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Learning Languages

Roughly 1.2 billion people worldwide are currently learning a foreign language. If you are one of them, these courses are for you. Learning a language is a complex, time-intensive task that requires dedication, persistence, and hard work. If you’re reading this, then you probably already know that.

What you might not know is that there are strategies that can help you study more effectively, so that you make the most of your time and energy. This article first explains some of the key principles that guide effective language learning, and then describes activities that can help you put these principles into practice. Use these tools to create a strategic study plan that helps your language skills grow.

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Key principles of language learning

The Basics:

First, let’s talk about the basics. Research in this area (called “second language acquisition” in academia) suggests that there are three key elements to learning a new language.

  • The first is comprehensible input, which is a fancy way of saying being exposed to (hearing or reading) something in the new language and learning to understand it.
  • Comprehensible output is the second element, and unsurprisingly it means learning to produce (speak or write) something in the new language.
  • The third element is review or feedback, which basically means identifying errors and making changes in response.

These three elements are the building blocks of your language practice, and an effective study plan will maximize all three. The more you listen and read (input), the more you speak and write (output), the more you go back over what you’ve done and learn from your errors (review & feedback), the more your language skills will grow.

DO: Create a study plan that maximizes the three dimensions language learning: understanding (input), producing (output), and identifying and correcting errors (review/feedback).

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Seek Balance
Learning a new language involves listening, speaking, reading, writing, sometimes even a new alphabet and writing format. If you focus exclusively on just one activity, the others fall behind.
This is actually a common pitfall for language learners. For example, it’s easy to focus on reading comprehension when studying, in part because written language is often readily accessible—for one thing, you have a whole textbook full of it.

This is also true of the three key elements: it’s comparatively easy to find input sources (like your textbook) and practice understanding them. But neglecting the other two key principles (output and feedback/review) can slow down language growth.

Instead, what you need is a balanced study plan: a mix of study activities that target both spoken and written language, and gives attention to all three key principles.

DO: Focus on balance: practice both spoken and written language, and make sure to include all of the three key principles—input, output, and feedback/review.

Errors are important important Sometimes, the biggest challenge to language learning is overcoming our own fears: fear of making a mistake, of saying the wrong thing, of embarrassing yourself, of not being able to find the right word, and so on. This is all perfectly rational: anyone learning a language is going to makes mistakes, and sometimes those mistakes will be very public.

The thing is, you NEED to make those mistakes. One of the key principles of language learning is all about making errors and then learning from them: this is what review & feedback means. Plus, if you’re not willing to make errors, then the amount of language you produce (your output) goes way down. In other words, being afraid of making a mistake negatively affects two of the three key principles of language learning!

So what do you do? In part, you may need to push yourself to get comfortable with making errors. However, you should also look for ways to get low-stakes practice: create situations in which you feel more comfortable trying out your new language and making those inevitable mistakes.

For example, consider finding a study partner who is at your level of language skill. This is often more comfortable than practicing with an advanced student or a native speaker, and they’re usually easier to find—you’ve got a whole class full of potential partners!

DO: Learn to appreciate mistakes, and push yourself to become more comfortable with making errors.

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Spread it out

Studying a new language involves learning a LOT of material, so you’ll want to use your study time as effectively as possible. According to research in educational and cognitive psychology, one of the most effective learning strategies is distributed practice. This concept has two main components: spacing, which is breaking study time up into multiple small sessions, and separation, which means spreading those sessions out over time.

For example, let’s imagine you have a list of vocabulary words to learn. Today is Monday, and the vocab quiz is on Sunday. If you can only spend a total of 30 minutes studying this vocab, which study plan will be the most effective?

(A) Study for 30 minutes on Thursday.
(B) Study for 10 minutes at a time on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday.
(C) Study for 10 minutes at a time on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
(D) Study for 30 minutes on Sunday.

If you look at the total time spent studying, all four options are exactly the same. But research suggests that option C is the most effective way to manage your time: instead of studying the vocabulary all at once, you’ve spread out the time into several shorter sessions, and you’ve also increased the amount of time between study sessions. (And yes, this is also why “cramming” isn’t a good study plan!)

DO: Break up your study time into shorter chunks and spread those sessions out over time.

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Bump up your memory

Memory is a critical part of any kind of studying, and effective memorization is strongly correlated with success in foreign language classes. But if you’re not “good at” memorizing things, don’t despair! Although people often think of memory as a fixed quality, it’s actually a skill that you can improve through deliberate practice.

There’s a considerable amount of research on how memory works, as well as a wide range of strategies for improving memory. For example, scientific experiments show that our short-term memory can only hold about 7 pieces on new information at once. So if you’re working on a long list of new vocabulary words, start by breaking it up into smaller chunks, and study one shorter section at a time. Additionally, research also suggests that recall-based study methods are most effective. This means that actively trying to recall information is more effective than simply reviewing information; essentially, self-testing will help you more than re-reading your notes will.

The best way to start working on your memory is to build on the techniques that you already know work for you. For example, if associating a word with a picture is effective for you, then you should incorporate images into your vocabulary practice. However, if you’re not sure where to start, here’s a “beginner” formula for memorizing a new word: use the word at least five times the first day that you learn it, then multiple times over the week, at least once every day.

In addition to figuring out which memorization techniques work best for you, it’s also important to actively protect your memory. For example, experiencing a strong emotion has been shown to sharply decrease the ability to memorize unrelated content. (So if you’ve just watched a horror movie, it’s probably not a great time for vocabulary review!)

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To get the most out of your study time, here’s a list of common “memory killers” to avoid:

  1. Stress and anxiety: Just like other strong emotions, stress and anxiety drastically reduce your ability to make new memories and recall information.
  2. Information overload: Studying for hours at a time might seem like a great idea, but it’s actually a really ineffective use of time. In fact, taking a short break every 30 minutes helps improve focus, and after 2 hours you should consider switching topics.
  3. Fatigue: The more tired you are, the less effective your memory is. Chronic sleep deprivation is particularly detrimental, so those late-night study sessions might actually do more harm than good!
  4. Multitasking: As you may have noticed, all of these “memory killers” are also things that disrupt focus. Multi-tasking is probably the the most common source of distraction. In fact, here’s a great rule of thumb for protecting your memory: if you’re not supposed to do it while driving, then you shouldn’t do it while studying. (Yes, that means drinking, texting, and watching Netflix “in the background” are all NOs.)

DO: Increase memorization by breaking information into small chunks and studying the chunks one at a time, and by using recall-based strategies like self-testing.

DO: Focus on protecting and improving your memorization skills, and build the memory techniques that work best for you into your study plan.

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Vocabulary is king

Want to know a secret? Vocabulary is more important than grammar.
DISCLAIMER: This does NOT mean that grammar is unimportant. Without grammar, you won’t know how to use your vocabulary, since grammar tells you how to combine words into sentences. And obviously, if you’re in a foreign language class, you’re going to need to study ALL the material to do well, and that will definitely include grammar.

The more vocabulary you know, the more quickly you can grow your language skills. The reason is simple: understanding more words directly translates into more input, producing more words means more output, and more output means more opportunity for feedback. Additionally, when you’re trying to interact with native speakers, vocabulary is more beneficial to communication than grammar is. Being able to produce words will help get your meaning across, even if what you say is not perfectly grammatical.

Of course, in order to become fully fluent in your new language, eventually you will need strong grammar skills. But once again, this is something that having a strong, well-developed vocabulary will help with. Since grammar dictates relationships between words and phrases, understanding those smaller components (aka vocabulary) will help improve your understanding of how those grammatical relationships work.

DO: Design a study plan that emphasizes vocabulary.

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Activities

Now that we’ve talked about the general principles that you should incorporate in your language study, let’s focus on activities: practical suggestions to help you find new ways to grow your language skills!

Find real-life sources

Since one of the main 3 components of language learning is input, look for ways to expose yourself to as much of the language you’re learning as possible. But this doesn’t mean reading more textbooks (unless your textbook is a fascinating read that you’re excited about). Instead, look for “authentic” examples of the language, things you’ll actually enjoy and look forward to practicing with, even if you don’t understand every word!

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Here are some examples to get you started:

Newspaper articles, magazines, & blogs: Many of these are freely available online, and once you’ve tried reading them a few times, it’s easy to translate the key parts to check your understanding. Look for a topic you’re already interested in and follow it with a news reader app!

Books: Children’s picture books and books you’ve read before in your native language are easy options for intermediate/advanced beginners. The library often has great options available for free!

TV shows and movies: Try watching them without subtitles the first time, starting in ~15 minute segments. Another great option is to watch first without any subtitles, then with subtitles in the language you’re learning, and then finally with subtitles in your native language if you need them. Soap operas are also great options (especially if you like lots of drama!), since the plot lines are often explained multiple times.

Songs: Music, especially popular songs, can be especially well suited to language practice, since you’re likely to memorize the ones you enjoy. Ask a teacher or native speaker for recommendations if you’re struggling to find good examples. Children’s songs can also be fun practice tools.

Podcasts and audio books: There are a lot of options for all sorts of languages, and as a bonus you’ll often get exposure to local news and cultural topics. To get you started, we recommend this site, which has a great list of podcasts for many different languages.

Also, consider tweaking some of your media settings to “bump up” your casual language exposure. For example, changing your Facebook and LinkedIn location and language preferences will force you to interact with the language you’re learning, even when you’re (mostly) wasting time.

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Pro tips

Improve the effectiveness of this activity by using the following suggestions!

Slow it down: If you’re listening to a podcast or audio book, try slowing down the speed just a bit: 0.75x is a common option, and the slowed-down audio still doesn’t sound too strange. Also, make sure to take breaks frequently to help you process what you’ve just heard.

Combine your senses: In many cases, you can combine types of input to help create a more learning environment: reading and listening to a text at the same time can help you improve your comprehension. For example, for TV shows and movies, turn on subtitles in the same language.

Get hooked: To make this strategy as effective as possible, find a source that you really enjoy, and commit to experiencing it only in the language you’re learning. Having a go-to program that you love will help keep you motivated.

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Conclusion

Some language-learning services claim to be so effective that you’ll be fluent in weeks — or even overnight (yeah, right!). Others claim to make you fluent by passively listening. We are more realistic: science and personal experience indicate that most people need time to become proficient in a second language. So what does it take to be successful in the long run?

It might help to compare language-learning with losing weight and staying fit. Can you lose 50 pounds overnight? Fat chance. Over the course of several months? Much more realistic.

Just as you need exercise and a healthy diet to get fit, you need to develop a habit of regular study and review in order to stick with learning a language and succeed in the long run. And just as it’s helpful to know what types of foods and exercises are best for staying healthy, it’s important to know what types of learning habits are best for long-term language-learning success.

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How to Get Started

Whether you are learning to improve your job prospects, do better in school, get ready for a trip abroad or even just for fun, the above are the common habits that all successful language learners share and practice.

If you want to start a bold step of learnng a new language, make a lateral move into another field, or advance up the ladder at your current job, learning one of the courses we have linked above is an excellent place to begin your transition. And since the course is designed for all levels of people, you can find the right fit for you.

Once you’ve decided it’s time to learn your favourite language, turn to learnerscoach for training. Our content is developed by industry leaders such as Edureka who place emphasis on hands-on learning, and 24×7 support. You’ll learn the course, and then you can land one of those high-paying international jobs!

Happy Learning !!!

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