Forget about fluency and how languages are taught at school: as an adult learner you can take a whole new approach

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How to learn a language (and stick at it)​

Forget about fluency and how languages are taught at school: as an adult learner you can take a whole new approach

by John Gallagher


What to do​

The first thing to do when learning a language is to forget about fluency (whatever that means). It’s easy to get disheartened if your goal is something that’ll take years to achieve. Setting achievable, measurable goals is crucial to successful language learning. You wouldn’t go out on your first jog with the aim of running a marathon: so, when starting a new language, think about tangible, short-term goals that will give you a sense of achievement. Right at the beginning of your journey, this might be learning to read a new alphabet or a certain number of characters, or learning some basic phrases to introduce yourself. As you make progress and start to hit your goals, you can formulate new ones – maybe you’d like to be able to have a short, simple conversation with a native speaker, or read a news article. Your goals don’t need to be the goals of your textbook; it’s fine to skip learning colours or professions for now if what you need is a suite of basic verbs that you know you’re going to use every day, or a grasp of key linking words (so, then, but) that show up in every single conversation. As you work out your goals, you’ll also get better at analysing your own language needs at every stage and identifying exactly what you need to learn next.


Deciding on goals also means deciding on how to get there. People spend a lot of time thinking about which language to learn, but it’s easy to neglect the how of language learning. If you studied another language at school, you might not have had to think about process and technique very much – your teacher will have made most of the decisions about what you learnt and when. But as an independent learner, you need to think about how you’re going to get to where you want to be. So, think about what you actually want out of learning a new language. Do you want to chat with locals when you’re on holiday, or are you hoping to read untranslated novels? Clarity on your goals will help you to think strategically about the methods that are going to help you most. This isn’t a new insight – the field of ‘language for specific purposes’ has been around for years, helping learners who need a new language for work or their studies to focus on the material that’s most relevant to them. But its principles are applicable for ordinary language learners, too. Be specific in your goals and ask what you want to be able to do with your new language – at least to start with.
 

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