The A to Z of language learning

January 19, 2014 at 3:16 pm

A is for… accent

The key to sounding good in a foreign language, a good accent comes with time and practice. Some people seem to have a natural aptitude for copying accents, while others will always sound “foreign”. There is no such thing as an “unaccented” version of a language, although some accents are perceived as more prestigious than others.

B is for… being Englished

That awful moment when you are trying to speak another language and the response comes back in English.

C is for… CEFR

The official European classifications for language levels, ranging from A1 (beginner) to C2 (proficiency). A useful marker for your progress.

D is for… declension

The inflection of nouns, pronouns, adjectives and articles to indicate number, case and gender. This is why “the” in German can be der, die, das, den or dem. English used to be full of declension, but it is relatively rare in the modern language, probably because of the strong influence of French after 1066 on the originally Germanic language (some of the harder parts of English were simplified as the two languages lived side by side in England).

E is for… errrrrrrrr

In the early stages of speaking a new language, this will be a major constituent of your sentences. As you improve, the volume of errrrrrrr (and its close relative ummmmm) will decrease, to be replaced by beautiful, flowing words.

F is for… flash card

Not glamorous like Flash Gordon or, errrrr, flashy like the Flash, these cards offer a tried-and-tested way to learn vocabulary. There are many different ways to make flash cards, or you can use a program like Anki to practise on a computer or phone.

G is for… grammar

Don’t be scared of it, because you cannot learn a language without learning its grammar. But you don’t have to learn grammatical terms to learn grammar, you have to learn the structures that hold a language together. If you can do it for one language, you can do it for another.

H is for… hand gesture

When you find yourself on the streets of a foreign country with limited language skills, it’s time to let your hands do the talking. But watch out: different hand gestures have different meanings around the world. For example, someone might make a v sign in Italy to ask for a cigarette, whereas in Britain the same gesture could easily be construed as a request to “go forth and multiply”.

I is for… immersion

When you don’t have any choice but to speak the language you are learning, you will make faster progress. Learning in immersion can be very challenging at first, but once you are past the basics, you will gain hugely from the experience. If you don’t put yourself in situations where you can speak English, you will not speak English.

J is for… job prospects

Foreign language skills are among the most desirable skills for employers. Speaking a foreign language makes you stand out from your competitors in the job market. Companies need language skills to take full advantage of globalisation.

K is for… keywords

All words are not created equal. Especially in the earlier stages of learning a language, you need to focus on the most common words, including the pronouns (I, you, we, etc), articles (the, a, an, etc) and common verbs (to go, be, do, make, etc). Once these are solid, you can move on to the more exciting stuff.

To put this in context, you could consider the linguistic concept of a lemma: the base form of a word. For example, does, doing and done are all examples of the one lemma do.

In English, just ten different lemmas (the, be, to, of, and, a, in, that, have and I) account for 25% of all the words used in the Oxford English Corpus. The 100 most common lemmas make up 50% of the corpus. This means that half of typical discourse is made up of the same 100 base words.

L is for… local media

The internet is absolutely brimming with resources for language learners and among the most interesting are local media. Reading newspapers in different languages gives you the chance not only to improve your vocabulary and comprehension skills, but also offers a different perspective on the news.

M is for… mistake

You can’t avoid them, so don’t feel bad about making them. But do your best to learn from them… if your mistakes go uncorrected during the early stages of learning a language, they are much harder to iron out later on.

N is for… “no entiendo”

If you are learning Spanish, you will both say and hear this phrase a lot. If you are learning German, it’s “Ich verstehe nicht”. In French, “Je ne comprends pas”. The less you say and hear it, the better you are doing!

See also “errrrrrrr

O is for… one to one lessons

Some people swear by one to one lessons as the fastest way to achieve fluency. If you are the kind of learner who eases off the gas during group classes, learning one to one with a teacher could be what you are looking for. It is an intense experience and the classes move at your pace. This means that the topic will not move on without you fully understanding it first. Hard work, but a great way to learn. The downside is that you miss the social aspects of learning a language in a group and one to one language teaching can be expensive.

P is for… plateau

One of the most maddening experiences when learning a language is reaching a plateau. This is the point at which new vocabulary is being turned away from your brain like a rowdy stag night in the queue for Berghain.

Plateaus are a normal part of any learning experience. Your brain can only take in and retain so much information at a time, and learning to speak a new language is a tough mental challenge. But you can do it!

Check out some tips for blasting through that plateau.

Q is for… questioning

Most languages are full of things that seem illogical. The simple truth is, in many cases, it doesn’t matter how a modern language came to be the way it is, all that matters is that you can work with the modern language.

For example, there are many reasons why English spelling is such a mess, but all a learner needs to know is that you can’t predict the pronunciation of a word from how it is written.

However, there are plenty of things that you should question, particularly when it comes to understanding grammar. Once you have the grammar, the words can follow.

R is for… romance

Is there a better way to learn a language than to fall in love with someone who speaks it?

Speaking languages is sexy, but if you can’t find someone to practise with over a romantic dinner, remember…

S is for… self-study

You can learn the grammar and vocabulary of a language from self-study. It’s all there in books, media and podcasts. But you will miss out on the experience of speaking and listening; one thing that only comes with practice is the experience of processing what someone is saying to you in real time and then responding. In other words, having a conversation.

The challenges of self-study are motivation and no error correction. Sometimes it is just easier to have an expert to ask.

T is for… travel

For many language learners, this is what it’s all about. When you speak another language, you will experience the countries and communities in which it is spoken completely differently than you would through the lens of English.

Travelling in Latin America, your experience will be transformed if you speak Spanish. You may be surprised at how many people cannot speak English. Even in Europe, where the majority of young adults now speak decent English, their response to you will be very different if you address them in their mother tongue.

U is for… umlaut

Much abused by heavy metal bands, umlauts, and their exotic cousins such as tildes and other accents, make other European languages look a little different to English. If you are a native English speaker, your brain may not process them automatically but ignore them at your peril as they tell you how to accurately pronounce words.

V is for… verbs (reflexive)

Another exotic structure you will find in many European languages is the reflexive verb. These are verbs that need a pronoun to make any sense. For example, in Spanish, divertirse (to have fun) and alegrarse (to become happy), or sich freuen (to be pleased) in German. The subject and the object are the same.

There are reflexive verbs in English too, but they are relatively rare. For example in English you can simply wash, whereas in Spanish or German you have to specify who or what you are washing.

W is for… wanderlust

A German word that has found its way into English, albeit with a slightly different meaning. Languages open doors and let you discover the world on your own terms. It may sound trite, but it’s true.

X is for… exams

If you are learning a language with your CV/résumé in mind, an official qualification is a good way to show the level you have achieved. You will also get a nice certificate to stick on your wall, should you choose.

Y is for… you

The only person who can make you achieve your language learning goals is you. There are many different paths to fluency and you have to find the one that fits with your personality, goals, strengths and weaknesses.

Don’t accept the old line that “some people are just bad at languages” – if you can speak one fluently, you can learn another.

Z is for… Zen

Surely the ideal state for learning a new language? Your mind is at ease, your chakra flowing and those new words are just pouring into your clear subconscious. Good luck!

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