Improving Your Foreign Language Skills

By: Mariana Souza

A good deal of people says this, and I must agree: do not rely only on a classroom to learn a new language. Unless the teaching method is very dynamic and focused on valuable matters, you will probably find yourself in a cycle of attempting to memorise grammar no one uses and watching Romeo & Juliet with subtitles.

Furthermore, a couple of times a year, the classic “but you’ve learnt this last year” will come around, and despite the fact that everyone agrees, just a few can actually remember the subject. I pray ye move on whilst ye may.

There are exceptions, of course. A college-level advanced French class will certainly teach you precious content, remarkable literature. However, in order for you to reach that class level, there is a long way to walk and learn.

If you are in High School, there is a much higher chance that you will be allowed to study any language course offered by your institution. Still, if you don’t take it seriously, you will not remember anything further than “Bounjour! Ça va?” or “¡Hola! ¿Qué tal?”

Having studied in Spain, language was a bigger barrier than I could’ve imagined, and Spanish class was particularly difficult in the beginning. During my first term, I struggled with grammar structures I didn’t understand, that were explained with sentences and phrases I didn’t know the meaning. If I only knew the definition and context of what I was trying to assimilate in advance, then perhaps I might have had been more successful academically.

On the other hand, Economics (still in Spain) class was far easier and engaging since my teacher wanted me to comprehend the full figure and apply it to my life before trying to stick little structural pieces inside my head.

Practicing my Spanish daily, but focusing on diverse topics really helped me expand my knowledge and excel when the Literature term came around. This is why I suggest that you should avoid making grammar your first move into learning a foreign language.

For as much as it is crucial, it will have more significant outcomes if you already have an idea of what is going on prior to sinking deep. Grammar will become a tool to enhance what you already know.

Consider that a good speaker is also a good listener. If you are intuitively curious, it is more likely that you will know when and how to correct yourself, whether you are writing or talking, regardless of your academic background.

Remember when you were a child, you learned your first language just by hearing other people talk; no one taught you grammar probably until you reached kindergarten or elementary school. Even so, everything happened quite simply. In as much as it is hard to learn a language just by hearing others as a grown up, recall that you also have the ability to read.

Become an avid reader, devour books, magazines, the newspaper. You might not have a clue of what is going on in the first few chapters or pages, but then your brain will start adapting and the process of learning will become a lot easier.

“Fake it till you make it.” Back in my pre-teen years, if I wanted to watch TV series, it had to be either in English or I’d have to wait a century until the subtitled version arrived in Brazil. My older brother didn’t give me another option.

During those days I felt cool yet dumb. Cool because I was watching something in a foreign language with no subtitles. Cooler because it was rated PG-13, and I was only about eleven (rebellious, I know). Dumb because, initially, I couldn’t understand half of the conversation between the characters, and had to pause the episode every 3 minutes to re-watch the scene. Nevertheless, I can give Gossip Girl some credit on my English development, for it eventually helped me.

Whilst only watching TV series and movies without subtitles didn’t make me fluent, it gave me the confidence to strive for more. This whole idea of communicating in another language, meeting people from all around the world, talking to my brother in English so that my parents wouldn’t understand, it was all really intriguing to me.

Likewise, I don’t doubt one’s ability to learn a new language through movies and books alone; it is completely possible as long as you are focused. Not everyone can afford to study abroad, or pay for a local course, or simply don’t have enough time to go to classes. But there are other alternatives to immerse yourself in a new language and culture whilst still being at home. Re-read your favourite novel, watch foreign movies (not dubbed) on Netflix, adjust the settings of your phone and computer, change the language of some of your habits and of things that surround you daily.

Although it may take some time, you can do it with determination. Some people take longer, others are faster. Learning a new language doesn’t need to be a monotonous experience in which you stare at a teacher for hours weekly. It is supposed to be fun and rewarding.

Perfection may be unattainable, but it is an ideal, and it requires practice. Be patient, don’t fool yourself thinking that you will be fluent after just two weeks (if you are able to, you have some extraordinary God-given gift). That will only cause you to be anxious, and forget what should be the main reason to learn a new language.

It is great (and essential) to aim at the top of the stairs, however, take one step at a time and make it count. Don’t jump any step, don’t skip important content. Each thing you learn is necessary for the whole package. Therefore, keep on studying until you reach a full professional or even native proficiency. And then you will truly see how enormous the world can be.

If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.

– Nelson Mandela

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