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Tips for Learning a Foreign Language

Vienna street signs

(photo by Maria Schwartzman 2008)

It’s a fact: the world is globalizing. This means that people not necessarily speaking the same language must come together to communicate. In this day and age, it is extremely useful to know more than one language, especially if your native language is English. Also, most universities and colleges require you to have some competency of a foreign language. In this case, it might be prudent to learn some tips for studying a foreign language more effectively.

First, figure out your learning style and concept/thought process. Do you learn better visually, by writing things out, or by hearing what is said to you? Most of the time learning things all three ways, with an emphasis on how you learn best, is the most effective way to go (unless you absolutely do not absorb anything by using a certain method). The latter idea, the thought process, might be unfamiliar. It has nothing to do with your learning style, but rather how you think about the things you’re learning.

I consciously came up with this idea and explanation two semesters ago while trying to explain to my friend why she was so good at Computer Science. She is an artist by nature first, and it suddenly hit me that the reason why she could program so well is that art and programming work very similarly: one must look at the big picture first (what do you want to create?), then focus on the little details (a certain color for an area of a painting, or a certain line of code for programming), and then focus back on the big picture to make sure everything is working right, and the process repeats until you’re done. I tested this theory of thinking with other friends, and it worked out that certain subjects interconnect with others in the way of thinking about them.

Your goal is to figure out how you think about your subjects. Do you think like I just described with art and computer science? Or do you tend to just focus on the big picture, for instance, big concepts you would use in the sciences? Or do you narrowly focus in, as you would for math problems? Once you figure out how you think, it becomes much easier to figure out how you need to study a foreign language (or any subject, for that matter). If learning concepts come easily to you, create in your head (or on paper, computer, etc) groupings of concepts such as tenses, themed vocabulary, culture, different themes of grammar, etc. If narrow focus is your style, focus in on each new word or new grammatical issue distinctly. Knowing how you think about what you’re studying will help you get more out of your study time. Don’t try to force yourself to learn material in a way contrary to your most natural way. (Many teachers/professors teach material in a manner different from what you’re used to or what works best for you; take what they teach and translate it back into your own way! This will also tend to help you remember things better.) That being said, it is possible to train yourself to think in different ways, but it does take some time and practice.

Other tips I can offer you for learning a foreign language are


· make flashcards. Flashcards are so important! I cannot stress this enough. Vocabulary can really only be absorbed by use. To use it, you have to have it memorized or stuck in your brain somehow. Grammar can also be learned this way, along with verb tenses, etc. Make a separate card for every word, new concept, new tense, etc.

· practice every day. At least at my university, most language classes meet four days a week. This is great, but to really learn a language you should use it somehow every day of the week. Try to name off all the items in your dorm room. Say hello to one of your friends in your foreign language. If you have other friends who are taking or have taken the language you’re in, hang out with them and practice saying things in a non-pressurized, non-classroom setting. It’s a lot of fun to say random things in other languages!

· don’t be afraid of the professor. Most profs want to help you. Usually language classes are decently small sized to maximize practice time for the students. Take advantage of your professor – ask him or her questions if you don’t understand something, or if you see him or her in the hallway don’t be afraid to say hello in your foreign language.

· don’t cram. You will forget everything you crammed in very quickly. Language forms building block by building block, so it is best to solidly learn the material over the course of the chapter rather than trying to learn it all in one night before the big test. That way you have the foundation for the next concepts you will learn, and it will actually be in your brain rather than just floating out your ears.

· read the book. After the prof’s lecture, it can be easy to mentally shut down for the day, especially if you don’t have any homework for your class (though that rarely happens!). Instead of shutting down, go back and read what your book says about whatever you learned today. This will reinforce the ideas in your brain and help you learn the material better, solidifying the necessary building blocks for the next day’s class.

I hope these tips help you in your endeavor to learn a foreign language. If you have more ideas, comments, or questions, feel free to leave a comment!

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One Response to “Tips for Learning a Foreign Language”

  1. paulette says:

    Nothing beats reading. It can enrich your vocabulary. While practice makes things perfect.So keep on practicing the language you wanted to learn.