How to Learn a Foreign Language: 12 Practical Steps and 4 Helpful Pieces of Advice
Most high school and college language courses use a teaching method where students memorize lists of vocabulary and grammar rules. Many students spend little time in true conversation with fluent speakers of the language they are attempting to learn. On the contrary, illiterate immigrants that travel to neighboring countries such as Haitians to the Dominican Republic, are forced into a situation where they spend lots of time in dialogue with native Spanish speakers, and use this method to learn the language. To truly master a foreign language, it is necessary that one utilizes both the formal education method and the informal method. The following are 12 practical steps and guidelines for those who truly want to learn a foreign language, as well as 4 helpful pieces of advice.
1. Review grammar in your native tongue. Refresh your memory as to the following topics:
- pronouns (A pronoun replaces a noun. Examples are I, you, it, and she.)
-nouns (A noun is a person, place, or a thing. Examples are Jimmy, bathroom, and pencil.)
-verbs (A verb is an action word or a state of being word. Examples are think, do, and run.)
-adjectives (An adjective is a word that describes a noun. Examples are pretty and blue.)
-adverbs (An adverb describes a verb. Examples are quickly and deeply.)
-definite articles (the)
-indefinite articles (a, an)
-prepositions (after, at, below, and upon)
2. Learn common phrases.
-How are you?
-I am fine.
-What is your name?
-My name is...
-Where are you from?
-I am from...
-See you later.
-Nice to meet you.
-Yes. No. Maybe.
-What time is it?
-It is … o'clock.
-Please. Thank you. You're welcome.
When you learn a phrase, make sure you learn to write and pronounce the entire phrase, remember its meaning, but also learn each word individually and its meaning. Many phrases do not translate word for word between two languages and learning one simple phrase can lead you to learn several vocabulary words that you will see in other contexts. For example:
English: What is your name?
Spanish: ¿Cómo te llamas?
Cómo = How te = you/yourself (for a basic explanation) llamas = you call
If just the phrase is learned and not the individual words, one may think that “llamas” means “name” which could be confusing later on.
Another example: Someone learning the phrase “Good afternoon” in Spanish should simultaneously learn the following individual words and even words inside of words.
Good afternoon – Buenas tardes. afternoon – tarde (time of day, not “late”)
after – después noon – mediodía
3. Learn to count. Start with 1 – 20.
4. Learn the days of the week and months.
5. Learn colors, (although this could also fall into the adjective category).
6. Learn pronouns.
7. Learn the most useful verbs.
-to be able to
This section demands lots of attention. First learn to conjugate the verbs in present tense. Gain an understanding of how to also conjugate the verbs in past and future tenses. Also learn how to put the verb in the negative form.
-I do not go.
-I do not want.
Focus on really learning the verbs and conjugating them with the pronouns. These phrases make a strong base in the language that you are learning. If you do not know, “conjugate” means to alter a verb so that it agrees with the subject. The verb in it's root form is called an “infinitive”. Here is an example:
Verb in the infinitive form: to be
Conjugate in present tense: I am, You are, Mr. Thomas is.
Conjugate in past tense: I was, You were, Mr. Thomas was.
Conjugate in future tense: I will be, You will be, Mr. Thomas will be.
Conjugate in present negative: I am not, You are not, Mr. Thomas is not.
Many times this step is partially completed and then the student moves onto another step. Students who have taken three years of Spanish may remember several emotions but not understand when someone says, “No puedo”, which means, “I cannot”. Again, these verbs conjugated with the pronouns are the base of the language. One that truly masters these phrases alone will understand much of what is being said when immersed in the foreign language being learned, will feel engaged and successful, and will have a strong framework to build upon. After these ten verbs are mastered, more common verbs should be learned as well, but do not neglect to fully memorize the ten verbs listed above.
8. Learn common nouns along with definite and indefinite articles.
-family nouns: mother, father, sister brother, etc.
-people nouns: man, woman, baby, child, etc.
-nature nouns: rock, sky, rain, water, sun, night, etc.
-body parts: head, leg, arm, back, etc.
-places: school, house, bathroom, street, etc.
-clothes: shirt, pants, shoes, skirt, etc.
-school items: pencil, book, chair, table, etc.
9. Learn the question words.
10. Learn common adjectives. Again, don't make the list too long but build a base to enter you into conversation.
11. Learn common adverbs.
12. Learn common prepositions.
At this point you have a very solid base. In order to build on your base and become fluent, follow these four pieces of advice:
1. Immerse yourself in the language by spending time abroad, spending time with native speakers of the language, reading books or watching movies in the language, and listening to music. Make friends and write letters and e-mails in the language you are learning.
2. Keep a list of words and phrases that are new to you as you immerse yourself.
3. Do not be embarrassed to make mistakes. Do not be embarrassed to pronounce the language correctly, as the natives do, although it may sound silly to you. This is respectful to the native speakers.
4. Relax and listen. It is common that one new to a language prepares and practices something to say or a question to ask, only to be met with a response that he or she does not understand. You will more effectively learn if you sit still and worry more about understanding what others say rather than preparing what you would like to say.
Once you are comfortable with your strong base and are engaging in conversations, you should be sure to learn more topics such as comparisons, how to show possession, and other verb tenses such as the conditional. You will, of course, continue broadening your vocabulary. If you find that the language you are learning composes sentences quite differently than your native language, do not try too hard studying or memorizing rules. Immerse yourself, follow and mimic the native speakers, and these difficulties will soon become easy.
Congratulations! You are on your way to becoming fluent in a foreign language! You are also on your way to interesting cultural insight that language barriers have kept you from obtaining.