Learning another language (be it your second or seventh) can be very rewarding. Personally, I am learning Mandarin Chinese so that I can better communicate with my in-laws and be able to speak fluently whenever I might visit Taiwan. Although these reasons do keep me motivated to learn Chinese at the quick rate that I am; I am sure that even if I had no need to learn Chinese, I would continue on in my endeavors for the simple reason that I truly enjoy it. A whole new world has opened up to me as I have stretched and disciplined myself, making all the long hours, struggles, and occasional frustrations completely worth it. Over the past year that I have seriously been working to learn Mandarin, I have figured out different tactics that have made my language learning journey easier, more successful and enjoyable.
1. Study every day
I know this can seem very daunting and you might think that you do not have the time to commit to daily studying. However, if you are serious about wanting to learn a new language, you will not master it without committing to spending the required time and effort. This is not to say that you have to spend hours on end devoted to studying, but try setting apart at least twenty minutes a day (at least five days a week) seriously focused on learning your new language. You will be surprised at how much you will learn. It might seem like a chore at first, but I encourage you to discipline yourself everyday, and soon you will find that your study time will simply become a habit and part of your daily routine. Programs such as Rosetta Stone are a great way to study daily. There are also plenty of YouTube channels that people post language teaching videos on.
2. Make learning vocabulary fun
I remember learning my Spanish vocabulary back in high school. It was not fun and I found that as soon as my vocabulary tests were over, at least half of the vocabulary was quickly forgotten. Many of you probably have similar experiences. So, rather than sitting down and forcing yourself to stare at the vocabulary words in an effort to get them memorized, I suggest making the process more interesting. One of the great things about technology is that there are now all kinds of games and apps on electronic devices that can aid in learning your vocabulary without you feeling like its a chore. To help reinforce my vocabulary words, I have taken to putting sticky notes with my vocabulary words around my house. Seeing objects around my house labeled with their Chinese name for weeks has helped me remember them even after I have removed the post-its. Another trick I have picked up is to write ten vocabulary words on my shower wall with a white-board marker. I aim to have all these ten words learned within a week or two and then replace them with new words. While many people think or problem solve while showering, I choose to spend the time learning more vocabulary.
3. Practice listening
One of the mistakes I made in the beginning was that I didn't spend time simply listening to the language I was trying to learn. Sure, I heard Chinese while in my Chinese class and when looking up videos on YouTube, but I wasn't actually training my ears to really listen. I was quickly frustrated and disappointed when I found that I didn't understand my in-laws when they were talking to me despite my husband's assurances that they were speaking only words that I already knew. The truth is, in real life situations, with normal conversations, people don't speak slowly and articulately the way a language teacher or program does. If you aren't careful to take time to really practice listening to natural speech of your chosen, you may find that you are able to speak a lot more that you are able to listen and understand. The solution to this is quite simple really. With the availability of the internet it is quite easy to find music, radio stations, television shows, and movies in your chosen language. Spending at least a couple of hours a week watching a show or listening to music in your language will make a huge difference in your ability to listen and understand your language at the speed that is naturally spoken.
4. Don't be scared to speak
Every language learner knows the importance of actually practicing to speak, yet despite this knowledge, many often still feel hesitant to actually do so. I know that the root of this hesitance is the fear of making a mistake and embarrassing oneself. However, without making those mistakes, you won't learn from them. Another insecurity is the fear of being laughed at by native speakers of your chosen language. I myself used to be insecure talking to my parents-in-law because they would often laugh while I was speaking. I thought that they were laughing at me and for a while I avoided speaking Chinese to them. Later I learned that they were not making fun of me, but were laughing in delight at the fact that I was speaking with them in their language despite my mistakes and funny American accent. Later I also thought about the fact that I do not make fun of or judge my foreign friends for mistakes they make in speaking English. When I correct them, I am not judging their incompetence, but rather am simply trying to teach them and help them improve. I choose to believe these are the same motives of people who correct my Chinese when I make mistakes while speaking and am grateful for the assistance. If you are still nervous about speaking to a stranger off the streets or friends you may know who speak your chosen language, there are websites that offer plenty of opportunities for you to practice in a safe and non-judging setting. One such website that I use is italki.com, where I speak with native Chinese speakers who help me improve my speech and in return they practice speaking English with me. Its not as intimidating to practice speaking when the person you are speaking to is also trying to learn a new language and is understanding and sensitive to the insecurities.
5. Learn the culture
Sometimes learning a new language can be even more difficult because not only are the words strange, but the meaning and translation of the expressions just seem so foreign to us. It is important to understand that culture influences languages. Spending time to learn the culture of your chosen language can help you remember how to say certain things because you will understand why they are said the way they are. It will also help you in knowing how to appropriately speak in different situations. There is a time and a place for informal speech and a time and place for formal speech. Understanding the difference and knowing when to apply that understanding will make you well-versed in your new language and will help avoid any misunderstandings or offense that might otherwise be caused while you are speaking with a native speaker.
Learning a new language is a very rewarding endeavor that I think is important for everyone. Even if you do not have a known need to learn a specific language, being multilingual will provide more opportunities for work and travel, broaden your world view, andteach you discipline. And who knows, you may just find yourself in places and making friends with people that you may have never dreamed of before.