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10 Things to Do When You Start Learning a New Language

January 23, 2021

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When first taking on the challenge of learning a foreign language, it can be difficult to decide exactly where to start and what to focus on. Starting off on the right foot can help save time and plenty of wasted effort further down the line.

Here are 10 things you should consider doing when you start learning a new language:

Find your motivation

Before you even crack open a textbook, it’s important to be clear on why you want to learn your target language in the first place. 

When you first start learning a new language, the process is new and exciting and you can make rapid progress. However, once the initial excitement wears off and your rate of progression starts to decline, motivation can often go out the window.

Knowing your ‘why’ will help you stay the course on your language learning journey. Start by writing down all the reasons why you would like to learn your target language. If you’re feeling creative, you can add this as a spread in your language learning bullet journal or notebook

Be sure to revisit your reasons regularly to make sure they still hold up, or whenever you need  a boost in motivation.

Set clear goals

Defining clear and attainable goals adds focus and structure to your language learning journey. Identifying short- and long-term goals and breaking them down into manageable steps allows you to plot an actionable roadmap to success.

Goal-setting also does wonders for motivation. There’s no better feeling than hitting a milestone you’ve set for yourself (be it large or small) and seeing your progress meter rise bit by bit. 

That being said, setting the wrong kind of goals (such as goals that are too ambitious or ill-defined) can have exactly the opposite effect, leaving you demotivated and unsure of how to proceed.

Let’s say, for example, your goal is ‘I want to be fluent in Spanish’. This is a wonderful, admirable ambition, but it’s not really a goal until you’ve defined the parameters of the goal and figured out exactly which steps you need to take to achieve it. As the old adage goes, ‘A dream without a plan is just a wish’.

You want to be fluent in Spanish. Great. Now let’s ask:

What is your definition of ‘fluent’? 

What steps will you take to achieve this goal of fluency? 

How will you measure your progress? 

How will you know when you’ve reached your goal?

These questions can be answered by setting SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time-bound) goals. You can find out more about defining clear and actionable SMART goals here.

Find the right study method and resources for you

When you’re new to learning a foreign language, it’s easy to fall into the trap of spending more time researching how to learn a language than actually learning the language. Or going out and buying every textbook and course you can lay your hands on.

It’s worth taking out some time at the beginning of your journey to consider where your time is best spent. This means figuring out which study methods and resources best suit you.

Here are some options to consider:

  • Classroom – Some learners prefer the structure offered by a formal classroom setting (this could include online group classes).
  • Textbooks – A good beginner textbook will offer an organised approach to language learning, with each lesson (and possibly book in the series) building on previous knowledge. 
  • Online courses –  If working through a textbook is not your thing, you can consider an online course. Many online language learning courses include video-based lessons along with PDF transcripts and other supplementary resources. 
  • Apps –  There are also many gamified apps such as Duolingo, Mondly and Memrise on the market. Most offer free trial versions so you can test them to see which one is the best choice for you.

Chances are you will use a combination of these methods along the way. When first starting out, you don’t need to buy into everything out there. Not only would that be extremely expensive, but you may also feel overwhelmed and end up skipping from one resource to the next without any clear goal. 

Identify one or two resources to get started with based on your learning preference. Work through them systematically, preferably following a study schedule. You can then identify any gaps in your learning strategy, and supplement it with the right resource. Try to include a mix of the four key language learning skills: writing, reading, listening and speaking.

Some tips on choosing the best resources:

On a budget? Here’s how to learn a language without breaking the bank.

Find some tips on choosing the right foreign language textbook here.

This article includes a comprehensive list of Chinese learning resources.

Here are some of the resources I’ve been using to learn Korean.

Learn the alphabet and pronunciation rules

It may sound obvious, but one of the first steps in learning a foreign language is to get familiar with the different sounds of your target language. Even if your target language uses the Latin alphabet, some of the letters may not be pronounced the same as they would in English (or your native language). 

Good pronunciation is key to effective communication and it pays to lay a solid foundation right from the beginning. It can be really difficult to correct ingrained bad habits later on. 

Now, there is nothing terrible about having an accent. I speak English with a South African Afrikaans accent and I get by without any major problems (unless you ask me to pronounce ‘Worcestershire’). The most important thing is to be understood. 

Here are a few tips for improving your pronunciation in a new language:

  • Pay attention to how words and sounds are formed – Be aware of how your lips and mouth move and where your tongue is positioned.
  • Mimic native speakers – Shadowing is an effective technique to help improve your pronunciation and intonation. If you do not know any native speakers, you can do this by copying what you hear on TV or in films.
  • Listen closely – Expose yourself to native speech regularly by listening to podcasts, the radio, the evening news or whatever strikes your fancy.
  • Get feedback – Find a tutor or friendly native speaker to help you correct any mistakes. Apps like HelloTalk are great for finding language partners, while italki offers access to affordable online language tutors.
  • YouTube is your friend – You can find information on just about anything on YouTube, including videos offering pronunciation tips for a variety of languages.
  • Practice, practice, practice!

If you are learning a language with a completely different alphabet, like Korean, take some time to learn the letters, their pronunciation and any exceptions thoroughly. Doing the groundwork greatly speeds up learning and makes memorising vocabulary much easier.

For a logographic language like Chinese, get to grips with the sounds and intonation first (for example, Pinyin and tones for Mandarin and Cantonese Pinyin or Jyutping and several more tones for Cantonese). 

Character learning ventures more into vocabulary territory, which we’ll discuss in the next section. A good start is to become familiar with the character building blocks, called radicals. Radicals provide important clues as to the meaning or pronunciation of a character and are essential if you want to look up a character in a traditional print dictionary. It’s also a great idea to learn stroke order rules so you can write characters correctly from the start. 

Learn the right vocabulary

To gain any kind of proficiency in a new language, you’re going to need to learn a lot of words. The good news is that you don’t need to know all the words.

According to this BBC article, which looks at how many words you need to know a language, the average native speaker knows 15,000 to 20,000 word families (or ‘lemmas’) in their first language (based on the findings of Professor Stuart Webb of the University of Western Ontario). What’s more, knowing just 800 of the most frequently-used word families in English means you will be able to understand 75% of everyday speech.

This is a far cry from the 171,146 words estimated to be currently in use in the English language (according to the Oxford English Dictionary). 

What does this mean for language acquisition then? Well, as heartening as statistics like these are for language enthusiasts, you need to be aware that not knowing around 20% of all of the words you encounter would still seriously impede your understanding. What it does give you, is a very logical place to start acquiring vocabulary: learning words by frequency and relevance.

  • Start by learning the 1000 most frequently-used words in your target language. Try to find a resource that includes example sentences, so you can learn these words in context.
  • Focus on words and phrases that are relevant to you, your job, your interests, etc. first.

Spending your time and energy on learning words that you’re unlikely to use or encounter regularly is inefficient, at least at the beginning stages. You will gradually expand your vocabulary to include more complex words as you continue on your language learning journey.

Find some tips on learning vocabulary here.

Get to grips with basic grammar

Ah, grammar. The bane of many a language learner’s existence. The general consensus in the polyglot community seems to be not to focus too much on grammar. Going out (well, not out out, we’re still in the midst of a global pandemic) and living the language is far more valuable than drilling grammar patterns.

I agree that spending all your time conjugating verbs at the detriment of actually speaking a language is not useful. However, in order to start building sentences, you’re going to need to learn some basic grammar, such as word order, tenses, useful conjunctions and so on.

A good textbook or online course will introduce appropriate grammar systematically. You can also invest in a good resource that covers A1 grammar in your target language and use it as a reference guide. I like books that point out common errors made by non-native speakers, like this one (for those learning Mandarin Chinese.)

Find your community

Learning a new language on your own can be a lonely business. Not all of us have the privilege of learning in a formal classroom setting, and even then there’s no guarantee that you and your classmates will become a tight-knit group.

Luckily, the internet is full of wonderful, uplifting language learning communities where like-minded people get together to share tips, plan joint study sessions and support and inspire one another. Personally, I love the Instagram language community, but you can also check out:

  • Tumblr
  • Facebook Groups
  • Reddit
  • LingQ forums
  • Italki Community

You don’t have to do this alone. Go find your people.

Find a tutor

While it is absolutely possible to self-study a language, finding a good teacher can help accelerate your language learning by offering guidance and resources, identifying and correcting weak points, and keeping you accountable.

Private tutors and language classes can be expensive, but luckily there are a variety of affordable online language tutoring options available.

I use italki for weekly Mandarin lessons and I can’t say enough good things about my tutor. Italki allows you to connect with language tutors from the comfort of your own home. Tutors set their own fees, so you can shop around for a teacher that suits your budget and learning needs.

If you feel a bit hesitant about online language tutoring, you can check out my tips for introverted learners here.

Start speaking 

Speaking in a foreign language when you’re just starting out can be terrifying, but it’s also the fastest way to improve your language skills. Yes, you’ll inevitably make a mistake and some native speakers may have a good giggle at you for accidentally calling your mother a horse.  But you will more likely find that most people are encouraging and flattered that you are taking the time out to learn about their language and culture.

As an introvert myself, I understand that the advice to ‘just go out and speak’ is not always helpful. If you are not quite ready to go out and boldly strike up conversations, try out these baby steps to hone your speaking skills: 

  • Record yourself – If you can, ask your tutor, native speaking friend or language partner to take a listen and correct any mistakes so you do not reinforce bad habits.
  • Mimic by repeating – Listen to dialogue on TV, films and podcasts, and try to repeat them out loud, mimicking the tone and pronunciation.
  • Find a safe space to practice – For me, my weekly Mandarin lessons offer a safe environment to practice speaking freely, without fear of embarrassment if I make mistakes. My tutor is always helpful and encouraging and puts me at ease. Carve out a safe space for yourself to communicate, wherever that may be. 
  • Find a language exchange partner – Practicing your speaking skills with a partner you know and trust can help boost your confidence. HelloTalk is a good place to look for a language exchange partner. It can be scary connecting with strangers, but most of the people I’ve interacted with through the app have been genuinely helpful and friendly. You can set your profile so that only people of the same gender can approach you if this makes you feel more comfortable.
  • Try the Mondly chatbot – The Mondly chatbot uses speech recognition technology so you can practice your conversation skills.

Explore interesting content

One of the best things about learning a new language is that it opens up a whole new world of content – literature, film, music, you name it. Learning through topics that you are actually interested in makes the process of learning a new language so much easier and enjoyable.

While you may not be able to dive right into a novel at the beginner level, it’s never too early to start immersing yourself in engaging content. 

Check out resources  like LingQ and FluentU that allow you to learn through interesting, authentic content at any level.

Are you learning a new language? What are your tips for beginner language learners?

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10 Things to Do When You Start Learning a New Language

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