Improve your language learning:
10 experts’ tips

Publié le 12/11/2015 par Éditions Assimil
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Decalog language learning

We’ve asked each author for three recommendations that could be useful to you, regardless of the language you are learning and the level you have reached.

Everyone has their own way of learning a language, whether it’s immersing themselves totally in the culture, binge-watching TV series without subtitles or just hanging out with native speakers and enjoying a glass of wine (preferably Burgundy). Even so, there are some constants that should be borne in mind if you’re to get the most of out the experience. Here, ten Assimil authors – each with a different native language, or L1 – offer advice and tips on effective and enjoyable ways of picking up a new language.
All of them are specialists in the languages they teach, not only through Assimil publications but also face-to-face in classrooms or lecture theatres. But no matter whether they’re university professors, linguistics experts, teachers or hyperpolyglots, all of them were also language learners at one time or another (and some of them still are!). As such, they have experienced the same difficulties as you; been prey to the same doubts as you; and, like you, been disheartened from time to time. More importantly, they’ve experienced the same satisfaction on overcoming the barriers to learning, which are not actually insurmountable.

Catherine Garnier

L1: French
Other languages: Japanese, English, Italian, German, Greek, Latin
Author of our Japanese course.

1. Forget your own language and throw yourself headlong into your new universe. Don’t try to compare or translate. Be like a child who’s learning to talk for the first time.

2. Don’t forget that a language is inseparable from the culture it expresses. What you discover about that culture will make learning both fascinating and rewarding.

3. Don’t be afraid to jump right in. Everyone makes a fool of themselves when they speak a foreign language for the first time. But the second time, you’ve got the upper hand. And by the third time –and from then on – it becomes truly enjoyable!

Vincent Ilutiu

L1: Romanian
Other languages: French, English, Italian, Spanish, German, Russian
Author of our Romanian course.

1. At the beginning, obviously, you will have to content yourself with understanding the person your are talking to, without daring to say anything yourself. Get over this initial hurdle, which prevents you from speaking, as quickly as you can. Don’t worry: you’re allowed to make mistakes.

2. Don’t be afraid to use your emotions to help you learn. Since « the heart always has reasons that reason cannot know », the best thing would be to fall in love with a native speaker of the language you want to learn. You’ll find that it helps a lot …

3. Seize every opportunity to speak the language. Like with everything, continuity is as important when learning a language.

Tony Bulger

L1: English
Other languages: French, Italian, Latin, Greek
Author of our English and French courses, among other books.

1. Set yourself a target, or at least some specific milestones, before setting out. Don’t say « I want to learn French/Chinese/Spanish, etc. » but « I first want to communicate with my French/Chinese/Spanish colleagues in business context. I’ll give myself four months ». Or « I want to go on holiday to Italy next summer ». Then take it from there! Don’t forget: learning a new language takes time. You need to work at it on a regular basis – or every day. But above all, remember that it’s enjoyable.

2. Choose a reliable method (preferably Assimil), of course, but also surround yourself with all the media you can think of in order to get some extra depth. Use anything and everything that comes to hand – books, movies, songs, social media, blogs, whatever takes your fancy.

3. Above all, don’t worry about making mistakes or speaking with a « foreign accent ». That’s how you learn: by making mistakes. Forget your inhibitions and wake up your inner child!

Bettina Amir

L1: German
Other languages: French, Spanish, English
Author of the German phrasebook and workbook (false-beginner and advanced levels).

1. Plunge right in, even if you come a cropper the first few times. To learn a foreign language you have to speak it. What often prevents people from speaking is the fear of making mistakes, struggling to express ideas clearly, and being totally useless. It’s important to get over these horrid feelings and to use what you have learned. Making mistakes goes hand in hand with making progress.

2. Grammar is a live tool for learning, understanding and speaking a language. It’s not abstract or off-putting. Quite the contrary: like the assembly instructions for a Meccano kit, grammar shows you how all the new words you have learned can be put together in different ways.

3. Progress is not always smooth, so accept the ups and downs and learn at your own speed. Sometimes, of course, you will feel that you are stuck in a rut and can’t understand anything anymore, because a new rule will make you question what you have already learned. That’s normal. You learn in stages, some of which are harder to get through. And some people have more aptitude than others. Don’t let that dampen your desire to learn. Success will hinge largely on your persistence and motivation.

Jackie Messerich

L1: Luxembourgish
Other languages: German, French, English, and basic Italian, Russian and Finnish
Co-author of the Luxembourgish phrasebook and Luxembourgeois à Grande Vitesse

1. Seek out native speakers in order to practise what you’ve learned in your lessons. Insist on speaking to them in their own language, even if they answer you in yours out of politeness.

2. Use your own language resources and transfer that knowledge to the language you’re learning. You will always find similarities between the two in terms of both vocabulary and grammar.

3. Have the nerve to make mistakes. They’re part of the learning process and will help you make progress. They will point you towards (near) perfection.

Daniel Krasa

L1: German
Other languages: English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Arabic, Russian, Hebrew, Hindi, Urdu.
Languages studied: Turkish, Marathi, Punjabi, Gujarati, Romani, Mandarin, Cantonese, Thai, Indonesian, Malay, Persian, Ladino, Yiddish; and a smattering of Romanian, Serbian, Croatian, Dutch, Azerbaijani, Afrikaans, Zulu and Hungarian.
Author of Assimil’s Modern Standard Arabic and Urdu phrasebooks; adapter of the German versions of the Arabic, Hindi, Brazilian and Persian methods.

1. Create a personal relationship with your target language and transform the relationship into a passion that will give you very special access to your own way of learning. For that, you will have to immerse yourself totally in the language: listening to music, watching movies and reading simple texts, such as comic books. And don’t hesitate to use the language actively whenever you get an opportunity!

2. Set concrete goals and achievable timeframes in which to reach them. Say, for instance, « In three months’ time I want to be able to communicate simply with a native speaker », « In five months, I want to be able to read my favourite comic book in my target language (even if I have to use a dictionary) », and so on. Believe me: it’s much more effective than following a diet – thank heavens!

3. Don’t be scared by situations that make you feel as if you haven’t reached your goal. We learn a lot from our mistakes, and it’s quite normal to feel ill at ease in the target language during the early stages of learning. As in anything, practice makes perfect.

Naiana Bueno

L1: Brazilian Portuguese
Other languages: French, Italian, Spanish
Author of the Brazilian phrasebook.

1. Travel! It’s often when you’re travelling that you develop and perfect your language learning skills.

2. If you can’t or don’t want to travel, watch TV in a foreign language! That may sound silly, but given the wide variety of multimedia options available to us, you can start by getting used to the sounds of a language from a distance. Music can also be part of this learning process. Babies learn the sounds of a language before starting to speak. Do as babies do: listen, listen and listen.

3. Don’t translate sentences word for word in your head! It prevents your brain from trying to understand the logic of the foreign language. Learning means trying first to understand the general meaning of a sentence; the syntax will follow gradually. Be patient.

Jean-Charles Beaumont

L1: French
Languages spoken: English, German, Spanish, Basque, Italian and … Québécois!
Languages learned but now rusty (or fossilised, to use the linguistic jargon): Arabic (classical and Moroccan), Hebrew (biblical, what else?), Latin, Greek (Plato’s choice!), Innu-Aimun (or Montagnais), Dutch (but neither Flemish nor Afrikaans!), plus a few more…
Author of the Basque method and the Québécois phrasebook.

1. Talk, even if you know only a handful or words and a couple of rules! Make mistakes and don’t worry about your accent. Laugh, sing, have fun – in short, enjoy yourself in the language.

2. Download podcasts of the language you’re learning to your mobile device and listen to them whenever you’re travelling, but without paying too much attention to them! Ideally, let them overrun you while you’re snoozing!

3. Have faith in yourself! All human beings have the natural ability to learn languages. When you were a baby, did you make an effort to learn those daunting French conjugations, between your « goo goos » and « gaa gaas »? You still have that ability, but it’s inhibited and dormant. Wake it up!

Juan Córdoba

L1: Spanish & French
Languages spoken: English, Italian, Latin and Ancient Greek
Author of our Spanish phrasebook and Spanish workbooks.

1. Organise yourself so that you can be in contact with your target language on a daily basis, even for just ten minutes. Anything will do the trick – movies, the radio, TV, books, courses – because no one has yet found a way to prevent you from learning a language. But an extended lack of contact quickly becomes irreversible. An extreme example is the case of Victor of Aveyron, the feral child found at age 10 by Dr Itard. Despite five years of effort and teaching, Itard was unable to get Victor to remember a single word!

2. Don’t make a fuss about your « bad accent ». Of course, it’s better to know the phonetic characteristics of a foreign language, but the « good accent » issue is very much a classroom fixation. Acknowledge that you have an « inherited » accent that you will eventually get rid of (or not): it certainly won’t prevent people from understanding you. And tell yourself that it’s the American English model that is gradually taking hold: everyone comes from somewhere, each with their own accent.

3. Nothing will ever replace a visit to the country whose language you’re learning; but you have to take full advantage of it. Follow the rhythm of the conversations you hear, even if you don’t understand everything; and don’t ask people to repeat or speak more slowly: these are pseudo-crutches that will hinder your progress. Dive strait in, and if the person you’re talking to doesn’t understand, it’s up to him or her to tell you so. Learning a language is one of the very few activities where you have to run before you’ve learned to walk!

Victoria Melnikova-Suchet

L1: Russian
Other languages: French, English, Italian
Author of the Russian course (in the Sans Peine collection), and the Russian phrasebook and workbook.

1. Start by learning a few humorous expressions or slang words. That will help you feel like an « insider ». What’s more, you’ll always be able to make people laugh when you start expressing yourself in your new language.

2. Find a friend who’s a native speaker and whom you can talk with or write to. Conversing directly with other people is what learning a language is all about.

3. Don’t be afraid of what other people think. Native speakers of the language you’re trying to learn will certainly be much less harsh on you than you are on yourself!Translated from the French by Anthony Bulger.

French version: mieux apprendre les langues, les conseils de 10 spécialistes

 

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