There is something I find so joyful about learning new languages. It truly is one of those things where the destination doesn’t matter; only the journey, because complete mastery & fluency is such a vague term. I would class myself as fluent in English, but that doesn’t mean I don’t discover new words all the time.
I wanted to make this post because language learning is something I enjoy a lot, and in the time I’ve had recently, I’ve been attempting to advance both my French (which I already have an A-Level in) and Arabic (which I can’t really understand, but I can read). I wanted this to be a very easy, practicable guide to offer you some direction of where to go and how to progress with your language learning.
Before You Start
Choose a language. This could be something that you’re learning for a reason, perhaps for school or even future work prospects, or could just be because you’re interested in that language and/or culture. The beauty of the Internet is just how many resources are available out there, so I’m really sure you could pursue any language.
Collect your supplies. These don’t have to be anything extensive, but if you’re anything like me, the prospect of investing in new stationery is *almost* more exciting than actually learning anything. Ideally, I would suggest:
- A notebook to document all the new stuff you learn
- A smaller vocabulary notebook for any new words you learn
- A pen & any other stationery items you consider essential to learn – highlighters, coloured pens, etc.
Learning a New Language
Where do you start?
My main suggestion for the content you should really be covering first when you start learning a new language is the alphabet for that language. For me, French was quite easy because I was already familiar with the letters, and only really needed to learn about the different accents that can be used, but Arabic was a whole different ball game because it was a different alphabet that I had to learn how to write. Fortunately, I am already mostly fluent in Urdu and Urdu and Arabic have very similar alphabets so that wasn’t too bad, but still it didn’t come to me as naturally as English & English-like alphabets came to me.
When dealing with a different alphabet, try finding YouTube videos that demonstrate how to write the letters and spend time getting familiar with them. Then try writing them from memory. It will be much smoother to learn the language once you’re extremely comfortable with the alphabet.
For the casual language learner, there are so many apps out there that market themselves as being able to teach you a language in X amount of days, but I would suggest you take these guarantees with a pinch of salt. Learning anything is more about consistency and willpower than 5 minutes on any app while you’re half-paying attention and half-watching TV. Also, don’t overlook textbooks as a source of information, because they often have a fantastic structure to take you through the process of learning any language. Beyond textbooks and apps (we’ll cover those soon), try having a look on Reddit for communities that are learning the same language as you and I’m sure you’ll be able to find a lot of valuable information and resources you haven’t come across yet.
Textbooks. As I mentioned, these are great because they’re structured. You can buy them off Amazon/eBay or even download them from the internet. Often with textbooks, there’s less of a focus on vocabulary, and they can involve a lot of grammar and other exercises to practise what you’re learning. I know grammar isn’t many people’s favourite aspect of language learning, but it’s quite important to learn things like verbs and their conjugations and the genders of words and converting words from singular to dual or plural form. A lot of the time, textbooks also include information about the culture of the countries where the language is spoken, and this can be so interesting to read about.
Duolingo. The Duolingo owl haunts me still. I was once a seasoned user of this app with a 200-day streak on French, but I have to be honest, it got boring for me. I felt like, even though it’s nice to build sentences, it doesn’t educate about the nuances of the language in an effective way.
Memrise. Memrise was also an app that I used to use a long time ago and have recently rediscovered in my bid to advance my skills, and I was happy to see it was more impressive than I remembered. I felt like the variety of exercises was fun and I’ve realised that I enjoy apps that allow you to write things in yourself, instead of solely picking options already available to you. I don’t recall Memrise being particularly outstanding when I used it in the past, but I have been enjoying using it again now.
Lingvist. This has been a new discovery this past week and I’ve really been loving this app. There is a focus on vocab, but it still incorporates grammar into it, which I appreciate. I also liked that it uses AI to calculate your skill level in your language of choice. The one thing I will say, however, is that you do have to pay for it, and it doesn’t have a huge variety of language options available yet. It costs around £70/year and right now, they offer 5 languages.
Anki. I think Anki is a fantastic tool that you should use to supplement your language learning because of its use of spaced repetition, which is ideal for learning and memorising vocabulary. I’ll go into more detail about how this could be used a little bit later.
When you have listening, reading, writing and speaking to cover, it can feel a bit overwhelming, but there are a lot of different things that you can do to hit all the aspects of your language. I’ve outlined some of my favourites below:
Watch TV shows and YouTube videos in your desired language. TV just doesn’t do it for me to be honest, so YouTube is much more my jam. Also, on most video platforms, you can adjust the speed of the video, so even if you’re starting out and you’re not used to fast, native speakers, you can slow it down to get the hang of it.
Watch the news. When I was doing my A-Level in French, we used to have speaking sessions and our teacher would ask us to come into the session with knowledge of what was going on in the news in France or other French-speaking countries. A lot of news platforms have subtitles too so you can get used to bringing your reading and listening abilities up to the same level.
Read books. I’m not going to lie, we read one book in French at A-Level and I found it quite difficult, despite being relatively good at French. I think when we’re learning the language and focusing on basic vocabulary, reading a book that’s designed to use impressive and out-there vocabulary can be a slow process because you often find yourself with the book in one hand and a dictionary in the other. Don’t let the speed discourage you though, take it slow and easy, and take all the time you need to extract the vocabulary from books and incorporate it into your own general knowledge.
Honestly though, books can be hard. Textbooks often include good reading comprehension exercises which may be better to start off with.
Make a friend who speaks your desired language. You guys could video chat to each other so you could improve your speaking ability in that language. A person with the time and capacity to help you learn a language can be a bit difficult to find and I completely accept that, but I know there are services online like italki that let you find online tutors who will chat to you in order to help you learn a language.
Vocabulary testing with Anki. We’re back to Anki! If you’ve never heard of it, it’s a flashcard software that incorporates spaced repetition automatically to make your learning more effective. I talked about how I used it at university here if you’d like to see another use case for it.
What I suggest is that you keep a list of new vocabulary that you learn throughout your self-directed study in a little notebook. Then, at the end of your study session, upload your words into Anki as individual flashcards. When you then start a new session, you could begin with a flashcard review of the vocabulary you’ve been learning.
I think it’s much more effective to make your own flashcards because they’ll be personalised to the vocabulary that you come across. Now, I discovered Anki when I started university so all of the French knowledge I had from A-Levels hadn’t been turned into flashcards and I threw all my A-Level stuff out the day exams finished (can you tell I didn’t enjoy sixth form?). As such, I didn’t really have the opportunity to make new flashcards for them. In this case I decided to download a shared deck from the internet, which was more fun for me because it meant I could test myself, even though it did start off with some really basic stuff.
Tips and Tricks
- Immerse yourself in the language – watch all the TV shows and movies, read all the books, listen to all the music (!) of your target language.
- Learn vocabulary that applies to your everyday life – you’ll be so much more interested in vocab that’s pertinent for you, so you’ll be more eager to learn
- Speak to yourself – if there’s no one around to help, just practice saying words and sentences out loud, so you feel more comfortable with new words
- Set your phone to your target language – this is a classic one! You probably already know your way around your phone, so it won’t be that hard to navigate, but you’ll learn new words in the process
I hope you guys enjoyed my crash course on learning languages. These are the tricks and resources I’ve amassed after many years of enjoying languages, and I know during this time it’s so nice to learn something new that you wouldn’t otherwise have time for.
Hope you’re all staying safe and healthy. Until next time!