What is the best way to learn another language?
Welcome, aspiring polyglot! After last weeks discussion on immersion language learning, it is important to remember that immersion is not the only way and certainly not complete immersion. As many of you who have been here for a few months know, there comes a time when the apps and the children's books no longer feel like enough. Due to the fact that we have already discussed the best ways to read, you can find that here:
This week we will take a look at the most powerful ways to learn through listening. Small strategies you can implement immediately to enhance your listening practice, even when it is the last thing you want to do. Listening is an essential piece of language acquisition and most language learning programs have set dialogues for you to listen to and practice. If that isn't your preference, there are some other ways to go about getting your listening practice in day to day.
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How We Learned Language as Children
The first strategy to consider is starting from the beginning. While this is likely unhelpful to people who have been practicing their target language for a couple months already, it is phenomenal for new people, and a strong foundation is vital to successful language acquisition. When you are getting started, act like it.
What I mean by that is, start small. You didn't start your native language with perfect pronunciation and complete comprehension of every word in the language. It is unreasonable to expect that to be your starting point with a new language. For those who love to read, children's books are the best way and most of them are available with the audio to read along.
Beyond that, children's lullabies are perfect. People sing lullabies to their children not only to put them to sleep, but to give them exposure to the language as well. If you need help tracking down resources for this, let me know and I will be happy to help.
It will seem repetitive, but it is going to take you longer to retain something you aren't writing down than it would take a child. Listen to things you understand, even if it feels like you are wasting your time. There will be an endless amount of time to listen to things you don't understand later down the line. If you can build your foundational language knowledge to a place where you can recognize patterns or context clues in speech you will be ahead of the rest. Do not underestimate the power of a strong foundation.
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1. Make New Friends
Once you've laid the foundation and ensured it is fortified, it is time to step outside your bubble and try talking to people. At the end of the day, most of the recordings you will listen to while you learn a new language are going to the 3rd or 4th or 5th attempt that the orator made at saving that recording. This means they will have already listened through to ensure fluidity, tempo, pronunciation, annunciation, and grammatical congruity. Unfortunately for the aspiring language learner, this means that they will be hearing speech that they will likely never come across in the real world.
The best way to mitigate this is to get out and speak to people, irrespective of how broken you feel your language is. If you are able to track down other people who are learning the language you are attempting to learn, then it is probably best to start there. For help with that you can join our Discord and ask if anyone else is learning the language you are learning. If you can't find anyone who is also learning your target language, there are other options.
Look up local restaurants or supermarkets where it is likely that your target language is spoken. There are no guarantees, but if you are learning Spanish and you show up at Rosa's Carniceria, there is a high likelihood that you will be able to practice your Spanish there. What's more is the people working there, provided they aren't super busy, are probably more than happy to speak with you and even help you practice.
As Billy Mays would have said, "but wait, there's more!" when you are going to these places, check out the stuff they have, you might just be introduced to a whole new culinary world as well. If you are learning Spanish and you enjoy working in the kitchen, check out the Spanish Resource Newsletter we started!
2. Listen for Specific Language Features
Now that you've laid a foundation and found some friends with whom you can practice and train your target language, it is time to think about efficiency. Learning a language is unique in that, once you learn it, you really don't have to keep studying it. Yes, you will need to use it to maintain your ability, but you won't need to go out of your way to study it exclusively. For this reason, efficient learning is something worth taking into consideration along every step of the way.
Start with pattern recognition. I've discussed pattern recognition at length, you can read more on that here:
Beyond that, however, here are some tips specific to the development of language skills through listening at the beginning:
3. Listen for common words
Something you will notice the more you pay attention to the words people use on a day to day basis is that, generally speaking, there is not much variety. Yes, the topics will vary, but the words that go into discussing that topic are probably a 50% overlap with any other topic. New language learners can benefit from this simply by paying attention to what these words are.
Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, the words that are most often spoken are likely different that the words that are most often written. Many languages have grammar rules specific to writing that do not affect how the language is spoken. While learning these is important, it is less important that learning how things are said and ordered when spoken.
There will be ample time to train for writing perfect grammar later down the line, focus your energy on understanding spoken word from different orators when getting started, or even a few months into learning. If you can nail down the words you understand in a given sentence, that frees you up to learn new words and focus on words you're having trouble understanding.
4. Listen for words you have trouble understanding
As uncomfortable as it may be, most of the time the best thing you can do is ask for help. If someone you're speaking to says something you don't understand, ask them to clarify. You will likely learn even more simply through their explanation. Not only that, but it gives them the feeling of being needed and helpful which is a great way to develop a bond. Most people will be more than happy to give you a little extra help if you are willing to ask for it.
That said, if you are not speaking to a person and are listening to something, it is worthwhile to find and keep the transcript or at least have the closed captions going. While subtitles are very rarely accurate or perfect, they will give you a place to start. Looking up words you are having trouble understanding will allow you to get out of that hole faster than waiting for them to simply make sense.
In any new language there are bound to be countless things you don't understand, so by paying attention to and writing those things down, you can facilitate your advancement towards understanding full sentences without understanding every word.
5. Listen for context clues
Context clues are vital for advancement when language learning. Native speakers often rely on context clues to ascertain the meaning of different words in a given sentence. Training this skill while you are still learning will allow you to have a leg up when it comes time to use it during a full conversation.
Oftentimes, simply by knowing what half of the words mean and how they relate, you can surmise the meaning of a sentence without ever knowing all of the words in it. Personally, I don't think I could understand every word in a sentence until several months after I had already begun speaking with native speakers every day.
While context clues are easier to handle when reading, they are always present during conversation as well and the sooner you are able to detect and effectively use them, the sooner you'll be able to have fluid conversations, even if you are missing out on 30% of the words that are spoken. That 30%, though, is why this is so important. It is far easier to work your way through 30% of a sentence that is unknown than 80-100% of a sentence that is unknown. Understanding context clues allow you to really zero in on the areas where you have an opportunity to improve.
6. Before and after rule (Bonus!)
One of the methods that you can use when you teach yourself a language is the before and after rule. This is almost impossible to do during conversation, as it requires lots of time to slow down and think, but it is a powerful strategy in the right circumstances. The before and after rule is essentially this, write down what words come before and after the last word you understood in the sentence and how they relate to that word. It may not be fun and it requires active participation, but it is a powerful strategy directly related to building your vocabulary and many language courses miss this.
All aspiring language learners are going to face uncertainty, especially when they start listening or begin listening to something more technical. Using this strategy you can shorten the amount of time you spend struggling to understand what people are saying. This, in turn, means you will be able to speak sooner and with more confidence than if you spend all of your time trying to listen to the same recorded conversation over and over again.
Listening is an essential part of language acquisition and there is no way around it. By constantly pushing the envelope and honing your language skills you will be able to more efficiently overcome this obstacle and get to a point where listening to your target language requires little to no effort. So go out and make friends, listen to native speakers have conversations and try to participate in them, learn to recognize context clues, and always pay attention to the words you don't understand and how they relate to what is being said. It will take time, but these strategies should make things move quicker.
Learning a language is no easy feat, it will be difficult irrespective of how you approach it. But you can do difficult things and be great, so continue to do difficult things and be great. I will be here by your side endeavoring to do the same.
Be sure to check out Second Language Strategies to catch up on anything you missed, find me on Twitter or Instagram for some short form content. If you are struggling to get speaking in your target language, join our Discord! I look forward to seeing everyone’s progress in the months and years to come.