Tips on How to Learn a Foreign Language


The reason I am a writing an article of this sort is because I feel qualified to do so given that I ?speak five languages fluently along with having been a teacher of English as a second language in the English Language School which I opened up in Warsaw over 5 years ago. It has been during these past years that I have learnt the secrets of the trade which I now wish to share with those who choose to read this article. ?

When referring to the languages I speak they are English, French, Spanish, Italian and Polish which to many may seem like an impressive number but before some get the idea that I should be admired for my linguistic skills I would like to say that this is due more to circumstances then skill. First of all I was born in New York City where I spent the first 3 months before being sent away to live with my grandparents who spoke both Spanish and Italian, so unsurprisingly the languages I started speaking were Spanish and Italian. By the time I was five years of age I spoke both these languages well however I did not speak English at all so it was with this in mind among other things that my parents brought me back to New York where I started learning English. It was strange to me at first; going to school in a country that was my own hearing people speak a language that I did not understand. With time however since I was still at that early age in which languages come with ease; English started becoming more and more comprehensible and in a bigger way it was the cartoons I watched on television which I had already seen in Spanish that helped me. It is because of this factor which I experienced when I learnt English at the age of 5 that I can lay claim that those who are in their very youthful years need not to have languages taught to them as they will learn them their own. It is with this in mind that I urge parents whose wish it is for their children to learn a foreign language or two to simply expose their child to the language as I was by my parents who sent me to a school where everybody spoke English.

Of course when giving this advise I have not lost sight of the fact that not all parents have at their disposal the chance to send their child to a school where the language they want their child to learn is spoken either because they do not live in a country where it is spoken or they don't have the funds to send their child to a school in which all subjects are carried out in that language. It is to these parents that I suggest that constant exposure to that language by all means at their disposal would be the most appropriate. When I say this I have in mind that parents naturally if they speak the language in question should do so with their children; this basically being the way most people get to speak a language at the start; from their parents.

However to those parents who are not speakers of the language they wish their child or children to learn then I would suggest exposing their child or children to that language by way of television such as "Cartoon Network" or perhaps films on DVD. As an idea to follow first have the child watch the film in his or her first language and then in the second one; repeating this process as many times as possible everyday. To many parents it may seem that their children only waste time when they sit in front of the TV set and to a large degree they do but time spent watching TV need not be a waste of time specially if it can help their child learn a foreign language. I recall in my many years as an E.S.L. (English as a Second Language) teacher; a five year old child. It was this child who spoke fluent English. Naturally making grammatical errors but then again what child his age does not. Regarding his accent I can say in earnest that this child from Warsaw, Poland spoke English with no traces in his accent that would have given away even to a foreign accent trained ear like mine that he was not an American. One might think as I did that this child had spent time in America or another English speaking country or that his parents were English speakers but when I asked the child's mother she informed that this child had neither set foot in an English speaking nor did she or her husband speak any English what so ever. As far as lessons were concerned he had only had those which were offered at the public school which he attended which did not exceed those that would have taught him the very basics. My curiosity took over my actions at this point making me ask how it was possible for their son to speak English fluently like any American child his own age even without the slightest trace a foreign accent. To this question I was met with the answer that this child watched "Cartoon Network" in English practically 24 hours a day.

If there is an unfortunate side to learning languages it is that those who did not start at a very early age in life for the most part will always be at a disadvantage to those who did. They will tend to speak with an accent that will classified as foreign and for the most part struggle with grammar however I say this not with the aim of dissuading but of informing those who start past the age of 10 that they will have to work harder. Of course this is not to say that they will not learn and learn well but perhaps certain nuances of the language will be lost to them.

Many are the reasons for wanting or needing to learn a language from living in a country to seeking a job to so many others that I will not go over all of them however as many as there be reasons there also be methods. If the later be the case I have found that the "target method" to be the most efficient when the matter be simply learning to communicate. As this is what most people seek to get when they study a language. By communicating I have in mind learning how to understand and be understood in a second language which by its own virtue does not concentrate so much on grammar's rules but on how one should speak a language using correct grammar without the need to necessarily go over a lot of rules that would not necessarily make one a better speaker. I in my fourteen years as an ESL (English as Second Language) teacher have come to discover that those who know more rules regarding for instance when to use "present perfect" as opposed to when to use "past simple" do not always speak more grammatically correct however it is important to have a basic understanding of the tenses if one is to use them correctly. During the course of this time there is a lot I have taught my students but also a lot which I have discovered for myself from both my students and from teaching them and here are some tips which I would like to provide those who are seeking to learn a language:

-Find a teacher or a school; this is of more importance to total beginners as languages are not like history which can be learnt solely by reading it. Languages require the spoken part which involves learning how words are pronounced in languages that are not always systematically phonetic so for this reason I recommend getting a teacher. For total beginners I also suggest starting in a group because at the start what people are most in need of is repetition. For instance a teacher might begin with each student saying "My name is ___." and if there should be 20 students in the class then we should hear this sentence repeated just as many times and therefore making it more provable that the sentence will stick in our mind then if we had just heard it repeated twice. Granted groups advance more slowly but the speed in which we cover the material is not the issue but what is, is how much of it we absorb and I noticed specially when I was studying French and Polish how much easier it was to learn things because of the repetitive nature to be found in groups.

-When learning a second language we must think in the language we are trying to learn. There are those however who may say that for beginners this is the neither possible or recommendable but to those I would say that on the contrary it is. The reason I say this is for instance if a person is learning Spanish and the first sentence he is presented with is "Yo me llamo ___." (My name is ____.) then he or she should say this sentence not translating in to English and then repeating it in Spanish but knowing what the sentence means and simply repeating it. This method perhaps may be slower at first but will pay off in the future because if the student can say the sentence in the language he or she is learning without having to translate in his or her mind this will make it possible for that student to become fluent as that person will be able to speak without thinking of the words. Fluent speaking is when a person gets an idea and can put that idea in to words without thinking of the words because they come automatically. Naturally this does not mean that if a person speaks a language fluently he or she will speak that language correctly as these are two different things. Fluency dealing with how much time passes from the moment the thought enters the mind to the moment the words come out and only this. Many of my students on many occasions have asked me how can they think in the language they are speaking and to them I tell the following. When speaking or repeating a sentence or word in a language one should pretend that the only language one speaks or knows is the language one is trying to speak. In other words one should forget all other languages that one may speak and if one does so speaking a foreign language fluently will be easier ; reason being that translating as one goes along slows one down. This even holds more true when listening to a language for if we had to stop and translate every word in to another language that is being said to us by the time we translated the first word the whole sentence would have gone by so with this in mind I say we should only think in the language we are speaking or listening to forsaking all others.

-To learn a language when we wish to translate a sentence what we should do is translate the general idea of the sentence and not word per word but as a whole for it is there where we see the general idea. For instance in Italian we say "Io me chiamo Gianni" which when translated word per word would be "I call myself Gianni" which in English does not have the same meaning. This however if translated not word per word but the general idea we would get "My name is Gianni". The reason this stands as truth is that every language is different and not only that words are different but their grammar. Grammar being the order in which we place words. Sometimes however it is not a matter of grammar which in an of itself differs one language from another. As an example I can give that Polish only employs three tenses (present, past and future) and does not have articles, definite or indefinite but the way people speak. For instance in French it is correct to say "J' ai 40 ans" which when translated directly in to English would be "I have 40 years" which in proper English would be "I am 40 years old". This proving my point that is not always a question of grammar but of the way people in different languages speak this making it that the same thing is expressed in a different way. As an added example I can give that in Polish the sentence "happy birthday" does not exist but in its place Polish people say (from a literal translation) "all the best wishes".?

-Never ask why! In languages it is not important to know why Polish does not use articles or why English does not have articles that differentiate genders like French which has them in the form or "le" and "la" or why Spanish and Italian do not use the letter "k" to spell any of their own words. What is important is to understand how the language is and speak it as such and not waste time analyzing why it is one way or was made one way and not another. Knowing this; if we could even find out why will not help us speak the language we are trying to learn anymore then knowing why most of us have two instead of three eyes would help us see better. So in short do not worry about why it so just accept it and speak it or write it as such.

Languages do not require thinking or least none that be analytical but the ability to understand a situation and repeat the sentence that explains it to another person. For instance when we say "This is a pen." we establish what something is and if the object we were establishing were a table then the structure would be the same "This is a table". These two sentences only requiring us to change one word but not the structure which should not change since the situation has not.

-Do not be afraid to make mistakes. When learning a language mistakes are as unavoidable as is falling down to a child who is learning to walk. If that child or his parents were afraid of their child falling down that child would never learn to walk; same thing with languages. I always tell my students that if they can not avoid mistakes at least they should try to learn from them. One of the reasons people are afraid or perhaps embarrassed about mistakes is what other people might think. This if one logically thinks about should not represent a problem as those who are mindful will understand that the person who is speaking is not a native speaker of that language and will not only understand if that person makes some mistakes but will not think less of that person for doing so.

-Using good grammar is not the most important thing! Unless we are teachers of that language or writers in that language; then grammar is not the most important thing if we just want other people to understand what we are saying. Grammar only becomes an issue when we are misunderstood or not all. For instance if I heard someone say "I had bought a book, yesterday" I would understand that this person bought a book yesterday. This despite the fact that he or she used "past perfect" in a situation when he or she should have used "past simple". So my advise to those who are speaking a foreign language is to not worry about what is grammatically correct and just to speak.

Practice as much as possible! To learn a language well we need to have at least 20 hours of contact a week with the language. By this I mean taking lessons but they are not enough. For instance if a person took piano lessons this would not be enough to learn the piano as that person would have to have a piano he or she could practice on at home otherwise lessons would not be so beneficial. Having said this what I recommend to those who do not live in a country where the language they want to learn is spoken is to look for as much contact with the language in question as possible. May be in the form of watching television in that language, making friends with people who speak that language or just having a romantic acquaintance that would also contribute to one's linguistic needs apart from all the rest.

-The four parts to languages are the following: the spoken one, the read one, the written one and listening. To practice the last one all we need is to watch films in that language maybe even with subtitles. With regard to reading this we should practice for the reason that it is the best way for us to expand our vocabulary in the language as we have time to look up the words we do not understand. Writing should be improved by reading because after seeing the words many times this should teach us how to spell them. The speaking perhaps is the hardest to practice as it is most advisable to not do this alone as this would force one to answer oneself.

In all my years as a language teacher and learner of languages it has been my experience that has taught me that when speaking or learning a language as in life all we can do is our best and hope for just that so with this in mind I leave those who should read this with the following thought. It is better to speak a language badly then not at all because if we really think about it how many people speak a language with grammatical perfection even their own let alone a second or a foreign one.

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