Learning a language is a challenging and rewarding process, be it your first foreign language or your tenth. It’s not by any means an instant satisfaction, but it will certainly last for many years; not to mention the benefit gained from the acquired skill will last a life time. Since mastering a language can take a long time with large commitment, it’s important to make it as enjoyable as possible. If you enjoy learning it, every word acquired will bring you joy and satisfaction.
The first step is to decide the purpose for learning the language. Having a clear understanding of what you want to gain from the language will help you develop realistic goals and expectation as you make progress.
Set Realistic Goals
As with any other skill, there exist two types of goals, long-term and short-term. For long-term goals, you need to decide what you want to do with a language and how far you’d like to pursue it. For example, if you are traveling for business in 10-weeks, you probably aren’t interested in acquiring full fluency in the language. Instead, you may prefer to gain basic knowledge of key situations you might encounter during travel. On the other hand, if you want to gain full fluency in the language equal to your native language, you should keep that in mind as you develop your daily approach to learning the language.
Long-term goals are very important, but long-term goals alone tend to be detrimental to your progress. It happens because with long-term goals only, you will quickly become discouraged without reaching those goals for a long time. In this respect, the short-term goals complement the long-term goals to help you make solid progress and stay motivated.
Learning languages is a two-step forward, one-step back process, so set short-term goals that will keep you excited about making progress. Without short-term goals, learning a language often feels like a moving backwards. A good example of setting short-term goals is choosing a topic goal for the week, such as learning the words and grammatic structures to introduce yourself. You can then develop a plan to reach the goal that fits your personal schedule. You could spend the first two days learning the vocabulary and the grammatical structures, then you could spend the next three days practicing. On the 6th day, you may consider writing a short 7-8 sentence journal entry introducing yourself. Finally, on the 7th day, you can practice it on someone who speaks the language (of course, if you have access to a native speaker, you can practice it every day for 7 days).
Choose Interesting and Relevant Material
If you are taking classes, you will be required to follow a textbook and the choice of words and material that it provides. Often, you will find that this material is not interesting or pertinent to what you want to learn. For this reason, it’s very important that you supplement that textbook material with what you actually enjoy. For example, if you enjoy music of the language you are studying, then you may want to learn vocabulary in your favorite song.
By choosing material you enjoy, you will also select real-world usage of the language. While classes can be very helpful for developing understanding of the language and how the grammar functions, but learning how to conjugate every single verb will not be so helpful because you will easily forget some of the obscure conjugations that you don’t practice. Learning relevant real-world material that interests you will help you remember the more complex topics you learn in class
Develop a Daily Routine
Developing a daily routine depends on your personal schedule and other time commitments. I find the best way is to develop a daily minimum and maximum. For example, let’s say you would like to learn 35 new words every week; you could decide to learn 5 words per day, but what if you skip one day? This can become quickly discouraging when you are not meeting your goal of 35 words per week. Instead, I recommend you set a daily minimum and a maximum. Let’s say every day you learn at least 2 words and no more than 8 words. This way, if you are busy one day, you can still reasonable learn a couple of words and then get caught up when you have more time without forcing yourself to study too much. Being flexible is important when learning a language.
Also, I highly recommend carrying with you a small notebook (maybe something pocket-sized?) where you can record any new words you hear or words you’d like to learn. For example, let’s say you are at a store buying a pack of gum and it hits you that you’d like to know how to say a pack of gum in the language you are learning. You tell yourself that you will look it up when you get home, but very likely you will forget you even had the thought within the next 20 minutes. For this, I recommend keeping a list of words you’d like to learn. This will keep you motivated because you will see progress relevant to your daily life. If you buy coffee every morning before work, you’ll be delighted to know that you could do the same thing when you travel.
Most of all, remember to spend at least some time reviewing every single day no matter how busy you are. You can play an audio CD on the way to work, review your words from last night during your coffee break, or maybe practice your new words on co-workers who speak the language. Every bit of review puts you that much closer to reaching your short-term goals, which in turn help you reach the long-term goals.
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