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Language Learning 101: A 4-Step Guide to Mastering Any Foreign Tongue

Written by Peter Ki

Languages are a curious thing.

Whenever I come across conversations or signs in a foreign language, I always long to discover what they mean. With Chinese symbols, for instance, I consider the characters themselves as puzzles waiting to be decoded. When I watch a video in Swedish and barely understand a thing, I somehow manage to watch the rest of it, fascinated by the melodious nature of the Swedish language. It’s incredibly fulfilling to understand parts of an unlearned language, but trying to figure out the things you don’t know can get so. Damn. Confusing.

When it comes down to it, though, all languages are a journey waiting to happen; they allow you to understand and connect with millions more people than you previously could. I’d seriously recommend learning a language to anybody, and for all you SLNers who are already keen on learning a foreign tongue (and if you aren’t, why not?!), here are some guidelines to ensure that your language learning quest will be smooth sailing.

Step 1: Choose a Language

If you’re learning a new language from scratch, it’s easy to pick something that’s largely perceived as “useful.” “Useful” is fine, but “interesting” is better. Don’t learn a foreign tongue only because it’s got good business prospects—learn it because you enjoy it! Otherwise, your experience will be comparable to snoozing in French class and dying to be rid of it. Don’t make it a chore. Instead, turn it into something fun. It could be that you love K-dramas and want to watch unsubbed episodes, or maybe Spanish song lyrics intrigue you. Wherever your language interest lies, it’s important that you learn something that will consistently fascinate you.

Step 2: Build Your Grammar and Vocabulary

Once you’ve picked a language to learn, you’ll have to build up some basic grammar and vocabulary. Think of it like a house: grammar acts as the foundation and walls that uphold the entire structure, while vocabulary can furnish the house and make it more refined. You really can’t have one without the other. For starters, consider apps like Duolingo or Memrise that offer a fun way to learn no matter where you are. If you want to personalize your learning, electronic flashcard programs like Anki offer an intelligent way to memorize words or characters that you’ve inputted.

Step 3: Get Immersed

After getting confident with your language basics, it’s a good idea to immerse yourself in the target language as much as possible. Switch Facebook to a foreign language (gasp!) or consider frequenting websites in your learned language of choice. It can be overwhelming, I know, but you can have a translation extension handy when you encounter words or phrases you don’t understand. There are a host of subtitled shows and YouTube videos you could look up that may immerse you (there’s a reason why the Swedes are good at English: subs!). I highly recommend watching the Easy Languages channel for learning, as they conduct interviews on the streets while subtitling their videos in both English and the original language.

Step 4: Interact With Others

Now here’s the fun (and scary) part: communicating with others in your new tongue. The real joy of language learning is using your newfound skill and gaining actual feedback on how you’re doing. It may seem daunting to converse with fluent speakers, but an incredibly useful app to consider is Hellotalk. This app profiles your language skills and generates a list of potential users you could communicate with, and it even offers correctional tools that allow you to fix language errors for both you and your partner (how cool is that?!). You can also seek online communities and forums that cater to language learning, since they can be pretty great sources of motivation. I personally find reddit to be useful in this case; it’s full of interesting posts and questions to read up on, as well as handy resource suggestions. For gamers out there who want to test their conversational skills, online gaming in another language is a surprisingly effective way to improve your listening and speaking abilities. Being put under pressure in a game essentially forces you to communicate in the target language, so consider switching to foreign servers and making some willing friends who can help you out with your endeavour!

Nelson Mandela once said, “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.” My (awkward) French and Korean skills can really attest to that statement, but hopefully the statement rings true for you and makes you want to learn more languages and connect with more people than you ever have before. After all, who knows what sort of amazing people you’ll meet on your language journey? Only one way to find out, of course.

Which languages are you fluent in? Which ones do you want to be fluent in? Have you got more tips or tricks that can make learning a language more fun? Let us know in the comments below.

*Opinions expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Student Life Network or their partners.