Interested in learning another language? It’s a good goal and there are many tools available online and otherwise to help. But for the efforts to stick, it takes more than memorizing how to conjugate verbs.
Luckily, there are steps you can take to make your new language skills last.
Figure out your motivation
To learn a language, you will need to be motivated. The type of motivation matters, though — it is not enough, for example, to want to learn a language to get a good grade.
“Internal motivation is learning a language for reasons like having a family member who uses that language or just plain enjoying it,” said Jeanne Heil, assistant professor in the department of linguistics at the University of Southern Maine. “The research generally shows that internal motivation correlates with long-term success.”
Heil suggested using your existing interests to get more exposure to the language. If you like hiking, for example, Heil suggested joining a hiking group on social media from another country where the language you are learning is spoken.
“Even if you only incidentally see their posts from time to time, you’d learn vocabulary about something that interests you and that you have experience with,” Heil said. “Maybe you’d gain a long-distance friend that uses that language, and you’d have something to talk about already.”
Learn in context
Learning vocabulary and grammar in another language is much easier and more effective if it is done in a context that is relatable to your own life.
Heil said to imagine two students, learning vocabulary words through flashcards. One makes traditional flashcards, with the word in their native language on one side and the same word translated in the new language on the other. The second student, though, includes a short sentence that pertains to their lives using the vocabulary words in both languages on each side.
“The second student is more likely to remember the phrase because it’s linked in some way to their experience, and on top of it, the student can generate similar sentences using the same grammar,” Heil said.
Once you have the basics down, Brian Boyd, director of the Acadia Center for English Immersion in Camden, advised reading articles in the language instead of learning a long list of vocabulary words.
“Take it really slow,” Boyd said. “Don’t be too daunted by the very beginning. Most newspaper articles start with a hook, often the first paragraph is the context. Once you get the general sense, look up words.”
Make sure you start with simple, though.
“You want to learn the most common phrases and words first — that’s why, in choosing reading matter, you want to be careful,” Boyd said. “If you’re learning English, you don’t start with Shakespeare.”
Listen to the language
Hearing how the language is spoken by a native speaker is important to retaining it.
For beginners, apps and programs are helpful for this. Heil has first hand experience using apps to learn Korean. Apps like Duolingo and Memrise will help build vocabulary, she said, while programs like Rosetta Stone, Busuu and Lirica are better for grammar.
As you advance, Boyd said to consider listening to podcasts or radio shows in the language. He said that there are even shows and resources available at different levels of language learning.
Mix it up
If you want to learn a language effectively, keep your studies diverse, both in your sources for reading and listening as well as the programs that you use.
“If you’re building vocabulary, [Duolingo] is great, but building vocabulary isn’t enough,” Heil said. “Programs like Rosetta Stone don’t give you enough variety of vocabulary, so they’re not enough on their own.”
If you are watching a telenovela to hear how Spanish is spoken, for example, use subtitles in the language as well so you can see how the words look in context.
“If you’re an absolute beginner [and] you start watching a telenovela, you’re going to be at sea at first,” Boyd said. “Find written captions — that helps, too because you can go back and forth between the two.”
Written materials also need to be supplemented.
“There’s no way to divorce pronunciation from the written form,” Boyd said. “Most languages aren’t phonetic. Even [with] ones that are, like Spanish, you can’t apply American pronunciation rules to Spanish. You have to learn the Spanish sound system from the beginning.”
Build a regular practice
With languages — as with most things in life — practice makes perfect.
“I think it’s like most things where it requires a gradual scale and there’s always more to learn,” Boyd said.
Boyd said to start small.
“Human psychology adapts best to regular practice [by] starting off in very small chunks,” Boyd said. “Even if it’s just 15 minutes a day, start off with a really low target, then it forms an enjoyable habit.”
If you want to retain information from your daily language practice, make sure you are taking notes.
“You process it at a whole different level if you receive the information, take notes on it and then refer back to your notes, it is much more effective than referring back to the original text,” Boyd said.
You can take notes however is most effective for you, but science shows that written notes are probably better for memory retention. For example, a 2014 study from Princeton University and the University of California Los Angeles showed that in both laboratory and real-world settings, students learn better when they take notes by hand than when they type on a keyboard.
When you are taking notes, Boyd said to remember to include the context.
“Write down the entire sentence or phrase in which the word appeared and look for other examples, too,” Boyd said.
Avoid translating word-for-word
When you are learning a new language, you want to be extra careful not to consciously translate English sentences in the language you are learning.
“You want to avoid translation for two reasons: it doesn’t stick, and except for the most basic words, the meaning of words isn’t translated one for one between languages,” Boyd said.
Both Boyd and Heil suggested learning phrases as opposed to individual worlds.
“Language learners need to get past viewing their second language as English in wolf’s clothing and instead realize that it’s got its own internal logic that has some things in common with English and some things that aren’t,” Heil said. “Learning it at the phrasal level functions like a language hack because it helps your brain view the language as psychologically real and treat it that way.”
Speak (virtually) with a native speaker
It is important to converse with a native speaker specifically if you want to truly grasp the nuances of a language. If you are looking for a teacher, he said to look for one that is a native speaker as opposed to one that is simply fluent.
“It’s really important to have a teacher who is both a native speaker and experienced as a teacher,” Boyd said. “The teacher’s role is to help you see all the small differences between how the student is saying something and how the native speaker would say the same thing.”
There are many forums on which you can find native speakers and conduct a language exchange.
“English is the most sought after language in the world,” Boyd said. “If you’re a native English-language speaker you have something you can trade people for.”
Utilizing social media is a good way to be less isolated in your language learning, too.
“In addition to following people on social media, there are a lot of virtual events going on during the pandemic that you could join like cooking classes and livestream stage performances,” Heil said.
There are also local resources available. Boyd advised checking Maine-based resources and publications like Amjambo Africa — where his wife Kit Harrison is editor-in-chief — for local conversation partners.
“Through that newspaper, I know of many people who are native speakers of French [or] Portuguese who might be available to be conversation partners, even if not on the level of teaching necessarily,” Boyd said.
Check local schools and universities, too.
“[University of Southern Maine], for example, has Zoom language tables open to both our students and the community during the semester, and I wouldn’t be surprised if other campuses do the same,” Heil said. “Shop around because there’s likely a good fit somewhere.”
Plan a trip
Planning a trip to a place where the language you are learning is spoken will serve as motivation — not only for an adventure after the pandemic has subsided, but to truly put your new language skills to the test.
“Eventually when you get the point when you’re able to travel again, your whole experience is part of the context,” Boyd said. “Planning for the future in an optimistic way, looking for opportunities.”
Learning a language can be tricky — especially during a pandemic — but if you can make it stick, the result is immensely rewarding.
“When you’re actually using the language that you’re learning with native speakers there’s a real thrill to that, and a real appreciation on the other side, too,” Boyd said. “[It’s] a great way to connect to people around the world.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the name of Amjambo Africa.
Correction: A previous version of this story read University of New England. Heil was referring to programs at the University of Southern Maine.