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5 Tips for Learning a New Language as a Busy Student

Written by Ingrid Wang

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

tips for learning a new language

Learning a new language? Who even has time for that? Turns out, it might not be as hard as you thought.

You don’t need to be taking Russian Literature in university or working your way through an Old English translation of Beowulf to understand the value of learning a new language. For me, language learning has always been an exciting and rewarding experience.

Coming from a bilingual household and living in a multicultural Canadian city, I was always fascinated by the various intonations, glottal consonants, front rounded vowels, and other unique features of the foreign tongues around me. Around the time I started French in school, I also began to teach myself Japanese (N1) to help me read manga and eventually German (A2) to aid in my desire to study art history.

Whether you’re learning a language out of pure curiosity or to push yourself like 19-language-speaking polyglot student Georges Awaad, there is no “wrong” reason to do it. Even the most trivial of reasons can bring about fruitful results and deepen your understanding of a culture. So, if you are interested in embarking on this language-learning journey on your own, here are some of my tips.

1. Ask yourself what you want to achieve

Depending on your goals and your timeline for learning a new language, it can range anywhere from being a relaxing pastime to an intensive project. Figuring out what you want to achieve will help you set realistic goals tailored to your specific needs:

  • Do you want to become conversational to speak with locals? Are you simply interested in learning how to read and write so that you can understand your favourite books in their original language?
  • Do you hope to maintain your language skills in the long run or do you need to quickly learn a few phrases for travel purposes?
  • Are you on a deadline to learn this language?
  • How concerned are you about getting grammar and sentence structure right?

2. Gather resources

There are various free language-learning apps to help you study on your own. Popular choices like Duolingo, Memrise and Babbel can help you tackle the initial stages of learning a new language. If, however, you’re seeking something more extensive, consider buying an introductory language textbook. Alternatively, there are many language-learning sites (which are available for free online). 

Many people recommend to not plough through a textbook from start to finish. That said, I would still suggest using one if you want a bit of structure in your learning. Self-studying a language not only involves a hefty time commitment but also a great amount of self-discipline and organization. Textbooks can do some of this work by dividing your learning into chunks, which you can supplement with additional resources.

3. Make language learning a habit

Designate a specific time for studying your new language, whether that’s twice a day or twice a week. It’s important that you set goals that realistically fit your schedule while helping you strive for your desired fluency.

Like with any skill, the motivation for learning a new language comes in waves. At the start, a new language is engaging and fascinating. As time goes on, you often reach a plateau in your language-learning journey and lose your momentum. This is why learning a language, like doing homework, should be built into your habits. That way, even when you don’t feel like it, you can still achieve progress. Though it’s important not to overwork yourself, do try to accomplish a little every day.

4. Use what knowledge you have at your disposal

If learning a language from the same language family as one you already know, you have an enormous advantage. Even if you don’t know much about the commonalities between different languages, you can probably guess or contextualize what certain words or idioms mean by likening them to the language with which you’re familiar. Try to figure out the various peculiarities of a language, its word meanings or declensions, pronunciation and orthographic rules, before looking it up in a dictionary. The more you become used to guessing the features of that language, the more natural the language will eventually become to you.

5. Try, repeat, try again

Perhaps the most important of these tips is to not give up. Don’t be afraid of speaking unintelligibly the first, third, or thirtieth try. Even if you get the accent, words, or grammar wrong, you are still likely to be understood. Don’t be discouraged from learning a new language, even if you think you’re really terrible at it. Each mistake brings you closer to improving your grasp on the language (provided you learn from your mistakes). Even if you barely know how to chain together words in a sentence, you should nonetheless practice talking in that language whenever you’re given the opportunity.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if you choose to peruse the entire French-English dictionary or simply watch subtitled movies in their language to help you learn. What matters is that you love this language and are dedicated to pursuing it.

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