5 Secrets to Success in Learning a Foreign Language

Having been in the role of both a student and a teacher, I can confess without false modesty that I know the topic of acquiring a foreign language inside out. So I'm going to share my story and some tips I hope you will find helpful.

five-secrets.jpgI can still clearly remember my first acquaintance with English at school. I hated the language because at the age of seven I couldn’t understand my teacher’s explanations about the third person singular where I was supposed to add the -s verb ending or about a mysterious place called Great Britain. I disliked the idea of mechanical repeating sentences in class so I just refused to speak. The only aspect that helped me get good and excellent marks was that I was a well-behaved girl. My teacher was able to see potential in me through my “modesty” as she called it and invited me to attend additional classes she organized paid-free. But even that did me no good.

I began to understand the grammar, learned tons of new words and expressions and made huge progress in pronunciation and speaking fluency during my last half-year of schooling when I met a tutor twice a week in order to enter the institute.

When I did enter the institute, I lost interest in studies again for now I was under the impression that I already knew everything worth knowing (which was not true as I discovered years later). So, instead of doing my homework I began teaching children. I missed classes and often came unprepared. No wonder that my teachers didn’t like me and I graduated with “good” for my English and “satisfactory” for my French.

By that time I had realized that I am not interested in French and that my true love is English. I continued teaching. Now that I worked not only with kids but also with adults I had to study really hard to prepare for my lessons. For several years my Bible was "A Practical English Grammar" and I didn’t go to bed without going through my list of words. Working at the University brought my English to its best. I could afford to relax a little but I still remember that once I quit practicing, my English will begin to deteriorate slowly without my even noticing it.

My own experience and that of my most successful students allowed me to formulate 5 simple tips. Here they are:

  1. Keep motivated. It is very hard to master a language without being motivated and my story illustrates it very well. As for me, in the past I was motivated by entering the institute, then teaching. Now my motivation is communicating, blogging and travelling.
  2. Work regularly and responsibly. It is better to take a little step every day to improve your language than to devote several hours to it at the weekends. Moreover, the work mustn’t be mechanical. It means that even if you are studying with a teacher, it is you who are responsible for the process, its pace and its result. Protest against taking more homework than you can cope with and always do something over your home assignment. That tiny manoeuvre will help you guide the lesson and be in charge of it instead of shifting responsibility to the teacher.
  3. Read a page or two every day. It is absolutely necessary to read something besides your textbooks. Your chances to succeed grow if you choose a fiction book you really enjoy. If your knowledge of language is still poor, you can choose something you have read in your native tongue. Contrary to popular belief, such reading must be performed without using a dictionary. Don’t try to understand the words you read – just enjoy the process. It will be even better if you read aloud and then retell the page or two you have just read. In a few months you won’t recognize yourself, I promise!
  4. Listen to native speakers every day. But remember that their pronunciation must be ideal. If it is not so, find the right native speakers and listen to the recording of their voice 5 to 15 minutes a day. And again don’t try to understand – just enjoy the sound of the language and don’t wait for any results. Your pronunciation will improve gradually.
  5. Choose the right teacher. One of the most important things about your ideal teacher – I don’t mention that he/she should know the language really well and be able to explain it – is that you should feel no negative emotions about him/her. Also, most of the speaking must be done by you and not by the teacher – it is not your goal to listen to your teacher, is it? I suppose it is to learn to speak in the first place. The teacher’s role as I see it is to keep you on the right track.

Good luck!

Woman Wielding Words аватар

Great advice. Of course, I wonder how you know if someone has excellent pronunciation. I remember when I was learning Japanese that it took me a while to know when someone was speaking slang, so I learned a few interesting phrases before I could differentiate between colloquial Japanese and more proper Japanese.

admin Olga-ekb аватар

There are numerous CDs on sale providing examples of ideal pronunciation for language learners. Didn’t you use any, Lisa?

Woman Wielding Words аватар

Not when I was learning Japanese. I have to try to learn Russian (but I didn’t get very far, long story).

admin Olga-ekb аватар

Wow, I would be interested in reading this story! Is it going to appear in your blog?

Woman Wielding Words аватар

It’s not that interesting, but maybe.

chicaandaluza аватар

I agree with what you say - it?s funny, I was never interested in learning Spanish (now my second and almost first language) at school and people could not understand why I chose Latin. It proved so useful in later years and helped me with French, Italian and Spanish. My partner has been the ebst teacher for me - he has unlimited patience and explains everything so well to me, it helps not to be made to feel "stupid" especially at the start when you are making lots of mistakes.

admin Olga-ekb аватар

Latin was one of the most difficult subjects for me at the institute. Tanya, your ability to speak three foreign languages fills me with awe and respect.

Michi аватар

Perfect advice. David is trying to improve his English to a more advanced level, but it's difficult since our relationship is in Spanish and we live in a Spanish-speaking country. We have several English-speaking friends in the city, and are hoping that once we move out there he will be exposed to more conversations in English. He catches on very quickly (English is his third language) but gets rusty if out of practice for too long...

admin Olga-ekb аватар

Well, in such situations reading, retelling and listening do wonders. Happy

amblerangel аватар

Very good advice. I'm interested in the reading part. Should I try to do children's books since I'm just learning the hirigana and katakana?

Woman Wielding Words аватар

I learned a lot of my Japanese from children’s books, so I would say you should.

admin Olga-ekb аватар

Children’s books are a good idea but it is critical that you should LIKE them. Maybe a fiction book adapted for children would be a more interesting choice?

Beverley аватар

As I am currently learning French, these tips will come in handy for me Happy I will hunt out a book to read this week. I like the idea of not trying to understand it all as the feel for a language is as important when learning as the actually meaning I think sometimes, especially in the beginning - which is where I am with my French Winking

admin Olga-ekb аватар

Beverley, I’m sure reading for pleasure will bring you on closer terms with the French language. Would be interested in your progress in a couple of months. Happy

natty nook аватар

I had similar experience in school... and also was a little unmotivated in the university until I started working as a translator... Then my love for English flourished and now I teach English as a Second Language here in the states. Love my students and love teaching English to them.
Thank you for the tips:)

admin Olga-ekb аватар

Teaching, as well as translating, is a great motivator. Happy

Cindy Eve аватар

Great tips Olga. congrats for persevering and how lucky we are that you did Happy I have found to my dismay that I am losing my ability to speak Afrikaans....our 2nd language growing up in SouthAfrica. When we were in SA this last month I could recognise the words I read but was unable to put them in context of what I was reading. very weird.
I tried to learn Italian some years ago for my visit to venice and found that I loved the language. It is my intention to learn again. I am also planning on doing a TEFL (teach English in a Foreign language) course in the near future. I adore English and love how you can use the most simple of words to create a picture. I would love to share that with people. It will also enable me to achieve my dream of travelling around the world Happy

admin Olga-ekb аватар

Thank you, Cindy! And you’re right, it is very saddening to know how easy it is to forget a language. I’ve already lost my French because I don’t use it.

Елена Толмач аватар

I believe that once you start learning a language you should never stop learning. Some people think that if they are able to express their thoughts via oral or written communication that means they KNOW the language, which is absolutely not true. It seems to me that it’s impossible to know a language since languages are surprisingly many-sided and you just never finish learning new things. I can’t say that I know English, I would rather say I’ve acquired a level of experience which allows me to work as a translator and a teacher.

As for my story of falling in love with English, it was very simple. Our teacher of English would make us learn stories in English, and it was called “retelling stories”. Well, at that time — and I was 12 or so — I couldn’t feel the difference between learning something word for word and telling a story in your own words because our teacher didn’t like when we changed something in the original text and what’s more important, I didn’t feel English at all. It was quite an alien language to me. But one day we were to retell a story about the Pilgrims and the May Flower ? As usual I was trying to memorize the whole story and tell it word for word like a poem. And all of a sudden it just clicked to me — all I had to do was to UNDERSTAND the text, keep in mind the story in Russian and then just tell it in English, using English words and English grammar. I should confess it was a revelation to me! So I did learn that story, but it was not a mechanical routine any more, it was a conscious process of using a foreign language for telling something that you know in Russian.

admin Olga-ekb аватар

A most unusual story, Elena! I have hardly ever learned anything by heart. But I know some teachers who ask students to learn a paragraph by heart every day. I’m not one of them. Once I had a pupil who had such a great memory that she kept learning texts by heart no matter how long they were. At first I thought she retold stories and complimented her on her ability to speak without mistakes. But after a month or so I compared her “retelling” with the text and forbade her to do it any more. After that mistakes appeared at once and we started working to eliminate them. The result was that after two years she was able to actually SPEAK without mistakes.

Елена Толмач аватар

I do agree that learning long texts by heart has little to do with understanding a language. But unfortunately my teacher didn't think so. She used to give us texts consisting of 25-30 sentences and each sentence had a number, e.g. "1) London is the capital of England and the United Kingdom, and it is the largest city in the European Union. 2) The population of London is aproximately ..." and so on. (You remember these "exam topics", don't you? Happy We couldn't change the numeric order because it was strongly prohibited. And when I dared to use such words as 'therefore', 'that's why', 'moreover', etc. to somehow link one sentence to another she didn't like it at all. It was such a strange method of teaching English. I never use it with my students Happy))))

admin Olga-ekb аватар

Well, you know Elena, it is not that I’m against learning by heart. There are some original texts worthy of memorizing (though I can’t list examination topics among them Winking). But retelling is a completely different thing.

Horatio аватар

One good way I found to learn another language is to develop written correspondence with a penpal. Why? For me, I used the same vocabulary and words just about alway. "Tomorrow I will..." "Yesterday I did..."

Thus, using a verb book and a dictionary, I was able to begin writing letters to my penpal after just a few times, having received letters from her in her native tongue.

The best way is to live in the country whose language you want to learn. It is essential to avoid being with people who speak your native tongue, in order to stimulate that part of your brain that is necessary to learn the language. Even if you have to struggle in the beginning. Always carry a little notebook to jot down new vocabulary.

One can learn the Cyrillic or Greek alphabets in just a few hours. You may not know what the words mean in the beginning, but using your own sounds, should be able to read words in those languages. Arabic, Persian, Mandarin, Hindi, etc., using different characters, would probably take somewhat longer.

Sometimes memorizing helped me. I memorized verb endings, so, in the beginning, when I wanted to use that verb, I would run through the endings mentally until I came to the appropriate verb!

admin Olga-ekb аватар

Thank you for sharing your secrets! I think reading blogs and leaving comments in another language is also a good way of keeping up to date with language issues.

Ramkumar аватар

I started learning German a month back. Is it a tougher language than English ?