The decision to learn a new language is great, but it is not always easy to do. Especially when you're just starting out and don't know where to begin. In this article, we will tell you how to master a foreign language: what are the methods, approaches, and principles of learning at different levels.
How to start learning a foreign language?
Set a goal. Decide what you need the language for. Studies abroad or work in an international company? Or maybe you want to understand the lyrics of English songs and write comments freely on YouTube? The fundamental part of studying any subject is to set a distinct goal. There are people in this world for whom knowing foreign languages is a goal in itself. There are few of them and they are called polyglots. For most of us, a foreign language is just a tool.
Check your level. Find your language level before starting your studies. For most languages, it is determined according to the special CEFR scale: from beginner A1 to professional C2. The level decides the appropriate approach, learning methods, and resources that are best to be used for the learner. To discover your language level, take an online test on Dialang, Transparent, Test Your Language or other similar services.
Choose a learning method. There are several options for learning a foreign language. You can study:
In a language school;
With a tutor;
In language courses abroad;
On your own;
In a speaking club.
Where to learn a foreign language?
There are several variables to consider when choosing the learning path:
Purpose. Start with deciding what you need a foreign language for. Courses at a school will help you to urgently learn it for work. For an exam, it is better to prepare with a tutor who took it before. If you are trying to learn a language just for the experience, you can do it on your own. Although it all depends on your motivation — sometimes just your own zeal is enough for any goal.
Free time. Consider your schedule. Is there time for classes, or can you only practice on the subway? In the latter case, any homework-assuming option will not work for you.
Money. Not everyone can afford a tutor and expensive language courses. Consider your options and choose a method within your budget.
Language proficiency level. Independent language learning is not suitable for all beginners. Many people prefer to get fundamentals at school or from a tutor. For those who are improving or maintaining an existing level, there are other options. For example, courses abroad.
The foreign language itself. Some languages are difficult to learn on your own because they are too different from English. You will not get good results learning Chinese from scratch without a tutor. This requires the help of a specialist, at least at the initial stage. At the same time, German and other European languages you can learn yourself.
Individual characteristics. Choose a method based on your preferences. Some need a clear curriculum, while others are comfortable with a flexible schedule. One person enjoys group communication — their neighbor prefers one-on-one lessons. In general, the decision is only yours to make.
Features of learning in language schools:
Plenty of communication. You will regularly interact with other students. Collaborative assignments, dialogues, homework checks, and more. On the one hand, it makes the learning process more interesting. On the other hand, it can be distracting: not all people in a group can stay focused consistently.
A transparent program. Each language school has a specific program. Many open courses concerning a particular aspect of English. For example, you can improve your speaking skills or prepare for IELTS. The advantage of the programs is in their structuredness and planning. The downside is that they are the same for everyone and do not take individual preferences into account.
Schedule. Courses in language schools are strictly scheduled. It disciplines: you know exactly when you will have a lesson. There is no temptation from possibilities to reschedule it to the next day. But it is difficult for a person with a busy schedule to find the time for classes.
Different pace of learning. People assimilate information in different ways: everyone has their own speed of learning. At schools, they rarely adjust classes accordingly and may not explain more difficult parts separately. Have you mastered the material? You haven’t? Well, too bad — we are moving on.
Studying at a language school is suitable for those who have free time, a moderate amount of money, and the need for discipline. This method is suitable for any level. You can learn a language from scratch or sign up for a course, for example, specifically to correct your pronunciation.
Lessons with a tutor
Distinctive features of lessons with a tutor:
Individual schedule. With a tutor, it's easier to find a convenient time for classes. Plus there is the ability to reschedule, shift and cancel classes on demand. Don't be afraid that you will miss an important topic. The entire program is constructed specifically for you and to answer your needs.
One-on-one lessons allow student and teacher to focus on each other. The tutor notices all your shortcomings: corrects you, explains, pauses when you need it. Your attention is also directed to the teacher and the material, and not to a classmate.
High price. Lessons with a tutor are usually more expensive than courses in a language school, at least if a tutor is any good.
Hard to find. Finding a tutor can be more difficult than choosing a language course. Much depends not only on their professionalism but also on your interpersonal relations. In a class, you rarely interact with the teacher, while in the one-on-one format, your “compatibility” is extremely important.
Tutoring is mostly for those with a busy schedule and money to spend. As a rule, tutors will work with you 1-2 times a week. You can take lessons every day, but it will cost more. This method is useful if you are just starting to learn a language, preparing for an exam, or want to develop specific skills such as speaking.
Lessons in the form of talking to a native speaker.
Language courses abroad
This option is for those who have the time, money and desire to travel. Its features are:
Immersion in the language environment. This is one of the most effective learning methods. It helps to overcome the language barrier. By communicating with native speakers, you will learn the language with all its modern constructions and slang. You will also understand that it's okay to make mistakes.
Additional expenses. In addition to the courses themselves, you need to pay for the flight, food and accommodation. The latter is sometimes included in the price, but not everywhere. And the price is highly dependent on the currency exchange rate.
Intensive training. Language learning in such courses takes place in cycles of several weeks. They come in different intensities: from 18 to 32 hours a week.
Not for all. There are people who find going abroad highly stressful. The reasons include both organizational difficulties and the “culture shock.” Also, you will have to communicate with other foreign students. Not everyone is comfortable in such an environment.
Language courses abroad are a great idea for active language studies. This method is effective for all levels: both beginners and experienced. However, if you are experiencing emotional difficulties, do not take risks. Bring a friend with you or go once you have a strong language base. This will make you feel more confident.
You can learn the language on your own. This method implies:
Personal schedule. You control the learning process yourself. You can practice however, whenever, and wherever it is convenient for you.
Dirt cheap. The only thing you have to spend on is the study materials. But even that is not necessary. There are many free resources on the Internet for learning foreign languages.
Lack of control. Your self-discipline must be high. Especially when you are at home, you inevitably want to postpone your studies and do something else. Try to remove any distractions before studying, or find a place that is more better-suited.
Not for all languages. This option can work with related languages. For example, Italian is considered quite simple for Spanish speakers. And if you already know Russian, it will be easier for you to learn Czech: they are both Slavic languages. However, for complicated languages like Japanese, it's best to study with a professional first. The same goes for pronunciation. To make it right, you need a teacher. Especially in languages that have a tone system, like Chinese.
Self-study of a foreign language is not suitable for everyone. Much depends on your goal. If you only need a language for communication, feel free to start learning on your own. Japanese or Arabic, it doesn't matter. The first 100 words can be learned by ear. But for a deeper understanding, we advise you to find a tutor.
This is the place where you come to practice your foreign language skills. Here you can do anything: practice writing, study grammar, play team games. There are more fun formats: cinema clubs, board games, books clubs, debates, etc. Everything is done in the target language. Speaking clubs also have their own specificities:
Dealing with embarrassment. A common problem for foreign students is the language barrier. It appears when you practice little in conversation or communicate with only one teacher. The speaking club helps to overcome it. There, you are forced to communicate with strangers who face the same problems and make the same mistakes.
Interactive. An invaluable advantage of conversation clubs is their entertainment qualities. Here you will not only chat with smart people but also play with them. And not necessarily only board games. You can, say, play Injustice on the console. The main thing is that everything should be in the foreign language.
Not learning, only practice. Yes, there are conversation clubs where they will help you with learning the language: they will tell you the rules and explain topics. However, such options are rare. In most cases, a speaking club is a place to practice the skills you already have.
Organization. A club is not a lesson at school. Sometimes they lack structure. It all depends on the moderators. To what extent they have thought out the schedule of the meeting, whether they took into account all the details and how they regulate the interactions between the participants.
The first rule of a speaking club is to look for a speaking club according to your level. It makes no sense to gather people from A2 to C1 in a room and expect them to actively talk to each other. Beginners do not yet have enough vocabulary for a proper conversation. Therefore, students with Elementary level are better off choosing a speaking clubthat combines practice with theory.
In general, this method is more suitable for those who already have something worth practicing. And also people who are not shy and are ready to overcome themselves. There are a number of special sites and apps for finding such clubs. In addition, they often are organized in libraries or language schools. Recently, online meetings have become popular. If you are embarrassed and don’t easily get along with strangers, a conversation club is not for you. But you can always create your own speaking club. Gather friends, chat and practice a foreign language.
Methods of learning a foreign language
This is a traditional school bench method: read, translate, rewrite. Boring and useless. It was originally used to teach dead languages. This already says a lot. The grammar-translation method focuses on the study of phonetics and the rules of the language but does not teach it in practice. After studying with this technique, a person does not understand and does not speak a foreign language. This method creates the very language barrier that interferes with communication. This is because, during the learning process, you work primarily with writing. You learn different constructions, you know how to beautifully express your thoughts on paper, but in reality, you cannot say a word.
A common situation: a person who is confident in their knowledge of English travels abroad and cannot say anything. If this has happened to you, don't beat yourself up. Most likely, you have become a victim of the grammar-translation method. Don't worry, hope is not lost. Pay more attention to listening and speaking practice. This will help you develop the skills you lack.
This technique also has a positive side: it provides a solid base. Grammatical constructions connect words in a language, and without them, the logic of the narrative will be lost. The trick is to translate knowledge from theory into practice: combine the grammar-translation method with others. The next time you learn a rule, immediately say an example for it out loud. Whenever you’ve learned a new word — make a sentence with it, and so on.
This method is the opposite of grammar-translation — another extreme in the studies of a foreign language. The speech has the spotlight here, and grammar is secondary. The technique involves listening to audio recordings multiple times and repeating after the speakers. The student must bring the phrases to automatism. As a result, you will understand the peculiarities of pronunciation and intonation, repeat sentences, but do it unconsciously. So talking about speech skills, this technique is not the most reliable.
The method suits people who are most receptive to the information they are hearing. However, it is better to use it only as a supplement and for advanced further development of a foreign language. Beginners should not be taught only by the audiolingual method.
This approach is similar to the audiolingual in that it involves listening and repeating texts. The technique consists of two main parts:
Memorizing language matrices;
Matrices are dialogues and monologues composed of grammatical structures and vocabulary on various topics. For example: flight, shop, car rental. By repeating them aloud, you memorize speech patterns. At the same time, you need to study unfamiliar words. After getting through some matrices, proceed to read a book in a foreign language. This way, you will consolidate the material you have learned and enrich your vocabulary.
This approach takes a lot of time and effort. To speak a foreign language with its help, you need to set aside several hours every day to memorize dialogues. In general, the technique is interesting and even effective for some, but it takes up valuable time.
This is the most common method. It is aimed not at teaching, but at mastering a foreign language. All attention is paid to colloquial speech, and there is practically no theory. The purpose of the communicative approach is to teach a person to think in another language. This helps avoid the common problem of in-head translations, when you first think of the word in your native language, translate it into the foreign one and only then say it. With the communicative method, the use of the native language is minimized. Advantages of this technique:
Numerous materials and methods of practice (not only textbooks, but any publication in a foreign language, magazines, newspapers, serials, dialogs with native speakers, etc.);
Discussion of relevant, real-life situations that increase the enthusiasm of students;
No language barrier due to regular communication.
It is for a reason that the communicative method has gained such popularity. It is fun and allows students to quickly achieve results. If your goal is to speak a foreign language, then this is definitely the approach for you. Communicate as much as possible, but keep vocabulary and grammar in mind. In the communicative method, you will still learn them, but it suggests much less attention paid to these aspects.
Immersion in the language environment
If you want to quickly learn a language, there is nothing better than to surround yourself with it. This is a 100% working option. You can take a chance and fly away, for example, to Vietnam, without knowing the language at all. Then you simply have no choice but to learn it on the spot. However, it is better to leave such experiments for the time when you have at least somewhat solid linguistic ground.
You can immerse yourself in the language environment at home. Create it yourself: translate social networks into the desired language, watch movies, speak, read, think in it. Use it in your daily life. It is less efficient than living in another country, but much cheaper. A great way to use this method is language courses abroad.
Start with the basics. An obvious tip that many people forget. Don't jump straight into complicated books or films in a foreign language. These are great ways for those who already know the language. But if you're a beginner, start with the basics without getting too deep into grammar. It is enough to learn the most used words and simple constructions. You can also add phonetics and spelling, but the latter is optional. For everyday speech, it is not useful.
Speak out loud a lot and often. If your goal is to truly speak a foreign language, start doing so as early as possible. Even if you only know three words, say them out loud. Then learn three more, add to the existing ones and repeat again. So you get used to the language and immediately get rid of the language barrier.
Don't be afraid of mistakes. They are part of the process, and there is nothing wrong with them. On the contrary, every mistake is an indicator of what you need to improve. There is no learning without failure.
Make learning fun. It is useless to study from school textbooks if they bore you. This is a waste of time and energy. Use methods and materials that you find engaging. Let's say you are a fan of Paris Saint-Germain (PSG). Watch matches with commentary by French announcers and read L'Équipe.
Exercise regularly. Spend at least half an hour a day with foreign language. A common mistake is that people study with a tutor once or twice a week, and the rest of the time they do not even think about the language. Spoiler: they won't learn it this way.
Praise yourself. Remind yourself how amazing you are. It's great that you are learning another language. Reward your successes with small gifts. This keeps you motivated and makes the learning process more enjoyable.
Use the right resources. Useful materials can be found on official websites. Many states create special programs for foreigners. For example, Learning English from the BBC or Apprendre le Francais from TV5 Monde. If you are buying textbooks, we advise you to look for those compiled by native speakers. They better understand and convey the features of the language. In general, there are many different resources on the Internet for learning. And the most “correct” will be the one that suits you according to the chosen methodology.
The plateau effect is a phenomenon that all language learners go through. It means losing the sense of progress. It seems to you that the development of your skills has stopped. It's like climbing a mountain. At first it is easy for you to walk, you feel that you are going up because the road itself is visibly going up. However, over time, it levels out. You keep going, it is hard for you, but the elevation seems to be gone and like there will be no more. That’s the plateau effect.
It is usually encountered at the Intermediate (B1-B2) level. This happens for various reasons:
Lack of purpose in learning a language;
Loss of confidence and faith in oneself;
Concentration on passive language learning;
Natural decline (stopped practicing).
How to overcome the plateau effect?
The plateau effect is hard to cope with. At this stage, you are already fluent in the language. And it seems that there is no point in studying further. Ask yourself: maybe there really isn’t? After all, the level B1-B2 is already a great success. Less than 20% of those who start learning a foreign language get there. If you are not planning to immigrate or study in another country, then it’s great. Most likely, you only need an Intermediate level. And for those who want to develop their language skills further for work and study, we will give some tips:
Set a goal for yourself. A good motivator is the decision to take the exam to a higher level. This will push you to actively engage. You can even pay for it in advance (as a very last resort).
Change the way you teach. The plateau effect can be compared to running in a wheel. Familiar techniques are becoming obsolete. Try something new. For example, a method of immersion in the language environment — go to courses abroad. Or start reading fiction if you haven't done so before.
Focus on specific aspects of the language. We advise beginners to study a foreign language comprehensively — a little bit of grammar, vocabulary, listening and speaking. But the advanced learners should focus on its individual elements. Identify the parts that are lagging behind for you. Be honest with yourself. Is it difficult for you to communicate? Go to conversation clubs and grind this skill. Problems understanding speech? Listen to radio and podcasts.
Don't lose speed. On the plateau, you just want to sit down, relax and unwind. Don’t. You have only one way — forward. And it's easier to do without slowing down. Continue active learning. Write down your progress in a diary (preferably in the language you're learning). This will give you additional motivation to see your progress.
Learn new things. Vocabulary at the B2 level is approximately 4,000 words, and native speakers have a vocabulary of 10-20 thousand words. So learn new words and incorporate them into your speech. There is no limit to perfection.
How to stay motivated when learning a foreign language?
Learning is never easy, especially on your own. The first enthusiasm often dies down after a few months. How not to lose interest in learning a foreign language?
Go back to basics. The learning process consumes all your attention, and the original goal is forgotten. Remember what pushed you. For example, listen to the Il Volo concert, after which you first wanted to understand Italian. Fall in love with the language over and over again.
Improve your self-discipline. This word is already boring. However, without discipline, you won’t learn anything. Don't be negative about it, try to make discipline your friend. Write out a plan and strategy, but don't overdo it. If you do not succeed in doing something, do not beat yourself up.
Celebrate your progress. Praise and reward yourself for each small goal you reach. Let's say you wrote a dictation for the first time without mistakes — eat a cake. Or you managed to pull off small talk with a native speaker — buy some delicious coffee.
Try to diversify your activities. Repetition is the mother of learning, but all work and no play does you-know-what. Combine lessons with what you like. For example, you are fond of floristry. Learn the names of flowers in the foreign language, look for texts on this topic. Most likely, it will not be vocabulary for every day, but you will not get bored.
Mistakes in learning a foreign language
The most common mistakes that people make while learning a foreign language:
Spending little time on it. Want to really learn a language — practice every day. This does not mean spending three hours translating articles. Listen to podcasts on your way to work, read on the subway, translate the names of groceries in the store, etc. Any option will do, as long as the foreign language is always with you.
Learning, but not speaking. It makes no sense to have a vocabulary of 10,000 words and not use them in life. To avoid such situations, always say phrases out loud and immediately introduce new grammatical constructions into your speech. No one to talk to? Do it to yourself. Become Alice in Wonderland: it did not bother her.
Going deeper into the language without working out the basics. A building cannot stand without a solid foundation. And the more floors you add, the more likely it is to fall. The same thing happens with languages. First a solid foundation — then everything else.
Being afraid to make mistakes. Feel free to speak f foreign language. This is one of the main fears that prevent people from mastering another language. Learning is slower without speaking practice. Mistakes are even good. They show which aspects are worth paying extra attention to.
Learning the wrong words. We live in a modern world, which means we need to learn relevant vocabulary. Leave all the archaic and beautiful words of Shakespeare's time to the Advanced level. Until then, focus on the most used ones. It would be strange to hear from a foreigner: “Hath thou beeneth yonder?” instead of “Have you been there?”
Wrong methods. We mean techniques that don't work out for you. There are no universal ones. People have different types of perception, interests, and learning preferences. Start with your feelings: how much do you like the approach and whether it does the job for you. Let's say your friend quickly learned Italian by ear. This does not mean that you, a person who finds visual aid more convenient, need to suffer in the hope of achieving the same results. Ideally, it is always best to combine multiple methods.
Not believing in yourself. Do not give up if something does not work out. Take your time and accept that you won't be fluent in German after a week of classes. Believe in yourself and don't compare yourself to other people. Everyone has their own pace of learning.
Not spicing it up. At first, you are inspired and see progress. But as time passes, the plateau effect occurs. The main thing is not to stop here. Try not just to maintain your high level, but to develop it further. Remember that beyond Advanced there is Proficiency.
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