The path to true mastery of a foreign language

Learning a language is a massive undertaking and knowing where to start and how to progress can be incredibly difficult.

Also, how do you know how good your knowledge and facility with the new language is? What are the metrics?

These questions form the basis of an effective strategy for learning a foreign language and can be the start of a productive and rewarding experience.

However, the task is to stay on track and not feel like you’re not making progress. Continual improvement requires patience but you should also be mindful of the traps and pitfalls.

Trap #1: Collecting too many resources

I think one of the biggest challenges is finding the right content. After learning two languages to varying degrees (my French is very much still in progress) I can now, with the benefit of hindsight, see what I was doing wrong.

I wanted everything — every book, course and piece of content I could get my hands on. This, I believe, is the wrong way to go about learning a language.

For starters, it’s a strategy that is very much like consumerism — accumulation without necessarily deriving benefits from the acquisitions. Every piece of content, be that book or course, should be useful and studied to the point where it is fully comprehensible.

Don’t just grab everything. One or two really reliable sources up front is a good starting point. Once you’ve mastered these sources then move on and find new mountains to conquer.

Too many resources is one way to get confused and create overwhelm. Having laser-like focus on a few resources will serve you very well, in part because of the repetition factor. Think of how you learned your mother tongue. Words, phrases, intonation and word stress all sunk into your brain through constant exposure and repetition from our environment. 

Repetition is important, so finding a good resource to learn from is vital.

The resource(s) you choose should be suitable for your level but gradually allows you to increase vocabulary and recognition of the structure and sounds of the new language.

Output (writing and speaking) are not the focus in the early stage. Completely saturate your brain with the new language. Start to see the connections and repeat these learnings through a schedule of reinforcement.

Some resources have this repetition element built in. Glossika works on the basis of saturation of a large amount of sentences, almost as if you were growing up in the culture of the language you’re learning.

Trap #2: Focusing too much on grammar too soon

Glossika resources make a great analogy: To climb the mountain that is fluency in your target language you need to to rise above the forest that is the grammar. Getting stuck in the forest will only serve to keep you stuck and worrying too much about whether you’re getting everything right.

This is a bad place to be. You will make mistakes and this is actually the process of learning. Trying to be perfect will keep you stuck — you’ll be too afraid to converse for fear you get something wrong (and that people will laugh at you). This fear is understandable but it’s what Professor Carol Dweck calls the fixed mindset. Instead, take the growth mindset and realise that getting bogged down in the detail too soon is hurting your progress (and likely a justification for not willing to try speaking the language for fear of failure).

Is grammar important? Yes, but it will likely hinder your progress if you begin to obsess on the details to soon.

Remember this: The language should be fun, especially early on. Start from a position of enjoyment and begin speaking as early as possible. Do that and you’ll develop a foundation of language understanding and reinforcement that will serve you well as you progress.

Input and output

I always thought the aphorism “you have two ears, two eyes and one mouth for a reason” was irritating. It is a bit lame but is totally valuable advice for language learners in my opinion.

For the most part, be sure to take in the new language often then test your output in speaking and writing. I’m a big fan of the “more input is good” approach, as long as it is done in a progressive way and you’re listening and reading texts relevant to your current level.

Once you really understand the texts/audio, move on and conquer the next level and beyond. Repetition of these basic materials is vital for your progress. Learn and reinforce the language like a native would when learning as a child.

The benefit you have as an adult is that you can make the connection between words and objects/concepts much faster than a child can.

TOP TIP: Build up a log of new words and structures. I like to use a Google Spreadsheet for this. Any new words I find I write them into the spreadsheet with sheets for different things (expressions, common constructions, everyday nouns, emotions…) This way you can go back and revise new words and constructions, which you can then use in your writing and speaking.

Keeping score

Track your progress both in terms of inputs and outputs. Keep track of the reps you’re doing with your material. Repetition pays dividends and tracking this will give you a real boost in confidence.

Tracking outputs is tougher but it could be as simple as writing 20 sentences a day and/or tracking conversations. The latter is harder to quantify because to me speaking is the outcome of learning not necessarily a quantifiable metric.

In short

Live as if the language is part of your daily reality. Do whatever you can to get the target language in front of your eyes and ears often and reinforce everything you learn through repetition.

Don’t be concerned too much with all the resources you’ll need. Just get started on something that suits your level and absolutely own it! Make it a part of your being.

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2 responses to “The path to true mastery of a foreign language

  1. Great advice! I especially like what you said about having a little more input than output. I’m an assistant English teacher in Spain and I often tell my students to try and immerse themselves in the language as much as possible, and that they’ll be surprised how much it can help them. Plus with Netflix and Youtube it’s so easy to watch and listen to content in multiple languages.

    • viewfromreality

      Excellent point — Netflix is great but I find YouTube to be better thanks to a diverse range of content and shorter videos. If anyone reading this wants a good place on YouTube to learn languages, especially the way they’re spoken every day, I recommend visiting the Easy Languages channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/magauchsein

      It consists of really polished videos where guys and gals wander the streets of their country asking questions of passersby.

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