Friday, January 28, 2011

10 Simple Ways to Make Language Learning a Lifestyle

When we think of learning a second language, the images that come to mind are often of books, teachers, and classrooms.  While there is something to be said for language classes and outright studying, sometimes more passive language learning can yield longer lasting results.

Often times students will spend hours and hours studying vocabulary and grammar for their language classes only to forget the majority of what they have learned once the class is over.  It seems that the brain tends to remember only what it has to, purging itself periodically of information it no longer deems essential.  Detailed knowledge of a foreign language, as well as other types of information learned in an academic setting, often settles only into short term memory.

So, what can be done to avoid forgetting what you have learned of your target language, and how can you learn a language without spending hours doing repetitive memorization tasks?  The key is to make language learning a part of your life.  What follows are some simple suggestions for living a lifestyle that is conducive to language learning. 

1.  Label items in your home.  

More than likely you spend at least half of your day in your home.  This makes your home a valuable potential learning space and it's easy to make use of it.  Write out labels in your target language for various items in your home and place those labels on the respective items.  Don't worry about labeling everything at once - you don't want to get burned out.  Do a label here and there when you feel like it.  You can even label things like walls, doors, and the ceiling.  Seeing the labels as you go about your daily business will help you to quickly associate the appropriate words in your target language with the items you've labeled.  When you've decided that a word has been permanently committed to memory, take the label down and make a label for another item in your home.

2.  Watch television in your target language.

Media is a powerful thing.  We've all seen the studies that show how certain types of television programs affect children.  It has everything to do with the fact that television reaches us in ways that are unique and long lasting.  Use it to your advantage by spending some time watching programs in the language you're trying to learn.  Watching television in another language is an excellent way to learn words via inference because both visual as well as audio clues alert you to the meanings of new words you encounter.  It doesn't matter what stage of your language learning you're in because watching TV in your target language can have benefits for both new second language learners as well as advanced learners.  New learners can get a feeling for the cadences, rhythms and phonetics of a language, while learners who are already advanced in their target language can acquire new vocabulary by using the aforementioned visual and audio clues to figure out the meanings of various words.

3.  Make friends with people who speak the language.

Making friends with people who speak your target language can be one of the most valuable ways to learn a language.  Having the opportunity to use your language skills as you develop them is a surefire way to turn short term language memories into long term language memories.  Speak to these friends in your target language as often as you can.  The vast majority of the time, people love to help others who are learning their native language.  People love to be teachers because it makes them feel good about themselves.  Practicing your language skills with a native speaker is a win win situation for that reason.

4.  Keep a new word journal. 

Keeping a new word journal is valuable because it not only gives you the opportunity to engage in kinesthetic and visual learning, but also gives you an easy way to track what you've learned so far and review periodically.  Maintaining your journal can be as simple as writing down the new words you learn each day.  

5.  Don't try to learn too much at once.

A couple words a day solidified in your memory is better than temporarily memorizing 100 words that you'll forget in a week.  You'll be surprised to find how quickly you can build your vocabulary if you simply make an effort to use a few new words over and over each day until you cannot possibly forget them.

6.  Use repetition.

As you learn new vocabulary words, be sure to also recycle new words from weeks previous.  Choose a few brand new words to focus on each day, but add one or two recently learned words to your list as well.  While you may feel that you've learned those words sufficiently, emphasizing them a second time will only remind your brain that these words are not to be forgotten.  Neglecting to review from time to time will result in a vocabulary that grows at a slower rate because as new words are learned, old words are forgotten. 

7.  Visit language learning web sites.

Make the most of the internet by frequenting web sites devoted to learning your target language.  The key to fluency in any language is constant use of and exposure to that language.  Language websites, as opposed to books and television programs, tend to be more interactive, giving you better choice as to what you want to focus on.  And don't forget to make use of sites like Google Translate, which allow you to translate not only words, but entire paragraphs of text as well as websites and video captions.

8.  Don't overemphasize grammar in the early learning stages.

The complex grammar of any language can be overwhelming.  While learning grammar directly has its merits, if you treat language learning as a lifestyle, you'll find that simply exposing yourself to your target language on a regular basis will allow you to glean knowledge of its basic grammar.  While in the early stages of learning a language, focus most of your attention on learning vocabulary.  While you may not be able to speak a language perfectly in the short term, you can both get your point across as well as understand your target language with vocabulary alone.  When you have built your vocabulary to a decent size, you will find that you already know the framework of your target language's grammar.  You can then begin to build on that framework with focused grammar learning.

9.   Make certain words a part of your daily routine.

Find creative ways to use your target language in the context of your everyday life.  When we first brought our dog home, we found that she had already learned a few simple commands like "sit", and "stay".  One day I thought it would be fun to teach her "sit" in Chinese - "zuò xià" (坐下).  She learned the command quickly, and thanks to using it on a regular basis that phrase in particular has become a permanent part of my Chinese vocabulary.

10.  Listen to music in your target language.

It cannot be emphasized enough how important it is to learn a language from a wide variety of sources.  Music is just another way to trigger a different part of your brain and use that part of your brain for language learning.  Not only is it fun to experience music from other cultures, but it also becomes exciting when you begin to understand what you hear.  Music is an excellent way to practice hearing and understanding, and it can be a fun way to challenge your ability to translate quickly.

While there are certainly many more ways to incorporate language learning into your daily life, the above suggestions are a great place to start.  Feel free to share your own suggestions for fostering a language learning lifestyle by leaving a comment.

1.  zuò xià ("zwoh see ah") 坐下  sit; sit down
"Sit down (zuò xià)!" the mother told her son as he jumped up and down on the couch wearing his cap and gown.

For more help pronouncing Mandarin words, click here.  

Image by Jepoirrier via Flickr.  Licensed under Creative Commons - some rights reserved. 

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