Everybody wants to know the secret to learning languages. I myself have thought about it for many years. You see all of these adverts everywhere: “Learn Chinese in three weeks!” “Easy Hungarian Study”, “Improve Your English in Your Sleep!” Is it really that easy? Is there something that I’m missing, something that I’m doing wrong?
“I’m not cut out for learning languages”
A lot of people think that they’re not made for languages, that other people can do it, but not them. But if you can learn your first language, why can’t you learn a second? Learning a language is definitely hard work, but at the end of the day, it is only putting words next to other words. There is no special skill that you need to have, except to be able to form words with your mouth. All of us (almost) can do it! There are, however, some things which you need to do:
Every language has its crazy parts. It’s a bit like drinking tea with milk in the good old British way for all of your life and then finding out those weird Europeans like it with honey and lemon. Your mind can’t cope with the weirdness of it all! The present perfect in English, the congiuntivo in Italian, basically all of the Hungarian language… There are some things which are hard to understand and possibly even harder to explain. The key is to open your mind to differences between languages and accept all of the weird stuff, no matter how bizarre it may be.
Know the basic words
Focus is important when learning languages. I have had a lot of students who might have known loads of unusual, technical words, but couldn’t tell me the English word for le pain. When we speak, 90% of our vocabulary is limited to just a few thousand words, and 80% of it is less than a thousand. If you devote your time to knowing these basic words really well, then the rest will come much more easily. Take a look at this list below of the 1,000 most common English words and see how many you know:
The real, boring secret to learning a language is…
Practice! Yes, that’s it. The real, the only secret to learning languages. Practice! Practice! Practice! I have been teaching English for more than ten years, but I have never seen a student who just ‘picked it up’ with no effort. This is a myth. One student told me he had ‘picked up’ English on holiday, but I later learnt he had been in my friend’s English class for seven years. All the best students I have ever had have practiced a lot. Maybe not for hours every day, but regularly, over a number of years.
Practice is not the same as study. Watching Stranger Things in English on Netflix is practice, listening to Carla Bruni singing in French is practice, watching the World Cup on German television is practice. It has been said that to become a genius in something, you need to do it for at least 10,000 hours. Unlike playing the violin or being an air traffic controller, speaking a language is one of the only things in the world which is worth doing even if you are terrible. You only need a few hours of practice to be able to order a coffee, and a few hundred hours to be able to have a decent conversation. Get those hours in and see your level shoot up!
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