You probably already know that learning a foreign language is a momentous and extremely rewarding experience. Not to mention it looks very impressive to both your friends and potential employers (hello better pay). But how do you go about doing it? How do you go from stumbling through introductions to reading original, untranslated literature or even being mistaken for a native speaker? If you’re a junior or senior, you’ve probably missed your chance to learn a language through a second major, and you might not have the money for tuition and books for another major. Believe it or not, you can learn a language outside of a classroom setting. Actually, you may even see better results on your own.
1. Find your motivation
Because you already speak the unofficial language of the world, you need to find a genuine reason to learn another. It sounds unnecessary, but with the tough road ahead, you’ll need a reminder of why you’re going through this in the first place. “Learning a language takes time,” said Dr. Ana Fernández Dobao, associate professor at the University of Washington’s Department of Spanish & Portuguese Studies interested in Spanish bilingualism and second language acquisition. “You cannot learn a language in one quarter or one year.”
According to Dobao, most people don’t realize when they set out to learn a language that it requires consistency and dedication. It’s important to review and study every day. That’s why language professors urge you not to take breaks between classes in the series.“[Some students] think they can pick it up where they left it,” Dobao said. “But it does not work like that.”
Not only does a genuine reason put you in a better position for success, but it also helps you determine what language you might want to learn. Do you want to learn French for the social cachet? German to work your dream job at BMW? Or Mandarin to connect with your local Chinese immigrant community?
2. Use it or lose it
People often wait far too long to start using their target language. They wait for a magical point in which they may call themselves fluent and only then start talking to people. Don’t wait until you’re “ready” to use your language—that day will never come. According to Dobao, research shows that interacting in your target language is essential not only in becoming fluent but also in attaining sociolinguistic competence and even in gaining grammatical knowledge.
Yes, you can learn even grammar through conversation using the same pattern recognition skills you used to learn English. “This is how babies learn their first language and how young kids, in some contexts, learn a second language,” Dobao said. You’ll probably make mistakes and feel a little awkward, but in talking to people you can have those mistakes addressed instantly.
If you feel anxious about talking to native speakers try finding a language exchange partner through social media or apps like HelloTalk and Tandem, which let you text and video chat with people learning English worldwide. Or better yet, look for groups and clubs in your area like the Washington Korean Language and Culture Exchange organized by Savannah Maher since 2008. In this group, English and Korean language learners alike meet weekly to trade knowledge for knowledge and help each other through their endeavor.
Learning a language involves practicing past the fumbles and accepting occasional failure. “You aren’t going to be right every time. You’re going to make mistakes,” Maher said. “You have to be okay with being wrong here.” Besides, the whole point of learning a language revolves around finding a new way to talk to new people. If you find that rewarding, why put off enjoying that reward two or three years down the line?
3. Learn the Culture
You might think surrounding yourself in media can help you “absorb” the language somehow through films, music and literature, but it’s an unreliable and inconsistent way to learn. It’s hard to pay attention to the Spanish in a telenovela, for example, when characters at times whisper and at others scream. Dialogue is not like speech.
Immersing yourself in a language involves getting to know the culture. “If you don’t understand culture, you’re going lot make a lot more mistakes,” Maher said. This is where meet-up groups like Maher’s can hold an advantage over traditional classrooms. Each meet up is a social event based mostly on conversation which means recommendations for films, books and dishes are traded around like you’d expect.
Some events are meant specifically for this. The Washington Korean Language and Culture Exchange is currently planning to hold a Korean movie night and a potluck. Other groups also hold book clubs and even dance classes. “You can learn the words and phrases,” Maher said, “but until you learn to think [in the language], it’s hard to communicate effectively.”
4. Work Smarter and Harder
When you learn on your own, you can call yourself both student and teacher. You don’t need follow a lesson plan meant to help 30 to 40 people understand the difference between l’imparfait and le passe compose. Instead, you do you.
You need to realize, though, that you can miss out on certain things if you decide to learn independently. By giving up the classroom, you also give up classmates to interact with on a daily basis. Look for ways to replace them online or in your community so you don’t miss out on interaction and conversation in your target language. Also, keep in mind that you won’t have someone correcting your mistakes or giving you feedback at every slip up. Pay attention and if you keep making the same mistakes, then hit the books to correct them.
When learning a new language, you will make mistakes, especially in conversation. Don’t kick yourself to hard, usually the native speaker wants to help you improve and appreciates your effort to communicate. Take note, think of what steps you might take to improve and move forward. You don’t have to treat every conversation in your target language like an exam anymore. Instead, relax and have fun.