The most important thing you have to do when you’re setting out to learn a new language is decide why you’re learning.
You can’t be general or vague or non-committal about it either. “It’d be cool to read books in French,” “My family speaks Spanish, so like, it’s probably good to learn,” or “It just sounds cool,” usually aren’t good enough reasons. I say “usually” because I don’t know the true passion or enthusiasm you might feel when you give these reasons. But I can guarantee that you’re not going to learn anything unless you have a real reason that resonates with you.
Once you figure out your reason, you have to turn it into a hard, concrete goal. “I want to learn Spanish so I can talk to my extended family when they visit over the holidays.” That’s a hard, concrete goal. “I want to learn Japanese because I fucking love Naruto and want to watch it without subtitles,” is also a hard, concrete goal. Your goal doesn’t have to be noble or impressive. It just has to resonate with you. You have to actually want it.
So now you have a reason and you’ve turned it into a goal. The next step is to do whatever it takes to achieve your goal. It’s not as hard as people would have you think. And it doesn’t necessarily take years to learn a new language.
“You can’t learn a new language once you’ve passed the ‘critical period’ of childhood language development.”
Lots of people have learned lots of languages during their adult years. Here’s one. And here’s another. And another. And here’s an article I wrote about my favorite polyglots (people who speaks lots of languages) with even more of these guys.
As we already said, the first step in learning a new language is figuring out why you really want to learn, and the second step is setting a hard, concrete goal. Now we’re at the third step, which is setting up a strategy for achieving your goal.
Setting a Good Learning Strategy
Setting a good strategy is important if you want to be like all those people from earlier. All those polyglots. The people who don’t set a good strategy (or have a reason or concrete goal for learning) are usually the same people who spread this ridiculous notion that you can’t learn a language as an adult.
What are the principles of “good strategy making”, you ask? Simple. Just go out and DO whatever your end goal is. Want to chat with your extended family? Go give it a shot. Want to watch Naruto without subtitles? Try it. Want to read St. Augustine in the original Latin? Let’s see what you’ve got!
You gotta see where you’re at before you figure out how to get where you want to be. You know Point B, the end game. But where are you starting? Where’s Point A?
Great. So you’ve just put yourself in this miserable, embarrassing, or frustrating situation. Now you’ve gotta think what would have made that situation just 5% better. Maybe if you knew certain basic words (which words? Write them down to translate and memorize!) or sentence structures (what sentence patterns? Again, write them down and find a way to translate and learn them).
That’s where you start with setting a good strategy. You build your learning experience around the goal that you set. You only learn what you need to get what you want. You have to visualize or imagine yourself using the things you learn, otherwise it will all get really boring really fast.
Tweak As Needed
The fourth step is sticking to and tweaking your strategy as needed. I can’t really help you much here. Just experiment and see what works for you. Periodically check with yourself and see if you’re any closer to that hard, concrete goal you set at the beginning. Check and see if the goal continually resonates with you. And see if there’s any tweaking you can do, either in your learning strategy or with your original goal, that can get you to wherever it is you want to be.
Commons Myths of Language Learning
“You have to live in the country where your target language is spoken if you want to have any hope of ever learning it.”
The world is more connected than ever. You can find media to absorb from where you’re sitting right now. Music, movies, television, all in whatever language you want to learn. Obviously if you pick a lesser spoken language like Kazakh or Basque, you’re gonna have a lot harder of a time to find people to practice with than someone who’s learning French or German. But if you really want to learn, and if you’ve set a concrete goal and good learning strategy, you can do it.
Being in a country where your target language is spoken is nothing more than a convenience. It means you’re surrounded by the language. You can’t escape. You can’t choose not to be engaged. This method works best for people who have no real interest in learning what they say they want to learn. But if you actually want to learn, you can. And you don’t have to spend a lot of money or uproot your life to do it.
I’ll update this last section as I think of more myths that bother me. So that’s all for now! Happy language learning! And if anyone sets out to learn Esperanto, please get in touch. I’m always looking for new people to practice speaking with.