“Well begun is half done.” attributed to Aristotle, 4th century BC
When I moved to Tokyo in 1971, I immediately committed myself to start becoming fluent in Japanese. During that time, I encountered many foreigners who got used to living in their “English bubble” and never learned to speak Japanese. I knew that if I hadn’t started learning right away, I’d end up the same.
These days, I’ve noticed the same with many immigrants coming to Canada who don’t commit to learning English or French right away.
This doesn’t only apply to people moving to another country. The same applies to everyone who at one point has had the urge to learn a new language.
When you have that urge, you need to commit to following up on it.
The aphorism “well begun is half done” is attributed to Aristotle but apparently existed before him in Greece. Similar expressions exist in a variety of languages. There is a universal wisdom contained in these words. How do you ensure that your first three months in a new language will bring you the sense of achievement and encouragement needed to continue through to your eventual goal?
Here are 10 steps that will help you reach your goals.
Don’t learn the grammar rules upfront
Grammar amounts to a systematic description or explanation of how a language works. Languages are organic systems that develop over thousands of years, the result of both a natural evolution as people communicate with each other, and a variety of influences, including from other languages.
To try to describe everything that can happen in a language, all the rules and exceptions, is a Herculean task. To try to remember the rules, or even to understand them, before you have had sufficient experience with the language, can be intimidating and frustrating. Often it leads to abandoning the task.
Content yourself, at first, with a few simplistic generalities about the language, to be quickly forgotten, until you have a better feel for the language. There is plenty of time to focus in on specific features of the language later on. We are not well equipped to learn a language theoretically. Our brains are more comfortable getting a sense of the new language through exposure. The impressions of the new language can be confirmed later on when we review grammar to confirm what we have already experienced.
Don’t worry about any grammar drills, questions, tests, or any other kind of activity which will demonstrate your lack of knowledge in the language. These things are not necessary for language acquisition.
Ofcourse, there are people who like writing tests and such, and if you’re one of them, then by all means, continue.
Personally, I don’t take any tests (except one, which was for Mandarin) and this has never held me back from learning a new language. Having learned 21 languages to varying levels of proficiency, I think ignoring test and questions has helped me move on to the more enjoyable task of discovering the language through engaging with interesting content.
We need to discover the patterns of a new language by ourselves. Time spent scratching our heads to answer questions is time not spent listening and reading.
I will admit, when it comes to tests, drills, and other types of questions, it can be useful to read the answers since they often focus on a particular pattern of the language. Also, reading these answers can be useful exposure to the language.
Spend a minimum of one hour each day
Commit yourself to putting in at least an hour a day with the language. This needn’t be in a classroom. It needs to be time spent with the language. In the beginning, the majority of time you spend with the language should be done by listening because it’s easy to organize.
For example, when I lived in Japan, I listened to Japanese in my car while sitting in traffic. Nowadays, I can listen to my target language on my MP3 player using my bluetooth earbuds while doing chores around the house, exercising, or other tasks.
Six weeks into starting Turkish, I have already listened to over 40 hours.
When you listen, you get a sense of the language’s rhythm, which prepares you for speaking and gives you momentum for reading.
It’s important to listen to content where you have access to the transcripts, subtitles, and such so you are able to understand what you’re listening to. Don’t listen to content where you have no clue to what’s being said.
Read as much as you can
You need to read…a lot.
Reading is a great way to acquire vocabulary. By reading on a computer or mobile device, you can easily look up the meanings of words and phrases. In the early stages, I like reading the same stories over and over again.
For a long time, I tend to have difficulty understanding what I’m listening to, even if I understand when I read. Eventually the listening comprehension comes. I may listen to the same story 20, 30, or even 40 times, and reading the same story 5, 6, maybe 7 times. As I progress in the language I listen to and read the same content less often.
The first two months
For the first month or two, I suggest you focus your listening and reading on what are known as point of view stories, where the same vocabulary, more or less, repeats and only the tense or the person changes. Within the same story, questions are asked and answers provided, using the same vocabulary.
Since these stories focus on the most common verbs, adjectives and conjunctions or connection words and phrases of the language, these are great training for speaking . When you combine repetitive reading with repetitive listening to these stories, your brain starts to get used to the word order, the patterns, the vocabulary and the rhythm and flow of the new language.
Instead of remembering, refer to grammar
Refer to grammar again and again, when you are curious. The grammar guides can come from a teacher, a beginner book that you bought, or by googling for details about the verbs nouns adjectives etc. in the language you are learning. Treat grammar references as a supplementary activity and don’t worry about remembering any explanations.
Don’t expect to be able to memorize any conjugation or declension table. Just assume that the reference to grammar, repeated reference, will help you notice patterns in the language as you continue with your listening and reading.
Research in cognitive science tells us that repeated learning and forgetting, or interleaved learning as it is sometimes called, is much more effective than any attempt to deliberately force yourself to learn something. Interspersing occasional grammar review with massive input activities will help you naturally get used to the usage patterns of the language, at first passively, and eventually actively in your output activities.
Become familiar with the language
Your goal in the first month or two need only be to achieve a sense of familiarity with the new language. The new language should cease feeling strange. When listening, you’ll start to be able to hear where one word ends and the next word begins even if you don’t know the meaning of the word. Some of the patterns which seemed strange in the beginning, will start to seem more natural.
You’ll start to get the feeling, the confidence that you’re going to be able to learn this language, not because you have read some explanation of how the language works, but because you have heard and seen certain words and patterns so often.
Engage with others
At some point within the first 3 months, you should consider engaging with an online tutor. ou won’t be able to say much, but that’s fine. the purpose is not to be able to speak fluently with your tutor. Rather, the sessions are meant to help you sharpen your attention and focus in relation to your target language.
By interacting with a tutor, you’ll discover the words and phrases that you think you know but can’t produce, aka your gaps. This should increase your motivation to continue your listening and reading activities in order to eventually become better at interacting with others.
Interacting with a native speaker of the language is in itself motivating. The main goal of the online session is for you to talk, and not for the tutor to explain the language or correct you. Make sure the tutor sends you a report after your conversation with some of the words and phrases you struggled to produce. Ideally, the tutor will send you a recording of these words and phrases and this is where you work to correct your own mistakes.
I keep all of my reports and audio discussions and study them often. Even though I continue to make the same mistakes over and over, and I’ll eventually improve.
Don’t treat the tutor as someone who’s going to correct all your mistakes. Rather the tutor is a sounding board and a place to create relevant learning content for you to listen to and read.
Content is King
Start to explore more interesting content once you start to become comfortable with your target language. Thanks to the internet, there’s an abundance of interesting content available on the web: Netflix, YouTube, podcasts, blogs, news, radio programs and so on.
Try and find intermediate content with both audio and text that can help bridge the gaps you have when it comes to reading and listening. In an ideal world you will find material that is meaningful to you and not too difficult.
Very often, conversations, natural conversations, which are subsequently transcribed, are the next level of difficulty. These are usually lively, giving you a sense of the rhythm of the language. Check various language learning forums for suggestions on where to find relevant content in the language you are learning, interesting yet accessible at your level. Use this material to ramp up your listening and reading activities even as you are increasing your interaction with a tutor from once a week to three times a week.
Language learning is a lifelong process
You won’t be fluent in three months.
However, if you’ve dedicated an hour a day over the course of 90 days, you will have achieved sufficient progress in the language and a sufficient sense of confidence in your ability to learn this language.
After three months, you will be past the initial period of heavy lifting where you were trying to break into a new language. You are now embarked on a much longer period of study where you will have to acquire a significant amount of new vocabulary in order to become genuinely fluent in the language. You can now use movies, music videos, books, audiobooks and other authentic material that you have been wanting to learn from. There are a number of software apps that make this material more accessible than ever.
This final stage on your journey to fluency is much longer than the first three months. It is also potentially the most enjoyable as you are able to access content of greater interest. Your conversations with your tutor can now move away from very limited discussions. You must be realistic about how long this stage will last. It could be many months or even years, depending on the language you are learning and which languages you already know.
If the first three months are undertaken with enthusiasm and purpose, they will be the launching pad for you to achieve fluency in a new language. Remember what Aristotle said; “a good beginning is half done”. It may not be half done in terms of time, but a solid beginning is more than half the job in terms of ensuring that you achieve success.
Steve Kaufmann is a former Canadian Diplomat and forest industry executive. He is co-founder (with his son Mark) of LingQ, a web and app language learning system and community. Steve speaks over 15 languages, has written a book called The Way of the Linguist, A Language Learning Odyssey, and has a popular YouTube channel under the name of lingosteve.
His Website: https://www.thelinguist.com/