“I took Spanish for 5 years, and all I can say is Hola!”
“All of my German teachers talked in German, so I never understood them.”
“I got all A’s in my French classes, but I don’t know the language for squat!”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard college kids complain about the years they’ve frittered away in language classes. Students seem to think that just by sitting in class and going through the motions they should be magically granted fluency. If they complete all the assignments—if they get all A’s—then they deserve it. Because learning a language is just as simple as filling in workbook pages, memorizing vocabulary lists, and acing speaking & listening exercises. Right?
To learn a language—to TRULY learn a language, you have to take it home with you after school. You have to move past the sacred ritual of skimp-cram-regurgitate, and instead work towards holistic understanding.
This is easier said than done of course, especially within the seemingly endless sea of high school commitments. Which is why I’ve prepared a condensed, 5-Tip Guide on how to Actually learn a second language!
1. Don’t study for the test. Study for YOURSELF! When reviewing grammar concepts, and vocabulary don’t just put in the bare minimum effort required to ace the test. Study for understanding and retention.
Online grammar exercises and flash-cards can give you the repetition you need to internalize the finer points of grammar, with minimal materials and effort. Ex.: http://www.quizlet.com (Vocabulary)
http://www.spaleon.com/index.php (Verb Conjugation)
http://www.bowdoin.edu/~eyepes/gramex.htm (Grammar Exercises)
2. Realize your teacher is giving you homework FOR YOUR BENEFIT! Don’t view grammar and vocabulary exercises as coercive acts forced upon you by your teacher. View them as ways an expert in your chosen language is trying to help YOU internalize the nuances of the language they know and love. Teachers don’t assign homework because they enjoy it!
3. Speak the language at every opportunity. And create opportunities! Find a language buddy. America is remarkably diverse, and the resident Hispanic population swells every year. Ask a classmate or neighbor who is a native speaker to converse with you and improve your language skills—they won’t judge you for making mistakes! Mistakes are a natural part of language acquisition. Plus, if they are fluent, speaking in the chosen language will be effortless for them; helping you practice is less of a chore than you think.
Speak Spanish with Hispanic waiters, Hispanic customers, Hispanic workers, etc. They’ll appreciate your efforts—most Americans expect them to learn and speak perfect English, but make no attempt to reciprocate.
4. Don’t just work in the language, PLAY too! Every language boasts a rich selection of incredible movies and books that can give you windows into rich, multi-faceted cultures completely different from your own. Watching movies and reading books, short stories, or even just poems will give you exposure to the linguistic norms of the language. Simple exposure (and practice) will teach you grammar rules far better than any textbook.
Engage in hobbies that facilitate language use.
Ex.: For Spanish, you can learn Salsa, Merengue, Bachata, or Tango, then speak Spanish to your partners when you go out to Latin dance clubs!
Investigate and appreciate the surrounding culture—give the language CONTEXT and RELEVANCE. Research the countries where the language is spoken, and maybe even make plans to visit! Placing the language in context will help you understand many of the linguistic and historical influences that helped shape the language, as well as provide you with a HUGE motivator to attain fluency: being able to enjoy the wealth of culture and the unique experiences that come with language mastery.
Consider volunteering, vacationing, interning, or studying abroad. Immersing yourself in the language and culture is one of the most effective methods of achieving fluency! And you don’t have to wait until college- there are plenty of programs designed to give high school students the opportunity to study, work, and volunteer in other countries.
Following these five tips will help you move past “classroom proficiency,” and into real-world fluency in the language of your choice!
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