Many people have the desire to learn a new language. I’d wager that it is up there with “exercise more” and “eat better” as one of the most popular New Year’s Resolutions.
Well, half of this year has gone, and if learning a new language was one of your resolutions that you have yet to begin, here are some tips to get you started.
Firstly, you have to understand why you want to learn a language. Understanding your reasoning helps many people reach the answer to the next question, which is, “Which language should I learn?” In a world with nearly 7000 languages, you can see why deciding which language to learn can be a daunting task. But we’ll get to that in a second.
Why do you want to learn a language?
Is it driven by a desire to connect with your friends who are native-speakers of a language other than you own? Colleagues, or neighbours, perhaps?
The Zupta’s house is on fire, that’s why their cockroaches are starting to crawl out of the woodwork – the next few months… #PPreport
— Martin Hugo (@zeichnicht) June 20, 2017
Is it because you’re fascinated by Swedish rap music, or are obsessed with anime?
These are all valid reasons. Sure, numerically, learning a language such as Mandarin Chinese or Spanish (Both of whom outnumber English in terms of native-speakers around the world) is useful if your goal is to be able to communicate with the most amount of people, but if those cultures don’t interest you, you’d be much better off learning a language that does, even if it is something like Catalan or Cantonese.
Once you’ve reached your “why”, deciding which language becomes a much easier task. If you want to be able to communicate with more South Africans, one of our official languages is a decent choice, or South African Sign Language. If you want to gain access to East Africa, Swahili is also a good choice, being the lingua franca of most of East Africa. Further North, Arabic is also a good choice. If you’re learning a language for travel through Western Europe, German or French would be good options.
Eastern Europe, and you’re looking at languages like Russian, Ukrainian or Polish. Spanish would be a near-obvious choice for travel through South America, as well as Brazilian Portuguese. And the list goes on.
Once you’ve decided on your language, we’ve arrived at the fun part. Now, there is no resource that is available in every language on the planet, but there are resources that are available in many languages, or have similar equivalents. A simple Google search, or asking around on language learner forums would help you find similar resources for lesser-known languages. If you do decide to learn a relatively well-known language, however, these are the resources I’d recommend.
If you’ve ever tried learning a language, a brief Google search or conversation with successful language learners probably led you to discovering Duolingo.com. Honestly, Duolingo is a blessing to language learners everywhere, as it covers beginner material in quite a large number of languages, ranging from Spanish, French, German, all the way to Irish Gaelic, Esperanto and even plans on releasing a Klingon course by the end of this year.
Most impressively, Duolingo is completely free, with no hidden costs or annoying ads on the side. That being said, Duolingo will not make you fluent in a language. It is best used as a supplementary resource, as the material covered is unlikely to make you more than a proficient beginner (Roughly around A2 level on the CEFR scale).
However, even intermediate or advanced learners can benefit from Duolingo as it will reinforce their knowledge. The daily streak system is also good at convincing people to work at their language goals every single day, which is a necessity in language learning.
For many years, people would ask, “What do I do after Duolingo?” Clozemaster is the answer to this question. With similar gamified processes to Duolingo, it aims to reinforce knowledge for intermediate language learners.
What I find most useful about Clozemaster is that it has different levels to practice; simple levels where they only test your knowledge of the 100 most common words in a language, all the way to 50 000 most common words. Clozemaster also has a much wider selection that Duolingo. Again, however, it is best used as a supplementary resource.
I’ve only used Pimsleur once, a long while ago when I first started learning German. After about 30 lessons of 30 minutes each, I could not handle the mind numbingly boringness of it and gave it up. Nevertheless, I recommend it to absolute beginners as the slow pace in which they teach can be beneficial and can help improve pronunciation.
The Pimsleur method starts every lesson by playing a short dialogue in your target language, which you are unlikely to understand, and slowly working through it, breaking each sentence up into grammatical components, as well as constantly reinforcing words and phrases learnt in previous lessons, using the method of Spaced Repetition. This one costs money, but there are ways of acquiring it for free. Being an audio-only course, you can play it in your car on your drive to work, which is a nice way of using your dead time productively.
I’ve used Michel Thomas twice; the 2-hour German course a few months ago, to see what the hype was about, and the 8-hour French course. Both these courses are hosted by Michel Thomas himself, so while I can’t attest to the quality of the courses made after his death in 2005, but these ones were brilliant.
Michel Thomas finds ways to teach complicated grammar points in simple manners, and also teaches quite a bit of vocabulary for a course this short. In the recordings, he is teaching two true beginners of the language in question, and you pose as the third student. Like Pimsleur, it is useful for those of us who have a commute in the morning.
I am a massive fan of Assimil. I am sure that Assimil is the reason I’ve stuck with language learning for so long; if the methods I’d found were based on route memorization or repetition of verb conjugation tables, I’d have given up language learning long ago. But Assimil showed me that it is possible to learn languages organically (With Ease, as the titles to Assimil’s textbooks claim) the way we learnt our native languages as children.
The method behind Assimil is quite similar; listen and repeat. It does take a bit of motivation and faith in the process of assimilation to work through an Assimil textbook, as immediate results are not often apparent. However, I usually find myself understanding more and more after about 3 weeks (21 or so lessons). Assimil claims to have you reach a comfortable level after about 2 months of work, which could just be a sales tactic, but I definitely one would have a solid basis in a language after 5 months, when one finishes the Assimil course. A similar course, available in some other languages, are the Teach Yourself courses, which are available in many South African libraries.
As you can see, there are many methods used to learn foreign languages. In the end, though, it doesn’t really matter which method you choose. There are very few methods which, if used diligently, will result in little-to-no progress. Once you’ve completed one, regardless of which it is, you’ll be ready to start speaking to natives, and tackling material meant for them, such as novels, music, movies.
To quote our very own Nelson Mandela, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”