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Have you ever wanted to learn a new language? Do you think that it is something that you need special training to do? Or a special teacher to teach you? If you are reading this, I can guess that you speak at least one language already. And I’m guessing that your children speak at least one language already as well.
You see, it is not as difficult as it seems to learn a new language. It just takes a strategy. And lots and lots of practice. Plus, the strategy is pretty easy. Simply follow the natural rhythm of learning a language. There are four steps:
- Read, and
- Write the language.
That’s it. All it takes is following those four steps (and in that order) to begin to master any language. If you think about it, this is the exact process you went through to learn your first language. As a baby, you listened to your parents and other family members speaking to you. As you grew older, you began to use what you had heard. You began to speak. A few years later, you started the process of learning to read. Often learning to write was taught alongside because by then, it was a bit easier to learn two skills at once. Of course, this took a few years. But by the time you were 7 or 8 years old, you could be considered fluent, in both speaking and writing. Everything after that was just honing your skill.
So how do you put this into practice now for a new language?
I didn’t start learning French until I was nearly 30 years old. In school, I had studied a little bit of German, a little bit of Spanish and a little bit of Chinese. But no French. It wasn’t until I met my future husband in my mid-twenties that I even considered learning French. Since he spoke fluent English and we were living in the United States, I didn’t really try that hard either. But when we decided to move to France in 2006, I knew I’d better get cracking.
I had been around my husband’s family a few times and was beginning to understand a bit. But speaking was another matter. So I took an accelerated French course at the Northwestern University School of Professional Studies (then called the School of Continuing Studies) in Chicago, Illinois. This helped a bit with basic grammar. But I was nowhere near ready to be let loose on my own in France. Especially in a town where few people spoke English.
So when we arrived, I went back to the basics.
I listened. I listened to G talk to his family and their responses. Then I listened to the radio and tv. I just listened. My favorites were kids’ shows, especially cartoons because the language was pretty basic, the storyline was easy, and the images made following along a piece of cake. I developed an ear for not only how the language was used but also how to pronounce it.
And this is what you must do. Listen to songs. Watch your favorite tv shows but in the other language. We are lucky to be living in an age where that is so easy. Netflix and Amazon Prime both offer movies and tv shows in which you can change the audio. Stream a radio station in your chosen language. You might even be able to find audiobooks at your local library (depending on where you live and what your chosen language is).
Once I felt comfortable that I knew enough vocabulary to make simple conversation, I began talking. This was the hardest step for me. As a perfectionist, I didn’t want to speak until I was fluent. A totally unrealistic goal.
Now, this is not to say that I never said a word until then. Obviously, that would be weird for so many reasons. But up until that point, I basically just answered questions. I never really offered anything up on my own.
But as my vocabulary grew, so did my conversation. And really, isn’t that exactly how a child does it? They listen for at least a year of their life before even saying a word. And when they do start talking, it is in monosyllables. It is only after their vocabulary grows that their ability to speak in sentences can start. As they get comfortable speaking with their loved ones, they move on to speaking with others.
This can be a little trickier to do if you are not living in the country of your chosen language. Try to find a group of like-minded individuals who also want to learn. You can practice with each other and hold each other accountable at the same time. Use apps like Duolingo to practice your pronunciation. Or, if you are lucky, try to find a native who is willing to meet up with you for a cup of coffee. Then try to spend the whole time speaking in their language.
If you are teaching kids, play games with them that force them to use some of the words they have learned. Point to objects and see how many they can name. Do role-playing exercises. Or just learn the lyrics to a simple children’s song and sing it together. There are numerous ways you can practice saying words without having to live among the natives, as it were.
Depending on age, this can be done alongside the listening stage. When I was learning French, I often checked books out at the local médiatheque (library). Usually, I would get a few English novels (for pleasure), some kids books (for ease), and some comic books (for a bit tougher vocabulary). The adult comics were great because the vocab was more suitable for my age while at the same time easier to grasp because of the images.
When I felt comfortable enough to challenge myself, I started reading novels. I’m a little insane because I started with Les misérables by Victor Hugo. This was a calculated risk. Even though the novel itself was a difficult read, I was already familiar with (and loved) the book. I had read it in English and knew the basic story by heart. (Thanks, Andrew Lloyd Weber!) Because I am a visual learner, this helped me make better sense of the words I was hearing daily.
Obviously, I would not recommend young kids read books while in the beginning listening stage. Unless, of course, they are already fluent readers in their first language and you feel they might benefit from seeing the words as well. Again, I’m not saying they shouldn’t look at books written in that language. Just don’t expect them to learn how to read it until they are able to speak it. Older kids may want to read simple books earlier on, especially if they are visual learners like me.
The last thing anyone should attempt is writing. Admittedly, this is the one area where I still struggle in French. Because I basically learned on my own in a social context, I never really spent any time in this area. After all, how often do we write to the people we see every day?
I’m trying to change that as I begin teaching my own kids to write in French. But it is a tough one for me. I would venture to guess that this is the toughest part of learning a language for just about anyone. And often, it is the part we don’t even bother with. After all, unless you are learning another language for a job, usually you just need to be able to communicate verbally in order to navigate in that country. At most, you need to be able to read to get information from menus or websites (or even street signs).
My suggestion (and what I do personally) to learn how to write comes straight from Charlotte Mason. Do copywork. Copy passages from books. Copy Bible verses. Or copy song lyrics. Anything to get used to the use of accents, spelling, and grammar. If it works to improve your English, why wouldn’t it do the same for your foreign language?
And when you are at ease with the copywork and are speaking fluently, why not try writing a short story. My kids even create their own comic books. They draw the pictures then label them in French and make the characters speak to each other in French. This is a great, fun way to practice writing. For any age.
After you’ve started all four steps, all you need to do at this point is practice. Depending on how quickly you want to learn this new language, you should do it at least weekly. The quicker you want to learn, the more often you need to exercise your skills. The most important thing is to practice all four steps as often as you can. By all means, you can get by just knowing how to speak and understand. But wouldn’t it great to be fluent?
If you want to learn about some of the resources I use to teach and learn French, check out my post Top 10 French Resources.