What are the elements to success when you’re learning a foreign language? In this post, it’s time to pull together some of the threads that have emerged from telling my own language learning story in the “Dr Popkins Method?” series. I’ve got fluent in French, Welsh, Russian and German and make good progress with several other languages, mainly thanks to independent study as an adult. Here’s how! (Video at the bottom.)
Clear motivation and a “vision” goal
Sometimes my motivation for tackling a new language has been a strong practical need.
I had to pass a French for my university entrance and end of term qualifying exam. Russian was essential for me to be able to do my historical research or when I needed German to get a job at Heidelberg University.
Mostly, though, the motivation has been a desire “from within”, for example when I learned Welsh to reconnect with my Welsh-speaking ancestry.
Even when I needed the languages, it was as an integral part of a wider project that I had chosen and was enthusiastic about.
Here’s the thing: my motivations have been varied and sometimes change over time, but I’m always clear on what they are.
YouYou’re should get clear on you motivation, too.
My long-term goal or vision goal with my first four languages was to have as near a native command as possible. I always imagined myself functioning in the country and with a network of friends using the language for the rest of my life.
You goals might be more limited, for example survival on holiday or an ability to enjoy a general conversation with friends or perform specific functions at work.
Figuring out how to get off to a flying start and clock up some quick wins was a great boost to my motivation when I first focussed seriously on French and Welsh.
Whether your goals are similar to mine, or you’re aiming for something more modest, you’ll want to do the same.
Focus on core structures
To make as rapid progress as possible at the beginning, I focussed initially on core structures and core vocabulary and today I encourage people I mentor to do the same thing.
I’ve usually used a textbook to give me a clear roadmap through the basics. When I could, I’d choose one with audio.
I’d set aside regular slots for focussed study, to work through it. They’d often be quite short slots of thirty minutes to an hour a day.
That way I developed a language learning habit.
I wouldn’t use my textbook passively. I’d make my study as much of an interaction as possible. Courses with exercises (and the answers) are great here. I would also to elaborate the material, for example by retelling a dialogue or other text.
Some successful language learners are positively turned off by textbooks or their modern equivalent, the on-line course. If you prefer a freer, more experimental and adventurous approach, go for it! Tackle stuff you find interesting and fun and seek explanations as you need them.
While “learning by discovery” is great, I still think you’ll find access to some sort of explanation will help speed things up, though. We’re not children, learning randomly as they do.
The key, though, whether or not you are using course materials, is to interact with the language in as active a way as possible (in addition to getting a lot of passive input exposure).
Plus, you have to keep at it. It’s that language habit again.
Energetic, deliberate vocabulary building
From the beginning, once I’d decided that I was serious about a language, I took a systematic (obsessive?) approach to vocab building.
I’d make flashcards with examples of key structural patterns (aka grammar) in my textbooks and the vocab, unit by unit.
In the days before there were flashcard apps, I always used small file index cards. I still do sometimes.
I’d go beyond the textbook and build out this vocab with words and phrases from published lists of vocabulary (themed by subject).
My reasoning was simple. I wanted to use the language in a wide variety of contexts, so I needed to start building out fluency in specific topic areas.
It was my vision goal that made this relevant.
If you’re learning because you need the language, say, to work in international client care dealing with Korean customers or because you’re crazy about French cheesemaking, you’d obviously expand in those areas as soon as possible.
One way to be methodical but hyper-applied is to flashcard phrases you come across in those live situations in which you’re exposed to the language. Jot down new phrases you hear or ones you try to say but realise you can’t (check with a native speaker how it’s said).
It’s all about keeping it relevant to you.
If you don’t fancy flashcards, by the way, you could try the Gold List Method.
When I started, I don’t think I knew anything about the important techniques of spaced recall and self-testing using flashcards.
I stumbled on such brain-savvy methods more-or-less by accident. That was thanks to a weakness: my bad memory mean I’d never just assume I’d remember something.
You can do it much more consciously, as I do now.
Using interim staging posts or “path goals”
We all know that the way to tackle a big task is to break it up into smaller pieces.
One advantage of using a course book was that the units made it easy to set interim staging posts or “path goals” in my language learning journey. I’m doing it now with my latest project, too.
Once I’ve got to an intermediate level, the goal might be preparing for a German exam or a Russian exam in three months’ time or ramping up the work for a month in before a big event such as a TV appearance, where I’d have to speak Basque.
I find that interim goals give me something more concrete to aim for than my more general vision of “being fluent”.
Even if your end goal is more specific, I bet you too will find that marking out the journey into actionable, time-bound stages really helps.
Lots of listening practice
I always got as much listening practice as I could. Often, I’ve done a great deal of listening before I’ve done much speaking.
With my French self-study, where I already had a basis from school to work form, that meant a lot of listening to naive level radio when reception quality allowed. For several months I didn’t understand very much but then (thanks to the interplay with my on-going work on structures and vocabulary), I gradually understood more and more.
Listening practice has always played a huge part in my language learning since then. It has sometimes gone a bit wrong, though. I’m thinking of when, in the early days of my Russian, I decided to tune in to short-wave radio broadcasts for 20 mins each night, only to be told by a native ten days in that I was listening to the BBC Ukrainian service.
I now know that getting a lot of oral exposure early on really is a brain-savvy way of working.
With an early listening binge, you’re going with the flow of nature (babies listen a lot before they try to speak).
Yes, we need to produce language, and there’s nothing to stop you speaking as early and as often as you like, if that’s your inclination. Exchanges will work better if you can understand the other person.
I couldn’t find a Welsh self-study course with audio when I started that language. In pre-internet days, you couldn’t pick up Welsh radio in Oxford.
Once I moved to Wales to live, though, I binged on radio and TV. For nine months.
A couple of years before that, I attended my first summer school in Welsh. I got quite a shock just how far out some of my pronunciation had been. I was saying eye-she-eye for “eisau” (to want), which is actually pronounced nearer to i-shah (“i” as in “bin” and with a short “a”).
I put a lot of emphasis now on working on the pronunciation at the very beginning.
I don’t have a natural ear for accents, so it’s doubly important for me return to some work on how I’m sounding it again and again throughout, to stop bad habits forming.
It’s all part of tuning in to the sounds of the language.
Visiting the country and really starting to speak when I’d already got a good foundation
Speaking early and speaking often was not how it went when I was learning my first languages. I’ve begun all my languages outside the country. Today, with the internet, that’s so much easier. I now use the internet to get listening – and to get chatting much sooner.
I could still have sought people out in England back in the early days, but as an introvert – and shy to boot – I didn’t do that.
All the same, creating community is a great thing to sustain you in language learning.
If you’re learning a language because you already need it in a certain social context, that’s a great advantage.
If you’re an extrovert and social risk taker, that’s great too. You’ll create community despite yourself. Just avoid one thing: beware of slipping into English all the time or (if you’re in the country, of ending up an an “ex-pat bubble”).
With my Welsh, Russian and German, I was determined to go and live Wales, Russia and Germany to use the language daily.
I was young and carefree. With no obligations at home to hold me back, good health, and the huge advantage of being a kid from a wealthy country (though without parental funds behind me), this was only a question of the determination to do it, and good planning.
Decades later, I’m very grateful to my younger self in that respect at least. I now cherish those earlier language experiences.
They helped tremendously with the language and I’d encourage anyone learning a language to go to countries where it’s spoken.
When you arrive in a country at the beginning of a longer stay, setting up your new life can leave little time and energy for language learning. I think I got it right, then, not to move abroad until I’d already got the basics of a language.
When I got to the Soviet Union, I met people who’d learned English without ever having the opportunity to travel. Even though I’d still say go if you can, I’ve understood since then that you don’t have to spend time “in the field” to get fluent. Then, the Soviets had the radio (when it wasn’t jammed) a few recordings and books. Now with satellite TV and the net it’s so much easier.
You don’t even always go abroad to find real, live communities of people speaking your target language. There may be immigrant groups living somewhere near you.
Insisting on speaking your target language
Once I arrived in a new country, I was determined only to use the target language as much as possible. Because I had a basis, it was easier to build a work and social life through it from the beginning.
In Russia, not many people spoke English, so keeping things Russian was relatively easy.
In Germany, knowledge of English is more widespread and there was much more of a risk I wouldn’t use so much German.
Aiming for a natural flow to my speech helped me “keep it native” in Germany.
Sounding convincing was all the more important in thoroughly bi-lingual Wales.
I found I was able to sound relatively fluent even with limited structures and vocab at my command. Developing that sense of flow is about tuning in.
It’s not just the pronunciation of individual sounds that matter.
Stress patterns and the intonation of a whole sentence are important. It also helps to learn some “fillers” and other useful techniques to keep a dialogue going.
Another part of the flow is simply speaking at a natural speed.
When it was a choice between accuracy and speed, I’d choose speed. I wasn’t afraid to make mistakes, to describe my way round words or phrases I didn’t know or get as close as I could to what I wanted to say.
Getting into the culture
As I was in the country I discovered new things about language and life there and this fed back into motivation and created new reasons “why?”.
It was also part of “tuning in” this time to the culture, rather than the sounds.
I started to see that you can’t always translate words directly. I discovered that the set phrases and styles of speech could be quite different to what would happen in English.
I also started to see that even when I understood the words, a phrase or reference would only really make sense if I “got” the cultural reference.
You can acquire an awful lot of this cultural context from exposure to books, films, lyrics.
You can read, listen or watch from your armchair at home, too.
Getting into the culture feeds back into motivation and may create new motivations.
Playing the long game
If your aims are relatively modest, learning a new language doesn’t have to be that long a game.
Let’s be clear, though: mastery takes years.
Yet, if you’re building the language into your life, we can see this not as a problem, but a source of deeper pleasure.
I’ve found that once I’ve reached an upper intermediate level with a language, the ability sticks.
Then, if you want the language in your life, you need to keep it relevant. If not, even after a pause of five, ten or twenty years, you can make it relevant again and quickly get back to where you left off.
These, then, have been some of the keys to my language learning success. Do you find that they unlock progress for you too? Are there ones you just don’t agree with or other that I haven’t mentioned? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.
Look out for the next and final post in the “Dr Popkins Method” series, “Four Keys to Language Learning Success”.
Other posts in the “Dr Popkins Method?” series: