Learning a language is more than just memorizing words. Many people spend years of their lives studying a language in school, only to find that when they have to speak the language in real life they cannot. This can be a discouraging experience for many people causing them to just give up language learning all together.
Having been multilingual for most of my life, I have learned languages in different ways. Danish is my mother tongue, and until I was 9 I was monolingual save from a few fragments of German that I learned from my dad, who speaks German fluently and often took the family to Germany for combined business/vacation trips. As long as I can remember, I have been curious about other languages. I was thrilled when I started learning English in the 4th grade, and quickly absorbed a lot of English vocabulary. Since I was constantly surrounded by English songs on the radio, and predominantly American content on TV I remember being overly excited about being able to finally understand this strange language, that I had known of for so long without understanding it properly. Consequently, English has been such an integral part of my daily activities for more than two thirds of my life that I usually consider it my second mother tongue.
From age 12, I started learning German in school, at age 13 I began self-studying Italian, and in highschool I took French. In 2013 I lived and worked in Sweden and “picked up” Swedish while I was there, and since July 2014 I’ve been tackling Korean.
Although I consider myself a polyglot (a person who speaks many languages) I have not been equally successful in acquiring all of my languages. I never really succeeded with French, probably because I was never truly interested in the language. On the other hand, I actually did manage to teach myself a decent level of Italian which is still quite sufficient for getting around on my rare visits to the beautiful country.
I managed to become completely fluent in English, German, and Swedish, and I can feel my Korean proficiency strongly increasing as well. So what’s the secret? Why succeed in learning some languages and not others.
I personally believe it can be explained by three factors: Motivation, exposure, and perseverance.
With French, I lacked all three. My only motivation was to get a good grade, which didn’t require that much since it was a beginner’s course. I was never exposed to French outside of the classroom and I didn’t actively search for opportunities myself either. After the two years of high school French, I never continued with the language and as such it remains a language that I know of but don’t know.
With Italian all three conditions were initially fulfilled, though they faded quite quickly. I initially wanted to learn the language after having visited Italy with my parents for the first time. I devoured Italian textbooks, magazines, and cable TV programs, and I did this pretty much every day – but only for two years. Then I started to get busier with school, and at age 15 so many other things suddenly seemed more interesting than learning Italian. Today Italian is a latent language that I can use in everyday situations and probably quickly brush up again should I every need to.
With English and German I was motivated, regularly exposed, and I persevered with both of them often reading literature in those languages in my free time. My acquisition of Swedish on the other hand is a little different. Since Swedish shares many similarities with Danish, I actually never really studied it formally. Before moving to Sweden I simply read a book on Swedish pronuciation and grammar for Danish speakers, watched a lot of Swedish TV, and read a few novels in Swedish. This was enough to get by when I landed, and working as the only foreigner in a Swedish office 40 hours a week took care of the rest. But even though I didn’t study it formally, again, all three factors were fulfilled: I was motivated to learn the language of my new destination, I was exposed to it in various ways every day, and I kept speaking despite having made my Swedish colleagues laugh out loud on more than one occasion.
Until I started learning Korean, I never really reflected too much on the way I had been learning languages. But my eager to become fluent in Korean as fast as possible made me realize that there is an art to language learning and that by following certain principles any language goal may be achieved.
My principles for efficient language learning
- Focus on the core of the language. Start out with the most common expressions and words and then build from there. There is no need to memorize a lot of vocabulary like “coat hanger” or “dental floss” out of context as you will just wind up forgetting them anyway.
- Never learn anything out of context. When learning a new word, be sure to remember in which context you heard or read it. In that way it is much more likely to stick in your memory for when you actually have to use it.
- Read as much material as you can in your target language, even if you don’t understand it all yet. Especially with Korean this helps you become familiar with the various formations of Hangeul.
- Listen. By listening, even passively, your brain and your subconcious is being exposed to the language. This method is much more powerful than it seems.
- Express yourself. You must speak the language to really learn it. Don’t worry about making mistakes, and just start speaking the few words and sentences you know. If you keep doing this as your vocabulary increases, you will soon be able to speak more freely.
- Learn grouped vocabulary, that is words that are related to each other. For example “theater” can be related to “play, performance, ticket, seat, actor, show”, and so on. By concentrating your energy on learning grouped vocabulary, the words are automatically becoming contextualized in your brain.
- Keep going. Even when you feel you are getting nowhere, this simply isn’t true. Stay motivated, and make an effort to study the language in one way or another every day.
I have several blog posts, where I elaborate more on my language learning philosophy: How fast can you learn a language?, Speaking practice, and How to build Korean speaking confidence are just a few of them.