New Year, new language

Tips and tricks to help you become bilingual (or trilingual) in no time

The first step to learning a new language is staying dedicated.
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If you’re looking for a showstopping New Year’s resolution, toss those gym shoes aside and pick up a new language in 2020.

Being multilingual doesn’t just help your memory, make you more competitive in the job market, and help you impress at the dinner table. It can also help you connect with the people around you. Speaking to someone in their own language is a beautiful way to forge a new relationship; it can help to put people at ease and make them feel understood and respected.

If you’ve been struggling to master a second language, or don’t know where to start, here are a few steps to help you become a polyglot in no time.

Pick your language

Knowing why you want to learn a new language is the first step to staying dedicated to becoming fluent. Maybe you want to live like a local on exchange, be able to speak to your grandparents in their own language, resurrect your high school French, or finally turn off the subtitles on your favourite show. Whatever your reason is, remember it. Sticking it out is the most important part of language learning.

If you’re just looking to pick up a new skill, you can make it as easy as possible by paying attention to your roots. Languages evolve and change over time just like everything else, and as an English speaker, you’re in the unique position of having a foot in two language families.

While English is technically Germanic, related to languages like German, Dutch, and Swedish, years of French conquest of England passed on enough vocabulary that Romance languages might be easier to understand than you’d expect: think French, Italian, and Spanish. This can help you jump a few hurdles, such as wrapping your head around some foundational grammar.

For example, the language learning app Babbel has ranked Norwegian as the easiest language for English speakers to learn, citing its simple conjugation and near-identical word order. If you choose your new language strategically, you could be chatting up Scandinavians in no time.

Learn the basics

The hard truth is that without grasping the basics of a language’s grammar, you’ll never be able to actually understand the language. Many language learning apps, such as Duolingo or Drops, are designed to effectively build and review vocabulary. However, without knowing the mechanics of how to string those words into sentences, you’ll spend a lot of time trying to build a house without a foundation.

While learning grammar is where many language learners throw in the towel, it’s not as daunting as it seems. Most language classes start off on day one with pronouns (such as I, she, and they), the conjugation of two or three key verbs, and the present tense. With a bit of practice, you’ll be able to learn these few rules fairly quickly. If you learn a past tense and a future tense, suddenly you’ll be able to communicate a whole range of concepts with just a few nouns and verbs.

The trick is, you don’t need to have everything perfectly memorized. A quick Google search can bring up the conjugation of every verb under the sun, and there are plenty of online resources to learn and review grammar concepts, through websites like germanforenglishspeakers.com. Of course, the easiest way to keep on top of your language learning is to take a class, but following along with a beginners’ textbook and referencing YouTube lessons can also set you up for success.

Immerse yourself

As English speakers, we often take for granted that people will be able to talk to us in our native language wherever we travel. In fact, as the world’s most commonly-studied and widely-spoken language, it can even serve as a lingua franca to help speakers of disparate languages communicate with each other.

Don’t be fooled: English is a notoriously difficult language to learn. However, in addition to learning English in school, many non-native speakers immerse themselves in English movies, music, and TV shows, as many are popular worldwide.

As babies, we absorb the intricacies of language from hearing it spoken all around us every day, subconsciously internalizing vocabulary and grammar. Even as we grow, we continue to learn how to use our language more effectively from the world around us, picking up on the nuances of how to speak to our boss differently from how we’d address a friend, learning slang, and learning common phrases and sayings. These details are what give a language life, and are all essential to how we communicate.

No textbook can teach you this. But like ESL speakers around the world, using foreign-language media to immerse yourself can help you to develop an effortless command of your target language.

Language courses focus on four skills: reading, writing, speaking, and listening. While reading and writing are usually what we focus on most, being able to write an essay in a different language doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be able to understand a native speaker in the real world. Watching foreign-language TV and movies can improve your vocabulary, help you pick up phrases and absorb how a language is spoken, making it easier for it to flow when you’re speaking yourself. 

It’s crucial to watch and re-watch: start with English subtitles if you’re completely lost, then graduate to subtitles in the language of the film. Gradually, you’ll start to be able to pick out words as you hear them again and again. It can be a tedious process, but it’s one that you can integrate into your everyday downtime.

The same thing goes with the music you listen to. It’s easier than ever with streaming services to access music in different languages: add songs in your target language, read the lyrics, translate unknown words, and listen to them carefully. You can also change the language settings on your phone or laptop, and turn small daily tasks into chances to practice, like writing your to-do lists in your target language.

Maximizing the amount of your target language you hear in a day can be one of the best things you do to learn a language, and swapping out your media is an easy way to have a huge impact.

Becoming fluent in a new language is a lifelong pursuit, but you can learn much more than you think in just a few months. It might start out confusing, but nothing can beat the satisfaction of finally understanding your target language when you hear it—it’s like unlocking the door to a whole new world. 

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