6 Tips for Learning a New Language

Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

There’s work involved in learning a new language, but a lot of it can be unnecessary. If you have unrealistic expectations about your language, or yourself, you’re going to waste valuable time and effort fighting battles you don’t need to be fighting. In this post we’re going to give you six tips on how to avoid unnecessary worrying so that you can relax and enjoy the journey.

1. All Languages Are Weird

If you go into learning a new language under the assumption that your native language is “normal,” then everything you learn about your new language is going to seem weird, crazy, or abnormal. You only feel this way because you’re looking at your native language as a native speaker, so you’re not noticing all of the exceptions, eccentricities, quirks, and illogical things that non-native speakers have to wrap their heads around. Trust us, your language is just as weird as all the others. If you’re an English speaker, why do you say am I? instead of do I be?, which is what you do with every other verb (do I speak, do I go, do I walk…)? Why does the expression the lights went off mean that the lights stopped working, but the alarm went off means that the alarm started working? Weird. Languages aren’t logical, and they’re all weird in one way or another.

2. Languages do Things in Different Ways

In English, when you want to ask a question, you usually use a form of do. Do you speak…? Did she go…? This is a quirk of English, and other languages don’t use do. Maybe they just use question intonation, or maybe they switch the order of the verb and subject (parlez-vous…?) Maybe they put a special question particle at the end of the sentence. These are all perfectly fine ways of asking a question, and just because English does it with do doesn’t mean that all languages should. Let English be English, let Spanish be Spanish, let Mandarin be Mandarin, and everyone will be happier.

3. Think “How do I Express XYZ?” instead of “How do I Say XYZ?”

This may seem a bit semantic, but a very common pitfall – and source of great frustration – for a language learner is trying to do word-for-word translation. For example, in English you might say “I am eating,” so if you think “how do I say that in French” you’re going to be tempted to look for word-for-word correspondences, something like *je suis mange or *je suis mangeant or some such thing. These are both word salad. English makes a fuss over whether or not an action is happening right at this very moment, and it has a dedicated tense to express that with BE + ING: I am eating. French doesn’t concern itself with this, and it just uses the regular old present tense: je mange. If you train yourself to ask about expressing rather than saying, you’re gently reminding yourself that French does its own thing to convey the concept or state of affairs that you have in mind, and it’s not necessarily anything like English, or whatever your native language is.

4. If it Smells like an Idiom, Avoid It

All languages have idiomatic expressions, strings of words that don’t mean what the words literally mean. He kicked the bucket. The company is in the red. I’m full. That pissed her off. The cat’s out of the bag. These are great fun to use in your native language – or in a language you speak well – but if you’re a beginner, it’s best to stick to more boring literal ways of expressing these things: He died. The company doesn’t have money. I ate too much. She’s angry. People know the secret. As you learn a new language better, you’ll learn the idiomatic expressions, and you’ll sound more natural. But give yourself time to do that. If you literally translate an English idiom into another language, best case scenario is that you’ll sound hilarious, worst case is that you’ll say something very different than what you intended.

5. Beware of Prepositions

Prepositions are notoriously idiosyncratic from one language to the next. In English, you’re interested in something, but in French you interest yourself at something: s’interesser √† quelque chose. In English you look at something, but in Spanish you just look it mirar algo. In English you go to the university, but in German you go on it: auf die Universit√§t gehen. These choices don’t necessary make any logical sense – not in English any more than in any other language – so you just have to learn them and practice.

6. Everyone has an Accent

If you set out to sound like a native speaker, you’re probably setting yourself up for disappointment. It may happen, but it’s not going to happen quickly. And that’s fine. The truth is we all have accents. My English is the English of someone who grew up in the New York area, so to people from California or the South or the UK or Australia, I have a weird accent. (I happen to think my accent is awesome, but that’s off point.) When you’re learning Spanish, you’re probably learning some kind of generalized Latin American accent that no one really has, so even if you learn it perfectly, people from Buenos Aires or Madrid or Mexico City are going to notice that you sound different from them. And that’s perfectly fine. California had a very successful governor who had had a very successful film career before that, and all the while he had a really strong Austrian accent. It didn’t really hold him back!

A lot about learning a language is managing your expectations and figuring out which battles to fight. There’s plenty of work to do without the added burden of worrying about things you shouldn’t be worrying about. Keep these six points in mind, and if you ever feel frustrated about one of them, just breath. With patience and practice, it will come.

[image: jeshoots.com on Unsplash]

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