How To Start Learning A Language – And Actually Stick To It

It can be hard to stay motivated at the best of times – but especially so in lockdown. Here, language experts share their tips for keeping on with it.
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In lieu of us being able to travel, many of us are taking the time to learn the language of our favourite countries instead.

A whopping 2.2 million people learned a new language in lockdown last year, according to a survey by national biographer StoryTerrace, while interest in language courses increased by 132% in the UK last year.

It can be all too easy to download a languages app, use it for a few days, then give up until your next motivation spurt. So, what’s the secret to linguistic success?

Firstly, you need to choose a language you feel a connection with. Manuel Benchetrit, director of the Language Centre at the Institut Francais in the UK, says this could be because you like the music of this language, or maybe because someone you like speaks this language.

Or, it could be because you need to learn the language for work purposes; want to access the culture belonging to the language – the literature, the films, the songs; or because you simply want to visit the countries where it’s spoken.

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Dr Cindy Blanco, a senior learning scientist at languages app Duolingo, agrees that a personal connection to the language is important to help you stick with it – “whether it’s because your grandfather spoke it, because you’re crazy about BTS [the Korean boy band], or because your favourite footballers speak the language.”

So you’ve chosen your language. Now what? Most people tend to go one of two ways: they either pay for a language tutor, or download an app. Or both. While DuoLingo, Rosetta Stone and Babbel are some common options, there are lots out there to choose from.

Once you’ve got your method in place, Thierry Gauthier, course coordinator for the Institut Francais, recommends starting with the most practical, immediate situations in which you might need to speak the language. For example, how to say your name, how to order a drink or food, how to ask for directions, and how to buy a bus or train ticket.

Now you’ve got the basics under your belt, here are some tips for staying married to the language learning process.

1. Carve out small chunks of time each day to learn

Dr Blanco, from DuoLingo, says studying at the same time each day is a great way to develop a good language-learning habit – even if it’s just for 10 minutes.

She also recommends linking your studying to other activities. “So if you’re a morning person, try studying over your morning coffee, every day, so it becomes part of your morning routine,” she says.

“It’s easy to get overwhelmed by how much there is to learn in a new language, but it’s actually better for your learning to study a little at a time each day, instead of trying to binge-learn in a long weekend study session.”

2. Interact with people who speak the language

This could be a languages teacher, a friend, family member or someone else who’s learning the language. If you can’t head to Paris or Barcelona every weekend (which is pretty unfeasible right now) is there a way to join an online languages club or a regular conversation class, instead?

“Languages are naturally learnt through interaction,” says Benchetrit. “In my view, the best way to learn is by having an interaction with someone who speaks the language you want to learn – and with a professional teacher is even better. It’s now really easy to find an online interactive course.”

“Have fun learning the language, laugh at your mistakes, some can be very funny for native speakers,” adds Gauthier. “For example, in French le pâté means pâté but la pâtée is dog food.”

If you don’t know anyone who can speak the language, Tandem and HelloTalk are language exchange apps that connect learners with native speakers.

3. Set a goal

Benchetrit believes it’s important to have a goal. “Do you want to be able to speak fluently with your French cousins in a year or so?” he asks. “Do you want to be able to watch Korean movies without subtitles? Do you want to be able to order at a restaurant without constantly looking on Google translate? Do you want to take an official exam to certify your level?”

Whatever your goal is, write it down so it can drive you forward and make you want to learn.

4. Label items around your home

A practical way to learn the names of common objects is to get creative with some bright sticky notes and felt tip pens. Stick the notes on household objects with the name of said object in your language of choice.

“Sometimes teachers say that to learn something you need to forget it seven times,” says Gauthier. “Sticking post-it notes around the house should definitely help you achieve this. Start with the most obvious and useful objects. Once you know them, remove the sticky notes and keep them for revision. Place new post-it notes on other objects or more technical ones, for example, once you have memorised the word ‘window’, you could learn ‘window sill’ or ‘curtain’.”

5. Immerse yourself in foreign media

Netflix and Spotify have lots of shows and podcasts in different languages, which can be a great resource for learning once you’ve got to grips with the basics of a language. You could also try watching vlogs by foreign language speakers or listening to radio stations in a different language.

“TV shows are great because they are addictive and make you practise your listening comprehension which is vital,” says Benchetrit. “Some apps even allow you to read the subtitle in both the ‘foreign’ language and your language. When you begin it’s inevitable you’ll need to use subtitles. But it’s important to watch without subtitles even if you understand only a part of it.

“This way you force your brain to activate strategy in order to use alternative strategies and to cope with the fact you don’t understand everything at once.”

In a Twitter thread on what helps when learning a new language, several people recommended watching a film you’re familiar with, but in the language you are learning. That way you at least have some idea what’s going on.

Or, if you’d prefer to learn through reading, you could try reading news articles or short stories in a foreign language instead. Try reading HuffPost Spain or HuffPost’s French edition here.

This new year, we focus on fun, not denial (because we’ve all had enough of that). Follow our month-long plan, with a new ‘Here, Try This’ idea each day, spanning easy ways to engage your body and mind, inspiration for your food and home, and tips for boosting how you feel – inside and out.

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