Learning a foreign language is an art, and a lot of people have really creative ideas on the topic, some more compelling than others. One dubious theory that I hear get recycled frequently is that it isn’t necessary or advisable to study grammar, dictionaries, or vocabularies. Proponents of this theory hold that the best way to learn a foreign language is to imitate how people naturally learn their native language–that is, by gradual exposure in an immersive environment with other native speakers. It is certainly possible to learn a language like this. I imagine this is how most people had to learn languages before dictionaries were invented. However, as I will explain, I think this method is generally the hardest, slowest, and least efficient way to go about it. .
In my opinion, not all ideas about language learning are equally resourceful. In this article, I want to address a few of the the less helpful ones that commonly get circulated. I also want to suggest some alternative ideas that have proven particularly helpful for me on my language journey with Spanish and Arabic during the last decade.
I invite you to check out some of the other language learning articles on the blog for more topical editorials. If you’re in a giving mood, share your favorite tips/ideas/strategies down below, as I am always looking to learn from others!
Without further ado. . .
1. Adults Do Not Learn Like Children
It does not logically follow that the best way to learn a foreign language is the same way we learned our native language. Babies brains are wired differently than adult brains. Babies are like blank canvases. They are capable of passively absorbing and synthesizing information in their native language with minimal conscious effort.
The brilliance of babies aside, how much of a chronological advantage do native speakers really have? When’s the last time you talked to a 12 year-old? How about a 15 year-old? Most of us don’t want it to take us two decades to master a language, but that’s exactly how long it takes most native speakers. With a fully developed adult brain, we can learn foreign languages in a more time-efficient manner (albeit, with a lot more conscious effort), than a native speaker did naturally growing up.
2. The Dictionary Is Your Best Friend When Learning A Language
This item is probably the most important language learning tip of all. The choice to regularly use a dictionary, to regularly look up words and phrases, on one hand… or to passively “go with the flow,” trying to infer the meaning of everything new by context on the other hand.. may be the difference between achieving proficiency within a few years and spending an entire lifetime bumbling around in a target language. The dictionary isn’t just for nerds like me. It’s for all serious language students who want to accelerate time.
Before the invention of dictionaries, foreign language acquisition was especially difficult. For example, the first Japanese-English dictionary was not published until the 19th century. You can imagine having to ask a native speaker every time you needed to know the meaning of word or grammatical concept, and then again a second and third time when you inevitably forgot. You’d either need some really patient friends or enough money to pay someone for years to achieve exactly what you can achieve with an electronic dictionary/grammar, most of which are free.
A few years ago, I discovered a comprehensive Syrian-English dictionary. It was a game-changer. (Google “A Dictionary of Syrian Arabic by Stowasser”..). That green book with the Romanized letters and barely legible font probably saved me years of stumbling around in Arabic, asking friends and relatives the meaning of this word and that word, even though working through it at the time was an ordeal. On a more macro level, I imagine it has multiplied the number of foreigners with a command of Syrian since it was published in 2004.
What’s more is that we have electronic dictionaries now, so we can access definitions, with sample sentences gathered from digital databases, on demand. (For an electronic Arabic colloquial dictionary, see Lughatuna.) The evolution of dictionaries/grammars/vocabularies is undoubtedly the biggest reason why foreign language acquisition is easier now than ever. These resources also enable us to progress in our native language more rapidly.
3. An Active Language Learning Approach Accelerates Time
This includes, but is not limited, to using the dictionary per #2 ^. An active approach entails effort–asking questions, looking words up, studying things. A passive approach is energy-unintensive. A passive approach is when we immerse ourselves in an environment where the foreign language is spoken and rely solely on context and our ability to make inferences for understanding. A passive approach is when we watch a program in the target language, the majority of which we cannot understand, without subtitles or the dictionary. A passive approach is when we engage in conversation and do not inquire about new words. In contrast, with an active approach to learning, we learn a lot more and we learn a lot faster.
4. Make Friends In The Target Language, And Find Creatives Ways To Stay Motivated
Language acquisition is a marathon, not a sprint, so we need to keep the big picture in mind when devising strategies and creating routines. Motivation, or emotional interest, may be fickle, but it is important. It is common to see people get excited about learning a language then fall off after they fail to notice significant progress, become undisciplined, or allow life to get in the way. We won’t always feel like studying a language, but the more regularly motivated we are, the easier it is to stay focused and make consistent progress.
My favorite way to stay motivated is to connect with friends in the target language on a semi-regular basis. The interactions themselves are productive, but, more importantly, they energize me to keep learning when I am alone or when I otherwise would not feel like it. People are social, and language is an essential reason why. Having social interaction in a target language is a lot more stimulating for most people than studying the dictionary or grammar. Friends advise, correct, encourage, and remind us why we were interested in learning the foreign language in the first place.
In the second place, I choose programs, TV shows, movies, podcasts, etc., that I am personally interested in, independent of the language benefits. For example, if I enjoy watching comedy or cooking shows in my native language, then I’ll do the same in Spanish or Arabic. You can also sometimes kill two birds with one stone. A lot of movies are available in multiple languages, as are sporting events, like football, baseball, and soccer, that we would be watching anyway. As a general rule, if you’re already consuming media that has been made available in the target language, then consider making the switch.
5. Avoid Burn-Out While Studying A Language
This is closely related to #4, but I want to include it under a separate heading of what NOT to do in order to avoid burn-out. In #3, I talked about effort and exertion.. We need to wrestle with the language actively as much as possible. That said, I also understand that it can be tedious to study definitions and grammar all of the time. People whose only activities in a foreign language are dense are at a greater risk of burn-out. Over time, they may even lose interest in the language altogether. That is why it is advisable to make friends and consume stimulating content in the target language.
Burn-out is also why passive language learning activities can sometimes be very beneficial. For example, when we relax to a program or book or conversation, without looking any words up and obsessing over linguistic minutiae. Passive language-learning activities are especially productive once we reach an advanced level and are able to understand the majority of what is going on with minimal effort.
That said, motivation also comes from progress. When we see that we are making progress, we may feel inspired to engage in more activities in the target language. In short, we want to balance our big picture desire to make maximum progress with our short-term need for emotional stimulation. No two people are the same, and only you can determine how much active and passive activity is appropriate for you on any given day.
If you liked this post, check out the following article on a single daily language habit that has helped me make huge gains in Spanish and Arabic during the last several years.