Written by Luca Occhialini, Rural Discovery 2021-22 – Edited by Bianca Rêgo, ESC Wake-Up 2022-23
– “I would really like to learn a new language, but how?”
– “Where should I start?”
– “I tried once, but it was too complicated”
How many times have you tried to learn a new language? All of us have thought about that, at least once in our life.
Have you ever stopped because it was too difficult? I don’t know about you, but I hear many times people saying they stopped because it was too difficult, because they didn’t had enough time, or they reached a good level but, then, as time passed by, they forgot what they learnt. “It happens”, we say. Well, it does happen, “but…”. But what?
I decided to write this article to give my own opinion about the topic, to give some personal advice to the ones that are trying to learn something new and that are finding problems in the process, and to give a short list of things which can really make a difference in reaching the result we hope for, or not.
P.S. – I am writing this article with the idea of giving some general suggestions, which could be useful for every (or most) language. At the same time, as I am writing this article while being in France as a volunteer for the cooperative “Initiative et Developpement Citoyen” (IDC), I will relate more to the French language, especially concerning examples and tools that you will see written below.
“I want to learn this language! Where should I start?”
That’s “the question”. Or maybe not. Let me explain myself.
Nowadays, the world we live in offers us an unlimited number of different options to learn something new. We got the old dear books, but also apps, podcasts, youtube channels, social media pages, and many more tools at our immediate and constant disposal. The first consequence of this is that, compared to some years ago, now we can personalize our journey of learning a new language. So, there’s no single answer to the question “where should I start?”, because you can reach the same result starting with different tools, from different points or levels. Which leads us to the first step to take into consideration when you start learning: the personalization of your studies is not just a possibility, but the first real suggestion that I am giving you. Why? We all are different human beings, with different minds, ways of reasoning, methods to process the information, etc. This means that, if the process of learning that I used was good enough for me, it doesn’t mean that it could be good for you as well. So, the first step is: once you have decided what language you want to learn, try to elaborate your own path depending on the person that you are, giving priority to the methods and tools that you feel are the best ones for you, so as to make it easier for your brain to assimilate and store information.
I could give some general suggestions where to start from zero, like memorize the alphabet, recognize the sounds of every single letter, learn all the special combinations of letters, the accents (if they’re an important aspect of the language), etc. Assimilating this knowledge at the very beginning might help most of you to be more rapid and have less problems in the steps further. So yes, these could be the best way to start your journey. Still, it doesn’t work the same way with everyone: some assimilate all the special sounds learning them by heart at the beginning, while others prefer to understand them while listening to audios, people speaking or watching videos. So, one more time: before starting a process and pretending to get the results that you hope for from it, try to understand yourself first, and after that, elaborate a process of learning that could fit you and your personality.
You will see many times that you’re taking the wrong path, that you’re going too fast, that in order to understand what you’re currently studying, you need some other knowledge that you don’t have yet. This will happen very often, especially if it’s the first time that you’re trying to deal with a new language. In that case, just follow what you think it’s best for you. But this is NOT a good reason to stop learning, it is just a sign that you need to change something in your approach.
Make it a regular thing
Learning a new language is not something that can be achieved from one day to another. It’s a very slow process, during which we are not only asked to learn grammatical rules, new sounds or expressions. Well, from one perspective, we could define it as a never ending journey: languages (which already have an unlimited amount of differences from each other, all of them to understand and assimilate) are constantly changing. So, how can we pretend to learn and be fluent with a new language?
To give an answer, let’s think about it from a different perspective: how do we manage to be fluent with our own native language? How did we learn it when we were children? We could give a thousand technical responses to that, but in the end we can boil everything down to this: keep practicing, and not only when we were kids, and we were moving the first steps in the language. We are still improving by practicing: we just heard for the first time that word, that expression, even that grammatical rule, what do we do? We start using it on a daily basis, to make it ours. Basically, what we have to do when we learn a new language is doing exactly the same thing. Which is, in general terms, to make our studies a regular thing, a habit in our daily schedule.
The good thing is that, nowadays, it’s pretty easy to do so. Just think about all the technological resources that we carry with us almost 24h a day, like smartphones. To be honest, I do prefer physical books, especially when I have to study and memorize something, but my point is different now. Our days are always very busy, stressful, full of things to do. Trying to carry a book with us, everywhere we go, may not be the best option. But just for the sake of making our studies a habit, smartphones are a handy substitution. What do you like to use to improve your skills? Online exercises? Videos? Podcast? TV series? Everything in your phone. Once you understand this, what you have to do is find a few minutes a day (20/30 minutes should be enough) to do your exercises, on every possible occasion. EVERY DAY. Make it a habit, something close to a personal hobby. In my experience, that’s the best way to really make your brain go deep and understand a new language. You need to feel comfortable and confident with it, it needs to become part of yourself. In order to do so, you need to practice, a lot, on a daily basis. How can we start studying on a daily basis when our days are so full? One very easy solution (not the only one): put your hand in your pocket, and use your phone. On average, that would mean 20/30 minutes more studying per day, 20/30 minutes less wasting your time on social media.
Here just a few tips about tools that you can use to practice, and that I recommend from my personal experience and utilization:
- Apps/websites (e.g. duolingo and memrise);
- YouTube Channels and videos, about both the language itself (e.g. “Easy French”, “Français Authentique” and many more that you can easily find online) or any kind of topic. Try to link these moments of learning with your personal attitude and passions. For example, if you’re passionate about sport, you can watch highlights of games with French commentary (e.g. “beIN SPORTS France” on YouTube). If you like to be always up to date and follow global news, there are many channels that offer this kind of service as well (e.g. “France 24”).
- Podcasts (e.g. “Français avec Pierre”);
- Film and TV series. Regarding this, a good way may be to use some online streaming platforms, most of which allow you to watch contents opting for language and subtitles that you prefer (like Netflix, for instance). In doing so, the suggestion is to force yourself and set audio and/or subtitles in the language that you want to learn, almost every time you use the platform. The approach should change depending on your level, so you should change the settings when you feel that your level has improved (like, original audio and no subtitles would be the hardest level).
The range of the contents that you can find is very wide, so we can repeat the same approach already explained above: find something related to your passions and your attitude (just to list a few of the contents that I watched myself lately: “Lupin”, “La forêt”, “Marianne”, “Au service de la France”, “Osmosis”, “Le chalet”, “Blackspot”).
As we will see now, the idea of studying a few minutes a day in this way is intended to be an integration of your preparation, not a substitution.
“Now that I have the general basis, it’s time to go a little bit deeper”
As I anticipated, no matter all the virtual and technological resources that we have at our disposal, I still prefer physical books. This is obviously a personal preference, but going on with the years, and studying different foreign languages, I reached a conclusion. It is very important to prepare fertile soil in our brain with daily exercise, so to be able to learn that language, but just as a general preparation for the real process of studying, which is made of grammar rules to learn, regular and irregular verbs to memorize by heart, exceptions to recognize, etc. In the end, no matter the approach that you decide for yourself, or the very specific way your mind works, there are a few things that you just have to study, with no shortcut. Then, the intensity of your studying does change depending on what kind of person you are: someone needs to know all the rules before trying to speak, others learn by making mistakes and understanding while trying. This means that some of you will need to study the whole book before feeling ready, others will learn one chapter at a time, while practicing meanwhile. This does change, but I believe that, at some point of the journey, everyone needs to go back to the old way of studying, so not to leave the fertile soil that we’re preparing with daily exercises like it, but to make lush and permanent vegetation grow on it.
To conclude this section, it is important to be aware of one thing. As I said multiple times, learning a language is a very personal and introspective process: we need to understand how our brain works to make it easier and the most efficient for us. From another perspective: once we find a way that actually works for us, we can reuse it again when we start learning other languages, whose processes will be easier than the first one (on average, because it also depends on the objective difficulty of each language). So, shape a profitable method for yourself the first time, readapt and reuse it all the following ones.
Take advantage of all the possibilities that the present world put at your disposal: International Mobility
This is my final advice, but it should not be seen as the last step to take, or the final part of your learning process. This could be the starting, middle point or very last step. Let me explain myself, with some personal experience as well.
Why do we learn a new language? In the end, we can reduce everything to this question. The motivations that move us, that make us want to try. We will all agree that it is everything about connecting with people of different backgrounds, making experiences abroad, and traveling. For some/most of us this is also about working, but I look at this as sort of a subcategory, but not because it’s less important (on the contrary, I am one of those who want to learn new languages also to find a job close to my expectations and my desires). My idea is that, in order to reach a level of fluency good enough to work with that language, first you need to go abroad, make experience, connect with native people that use the language that you’re studying. So, how to do that? What’s the best way to travel while learning (or to learn) the language? Is it mandatory to know the language before going abroad? What’s the level that I should reach before thinking about living there, even for a short period of time?
Many questions, all of them important, but the answer is easier than you think, and we can reduce everything to just two words: international mobility. The world that we live in offers us so many possibilities to gain experience abroad, way more than we think. And I will tell you more: the good thing is that there are different ones depending on what we want to do, and also our language skills before leaving. Let me talk to you about my personal experience.
The first time that I went abroad for something other than tourism was in 2016, at the age of 23. I went to the United Kingdom, with the aim of practicing English. Was I good with it before leaving? No, I just knew the grammatical rules that I studied at school, that was it. I almost couldn’t even understand a basic conversation. Did I know any other language, other than Italian? No. To make it short, I can bet that the point where I started my journey was way worse than most of yours. But I went there, motivated by my own objectives, and I did it. I stayed only one month, so I didn’t reach the best level, but I managed to start my process of improvement.
After that, my passions for languages exploded, literally. I wanted to learn as many languages as possible. I started spending my time in the way described above, with daily exercises and linguistic sort of hobbies. I started German as self-taught, with no previous knowledge at all, and then I took advantage of the Erasmus Plus Programme of my university to spend a period of five months in Vienna, Austria, where I got the opportunity to join lectures with that language, so as to improve my skills. Less than one year after that, I saw the opportunity to do an internship in Viet Nam, so I took it and I went there. I didn’t have any knowledge at all about Vietnamese, and during my time there I didn’t learn much: the period I spent in the country was too short to learn something so different from zero, and in my working place we weren’t using it. To be honest, at that moment it wasn’t a priority for me either. But still, I learnt something, and I assimilated some further concepts about languages in general (of South-East Asia as well). Overall, my psychological understanding and linguistic competences improved, no matter the almost nonexistent skills that I acquired regarding Vietnamese. After that, and as last step so far, I wanted to learn French: I optimized my time during the first year of the Covid pandemic (which I spent stuck at home), and when I had the change, I left for France, where I still am a volunteer for the European Solidarity Corps in the cooperative “Initiative et Développement Citoyen”. You remember that I started by saying that in 2016 I couldn’t even speak English. Well, after these years, and the experience that I lived abroad, now I understand and can communicate with many different languages. Am I perfect with all of them? No. Will I ever be perfect? I am not sure of that, maybe I will never be. Does that stop me? Absolutely not. So, why should it stop you?
The first point of my story you should focus on is the following: as life itself, learning a language, as well as traveling abroad with the idea of improving your skills (any kind of skill), is not an exact science, but if you take it with the right approach, it can become the best journey of your life.
There is also one second main concept. As I anticipated above, this world offers you so many different possibilities of traveling while learning a new language, regardless of what you want to do in life or your initial language skills. So, there’s no point in being scared of not being successful because of your competences, or fearing of going abroad without a level high enough to be ready for what awaits you.
International Mobility is a wide definition, yes, but that’s only because it literally offers you everything for being successful in your journey. Periods of studying, internships, working opportunities, volunteering experiences… Whatever you want to learn a language for, there are already many perfect opportunities waiting for you. The only thing that you have to do is to find one, apply for it, leave all your fears behind and take that chance. Also, there are plenty of them depending on your present level: you can find some for beginners, some others if you already have a good level and you want to improve. Furthermore, many of these projects simultaneously offer fellowships, grants or financial support to help you while being abroad. One example, the European Solidarity Corps offers accommodation, food and a monthly pocket money. Thanks to these aids, you can live your period abroad focusing on your project, on the language that you are there to learn for, and on living one of the best moments of your life.
I hope that this article was helpful for you, and that you could find answers to all your technical questions and personal doubts. Now, it is me, asking you something: what are you waiting for? The world is out there and is waiting for you. Go grab it.