(Yesterday marks the half-a-year birthday of this blog)
- A desire to learn a language cannot be forced. It must land on you, and it can land on you for all sorts of reasons, ranging from the professionally pragmatic to just plain silly.
Don’t force this desire to learn something and, when you get this desire or find yourself wishing that you knew Language X, proceed to the next step without hesitation!
- If it is a language whose sounds are familiar to you, proceed to Step 3.
If not, go online, find media, and familiarize yourself with the sounds of the language.
Entertain the thought that, one day in the future, you will be able to speak and understand this language to the degree that you can understand some or all of what is being said to you.
Throughout the entire learning process, get some music in your target language and play it regularly.
You won’t understand almost any of it at the beginning, but you will ease into it and your desire to learn the lyrics to your new favorite song in the target language will be a powerful motivator.
- Find out if the pronunciation of the language is fairly regular and intuitive (Finno-Ugric Languages and Esperanto are the easiest, some like Spanish and Dutch may be a tad harder) or has more “historical” pronunciation (English is the biggest offender, but any language with short/long vowels [Russian, Latvian, Cornish] or complicated but vaguely regular pronunciation rules [Danish, Irish, Faroese] may qualify).
If it is in the former category, find a pronunciation guide (online) and familiarize yourself with the sounds. Then, find an online phrasebook for free (Omniglot, Wikitravel, and their ilk) and practice saying these things out loud.
If it is in the latter category, find an audio phrase book or one with phonetic pronunciation. Recite things out loud and get used to some of the patterns. Remember, if your language is in this category, the pronunciation will grow on you as a result of the immersion which you will encounter later.
YouTube tutorials are also tremendously helpful at this stage, if they exist for your language.
For languages that have new characters, or have a set of characters that is impressively large (Chinese Character, Japanese Kanji…), use the same principles to ease into the new system, one letter or character at a time.
- Now what you want to do is build basic vocabulary. Flashcards can do, Anki, Memrise and DuoLingo are good candidates. I would suggest using a combination of these methods.
Your primary goal is to ensure that you can engage with material for native speakers as soon as possible.
Throughout this step, regularly check on native-language material (preferably for younger age groups) and see how you engage with it. Keep on building your vocabulary to a degree that you can understand some of it.
In the event that there is a certain film or show that you know so well that you practically know all of the lines by heart, even better. Use this to augment your vocabulary.
Don’t expect to understand everything.
- Once you have some passive understanding of the language, your goal is twofold:
5a. Gain an active rather than just a passive understanding of the language (by means of writing and speaking). Say things out loud to yourself, find a friend and write messages to him/her in your target language, set up a meet with said friend if possible.
Don’t be ashamed to use translation services—these are “training wheels” of sorts (and even when you speak a language fluently enough so that you can teach college-level classes in it, expect to use a dictionary / online translation sometimes!).
5b. The grammar…familiarize yourself with the verb forms via the programs listed in Step 4. Adjectives, verbs, declensions…know them to a degree to which you feel comfortable with, but don’t obsess.
My Finnish textbook has 34 different paradigms for nouns in declining. Greenlandic has 10. Don’t let it scare you, just note basic patterns and then, when you feel more comfortable with your abilities, return to the tables and the like and polish them.
- Now that you have both some active and passive understanding of the language, your goal is to perfect grammar even more sharply and to keep on using the language.
Keep on collecting words, keep on collecting idioms, keep on collecting songs, make the language a part of your life. Sideline a bit of your Native-Language entertainment / free time with that of your target language…
Keep on using your language to build friendships and maintain connections.
At this stage, expect embarrassment, mistakes, and sometimes even explicit discouragement (although hopefully you will encounter this one rarely).
You will note that others will respect you and your efforts and some may even show more than a hint of jealousy, but let no emotions dissuade you from doing anything further.
This is the step that actually never ends, and there is only one alternative: to forget the language by means of disuse.
But even if you do, the passive knowledge remains within you somewhere, waiting for you to come back to it. The verb forms are still there, you still have an anecdote or a song or a cool fact here and there…but, remember, the entirety of this project depends on Step 1: having that desire. If you don’t have it anymore, that’s okay. Don’t force it. Follow your heart and let it lead you somewhere else.
Whenever you think to yourself “it would be cool if I could learn language X”, think of this list, and return to it. Think of what acting on that thought could do, and think of what you will gain.
I haven’t regretting studying any language at all during my entire life. Chances are that you won’t either.