By Andrew Kuhry-Haeuser, Carmenta Founder
There are three main steps for successful modern-language learning:
1) Begin with Grammar
The first step is to learn the most basic grammar of the language. It’s always a mistake to ignore the grammar of a language and pursue a 100%-conversation approach right from the beginning. Instead, start by learning how sentences are constructed in the new language using a well-organized, grammar-intensive textbook.
2) Add Conversational Practice
Only once you’ve worked through the first third of the textbook should you then start conversing in the language. Your conversations in the language should be as natural as possible and, ideally, done with a native speaker of the language.
It’s best to begin with instant-message conversations (on Facebook, Skype, or your phone) since these conversations move much more slowly and they eliminate the issue of having to interpret a native speaker’s rapid speech, the biggest issue for any new student of a language. Instant-message conversations also give new students the time to look up words and interpret the other person’s responses. Ideally, you should look up words in an online dictionary since it’s much quicker than a physical dictionary. You should also have your textbook on hand for help with verb forms. The more you converse in the language, the faster you’ll learn it.
You should transition to oral conversations (whether in person or over Skype) when you feel you’re ready. Just be sure that you don’t put it off too long. You’ll only make rapid progress if you’re continually challenged.
3) Continue to Work Through Your Textbook Long Term
Continue to work through the textbook until you’ve mastered all of the language’s basic grammar. If you’re engaged in consistent conversational practice at the same time, which you should be, then new grammar will find its way into your conversations without trying.
Without a detailed grammatical knowledge of the language, you’ll never become fluent. Much modern-language curriculum is built around the 100%-conversation approach, but this is a mistake. While conversation is essential, it’s only half of what you need. At best, the 100%-conversation approach produces speakers who end up using a broken version of the language all their lives. Plus, the combined grammar-conversation approach is far more efficient than the 100%-conversation approach anyway.
Here are some extra tips to help you learn a modern language as efficiently and effectively as possible:
a) Practice with a Native Speaker
Find a native speaker to practice with who genuinely wants to talk to you. If you’re lucky, then you’ll have a girlfriend, boyfriend, or spouse who is a native speaker. If you don’t have that, then a good friend also works. No matter who it is, you’ll need someone who not only wants to spend time talking to you but also will put up with the limited proficiency you’ll have at first.
b) If You Can’t Find a Native Speaker, Practice with Another Student
A second option, which isn’t as good but still positive, is to practice with another non-native speaker who’s as eager to learn the language as you are and is backing that up with consistent work in a quality textbook. The drawbacks to this are obvious — your conversation partner, like you, won’t be very familiar with the language’s idioms, making it harder for you to learn them; on the other hand, this person will probably be happy to converse slowly, which will make things easier.
c) Use Facebook to Find Native Conversation Partners
You don’t need to have native speakers of the language where you live to find partners to practice with. With a little work, it’s possible to connect with speakers of the language on Facebook or other social media.
d) Don’t Give Up
Learning a language takes years. The key is consistency, working on your grammar studies and practicing conversation at the very least weekly and at best daily.
e) Don’t Memorize Vocabulary Lists
95% or more of the students who do this forget what they’ve memorized almost immediately. By far the best way to learn vocabulary is through conversation, so focus on that.
f) Have fun!
Make sure you’re learning the language with people who know how to have fun and will make it an enjoyable learning experience for you. There’s no reason that learning a language needs to be a chore. So go out and make it fun!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Magister Andrew Kuhry-Haeuser has a B.A. (Honors) in Latin from Gonzaga University. He is currently the Founder and Head of both Carmenta Online PhD Tutors and Grey Fox Tutors. Magister Andrew has taught a number of classes for Carmenta, including "Classical Literature" and all levels of Latin, Conversational Latin, and Ancient Greek. He has also tutored a wide range of subjects, including Latin, Ancient Greek, English, Writing, German, Algebra, Geometry, Trigonometry, Calculus, Geology, Physics, Biology, Chemistry, and History.
Click here to see Magister Andrew’s full profile on the Carmenta website.