The Number One Rule For Learning A Foreign Language

Maybe it’s your first conversation outside the classroom.

Perhaps you found a copy of a local newspaper in the language you’ve been studying.

Disaster strikes – and it’s a wake-up call: you’ve still got a long way to go!

So here’s the number one rule for getting your language beyond the classroom stage, and ready for the Real World: Diversify!

1a Diversify Your Reading

Read everything!

The vocabulary you’ll pick up from reading a chocolate wrapper or a cereal box (e.g. “ingredients”, “preservatives”, “grams”) is invaluable: it’s useful, you’re not necessarily going to come across it other than on the wrapper, and given the unique context, you’re more likely to remember it.

Bought a new appliance? Read the instructions in the language you’re learning! Again, you’ll get an amazing array of vocabulary in a completely unique context.

If you’re living in the country where the language you’re learning is spoken, this is quite easy, but even in your home country, with more and more internationalised packaging, you’ll find opportunities everywhere once you start looking for them.

If all else fails, there’s always the internet. Read online newspapers (and not just current affairs – read the sport reports, the culture section, the food guides), find good blogs about subjects you like, and see if you can get some basic literature (maybe short stories for kids) from Amazon.

1b Diversify Your Speaking

If you want to develop your speaking skills, there’s no getting around this: you have to have something to say! Read, think, have ideas, and express your opinions.

There are two things to think about here: diversify the people you’re speaking to, and diversify what you’re speaking to them about.

A really easy topic of conversation is always current affairs, especially if there’s a lot going on.

I’m currently living in Egypt, and everyone, literally EVERYONE, has an opinion on the ousted Islamist President and the current demonstrations. That’s a great launch-pad for conversations about democracy, religion, general issues people are having, what they hope will change, you name it.

The point is, you can look at it from a wide range of perspectives, and each of those perspectives is an opportunity to diversify your conversations.

1c Diversify Your Listening

For me, listening has always been the hardest foreign language skill to master. I lose the speaker for a couple of words, my concentration is thrown into complete disarray, and it takes a herculean effort to pick up the thread again. And then it happens all over again.

All this used to mean that I was benefitting very little from exposure to the spoken language. So the thought of simply diversifying it was not going to work for me.

So for audio, I’ve always needed a little help…

Enter Audacity! This powerful little program takes any audio file and allows you to edit the sound; most importantly, you can slow down the speed.

Suddenly, a whole new array of possibilities present themselves. You can find films, cartoons, documentaries, TV shows, news reports, and on and on.

Then all you need to do is extract the sound file, upload into Audacity, and slow it down to a manageable rate.

Once you’ve built up a library of audio, you can diversify not only what you’re listening to, but the speed at which you’re listening to it. Challenge yourself to process faster and faster (and, most importantly, more and more diverse!) audio tracks.

[Note: Audacity is a great open source piece of software that is FREE and really does allow you to slow down audio without losing quality – Aaron]

1d Diversify Your Vocabulary

Learning vocabulary as and when you come across a new word (which you certainly will, now that you have diversified your reading!), is great, but that’s not the only way to come across new words.

You can learning vocabulary systematically: you can go for a thematic approach (learn all the fruits in a day, and revise with each trip to the supermarket), or a frequency approach, where you learn the top few thousand words.

Better still, do both! And keep finding ways to diversify.

Go around your house and see if you can name everything in your target language.

Take a walk around your neighbourhood and do the same. When you come across a noun, think of common verbs associated with that noun, and look them up too (e.g. walking around your kitchen, a jam jar should get you thinking about whether you know the words jam, jar, lid, spread, open, twist etc.).

A number of online and offline resources are available in all the major languages.

1e Diversify Your Learning

Finally, don’t stop your formal learning. If you’ve finished a textbook, get another one and work through that. You’ll pick up new vocabulary, new useful phrases, it’ll clarify some things which were confusing in your first book or course and you’ll gain confidence in the material.

Diversification is the best way to keep language learning continually fun, continually challenging, and to make sure you’re continuing to make progress.

I hope you all can find creative ways to make your language learning as diverse as possible.

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