10 hints and tips for learning a new language (from my experiences learning German)

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I’ve been in Germany now for almost 10 years (the anniversary is a few weeks away yet) and I recently thought that it might be a good time to reflect on what has been successful for me in developing my German language skills (bearing in mind that I had studied German at school in England). I was brought up with English as my native language, and my comments below, on learning a foreign language might be more relevant to English/Anglo-Saxon people, who grow up speaking one of the most commonly spoken languages.

  1. Recognize where you are in the language ‘life cycle’. Having this awareness can help you choose the right materials to move to the next step, plus also give you confidence that you have achieved something and the next step is not too far ahead (language development is very much about honing your confidence).
  2. Set goals. Set some goals based on how much you desire/need to improve your language skills.  Be SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, timely) about it too. Without goals your progress will be slower, or possibly non-existent! Over the last 10 years, where I have articulated goals (even where I have only written them down in a private journal, for my eyes only) I have clearly benefited from this.
  3. Expect and manage trade-offs. Decide how important the language skills are to you, and make trade-offs elsewhere in your life accordingly, or reduce your language development expectations. Work, family, friends, etc. are typical examples.
  4. Hard work is necessary. Sorry for that – there’s no getting around it (unless you learn the language as a child in a dual-track environment). At least, if you put in the hard work, you will see a return. Sometimes the hard work can be fun too (but it won’t always be – persevere).
  5. Don’t be embarrassed. Confidence is key – the quicker you can get over the “it feels funny/embarrassing” phase the better.  That feeling gets you absolutely nowhere and makes you uncomfortable at the same time. I wonder if this feeling is particularly true to Anglo-Saxons? In any case, be prepared to laugh at yourself, and don’t be sidetracked by anyone who challenges your language skills.
  6. Understand that everyone learns differently. Find out what works for you. What time of day to study, how often, what tools (books, audio, internet, etc.). Don’t worry that some phases of the language ‘life cycle’ take longer for you than for other people. Worrying about them won’t help you progress.
  7. Define your own approach and quality standards. Do you want to get-the-message-across or is accuracy more important to you. The former means focus on vocabulary and accepting that you will make mistakes (don’t worry, in most cases the locals will be grateful that you are making an effort and will be willing to help you). If accuracy is your focus, then you’ll need to spend more time on grammar, and be patient.  There is however a trade-off here that can have life-long implications (it’s like a golf swing – bad habits that you pick up when you learn could take a long time to sort out later!). I have always treated communication as my primary focus, and with that in mind, I know that I still make lots of grammatical errors.
  8. Use the internet. There is a wealth of useful, free support on the internet – take time to search through it, and pick some things to use as regular aids. In particular news websites (eg, newspapers, magazines, TV, radio, etc.), podcasts (audio and video), etc. that are in your target language are all very helpful, and in my view better than many text books since they cover current themes (and therefore teach you relevant vocabulary, as well as some current affairs matters about the country of your language of choice).
  9. Revisit these hints & tips regularly, otherwise you’ll just reach a plateau. It is very easy to settle down into a stage of the language ‘life cycle’ in which you cease to develop (you become comfortable with a certain ability to communicate, understand, etc.) – that’s ok if your comfortable with that, but if you want to continue to grow, you need to re-energize your language targets (see #1 and #2 above).

Certainly, 10 years is a long time. I know that I’ve taken longer to get to where I am now, principally through five cases where I still speak a lot of English: (i) at home our family speaks pretty much only English, (ii) many of my friends are ex-pats, with whom I typically speak English; (ii) I have a lot of contact with foreign clients at work, with whom I speak English, (iv) very easy access to English language materials via the internet, and (v) the Germans have an amazing, persistent desire to speak English with me. I’m comfortable with this, but I still need to think about #10 above.

Viel gluck!

What have you found works well for you, when learning a new language?

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