Learning a Language Naturally
I try to learn foreign languages just like I learned my first language. I study some basic grammar and expressions and then go right into speaking and using the language as soon as possible. I use my 5 senses, make gestures, and basically try to learn like a little kid would, mistakes and all.
I’ve studied several languages over the years (French, Spanish, Japanese, and American Sign Language) and I find that when I try to learn a language “naturally” like this, it tends to be easier, more fun, and I make a lot more progress.
Just like when I was a child, I start by speaking (rather poorly), trying to get by the best I can in the language, then as time goes on I go back and try to clean up the mistakes I make and try to speak more correctly and naturally.
I still make an effort though to learn correct grammar and try to speak correctly, but if I make mistakes I never let that stop me from trying to express myself. I make it a point to constantly through myself out there and use the language as much as possible.
Learn the Basics, Then Start Speaking!
In my opinion, the biggest mistake language learners make (and why they often give up trying to learn the language) is they just study a book, do exercises, and then somehow expect to be able to speak the target language well.
You could never learn how to use a language proficiently just by studying a book. You have to practice actually using it in real life. You have to practice improvising in that language and using it in real situations.
By all means, study and learn the basics, but then go out and try to use what you learn. For every hour spent studying, spend a few hours using that language in some capacity. That could be texting a friend, writing an email to your pen pal, going to a meet up and conversing in the target language; find what works for you!
Using Your Senses
If you were to teach a child how to speak English, you probably wouldn’t hand him or her an ESL book. You wouldn’t make them study grammar and do exercises out of a book. You would probably speak and try to get them to copy you. You’d show them a piece of fruit and say apple. You’d have them eat it while you repeat the word again. You’d give them something to drink and say water. I try to use this concept and learn to say things I do in my everyday life.
I find using a textbook to learn a language to be fairly boring. Of course, it can be helpful, but using your sense of sight, touch, smell, and hearing can really bring the language to life.
I remember when I first came to Paris in 2013, I heard a friend of mine order a coffee in French in a crowded cafe. When I think back I can see where we were sitting, I can hear the people around us, I can feel the warmth of the sun of my skin, and I can taste the piping hot espresso the waiter brought us. All of these memories help me recall how to order a coffee in French. I used my senses to reinforce what I had learned.
When you learn new words or phrases in a real life situation, it’s a lot easier to remember because you used your senses to help you remember. This can be a powerful tool and I encourage you to try to keep this idea in mind.
Understand the General Sense
When you’re just starting out, you don’t need to understand every little word you hear, just try to understand the basic idea of what’s being said. Listen for keywords and try to use your senses and what’s going on around you to understand the conversation.
Are they pointing at something? Are they happy, angry, or sad?
Did they say a few words you might be able to cobble together to understand the general idea of what they’re talking about? If they’re speaking too faster, you could even ask them to repeat what they said and to speak a bit more slowly.
This is going to take a lot of practice, but it feels great just to know you can understand what someone is saying. Then all you need to do is respond in an easy, simple way and voilà, you’re speaking that language! Which leads me to my next point…
Get Your Point Across
You don’t need to speak perfectly to be understood. It’s much more important to try to make an effort to use the language instead of worrying about getting everything just right.
You could use gestures to help people understand. Use your hands, body language, and even facial expressions to help convey what you want to say.
I also find it very helpful to know how to say “What does that mean?”, “What’s that?”, and “How do you say…?” in the language you’re trying to learn.
Once you get those phrases down and with a bit of practice, it gets easier to fumble through conversations, which is what you want to do as often as possible in order to get better at using the language.
Copy Native Speakers
Try to copy native speakers as much as possible! It’s just like a child copying their parents. If you hear a word or phrase that you’ve never heard before, WRITE IT DOWN or LOOK IT UP in an online dictionary and find out how you can use it. Copy their accent as much as you can as well.
Listen to their syntax, which is just a fancy way of saying word order. How do they form their sentences? What kind of vocabulary are they using for the situation we’re in? Are they speaking formally or informally? Are they using slang? Do they slur their speech a bit?
Theses aspects of language learning tend to be overlooked but I think they’re absolutely crucial to being comfortable and sounding natural in the target language.
You’ll Get Better As Time Goes On
When you learned your first language you didn’t speak perfectly from the first day. You spoke like a baby, but as time went on and the more you practiced and copied native speakers, you eventually got better and better. Then when you went to school and studied grammar you became even more eloquent.
I like to take the same approach to language learning as an adult, within reason of course. Try to learn proper grammar to the best of your ability, but I think using the language, even if you mess up a lot, is essential to your progress.
If you follow all of this advice, here’s what the process might look like:
You’ve studied a bit, then you’re at a language meet up trying to converse with people. Ok so you’re speaking with people, maybe you made a lot of mistakes, so you go home and study more. You wrote down some vocabulary and expressions so now you know what to work on a little more.
At the next meet up you’re a bit better, you’re saying a few more sentences than last time, they understand you, and now you feel good because you can see all of that time spent studying during the week paying off, even if it’s just a little bit of progress. Now you’re motivated to keep getting better. You meet a couple people you hit it off with, so you exchange numbers.
Now you have friends to text with, so you’re speaking more or less everyday. You use an online dictionary to look things up and help you formulate what you want to say. You’re getting in some practical conversation practice just using your phone!
You continue like this, repeating the process, and you keep improving over time. You keep this up and you get more and more comfortable in the language.
Of course, this is all just my opinion based on my own years of trial and error, as well as a lot of observation. I’ve studied languages at university and I saw how slow and tedious it was. In the end, many students didn’t make too much progress. I’ve also taught at the university level and noticed that the students who spoke/wrote the best tended to be the ones who used their language skills a lot in their free time.
And I’ve worked with hundreds of private students and the students who really pushed themselves to speak a lot and use the language in everyday life made much more progress than my students who only ever spoke during our lessons.
Really you have to know yourself and your learning style. You have to understand what works best for you, but I think if you go out and seriously give this “learning naturally” thing a try, it might help you tremendously. So study a bit, find a group of people learning the same language as you, and go out and speak!