As with other areas of learning, mastering a new language is a breeze for some people and a rough journey for others. The reason for this is usually attributed to how tasking it is on the brain to form the new cognitive connections required to assimilate a foreign language. Some people quickly start rattling off sentences correctly while for others, stringing two words neatly is a lot of work.
It’s easy to blame it all on the brain, but in reality, learning methods account for a much greater percentage of how quickly and nicely a person picks up a new language.
Getting the drift
Most educational systems would often include foreign languages as compulsory subjects from elementary school to high school, and even up to tertiary levels. However, a lot of people would never get past beginner level on these languages based on classroom learning. It’s relatively easy to offer up the meaning of certain words when asked, construct common sentences, but engage them in fluent conversation and everything goes downhill.
“As adults or children at school, we have been trained to learn a second language by reading the new words and repeating the pronunciation, gradually bundling the new words into phrases and sentences,” says Mary Tse, a professional tutor of English as a foreign language and linguistic expert. “This method is good when our emphasis is on the vocabulary of the target language. But once we need to speak, we become incompetent, worried about making mistakes, and often don’t know what to talk about.”
The most effective means of learning a new language is to constantly expose oneself to natural speech in that language. This is how infants can pick up local tongues without ever having to sit in a classroom.
“We were all born as babies who didn’t know how to speak any languages at all,” Tse affirms. “So, how did we learn our Mother Tongues? Babies are usually surrounded by their families and caretakers. These adults commonly interact with the babies and speak to them. The babies keep listening to these words, phrases, and sentences repeatedly and as they grow older, they begin to imitate those sounds adults make.”
How to enjoy the language-learning process
With over ten years of experience tutoring the English language, Tse is the founder and CEO of Fluency Flows, an online English-coaching platform and learning academy. Born and raised in Hong Kong where she still lives, Tse picked up Cantonese as a first language. Today, she’s a quadrilingual speaker fluent in her native tongue, English, Japanese, and Mandarin.
As Tse explains, the most important step to learning a new language is shifting your mindset from “this is impossible” to “I’m going to enjoy this”. As a 13-year-old immigrant to England with no prior exposure to English, switching up her mindset greatly reduced the fear and anxiety of making embarrassing mistakes while speaking.
“To discover the most effective way to learn, understand and build upon your mindset —you need to identify common inhibitors holding you back,” says Tse, a Post Graduate Diploma in ‘Teaching English as a Foreign Language’ from Brighton University, England. “A language spans beyond simply the words in which you speak. Sometimes, you don’t need to have a massive vocabulary. Even if you forget certain words, you can use drawings, expressions, mime, or use your hands to express what you want to say. It’s all part of the process, and once you start to improve, things will begin to go very quickly. Before long, you’ll begin to think, dream, and talk in the foreign language of your choosing. And when you do, your subconscious will work on your language skills both day and night.”
Next, you need to start listening. Have you ever wondered why you effortlessly remember the lyrics to a song or the lines of a movie you’ve seen several times, even many years after? Repetitive listening enables powerfully strong synapses in the brain for recollection. With language learning, consuming content such as subtitled movies, songs, podcasts, and any auditory recordings in your intended languages is a surefire way of mastering it in due time.
“You need to listen a lot,” Tse recommends. “It doesn’t matter how much you’re taking in. Maybe you have the TV on, or keep listening to a certain song you like in your second language. Eventually, you’ll hear phrases so often that you’ll remember what they are, and you’ll be able to introduce them into your vocabulary. And before long, you’ll reach the stage where you won’t even need subtitles. You might even start to notice it when the translation is wrong.”
Next is to imitate by vocalizing. Listening is only effective if you practice what you’ve heard. Vocalization also allows you to fine-tune the stresses on syllables, inflections and eventually perfect the pronunciations.
“As listening time increases, you can begin to repeat words and phrases, particularly those that are new to you. You will need to find a little time for this practice, but it can just be as little as 5 minutes a day for a word, a phrase, or even a combination of these,” says Tse.
Most people spend a lot of time sifting through language translator apps, but a good learning habit would be to refer to these apps only for quick solutions. Heavily depending on them for learning and constructing full sentences is counter-productive in the long run.
While Tse specializes in teaching English, her methods apply to learning every other foreign language without the usual hassles. She coaches people on the right resources to listen to, helping them with pronunciations, inflections, and ultimately streamlining the learning curve.
Her academy offers a free guide to all foreign language enthusiasts looking to master new tongues without losing productive time.
“Consistency is key,” Tse says in conclusion. “Integrating all of your new skills to make communication effective is difficult, but fluency is a process. The hidden meanings behind words are often where misunderstandings arise, and this can cause miscommunications even between native speakers. However, don’t let this hold you back. Even making mistakes can help you learn.”