I have studied Spanish, French, and Japanese at various points in my life and I’ve found that the best method for teaching a language is the same method that was used to teach me my native language-speaking and repeating.
Think about it. When you were a toddler, your mom picked up an apple and repeated the word “apple” until you finally realized that the shiny, tasty, red thing was called an apple. She did this with many other objects until you were able to form a simple sentence and ask for an apple or milk. Later you were able to form complex sentences and in a few years you learned the alphabet, how to read, and then grammar rules. This is the order that works best when learning a foreign language as well.
Oftentimes people have trouble learning foreign languages and they think it’s because they lack the aptitude for learning another language, but in reality, the problem is the way they are being taught. I’ve been in language classes where complex grammar rules were taught in the beginning, but grammar rules make no sense if you don’t even understand the words in the sentence.
In my first Japanese class, the teacher held up a book and said, “Kore wa hon desu.” She then picked up a pen and said, “Kore wa pen desu.” After she repeated the sentences a few times, we were able to surmise that that she was saying, “This is a book.” and “This is a pen.”, although we didn’t understand each individual word or the grammatical structure of the sentences. The teacher used this method instead of translating everything word for word and just as with English, we eventually learned the individual words, writing system, and grammar and by the end of the semester we were reading and writing simple paragraphs in Japanese.
My first French and Spanish classes was also taught this way, but through the years, not all teachers were as good. Some translated everything into English, which didn’t allow us to think in the language we were learning. Others taught only cookie-cutter phrases instead teaching words and sentence structure to express complex ideas. It’s fine to know how to say “Mr. Tanaka is in the office.” But at some point you might want to say “Mr. Tanaka looks like he’s been working too hard.”
A good teacher is important for having a successful language learning experience, but you need to be a good student as well. In addition to studying your textbook, you need to expose yourself to the language you are studying as much as possible. For example, watching Japanese movies helped me learn the intonations of Japanese speech, which I rarely heard spoken outside of the classroom. Reading Japanese and Spanish teen fashion magazines helped me see the languages written in a more casual way.
I also read children’s books and newspapers to see formal writing vs. informal writing. All these techniques made me better at the languages I studied, because after all, the way people speak in everyday conversation is different from the the way they write and I wanted to sound as close to the native speakers as possible.
Colloquialisms and slang are an important part of language learning. For example, in English you can say “I bought a new automobile.” This sentence is perfectly acceptable, but more often than not, a person would just say, “I bought a new car.” In French “je ne sais pas” becomes ” je’n sais pas” in speaking just as “I’m going to” becomes “I’m gonna” in English.
Language is about expressing oneself and that means learning the good words as well as the bad ones. Don’t be afraid to learn bad words in another language in case you need to use them or in case they are used against you!
In the end, learning a foreign language takes lots of practice and you need to have patience. You couldn’t read Shakespeare in first grade, so don’t expect to know all there is to know about a language after a month or two of studying it.
Make an effort to speak to strangers in your newly acquired language if the situation arises and don’t be afraid of making mistakes, after all English is not their first language and they may make mistakes as well. Keep reading books, watching movies, and listening to music in the language you are studying and before you know it, the language will be a lot less foreign to you.