How to Study Foreign Languages

This is a sequel to a post I wrote recently, entitled “Why Study Foreign Languages?” in which I explained why it is necessary to learn foreign languages in today’s world.  Now we will look at how to study foreign languages and examine some of the related mechanics.  I taught French (language and literature) for many years before becoming a full-time school administrator and I have a working knowledge of Spanish.  I have also lived and studied in France.

Learning a foreign language is not easy.  It calls for motivation, serious commitment and daily practice with the target language if you intend to reach an acceptable level of conversational fluency in a reasonable time.  Individual learning styles vary, so you must find the style(s) and methods that work best for you.  What works for one person may not work well for another.

Your purpose for learning the foreign language is very important.  This will determine which second language you choose to learn and how you approach that challenge.  Your strategy and linguistic focus will be different depending on whether you are, for instance, a student preparing for some kind of proficiency test in the target language, a traveller  preparing to spend some time in a foreign country and who needs basic language skills enabling her to get by on a daily basis, asking for directions, shopping, ordering food, and so on, or a businessman who needs to interact with foreign counterparts.

Depending on your purpose and your situation you have to establish personal language goals and methods of study.  Perhaps you just want to achieve basic conversational fluency in a year or so, or perhaps you would like to attain near native fluency in a few years.   You can enrol at an institution that offers foreign languages, you can hire a private tutor, take online or traditional language courses, teach yourself or live for a while in a country where your second language is spoken.  There are other possibilities as well.  However, I want to stress that, no matter which method of study you choose, you will have to do a lot of the learning on your own.  This is a basic fact in the study of foreign languages.  You have to memorize grammar, vocabulary, phrases, and language patterns.  Nobody can do that for you.

There are four skills that one must master in every language: namely, listening, speaking, reading and writing.  Little children learn language skills in that order.  These four skills must be practised diligently in order to enhance progress.  You need to listen to native speakers and fluent learners on a regular basis.  Listen to your teachers and radio and T.V. presentations in the foreign language.  Go online, watch video clips, movies, listen to audio recordings and music.  At first you will not understand much, but your ears will become attuned to the sound of the foreign language.  Try to get the gist of the stories.  If you persevere you will gradually understand more and more.  Speak the language with native speakers or advanced learners whenever you can.  Learn standard pronunciation.  Practice is vital.  Read books, magazines, stories and newspapers in the target language.  Not just your course materials.  Go online and surf the internet in your second or third language.   Your understanding will improve as you increase your vocabulary.  Get accustomed to writing in the foreign language.  This will improve your grammar and vocabulary if you pay close attention to the subsequent corrections.  Correspond via e-mail with a native speaker in your age group or join a relevant foreign language club or association.

Opinions vary, but I share the view that you can achieve basic conversational fluency by learning the most commonly used 3000 words in most languages.  If you increase your active vocabulary to somewhere between 5000 and 9,000 words you would approach the fluency of native speakers.  Of course this would take time and dedication.

There are different views on how vocabulary should be learned.  Many linguists recommend repetition of each foreign word to be memorized and the corresponding English word.  Others devise mnemonics or memory techniques to link each foreign word to the corresponding English word.  I generally prefer repetition.  It is best to learn vocabulary in context rather than in random or unrelated lists.  Recall is easier in context.  So you can learn vocabulary (nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, etc.) relative to shopping, sports, school, daily routines, city life, country life, jobs, and so on, more easily by keeping the words in context.  Dictionaries, flash  cards, grammar books, phrase books, note books, and electronic translators are extremely useful language learning tools.

Learning grammar enables you to understand and construct sentences better in your second language.  One of the best ways to learn grammar is to pick it up in a reading context.  Read and translate paragraph sized sections of text in the foreign language, paying close attention to the grammar.  Learn the most common regular and irregular verbs in the present, past and future tenses as well.

A foreign language should not be seen as a subject.  It is a vibrant, living means of communication used by millions of people every day.  You must practise it daily.  Challenge yourself! Talk to yourself in the foreign language sometimes when you are alone.  Talk about what you read, saw or heard, for instance.  Then write it.  You will make mistakes but eventually you will correct them.  Nobody speaks a language perfectly, so take heart.  Finally, steep yourself in the culture of the people who speak your second language.  You will eventually be able to think, to some extent, in the foreign language you study.


4 thoughts on “How to Study Foreign Languages

  1. This is helpful. As we are learning Spanish (our entire family), we are trying to use it casually, even if all we really know are a few dozen vocabulary words. Like the other night when I was reading the Bible to my son at bedtime, I would slip in some Spanish words that I knew.


  2. Great article! What I learned from studying French is that you need basic vocabulary to start speaking, and until we mastered like basic things like you mentioned, grammar, vocabulary, phrases, we really don’t understand or able to use it effectively. Awesome!


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