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How to learn a language

24th January 2018 Print

People learn languages for all sorts of reasons; you may need to improve your language skills for work, you might have a partner with a different native language, you might have bought a holiday home in another country, you may wish to learn a language to stave off age related mental decline or you might just think it sounds like fun. 

How Quickly Can I Learn A Language?

Certain languages are easier for native English speakers to grasp than others because their grammatical structure is similar and many of the verbs have a common root. The easiest languages for native English speakers are French, German, Indonesian, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish and, surprisingly, Swahili.

The US Foreign Service Institute completed a study and they suggest you need 480 hours of study to obtain conversational fluency in one of these languages (and 720 hours for the next hardest set of laguages; Bulgarian, Burmese, Greek, Hindi, Persian, Urdu). In Europe this level of fluency corresponds to B2 on the CEFR Global Scale. If you can set aside 10 hours a day for 5 days a week - this equates to 10 weeks. If you can only manage 5 hours a day then you will need 20 weeks or 5 months. 

It is important to be realistic about what is achievable in a short period of time especially if you are not able to take part in a full time immersive course. If you do need to be fluent quickly then you are going to need to set aside the necessary time.

Becoming Fluent

First of all, what is fluency?  The answer is how long is a piece of string! In most cases when we talk about fluency in languages we simple mean that we want to be good enough for a certain situation which can vary from ordering a glass to wine to conducting a business meeting. As adult learner, true fluency is extremely hard to obtain and you shouldn’t set an unrealistic expectation of what you should be able to achieve in a certain time frame. 

When you travel abroad you will find a seemingly endless variation in local dialects and slag phrases. In addition, some countries like Spain have more than one language. Castilian is most widely spoken but in some regions Catalan, Basque and Galician are spoken more commonly. Even after all that has been dealt with you will find that outside the main cities strong regional accents occur which can make understanding and being understood a bit tricky. This is one of the reasons learning a language can be so beguiling, there is always something new to discover and practice.

Many of us have only limited vocabulary in our native language and we can struggle to understand our own regional accents. Does that mean we are not fluent in our native language – no! We don’t let that stop us speaking the language and we should adopt the same sensible attitude to our second language. It is perfectly achievable to learn a second language to a level that will allow you to be understood by most people in most situations. That should be your aim rather than expecting to understanding everything perfectly firsts time. 

So How Do I Learn?

Because language is such a complicated skill the best way to learn is to hit it from every possible angle. Listening, speaking, writing, memorization, repletion, games and group activities will all have their place.  You can choose your own methods of study from the huge range of online resources, books, language classes, conversation courses and local language groups. 

Variation is important to stave off boredom and keep motivation high. It is also important to vary your learning methods because each will develop a different area of the brain. It’s all very well being able to write perfectly really fast but if you don’t practice speaking you will find that your written fluency does not translate immediately to verbal fluency. You need to make the connections between the parts of the brain that store the written word and its meaning and those that convert them to producing speech. You also need to develop the muscles needed to form the different sounds of your chosen second language. This does not happen overnight. 

Strengths and Weaknesses

We are all better at different things and you won’t find all aspects of the language as easy as every other. If you notice one element is particularly difficult for you don’t avoid it. Supplement your current learning with something that targets your area of weakness.

Similarly play to your strengths. If you find reading really easy get a copy of your favorite book in your chosen second language – you will find it is a great way to boost your vocabulary which will help your spoken and aural comprehension too. 

Language is a Window To a Different Culture

Whatever your reason for learning another language it is likely you will also need to now something about the traditions and culture of the country. This can be a highly enjoyable and rewarding part of your studies!  Investigating the food and wine of a different country is always good fun. Why not take a flamenco dance class, attend a French film night, visit a German Christmas market or order your Italian meal in Italian? 

There is no doubt that learning a language is tricky for most people. However, it can be fun, stimulating and widen your horizons.