Learning a new language has never been easier as it is today. With unlimited access to a diverse array of language learning applications and websites, as well as foreign language courses being offered in schools, more people are becoming multilingual today ((IALC), 2016) That said, picking up a foreign language is not as popular in Singapore. Only about 6.5% of Singaporeans are literate in three or more languages (Singapore Department of Statistics, 2010). While bilingualism is widely encouraged in schools, expanding into multilingualism is not. With its lack of popularity, many Singaporeans view language learning as an arduous task.
However, the benefits of learning a new language are far from few. It improves cognitive development (Hakuta, 1985) and can delay the onset of age-related cognitive losses such as Alzheimer’s and dementia (Bialystok, Craik, Klein & Viswanathan, 2004). It also enhances memory, problem-solving skills and verbal and spatial abilities, which boosts intelligence and aids in other academic achievements (Armstrong & Rogers, 1997). Above all, being multilingual opens up many opportunities to expand networks, travel more and receive more academic and job offers. Picking up a new language does not have to be an arduous task, but an exciting and fruitful one.
Here are six easy steps to help you in your language learning Here are six easy steps to help you in your language learning
1. Set realistic learning goals
There are 7117 languages spoken around the world today, including dialect, indigenous and other endangered languages (Ethnologue, 2020). To make the most out of your language learning journey, picking a suitable language to learn is a crucial first step. It is important to anticipate how difficult learning will be depending on the language chosen, so you can set realistic goals. A good way to understand your standard of language learning is to identify your level of language proficiency for the language(s) you currently know using the CEFR framework below. If you are proficient in a language, you would be at Level C2, whereas if you’re still at the foundational level, you would be at Level A1.
As you embark on your language learning journey, it is beneficial to set realistic weekly goals based on this framework. Nobody masters a language overnight and everyone’s journey is different. Therefore, understanding your standard of learning will allow you to set realistic, attainable goals to avoid feeling overwhelmed!
2. Understand the background of the language
To master a language, one has to be proficient in all four skills of language use: listening, reading, speaking and writing. Each type of language has its unique methods that make for efficient and effective mastering of these skills. To devise a game plan in mastering a new language, one must first understand the background of the language. In general, there are three types of languages that people learn: Romanised, ideographic and purely spoken languages.
Each type of language brings about different difficulties for different people. For instance, a native English speaker would find ideographic languages terribly difficult to read and write, while a native Thai speaker would find it rather confusing for Romanised languages to have alphabetical writing systems. Purely spoken languages are also difficult to master due to the lack of a written form, so learners would have to adopt auditory learning strategies, which mainly comprise listening to conversations and practising speech in that language. If you are a native English speaker who is keen to learn an ideographic language, character recognition is one of the biggest challenges you will face (Yang, 2018). It is best to start out romanising the characters of the writing system (such as Pinyin for Mandarin Chinese) and then go on to commit the actual characters to memory. Recognising patterns and developing logographic awareness of the characters are also helpful in memory work.
Therefore, it is important to understand the potential difficulties you may face in learning a certain language. This would allow you to devise and set more realistic learning goals specific to the language.
3. Make learning a daily habit
Consistency is important in learning as it helps in expanding and refreshing our knowledge bank. Whether it is using online platforms or textbooks, time spent practising a new language is one of the key factors that determines one’s proficiency in the language. A research done by the United Stated Foreign Service Institute found that for native English speakers, Romanised languages typically took 480 hours of practice to reach basic fluency, while ideographic and purely spoken languages took up to 720 hours to achieve the same results (Lufkin & Rubinstein, 2019). While the duration seems daunting, with an hour a day’s practice, a native English speaker can master the basics of a Romanised language within two years.
In addition, maintaining consistency will refresh one’s memory from past practices. Research has shown that consistent revision helps with long term retention and drawing connections between different concepts. While it may be tempting for some to cram 480 hours of language practice into 20 days, it is more beneficial to adopt spaced learning. Having intervals between learning sessions allows one to consolidate and retain information longer.
4. Adopt effective learning strategies
In the beginning, it is normal to feel overwhelmed with the amount of information one has to absorb to merely master the basics of a language. But fret not! It is always good to start with a blocked learning strategy, in which learners will start and finish an entire topic before moving on to a new one. Blocked learning helps one to approach a new language in an organised way that would not overwhelm the learner. If you are learning with the aid of an online platform or a teacher, you will most likely be adopting blocked learning with a prepared syllabus or curriculum. Typically, learning is split up by the content (for example, vocabulary in different contexts) or by the type of language use (writing, reading, listening, speaking).
However, once you have acquired a fairly basic foundation in the language, it is beneficial to adopt an interleaving learning strategy instead, in which the different topics are mixed up during practice. Interleaving stimulates more cognitive activity as one switches between different tasks, and while this strategy requires more effort, it results in more learning. Research has shown that interleaved practice produces higher levels of contextual interference in skill acquisition, which thereby results in better real life application (Ali, Fawver, Kim, Fairbrother & Janelle, 2012). To implement this, try reading aloud texts to practise both reading and speaking concurrently, or transcribing a video in that language to practise listening and writing.
5. Learn with real people and situations
More often than not, people learn new languages to communicate with others through speech. If this is your goal, drowning yourself in textbooks and worksheets may not be the best way to master a language. Instead, interacting with people who speak that language will be much more effective. When we encode information in the same environment that we are going to apply it in, we also encode cues for information retrieval when using it in real life situations. This is especially important for learning purely spoken languages that have no written form.
This can be simply implemented by finding native speakers to practise with, even if it is over the Internet. Do not be afraid to make mistakes! When conversing with native speakers, they are often more appreciative of your effort to learn their language than you think.
However, if that is not your cup of tea, simply listening to native speakers in conversation can also be, if not more, beneficial. A study done in 2016 found that native Spanish speakers learning to distinguish sounds in the Basque language improved more by simply listening to conversations in Basque than those who practised speaking the sounds out loud (Baese-Berk & Samuel, 2016). Therefore, simply listening to podcasts, music or watching videos in another language makes for effective learning too. Adopting these methods in the long run will definitely push you closer to native-like fluency.
6. Don’t forget to have fun
Learning a new language is more than just mastering a new skill – it is a gateway to new experiences: making new friends, exploring new places, understanding new cultures; the list goes on. Thus, language learning has to go beyond the realm of textbooks and worksheets; it should realise itself in watching your favourite movies in Spanish, cooking with recipes in Tamil, listening to songs in Croatian, or even chatting with a waiter in Cantonese. It requires courage to embark on a language learning journey, and even more to practise it. Be creative and have fun!
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Lufkin, B. & Rubinstein, P. (2019, February 19). How to learn a language in an hour a day. BBC. URL: https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20190219-how-to-learn-a-language-in-an-hour-a-day. Retrieved on 13 June 2020.
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Yang, J. (2018). What makes learning Chinese characters difficult? The voice of students from English secondary schools. Journal of Chinese Writing Systems, 2(1), 35-41.
About the Author
Marisa Lim Ching Yee
Marisa Lim Ching Yee is a Biomedical Engineering major at the National University of
Singapore. Picking up a third language kindled her passion for learning