Tips for Studying Foreign Languages

Learning a second language is not easy for most people. But like all things valuable, it shouldn’t be. Here are the benefits of learning a foreign language.

  • Your self-esteem and world view will grow.
  • You’ll be able to talk to people you never would have known otherwise.
  • You’ll be able to read things you never would have known about.
  • You’ll get a more sophisticated and balanced view of the world.

Study Suggestions:

  • Study Every Day: Yes, this sounds obvious but it really is necessary. Foreign language classes in a university setting move fast and are cumulative. You cannot put off studying until the weekend. If it’s a 4-hour class, you need to study 6 – 8 hours spread out over the week.
  • Attend and Participate in Every Class: This also sounds obvious but at times students blow off class because they’re not prepared. They’re afraid of being publicly embarrassed because they can’t follow the instructor’s directions or will answer the instructor’s questions incorrectly. Remember that your classmates are in the same boat. Missing class is a slippery slope because you’ll get behind on the new information and will find it harder and harder to catch up. Class is your best opportunity to practice the language. DON’T MISS IT.
  • Make Friends in Class: Even if you only refer to your classmates by their class names (Herr Schmidt, Juan, or Bunmi), you will do better if you have a good relationship with them. First and foremost, knowing them will make you less uptight about public embarrassment. Secondly, if you know them and how they’re doing in class, this will be a motivator for you to improve.
  • Study for Tests Efficiently: Make sure you know what will be on the test and then study for what you have to do on the test. If it’s a listening test, practice listening. If it’s a grammar test, study the grammatical structures that will be on the test. If the test involves mixed skills (reading, writing, and listening), then study all of them. Also, make sure you can produce instead of just recognize. Unlike classes with multiple choice questions, language classes require you to produce. Basically, you need to over study so can take the test without struggling and wasting time.

Tips for the Specific Skill Areas
The skill areas for language are the following: listening, speaking, reading, and writing. Children learn languages by first listening and then speaking (and making plenty of mistakes). They start reading after 5 or 6 years and start writing shortly after this. You, however, can’t lie around for years just listening to everyone speak Italian or German. Also, you aspire to comprehend and communicate in a second language like an educated and sophisticated adult. So here are some tips to help you become proficient in a second language at this stage of the game.

Grammar
No shortcuts here. You have to understand the structure of the target language. Study it. You can make comparisons with English grammar to help but you also need to practice the target structures (by reading them, listening to them, speaking them, and writing them) in order to fully bond them to the part of your brain that acquires language.

Listening
At the beginning levels, listen to easy language learning materials. Read along silently. Then read out loud along with what you’re listening to. Then say it along with the listening material without reading. Just keep doing that over and over. If you’re at a beginning level, don’t try to watch foreign movies as a learning tool. Please watch them for entertainment. Of course, you’ll get some words and phrases from a movie but it’s not an efficient use of study time because you’ll just read the subtitles. Also, don’t just “listen” to language study materials while cleaning or studying something else. That also is a waste of time.

Speaking
Study out loud. Don’t mumble. At first, you’ll most likely be hesitant and feel like the sounds coming out of your mouth are funny or even pretentious. Get over it. Practice in private if you’re embarrassed about someone else hearing you. After a while, it won’t sound funny and you’ll become more comfortable. Also, DON’T BE AFRAID OF MAKING MISTAKES!!!! That is the best way to learn. Make a mistake and then remember it and fix it. Don’t ever be silent when called on in class. Say something even if it’s wrong. Learn how to say “Can you give me a hint?” or “Can you give me an example?” in the foreign language. Those are good ways to buy time if you don’t know what’s going on in class.

Reading
DON’T TRANSLATE WORD-BY-WORD!!! This is a total waste of time. Read the whole passage and try to get the meaning from context. After this, go back and look up unfamiliar words. Say the new words out loud. Practice the new vocabulary items in sentences so you can remember them better. If you continually look up new words, you’ll just translate into English and you won’t remember the word in the target language. Make flashcards. Study them. If you can, write down new words you are unfamiliar with and take them to a native speaker of the target language. Have that person explain the words to you in the target language. He or she can give examples of the terms or show you pictures of them. Anything is better than just looking words up and translating. You’ll never own the new vocabulary unless you produce it in the target language.

Writing
This is the hardest skill area and the last to be fully developed. If you can write a research paper in Chinese, then consider yourself an amazing person. Most of us will never be able to produce that level of writing in a second language. However, you should be able to write a simple e-mail. Again, the tips to being a good writer are paying attention to detail and revising. Also, have someone revise your writing without actually correcting your writing. If they just show you where the mistake is and you have to correct it, this will help you remember the mistake and hopefully not make it again.

Written by John Hessian

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