Tips for Acquiring a Foreign Language
Mar 29, 2009 English as a Foreign Language (EFL) 3122 Views
First, a little background. It takes an average of 7,000 hours to acquire fluency in a language when you're starting from zero. Of course, it depends on what your native language is, and which language you're trying to acquire. Going from Spanish into Italian (or vice-versa) isn't much of a stretch, and native Spanish speakers can do it in about six months. But if you're going from, say, English into a linguistically unrelated language like Japanese, it's going to take a lot more time.
If you figure that you've got about sixteen waking hours per day, do the math you'll see that moving to Japan and completely immersing yourself in the language will mean that you hit the 7,000 hour mark in about fourteen or fifteen months. Remember, that's using the language every waking minute. Conversely, if you take a one-hour language class once a day, you're looking at about twenty years. And if your language class is an hour once a week, well... basically you can forget it. You're not going to live that long.
So the first rule is: make sure that you do something in your target language each and every day. The more time you can spend in the language, the better, and the more consistent you can be in terms of daily activity, the better. In other words, fifteen minutes each day is better than two hours on Sundays, simply because you're using the language every day. There is a continuity effect. And if possible, try to study in a different manner each day. Take your class on Monday, for example, then on Tuesday keep a diary in the target language. (Don't worry if you can't write everything that you want to yet, just write something original.) On Wednesday, meet a conversation partner for some language exchange. On Thursday, rent a movie in the target language and watch it for a while. On Friday, review a recording of the class (you are recording your classes, aren't you?). Meet your conversation partner again on Saturday and then on Sunday listen to some podcasts and practice repeating the words and phrases. (For that matter, load your iPod up with music from the target culture and listen to it all the time.)
In other words, mix things up and try to get as much time-in-language as possible. Again, consistency throughout the week will be better than picking one day and trying to cram for several hours. You want to become familiar with the language, and get used to using it on a daily basis, not look at it as a subject that you want to pass tests in. (Even if you do want to pass tests, the more consistent method will give you superior results.)
The second tip is this: Whenever possible, study from materials that interest you personally.
Textbooks are fine, but let's face it: most of them are boring to the point of felony. They are a more or less necessary evil for those first painful steps into another language, but soon (and probably sooner than you think) you can and should get away from them in favor of using native materials that involve your own personal interests. In my own case, studying Japanese, I ventured very early on into books about linguistics and fitness magazines, since linguistics and fitness are two personal passions. Although the materials were extremely difficult for my level, because I wanted to know what the Japanese were thinking on these two topics, I persevered until I could read both fields with a high degree of fluency. By wrestling with native-level input, I was able to acquire complex sentence patterns and technical vocabulary in those fields very quickly... and it was enjoyable doing so!
The key here is to harness your own innate motivation and make it work for you. It's hard enough to get yourself to study something that you're not really interested in in your own language; add to that the difficulties inherent in a foreign language and it's practically impossible. There are studies that show failure rates as high as 99% when students are learning from "dry" materials that they are not personally interested in, so why make things difficult and set yourself up for failure? Take the easier and more productive way of studying from materials that will hold your attention and make you want to learn.
So, to sum up: Doing something with the language every day, using materials that you are really interested in, will significantly increase your likelihood of success in acquiring another language . Your journey will still take some time and effort, but at least the trip will be shorter and more enjoyable!