What is the best way to learn any language?

There are many different approaches to language. Some language programs focus on acquiring formal language like what is used at universities whereas others promote ‘street lingo’. Some advocate for learning the rules of language like grammar whereas others suggest full immersion and learning ‘on the fly’. When you are thinking about the best way to study language, it all depends on what you plan to do.  

Maybe you have a new job overseas and you’re settling into a new country to make it your home for several years, or maybe you’re moving there permanently. You want to do everything a local does: buy a house, take a university course, volunteer, play sport, manage a business, etc. In short, you’ll need to become fluent in the new language (and also get a handle on the culture).

Your goal of what you want to accomplish will influence what kind of language program you should undertake. If it is to make friends and have a social life with involvement in community, then your program should be relationship based- learning in community. That’s the goal we will focus on in this article.

Becoming fluent may sound overwhelming, but language experts say it’s possible with a time frame of around two years if you immerse yourself in your new community and spend lots of time with local people. It will mean getting involved in community life, which can be challenging as a new speaker but well worth the effort.

It’s ideal to learn language full time but that’s not always possible when people have a job or a family to care for. So it’s important for new language learners to make a plan to allow as much time as possible for learning language while balancing work, family and life commitments. Being creative and flexible and including family or the workplace environment as part of the learning setting is one way to be efficient. If you have kids you could bring them along when you visit a neighbour. You can go to the market with a local friend or listen to language podcasts while doing the laundry or on the drive to work.

Language experts say there are a few things to keep in mind when learning any language.

Spend time with locals

Invest in relationships. Get to know people well and carve out time in your schedule just for meeting locals. It can be easy to be cautious in a new country but get used to saying yes when people invite you to join them in community activities.

Practise with a friend or language tutor

Of course, you can’t rely only on spontaneous activities to learn language. Make time for regular, focused language practise as well whether it be with a language tutor or a formal language program at a university.

Observe the culture

You learn culture by getting exposed to real life. Observe life as it happens naturally. Learning culture is as important as learning language so spend as much time as possible where other people spend time, like cafes, markets or parks and become familiar with those places.

Join in real life

You will learn more and better if you are really trying to communicate something to someone in order to get a response, rather than sitting in a classroom doing theoretical exercises. So don’t be content on the fringes, get out there and participate. Ask questions, join in community activities and practice speaking. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.

Have a clear goal

Proficiency refers to what you can do with language and it means being able to function confidently when you’re out and about, just like a local. It doesn’t necessarily mean sounding perfect or getting rid of your accent but having the tools to build deep friendships, communicate effectively and participate in whatever activities you like.

You won’t become fluent right away, so what will the process look like?

There are four stages that people go through when they learn a new language and culture (which are actually look similar to how a child learns their first language).

In the first stage people begin relating through the common and familiar. They use everyday words and phrases and begin to recognize simple sentences and questions that local people use daily. They learn to follow simple instructions, like “Run!” and “Jump!” or “Point to the man” and “Point to the woman”.

In the second stage, people start managing common daily routines, like setting up a bank account or borrowing a book at the library. They can talk about familiar events and activities in the community. They can understand and use sentences rather than just individual words.

The third stage is something of a relief as people are finally able to tell and understand stories. At this stage they can explain, describe and compare things and speak in paragraphs rather than just single sentences. This is a fun stage because people can finally have a normal conversation and ask friends what they did on the weekend and share what they did too.

In the fourth stage people learn to handle deep conversations about the reasons for their behaviour and understand other opinions as well as support their own opinions. At this stage people find themselves connecting paragraphs together and having longer conversations.

Whatever stage you’re in, or if you’ve yet to start, be ready to invest in relationships and open yourself up to a new way of doing things.

To sum up, if your goal is to have a social life in the community then you will need to take the same approach when learning language. Spend lots of time with locals in real life situations and enlist the help of a friend or language tutor to practise using your new skills. Remember becoming fluent doesn’t happen right away, so every time you say yes to a social invitation or carve out time to practice language you are getting closer to your goal of making friends and joining in community life.

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