Learning a language is all about the mind. Between memorizing new words for everything, thinking on your feet in conversation, and learning cultural context, learning and using a foreign language gives our brains a workout. That makes starting out with the right mindset as crucial as whatever language learning tips you may pick up throughout your study.
How do you get in the right mindset, though?
Here are a few components of a healthy language learning mindset. Once you know why they matter and how to go about developing them, you’ll be on your way to unlocking the most linguistic power your brain has to offer.
A Language That Excites You
If you’ve already decided which language you want to learn, you can skip this section. People are drawn to foreign languages for a variety of reasons. Some are practical, like for career advancement or communication with a group of people around you. Others are more emotional like family heritage, interest in the culture, or desire to travel.
All are perfectly valid, but don’t let a lack of obvious practical applications stop you from learning a language that excites you.
Don’t listen to people who tell you the language you’re learning “isn’t useful” either. A language is only as useful as the speaker makes it. If you’re excited about a language that has obvious applications like a large population of speakers in your area or frequent use in the field you work in, that’s wonderful! But if you’re interested in a more obscure one you will find ways to use it. You’ll just have to be more creative.
When I still lived in Michigan I was in situations where I had to defend choosing French weirdly often. It was annoying, but at the end of the day I’m using the language and most of the people questioning it only spoke English.
A Sense of Purpose
Without a purpose, you’re just spinning your wheels and getting nowhere. With it, you can make great self-discoveries and countless friends. This is why it’s important to know why you want to learn a new language and set goals of what you want to do with your new skills.
A lot of people take a foreign language class in high school because they have to, but lose most if not all of their skills within five years. This is often because they didn’t learn with the intention of using it in their lives and don’t keep up their skills. Whether you are one of these people or you are starting a new language from the beginning, learning with a purpose is the first step to avoid that fate.
Why you decided to learn this language in the first place is a good place to start setting your goals. After that, think less about what level you want to achieve and more about what you want to do when you get there. What milestones would signify progress to you? For some people it’s watching films without subtitles. For others, it’s reading literature. For others, it’s going on an overseas trip without worrying about finding someone who speaks English.
For the love of god, please get more specific than “I want to be fluent” when someone asks you what your goals are. “I want to be fluent” tells us nothing. It helps to think of your answer ahead of time before you talk to a tutor.
A Solid Foundation
Learning pronunciation and grammar early on may seem intimidating. However, language is made up of patterns and understanding exactly how these patterns work will make the process easier in the long run. Popular language learning apps can be skimpy in this department because they focus on vocabulary. However, vocabulary alone won’t help you form sentences on your own and speak confidently.
Learning what sound each letter makes should be one of the first things you do. Yes, even for languages that use the same letters as English. Their rules are still different. For example, a lot of English speakers complain that pronouncing French words is hard. It’s only hard because they’re not familiar with it.
However, if anything, French pronunciation is more consistent than English. Similarly, translating sentences without explanations of the grammar and syntax rules makes it confusing longer than it needs to be.
I’m no prescriptivist, but for a language that’s new to you learning grammar is necessary to communicate clearly.
Techniques That Work for You
There are a wide variety of methods of learning a new language. There is no such thing as one method that is the best for everyone because everyone’s strengths and weaknesses are different.
Some people thrive under a strict regimen while others need a flexible pace. Some people learn new information better by listening than reading. Some people find memorization easy while others struggle with it. Different people are alert and ready to learn at different times of day.
When you choose your study materials, scheduling, or partners to work with, pick ones that are compatible with you.
No one can learn a new skill without, well, wanting to learn.
Languages are more than words and sentences. They are also woven into the histories and cultures of the places where they are spoken. Curiosity about culture and history of your new language has several benefits. It exposes you to words you otherwise wouldn’t know. It can help you understand why the language operates the way it does. It makes relating to native speakers and finding reading and viewing material easier. Plus, of course, learning about the way life works in other places is a good idea anyway to become a more open-minded person.
Curiosity also goes a long way in keeping motivation for language learning alive. People who are hungry for knowledge learn more than people who see studying as an obligation. How about that?
Patience and Confidence
It’s human to feel discouraged when you try something new and don’t excel at it right away. However, the first step to being good at something is being bad at it. This is especially true for learning foreign languages.
Sure, speaking a new language can be intimidating, especially your first few times talking to a native speaker. Mistakes and corrections are inevitable. But let the strides you make keep you going. Early accomplishments like forming new sentences on the spot, keeping a conversation going, and not having to stop to think about what you’re saying feel great, but you’ll never get there if you give up.
It is also important not to get bogged down early on in the idea that learning a language has to be hard. Of course it takes time and effort, but starting out with self-intimidation can hold you back from achieving your goals. If you’re scared to start, you’ll put it off. This attitude can also prevent learners who are struggling from seeking help and finding methods that work better for them.
Basically, you’re better off not thinking too much about how easy or hard learning a language is “supposed” to be.
It’s important not to let fear of making mistakes hold you back. It’s even more important not to let mistakes become bad habits.
You may want to know how to learn a language on your own, but even self-directed study needs some outside help every so often to stay on the right track. Always take stock of your progress. It helps to have a tutor point out your weaknesses and strengths. Forming a study group or joining a social meetup for your target language is also a great way to make friends who share the interest. Taking feedback is hard for anyone, but without it we can’t learn and grow. Try to keep in mind that people in these settings usually have your best interest at heart when they correct you.
You’ll learn more if you lead with curiosity and joy than you will if you treat it like an obligation.
Maintaining these feelings long-term can be a challenge. It helps to learn topics that matter to you. As a beginner, that means focusing on vocabulary that is relevant to your life. This also has the benefit of making conversational situations easier to navigate. As you become more advanced, this means choosing reading and listening material that you would be interested in anyway. Reading comic books and watching action movies in your target language is just as beneficial as classic literature and films. Maybe even more so if it motivates you to use your language skills more often.
Incorporation Into Your Life
Traveling will put your new language skills to the test, but you don’t need a plane ticket and a passport to immerse yourself.
Taking steps to make your new language part of your day to day life can be as easy as changing the language settings on your devices, adding shows and movies to your regular rotation, or even verbalizing your thoughts at home in your target language until it stops feeling silly. The more a language is part of your life, the easier it is to build and maintain your skills. It also makes practicing feel less like work.
When are you done learning a language? When you’re fluent? When you know everything? The truth is, no one ever truly is.
The idea that you are done learning a language once you’re advanced enough is a common misconception. Think about it. Do you know every word of your native language? Can you talk about every topic easily? Do you understand the nuances of every dialect of your first language? That means there is always more to learn and improve your non-native language. There’s no such thing as truly being perfect at any other skill either. Musicians spend a lot of time practicing. Athletes strive to build their speed, strength, and agility. Artists improve their technique with every new work they create.
Why would learning a language be any different?
This is not meant to bum anyone out. On the contrary, people who think of learning a language, or any new hobby really, as a thing to achieve and be done with are doing themselves a disservice. When you meet your goals, celebrate the accomplishment and then set new goals.
Taking the Next Step
Effective language learning has a lot of components. There isn’t a one size fits all secret to success, but starting with and maintaining a healthy attitude about it makes a difference. Lead with curiosity, not expectations or a sense of obligation. Work smart. Ask for help. Be patient with yourself. Incorporate it into your life. Set new goals when you meet your old ones.
Most importantly, enjoy it. Learning another language isn’t just about work. It’s also the key to a whole new world of fun. Good luck on your journey!