In the chapter I submitted to syzygycc‘s Polyglot Project book, I mentioned that there are three basic concepts involved in language learning. These are:
Finding time is easy. Despite what you hear, and despite most of us having full time day jobs or college to attend, everyone has time to learn a language. I think this issue has developed from adults who no longer actively spend time learning a language or, perhaps more precisely, haven’t done so since they were very young, but can remember their own personal experiences with language classes at school: three hours spent copying verb conjugations the night before their final exam. The truth is that you can get by (and I have, touch wood, got by) on about 15-30 minutes per night studying. This can involve sitting at a desk reading through grammar rules, or it can involve a 20 minute train journey with a language course on your iPod. It isn’t worth studying for more than half an hour as, after a hard day’s work, your brain will tire. Of course, if you don’t have 15 minutes in your day to set aside for language learning, you’re clearly overworked, and should seek another job!
Motivation next. Language courses tell you that you need oodles of this. That said, motivation cannot be “turned on”. There are some days where you’ll want to take a break from language learning, and others where you’re desperate to reach fluency before 8pm. Some days, you will feel unmotivated, but will “push” yourself to learn, but find yourself frustrated and increasingly bored.
The third and final concept is obsession. This shouldn’t be confused with motivation. Obsession is a long term phenomena – while motivation and demotivation bubbles along at regular intervals, you should always maintain an obsession towards learning your target language(s) as much as you can. While I agree that, particularly if you are learning a language not spoken in the country you currently reside in, you will be “forever intermediate” (as Fluent Czech has called it), the language should remain exciting. Here are some ways that I have fed my obsession.
The first approach is to map your language around your existing hobbies. It’s all very well knowing a second language but, if you’ve got nothing to apply it to, then it becomes a very lonely and frustrating pursuit. In my case, I admit to being a big football (or “soccer” for those of you over the pond!). I enjoy watching it on the TV or at a stadium, playing it once in a while, keeping up with the latest news and so on. So, I began to read Danish football websites, and listen to the sports news on Danish radio stations. During the recent World Cup, I even listened to the commentary for some games in Danish. I’ve also purchased one or two books and films about the history of Danish football. As a result, I’ve been able to apply my knowledge to a particular hobby. So, if you’re a fan of (say) photography and you’re learning Spanish, why not visit a Spanish photography website, or join a Mexican online amateur photographers’ group? If you’re learning Japanese and you like golf, why not read a few Japanese golf websites? Even if you’re at the early stages of learning a language, such resources can act as useful “milestones” – i.e. while you may not understand a full article at the moment, you may do so in six months time.
The second approach is to throw away your textbooks. That sounds a bit extreme but, once you’ve got beyond the beginner stage, there are very few learning resources out there that are helpful and interesting at the same time. Some resources I’ve found useful are books (both audio and hard copy) and DVDs. In both cases, I try to find those that are not “language” books or films as such, but are aimed at native speakers of your target language. This is absolutely essential for films, as you can begin to perceive how “real” Danish/German/Italian people speak, rather than the slow droll presented on language CDs. You also learn local idioms, humour, swear words (yes, you really should know these, even if you don’t intend to use them!), and various other aspects of communication that are not covered in traditional textbooks. Plus, you might even enjoy the film!
Thirdly, and I know this can be difficult (and assuming you are a “home learner”), but you should make an effort to visit the country in which your target language is spoken at least once a year and, preferably, twice a year. You don’t need to be fluent in the language but, in the 5-6 times I’ve visited Denmark in the past few years, I’ve found it’s a fantastic way of “embedding” yourself in it. You hear the language in the street, you see it on street signs and billboards, you can switch on the TV in your hotel and watch the news, and (if you’re feeling super-confident) you can even try it out on shopkeepers and hotel staff. When I first visited the country back in 2004, I didn’t speak a word of Danish. I found it quite intimidating, and I hated venturing outside of the tourist areas. Several visits later, and through personal study, I found I could almost fully understand everybody around me, almost as if it was my “own” language, even though I admit to still having reservations about using the language in an environment where most people speak English. Of course, I understand this can be difficult if you are, for example, an Australian student learning Finnish, where the costs of travelling are likely to be more than you can meet. However, you will never fully experience a language using a pair of headphones and a couple of CDs.
My final tip for just now is to use YouTube. I’ve been watching YouTube clips for several years now, almost since the day it started, but have only recently realised its potential as a language resource. There is a strong community of polyglots and others interested in language learning out there – even if you’re not learning or intending to learn the languages they speak, they offer fantastic advice and are, in the main, very friendly. I find that I am motivated after spending fifteen minutes or so watching YouTube videos. If you can, open up your own channel as I have.
So that’s about it for just now. If I think of anything else, I’ll create a second blog posting!