a strong base knowledge of the Spanish language really helps me when I’m learning Italian because I can refer to what I know in one language to aid with the other. I never realised just how similar the languages were to each other, vocabulary especially as quite a lot of words are the same or have a slight spelling difference, it’s incredibly handy!
As well as Spanish and Italian, I learnt French at school up to A-Level and loved it. The only reason I stopped was because I couldn’t take more than 4 subjects at A-Level, but I regret not taking it instead of Geography every day.
I took up a Japanese course at high school, and although I found it really interesting, I soon became frustrated as I couldn’t draw from any previous knowledge with languages, and eventually I left the class.
Based on my experience with learning languages, I’ve thought of the most important things that you should bear in mind, and some tips for enhancing your learning experience.
1. Pick a language you enjoy the sound of
This might sound a little strange but I think this is the most important step of starting out learning a language. I have never had any interest in learning German for example, because I don’t like the way it sounds in my ear. More relevant perhaps is the fact that I learn Catalan rather than Basque; for me now, it sounds and looks so much nicer so I would have little interest in learning the other. A lot of learning languages is in the mind and whether you’re truly interested in what you’re learning, so choose a language that sounds pleasant to your ear as you’re going to be hearing it non-stop during your learning!
2. VOCAB, VOCAB, VOCAB!
I’m not exactly sure which is more important out of 2 or 3 here, but I guess vocabulary as you can get by without many adverbs in your lexicon to start off with. My favourite thing about learning languages is the vocabulary and learning the different words for things. Learning two languages at a time means that I actually try to learn both sets of vocab at the same time because they’ll help me remember each other. Flashcards, lists, anything to help get those words into your head; when I was learning to spell (in English) my mum would stick little labels onto every piece of furniture in our house so that when I passed it I would see the name and begin to associate the word with the object; this is a trick I use when I’m learning foreign language vocab even now as even a glance at the word will train your brain to associate the two things. It’s so sneaky you won’t even realise you’re teaching yourself!
Please don’t judge me, but I think these are really fun to learn as well! Adverbs really pad out your sentences and transform them from basic, jarred strings of words into more formed and sophisticated language. I start by making a list of the most commonly used adverbs in English (I think about 150) then next to them I write the foreign language equivalent. Once I have this mammoth adverb pack, I take about 20 at a time and memorise them with repeated writing out and saying aloud. It’s quite laborious but it’s just another stage of learning a language and it’s really going to help boost the level of your language, especially when you’re speaking to people!
4. Grammar – sorry!
Ugh, this is the part that everyone hates- the dreaded grammar. Countless rules to remember and all of those irregulars that don’t fit into a rule so you have to learn them off by heart- and they never seem to end! I don’t find grammar that much of a pain because I just learn each rule, each tense, each little nugget of frustrating information one at a time. If you just sit back and take it all into your stride and not let it overwhelm you, learning grammar really isn’t too difficult. The key that I’ve found to learning grammar is to keep going over it again and again until you find yourself thinking about the irregular subjunctive verbs in your head when you’re in the shower- not even kidding, this happens to me so often and not just inside my head, I sometimes start to say them when I’m on the train which is kind of embarrassing.
This is extremely important especially when you want to maintain your language skills; get exposed to the language. Get to know the colloquialisms, the idioms, the way the accent works and how tone is used to mean different things; all of these are so important as they make you sound more experienced especially to native speakers. Watch foreign programs, go on holidays and interact with the locals (who will be so happy you’re making the effort, trust me). Read books until they’re surrounding you in piles in your room; I’m reading all the Harry Potters in Italian and an old horror story in Spanish.
As well as books, you need to make sure you have adequate sources for learning the language. I’m talking about textbooks, which you can easily get from ebay or Amazon by selecting your level of study ie beginners, and also websites which give handy grammar and learning tips. There are thousands upon thousands of sites that have interactive activities that mark your work and help you to build confidence and skills rather than just huge chunks of paragraphs on grammar rules for you to read hopelessly; I’ve been there before, it sucks.
I can’t really give any more advice, I think these ones above are the most important when it comes to enhancing your learning experience and making sure that you don’t feel like it’s a massive chore that’s swamping you. I feel like that sometimes but then I just take a breath, make a plan of how to tackle it, and take it step by step. I think that the learning of languages should definitely be more encouraged as it brings you closer to people around the world, different cultures, and it’s just amazingly cool to say to someone ‘Yeah, I speak two/three/six languages’. Well, to me it is anyway!
I have my Italian speaking exam tomorrow, and one of the questions is on what it means to speak a foreign langauge and how important it is for us to learn them, so I’ve really just written out my answer here! I mean everything I’m saying wholeheartedly and hope I’ve inspired some people to think about learning another language; to my fellow bi/trilingual people out there, I think you’re awesome!