The University Network

How to Learn a Foreign Language

Technology can connect people from the very opposite ends of the globe today in a matter of seconds. However, it is one thing to connect and another to communicate.

According to Russell A. Berman, professor of German studies and of comparative literature at Stanford University and former president of the Modern Language Association, Americans’ overwhelming dependency on English alone is making Americans fall behind their global counterparts in their ability to communicate in more than one language.

For example, while most European students must begin learning their first foreign language between the ages of 6 and 9, only 7 percent of American college students are enrolled in a language course. Consequently, while 54 percent of Europeans can speak more than one language, only 17 percent of Americans can.

As native English speakers, some may think they can get by in their English-dominated world and brush this off as another statistic irrelevant to their personal lives. However, more than ever, U.S. companies, schools and governments are collaborating with international citizens in our homeground as well as theirs.

So really, anyone living, working and socializing in this globalized generation can and will at some time face difficulties because of a language barrier. Of course, not everyone needs to be a polyglot to survive, but here are some of many reasons why we might want to learn a foreign language.

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1. For Career

Being a bilingual is no longer just an addition to our resumes, but essential in some industries. According to a recent report by New American Economy, in just five years from 2010 to 2015, job postings aimed at bilingual workers in the U.S. more than doubled. This means that many employers, with a choice between two candidates with generally similar skill sets other than language, will very likely hire a bilingual over a monolingual. Particularly, the report found that Chinese, Spanish and Arabic are the top three languages most demanded in job markets. And beyond simply getting a job, learning a language automatically helps with understanding culture, which will leave a much mindful impression on foreign business partners or fellow employees.

2. For Brain

Learning a foreign language is an amazing exercise to our brains. Numerous studies have proved cognitive benefits of dual-language learning. According to NPR, experts agreed that, compared to monolingual students, bilingual students have higher attention rate, social and emotional skills, school performance and even protection against cognitive decline, such as Alzheimer’s.

3. For Travel

If you’re a frequent traveler, you would know that knowing even just a few simple phrases in the language of the land can make your travel cheaper and easier. This means saving time and money, while gaining more authentic experience. Rather than heading straight to a restaurant that a hotel concierge recommended, asking around and finding your way into a local cafe will make the experience more memorable and, most likely, give you access to tastier foods.

4. For Fun

People who can only think of heavy grammar rules when asked about learning a foreign language might laugh at this. But, I assure you, it can be — when you actually communicate with it. Bogged down by foreign grammar rules that never make sense or words that never sound like their meanings, many people give up all their hard work before tasting what it’s like to understand a song in a foreign language or talk with locals in a foreign country. When the things you learned in books are actually used in the wild, that’s when you can confidently say, “I can speak in such language.”

Now that you are aware of the wide spectrum of benefits of a foreign language, let’s go through the five easy steps you need to learn a foreign language.

1. Start Easy

Just as kids learn their native languages, start easy. Label physical objects in your house. Read a short children’s book every day. Whatever way it may be, remember to start with learning the most basic, yet useful words and phrases. You won’t be prepared for the next great debate or a page long essay yet, but you will feel confident having basic conversations. And being able to communicate is the most important and rewarding part of learning a foreign language.

2. Keep a Balance

Studies suggest that people master a foreign language not by heavy grammar study and memorization, but by comprehending what they hear and read in that language. Obviously, you won’t be able to comprehend anything without at least having some knowledge of vocabulary and grammar. However, don’t think you need to know every grammar rule before going into actual reading and talking.

3. Use Free/Cheap Resources

With so much resources available online for free, I dare say there really is no reason for beginners to spend money when trying out a language. Make use of different media platforms and build a studying routine that best fits you.

Online lessons

    • Duolingo, contributed and shared by real bilinguals, provides lessons in 31 languages.
    • Memrise, similar to Duolingo, provides lessons in 20 languages.
    • BBC Languages offers introductory online resources in 40 languages.
    • Pimsleur and Udemy offer lessons in multiple languages, including Spanish, French, German, Chinese and Japanese. Pimsleur offers free lesson and a discount on fees, while some Udemy courses, like these Spanish and Japanese courses, require a low one-time fee to access.
    • Rocket Language offers lessons in 13 languages, including sign language! You can first start with free trials and decide to continue with a one-time fee.

Pro tip: Check if your target country’s international TV or radio channels produce shows or offer online resources on learning their language for foreigners. For example, Deutsche Welle, a German broadcast station, and TV5 Monde, a French broadcast station, offer language courses on their websites. Since these international stations often act as cultural ambassadors for their countries, they are usually created by professionals.

Podcasts

    • Radiolingua provides free audio lessons in 5 languages.
    • Languagepod101 provides hundreds of audio and video lessons in 34 languages. Not all services are free.

Offline tools

    • Visit your local library to see if they offer any online and offline resources for learning a foreign language.  
    • Check out language exchange meetups in your local cities or join language clubs on campus.

Studying tools

    • Anki & Quizlet are online flashcards that are great tools for memorizing. Both are compatible across multiple devices.

4. Develop Helpful Habits

  • In Speaking: Talk, Talk, and Talk. Whatever comes out of it, open your mouth and start talking. It’s easier said than done. But remind yourself that the very reason to learn a foreign language is to communicate. Join clubs on campus or community meetups where you can freely socialize with fellow learners or natives. If there are none near you, take advantage of language exchange programs available online. Here are a couple of them: 
    • Papora provides more than just exchanging languages. There is a writing section where users share their writings so users who are more advanced can explain and comment.
    • LingoGlobe only allows people to message you after both parties agreed on an exchange.
  • In Reading: When learning a foreign language, one of the most common mistakes people make is that they look up every single foreign word they encounter. Remember that it’s more effective to grasp a general idea of a paragraph or a page and finish reading than to look up every word you don’t know in the first few sentences and later be too drained out to finish reading.

5. Set a Goal that Motivates You

A goal that really motivates you. Think of a song, a book or a movie you would love to understand and enjoy without translations. Because you are already a fan, looking up a few foreign words in your favorite lyric or replaying a scene in your favorite movie to test listening skills will not feel like studying. And more importantly, unlike a random dialogue in a textbook, you’ll actually want to understand what is being said.

Takeaway

Learning a language should really be about communicating. Just like our native languages connect us with our families, friends and co-workers, foreign languages can do the same with more variety in perspectives and cultures. And with all the resources available on different media platforms, learning a language should be an immersive experience and not simply be about committing a fraction of your day to books and pens.