Many of us spent the last few hours of 2016 making New Year’s resolutions – to be better people, to eat less junk food, or maybe even to learn a new language. We thought that we’d give you some tips and tricks for the best way to dive into your new language if you’re just starting out with a new subscription to one of our courses or if you acquired our books over the holidays.
First Things First
It can be completely daunting to start a new language having never learned one before. Where do you even start? Well, where you start depends on how you learn. Are you a visual learner – meaning you prefer to read words to learn them – or an aural learner – meaning you prefer to hear new vocabulary? If you’re a more visual learner, read through the first list of vocabulary, then go back and read it again while listening to the audio. Finally, listen to just the audio without looking at the words. Listen for familiar sounds. If you’re a more aural learner, you might want to listen to the audio while reading the list, then again without looking, and then finally read the list again without the audio to recognize the words.
You’ll figure out quickly which works best for you, but be sure you use both the book and the audio when learning to help build spoken and written skills.
Some Basic Tips
It’s important to take learning anything new bit by bit, and giving it lots of repetition. When confronted with a new language (and all the study materials that go with it) you’ll want to start slowly, take it a bit at a time, and repeat the basics as many times as it takes to get them down. This can feel tedious, but I promise that it’s the best way to start. If you go too quickly or try to take on too much, you won’t retain what you’re learning. Take your time to find your pace.
Aim for at least 15 minutes studying your new language every day, or 30 minutes every other day. The more frequently you have contact with your new language, the better you’ll retain it.
Reading A New Language
Reading a language tends to be the first skill you’re able to confidently acquire in any language. It’s easier than listening, speaking, or writing because you are going at your own pace (unlike listening which requires you to move at the speaker’s pace), and you’re not forced to produce the language yourself (as you would be when speaking or writing).
Since it’s the easiest skill to acquire, it’s also likely to be the first place you start. The easiest thing to do when reading a new language is to look for familiar words, or cognates. Beware of false cognates, though: words that appear to mean the same thing but mean something very different. (You can read a list of false cognates in Spanish here.)
Foreign Alphabets and Scripts
Several foreign languages you might be studying – French, Spanish, German, Italian, Portuguese – use Roman (or Latin) alphabets along with some additional symbols used with the letters, called diacritics. You can see an example of diacritics in Roman alphabets in the following examples:
French – rêve (dream)
Spanish – niño/niña (child)
Italian – è delizioso (it’s delicious)
German – Viel Glück (good luck)
Portuguese – informações (information)
You’ll learn the different pronunciation distinctions for these special accents as you listen to and read the language, or if you learn them as part of the alphabet.
TOTALLY Foreign Alphabets and Scripts
If you’re working with a completely different script from your own, there’s an added barrier, but don’t let that be too daunting.
A great way to start is by listening as you read. You will hear the sounds of each word, and eventually start to notice patterns. Certain alphabets – Russian and Greek are an example – will even have familiar letters you can use as a touchstone to begin learning the rest of the alphabet. (Read our tips for learning the Russian and Greek alphabets here.)
Other language have alphabets that are just a matter of learning the same way you learned the alphabet when you were younger. Arabic and Hindi might look complex, but they both have alphabets, though Arabic has the added complexity of being read right-to-left, and the letters in both scripts change depending on the letter that comes before or after. Hebrew words are also written in letters read right-to-left, but the letters don’t connect the way they do in Arabic, making the alphabet easier to learn.
Even Korean, which looks complex, is just a system of syllables constructed from a Korean alphabet – each letter represents a sound. (The Korean alphabet is actually one of my favorites – it is said that the letter reflect the shape of the lips, teeth, and tongue when forming each sound.) Japanese also has alphabets: hiragana and katakana – though they are both used for various purposes and in conjunction with the more complex Chinese-based kanji, so that written Japanese is actually comprised of two alphabets and a system of ideograms. But learning hiragana and katakana is not as terrifying as it may at first seem.
Then, of course, we end up with more complex writing systems like Chinese that will take much longer to learn; there are tens of thousands of Chinese characters and each represents its own word. It’s sometimes better to learn these languages first using a system of transliteration. Transliteration is rendering the words in the Roman alphabet so that you can learn the language before you learn the script – English-speaking Chinese learners often study using pinyin, and Japanese learners will use romaji. Other non-Roman languages use a variety of transliteration standards.
Whether or not you choose to rely on a transliteration of the text is entirely up to how ambitious you are when learning. Either way, rely heavily on the audio in a circumstance where you don’t recognize the script and you’ll learn much faster than you would just trying to read.
Once you learn how the alphabets or scripts work, you will get better at recognizing words as you read. Don’t be scared! Take it bit by bit, and the better you get at reading and recognizing words, the better you’ll get at studying the language.
(Remember: learning to read a language will help you learn to speak it; your goal doesn’t necessarily have to be to read Proust or Dostoevsky in the original! Though that side effect is certainly a benefit.)
Lesson Plan for Week 1
If the writing system is already familiar to you or if you choose to learn with transliteration:
- Read through Lesson 1. (Or read and listen simultaneously.)
- Pay close attention to words that are familiar and unfamiliar to you. Beware of false cognates.
- Do each exercise twice, or more if you think you need it. If you get questions wrong in the exercise, go back and study the vocabulary or phrase list again.
- Once you feel you are starting to get the hang of reading the language in the first vocabulary list, move on to the grammar explanations.
- Make a list for yourself of words you think you will use the most; when using self-study courses, it’s important to personalize your language learning. The more useful it is to you, the more likely you’ll be to retain it.
- If you quickly get the hang of Lesson 1, move on to Lesson 2, but don’t push yourself. You should be comfortable with all the material in Lesson 1 before moving on.
If you’re starting to learn a language with an alphabet different to your own and don’t wish to study using transliteration:
- Start with the script guide or the pronunciation guide to learn how to pronounce each letter of the alphabet. You can practice writing later; first try to recognize letters as you hear them.
- Spend plenty of time reviewing the alphabet before diving into the first lesson so that you’ll recognize the words as you read them.
- Dive straight in: Read the first vocabulary list in Lesson 1 while listening to the audio and try to recognize the letters. (This will only work for certain learners who are quick to pick up new alphabets using audio cues; don’t be frustrated if you are not one of these learners.)
- If you get stuck on certain letters or characters, visit the script guide or pronunciation guide to help you out. Again: writing can come later.
As you’re learning the script, it’s also useful to stay in contact with the words and phrases themselves (in other words, make sure you’re not overlooking the forest for the trees), so be sure you’re listening to the audio and starting to learn the basics in Lesson 1. Remember: it’s important not to push yourself too hard in your first contact with the language. Take your time, find your pace, and understand that you might need to listen before you read!
Next week: Tips on Listening.