How do I learn languages?

I am currently going through that phase following the end of a particularly inspirational book. You know, when you get to the last page, sigh after the last word and contradictory feelings are crossing your soul. The book I am talking about is New Finnish Grammar by Dario Marani (read here what The Guardian has said about it). Mariani is a linguist, and his linguist hand has left its mark throughout the book. The story features a young man, named Sampo Karjalainen, and his journey to retrieve his supposed Finnish identity through the re-acquisition of the Finnish language, which he has irreversibly forgotten together with his past due to severe head injuries. The narration is partitioned by references to his private language lessons carried out by a doctor first, and a priest afterwards. They both lead him into the world of sounds and inflections of the Finnish language, a world that Sampo explores with fervent enthusiasm, as he merges his attempts to language acquisition with his quest for his own identity.

Sampo’s passionate engagement has drawn my attention to an aspect that embraces pretty much my whole life, and yet it barely slips into daily conversations or into my general work: the actual language-learning process. I have been asked quite often about ‘my secrets’, how I can just remember words, sounds and grammar rules and put them together fairly easily. First of all, I feel like I have to confess my sins: I fall in love with new languages very quickly and as soon as I have mastered the most basic elements of one language, I am already switching to a new, different language crush. That said, I acknowledge that what ultimately boosts my language skills is a proper obsession for the process itself. I find the possibility to express a thought, a feeling or an idea with different words and sounds absolutely fascinating – and highly satisfying. As a result, my ears feel an odd pleasure in dealing with a new word. I record it in my favourite area of the brain, I repeat it to myself until it becomes mine. Lately, this has occurred with the words tietää (Finnish, to know), Morgenthau (German, morning dew), obuolys (Lithuanian, apple) and today with the English debunk, which I’ve found in an article I have read before dinner.

This is how ‘love at first hearing’ usually occurs. A word overheard on the bus, or in the historical areas of my hometown where I always have the chance to come across some interesting tourists. Now the interest has sparked off – what happens next?

Which are the best ways to gain fluency in a language? Personally, this is what I find crucial:

Learn your native language!

So obvious and yet such a neglected point. Knowledge of one’s native language (or the lack of it) does make a huge difference between a successful learning outcome and the struggled nightmare of a very slow journey. Language learning implies a kind of technical jargon whose understanding by the learners is absolutely determining. When German teachers point out that in German subordinate clauses require the main verb to go down at the end of the sentence (e.g. Ich weiß, dass Johannes 14 Jahre alt ist), they are hopeful that the learner will understand what ‘subordinate clause’ means. If s/he doesn’t, that will inevitably slow down the learning process. So: make sure your knowledge of your own language and its grammar is up to date – this will make everything a great deal easier, faster and more straight-forward.

Be the child within you!

We’ve all been through the tough process of learning a language, and we’ve all been successful: the earliest years of childhood. A good method to learn a new language is to start that process anew. I am currently learning Dutch through a children’s book. Sentences are short and easy, concepts are stated repetitively with different words and phrases thus providing a wide range of expressivity. With this kind of language, implying the meaning from the context will always work. This is how I learnt how to say ‘I am a bit shy’ for example. (Ik ben een beetje verlegen!). This stage is now crucial, and makes a difference between a long and short learning programme. The best way to learn a language is to experience it first hand in the country where it’s spoken – and I’m not being very original here. The constant exposition to it places the learner in a linguistic childhood, where s/he acquires and repeats what is told, in a wide range of circumstances. Like those of necessity, for instance.

Language of necessity.

A baby starts speaking so that he or she can communicate their needs to the parents. Need drives language. It has been studied that learning a language through necessity improves the learning outcomes considerably. I will not talk around it, but I will portray an exemplary situation to prove the point. You are in France, and your knowledge of the French language is fairly limited. You are catching the plane home on the next day, but you have just realized that you still haven’t printed your ticket. You suddenly get stressed because you know that you cannot leave without it, and as you booked with a cheap airline, you cannot cancel your booking without loosing all the money you’ve spent on it. You don’t have a printer but you need one. You are in a village in the west, no one speaks English and you have no idea of how to say printer in French. You try in a shop: the lady there does not understand what you want so she just gives up and you leave the shop discouraged. The same happens in the second shop. You are increasingly stressed. In the third shop, the lady there is patient and tries to help you. Using absurd periphrasis you get through her and she yells enthusiastically: ‘imprimante!’. You repeat the word to yourself, hating it badly. Hating so much, that you will never forget it anymore. (The example provided might or might not correspond to a true, personal story).

Read IPA

Interaction determines proficiency. Relying upon books, magazines, online articles will definitely enhance your knowledge of vocabulary and of grammar put in context, but will be not directly helpful for your pronunciation and thus communicative skills. During my first year at uni I was suddenly exposed to a huge amount of new words that I found in academic articles and books I had to read as assignment. I learnt so many new terms, but every time I found myself in the right context to make them useful and actually employ them in my speech, I used to fail most of the time. Simply because I used to never check their pronunciation. Reading helps your understanding of texts and your ability to write, but a close focus on it also compromises your communication skills. Especially if you are dealing with a language like English, French (or the worst of the worst, Chinese) mispronunciation might extensively prevent communication from being delivered effectively.

Fetch the recorder!

Yes, I know, it’s ridiculously awkward for all of us. But I swear, it’s useful. Recording your voice gives you the opportunity to assess your performance more thoughtfully. Or even recording a video of yourself speaking with your webcam: that would give you access also to different elements of your oratorical skills. As an improvised ‘external observer’ you would be able to spot flaws and strong points and use them to improve yourself. This activity is strictly connected with listening tasks. A good way to employ both resources is to write down a conversation or a monologue from a movie, reading it along with the actors and then repeating it to yourself. Then compare the two versions. You’ll be surprised to find this extremely useful!

If you have more useful tips, feel free to share them!