7 practical tips to learn a second language (or what worked for me!)

So first let me say that I’m still improving! I will always be improving! I have good days and bad days. I have days where I can’t stand the sound of my own accent. And other days where I feel like the most exotic creature on earth (thanks to said accent!!!).

Second of all I am not a linguist or a psychologist. I am sure there is much more scientifically-based information on language acquisition out there. These are simply a few things that have occurred to me along the way. Like all advice, you can take it or leave it!

Communication can be tough even in our own mother tongue. So when we’re trying to converse in another language it can feel a bit like framing a jigsaw, hanging it on the wall and saying “Ta dah!” when you know that most of the crucial pieces are missing!

It helps that I like the way French sounds, but there is no better kick in the proverbial than just having to get on with it! I am lucky in that mon homme often plays the role of the walking, talking, living dictionary. However, more often than not, I’ve had to simply deal with day to day living. Also, I spend a lot of time with Grandmère, who makes no bones about telling me if I’m talking rubbish!

To learn a second language isn’t easy but it can be enjoyable. If I was to whittle it down to top tips, then in no specific order, my advice for learning a second language would go like this:

Conversation Exchanges.

While total immersion is the ideal, it’s not always possible. Not everyone in the world is in a position to move countries (or is as daft as me!) so a conversation exchange can be just the ticket.

When I first arrived in France, we were living in a town that had no French language classes whatsoever! So I went down to the town Centre Social (community centre) and asked if there was an English class. Then I popped along to the English class and asked the teacher if anybody there would be interested in an English/French exchange. Lucky for me there was – a retired man whose era in schooling provided excellent French grammar that I in turn benefitted from. Also, an exchange means that you get to enjoy sharing your own language too. This gave me a good base to start from. This could work for you whether you are living in a new country or not.

Watch the soaps and quiz shows

Very strange for me to advocate this as someone who doesn’t have a TV anymore! However, I am all for the educational qualities of the box in the corner!

After our move here, for about a year, we did have cable. It came with our internet and phone package. All of the TV shows that I would normally try to avoid were on during the daytime (I’m not high-brow – I’m a recovering TV addict!). I was at home with a new baby so I had the TV on for company. I didn’t realise it at first, but the soaps and quiz shows were a bottomless pit of vocabulary! Let’s face it – soap operas don’t exactly have the most taxing storylines. You can kind of guess what’s going on even if it’s in another language.  Your brain is receiving language and learning how to process it thanks to the gestures and body-language of the people actors.

Many quiz shows have questions and answers written on the screen before you. This allows you to hear the word and see it written. You unwittingly process the question and seek out the answer – whether it’s a word you already know or not. A lot of the questions refer to general knowledge or popular culture so they can be a veritable minefield of vocabulary. Before you know it, you’ll be roaring at the TV in no time at all and calling everybody idiots!

Masculine and Feminine

As an English speaker it was very difficult for me to get my head around the articles in French. That is the Le, La, Un, Une etc. We anglophones just don’t have the reflex to think in terms of masculine and feminine nouns and the tendency is to wish that the Minister for Culture would just do away with them! However – he is unlikely to do that for little old me (sweet n all as I am!) So failing that I come up with a dastardly plan to murder more little words, I, and therefore anyone else who wants to learn French, will just have to put up with the fact that these little critters exist and are here to stay.

So from the outset, learn the article as soon as you learn a new noun. It will save you a huge amount of time and brain power eventually. Mon homme gave me exactly this piece of advice as I embarked on my French odyssey. Did I listen – NO! Am I paying for it now – YES!

Culture, Culture, Culture

Listen to music. Watch films that are sub-titled (not dubbed). Listen to the radio. Read a classic children’s book. Try to relax into the sound of the language -the form that the words take. Even though you may not understand anything, enjoying the language just for the sound of it can open up the ear. Then when it comes to learning, some of the initial groundwork is done. Your ear is already tuned in. It’s already on the same frequency as the language. You don’t get such a brain-shock and therefore, little by little you begin to understand the notion of “thinking” in that new language.

Exposing yourself to the culture of a country also helps you understand why people speak the way they do. I am so aware now of the fact that in Ireland, we like to get a message across quickly, but we also interrupt frequently. In France, sentences can seem more “wordy”. French people use a lot more vocabulary. I thought that French people just liked to use long sentences for the sake of it! Now I know that it can sometimes take much longer to say something in French than it would in English (especially Irish spoken English!)

Try not to translate every single word!

We sometimes arrive at the first hurdle and get stuck there. Sometimes you just need to walk around that hurdle (unless you’re a show-jumping champion. I would definitely not recommend avoiding hurdles in that instance. Trust me – you’ll lose points!).

Our brain buffers when we try to translate every single word we hear. Even in our own native tongue, we filter things out and focus on the key words.

It’s not very easy to employ at first but this really worked for me – listen out to the end. Read out the whole line of a sentence (or even the whole paragraph) before you run to the dictionary. If we constantly interrupt ourselves then we lose flow. If we lose the flow then we can completely miss the context of a sentence.

Context is EVERYTHING. At the beginning of my journey with French, I honestly thought that I would be capable of giving a great big wallop in the kisser to any person who dared utter the words “Tout dépend du contexte” (that all depends on the context). But it is so true (I say this grudgingly!). Words don’t really stand alone. The other words around them give them their meaning. Sometimes we hone in on the one word we don’t understand and then we don’t hear the other five words that we do understand. I like to call the words that I do understand my “hook” words. These are the little hooks that catch meaning for me.

Stand corrected!

Accept corrections gracefully. It is so easy to become irritated. It can feel like people are picking holes in what you’re saying but it is worth a lot to know when you’ve made a mistake. Some people are too polite to ever correct you and that’s not essentially useful. When we pick up words and misuse them, we will misuse them again and again! I hadn’t realised that I had used a swear word over and over, until my daughter’s childminder asked if I wouldn’t mind NOT saying it in front of the children! It was just a word I had heard everyone else saying. Not terribly bad, but not terribly nice either. I am now in the habit of asking “could I say that word to my boss?” If the answer is yes – then I commit it to memory. If the answer is no – then I’ll toss it (or keep it for people that I don’t like!)

Don’t be disheartened (or don’t let the naysayers get you down!)

Some folks just aren’t patient! There is nothing you can do about that! Some folks aren’t natural communicators. So don’t panic if you are trying to speak to somebody and they’re giving you a vacant stare! Communication is a two-way street. Somebody speaks and somebody listens (hopefully!). The tendency of the person learning a language is to assume that we are the ones at fault if there is a misunderstanding. This is not strictly the rule, and don’t let it become a rule for you. Don’t let anyone put you off!

I once had someone tell me that they had no desire to listen to me and that I couldn’t possibly have any important information for them. I merely smiled back and wished them a good day. Not even five minutes later they were back to ask me if I knew where the toilet was! I would consider that pretty important information. It wasn’t the secret to eternal happiness or anything, but important nonetheless!

One more (OK that’s number 8)

Speaking of toilets! Write anything you’re having difficulty with on a post it, and stick it somewhere you can see it when you use the loo! You may scoff but this is how I learned some difficult conjugations! Opportunity can knock just about anywhere my friends!

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