How to Teach Yourself a Foreign Language

A week ago, I wrote a post called “Why I Learned Korean” (you can find that post here). I got some really lovely responses from people saying that I had somehow re-inspired them to pick Korean up again, which is so wonderful! Thank you all for your comments; sometimes I forget to respond but I really do read and remember them. Anyways, in addition to those people who have already started Korean, I also had one person comment that they really want to learn it but have no idea where to start, which made me think maybe I shouldn’t wait forever in writing the “How I Learned Korean” post I had planned.

When I started writing I realized I had a bit of a problem though; about half of what I have to say is pretty general, and applies to learning ANY language. The other half is specific to the long road I took with learning Korean, and the specific materials I used over the course of… I guess now about 9 years. So to save this from being an ENORMOUS post, I’m going to do my general tips first, and then do a separate post on Korean-specific resources if anyone is interested. (Seriously, comment and let me know, because if no one cares I won’t do one, or at least not for a while.)

Also, a disclaimer: this is no means an exhaustive list, or even the best or most research-proven things you could do. But I’ve seen and tried a lot of stuff, both in language classrooms and on my own, and these are the things that I always wind up recommending because they worked for me. So you know, if you need to, you do you.

So, here we go: my tips for how to teach yourself a foreign language, in no particular order:

1. Start listening.

I said this list wasn’t going to be in any particular order, but this really is my absolute NUMBER ONE tip for anyone who is just starting out. Even if you have NO IDEA how even read anything in your chosen language, you need to start getting your ear adjusted to its sounds and patterns.

Now, by “listen” I don’t necessarily mean “turn on the radio in the background.” Feel free to do that if it floats your boat, but I’ve always been the type of person who likes to understand the topic at hand. How can you do that with a language you don’t understand yet? My friend, get yourself a computer, go on YouTube or troll the internet, and find yourself a TV show, a drama, or a movie with some subtitles in English. When you finish it, find another. And then another. I’ve watched a LOT of shitty Korean television, but the content didn’t matter so much… your interest is in the language.

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My ever-favorite “1 Night 2 Days” which was one of the most popular Korean TV shows when it was airing.

It might seem absolutely crazy that this might eventually enable you to start separating those random sounds into meaningful groups, but it WILL happen. You’ll start to recognize how sentences begin and end, and certain recurring grammar patterns will begin to pop out to you without you realizing it.

And when you start to memorize vocabulary, having the sounds in your ear will enable you to remember and recognize words more quickly. When you can’t hear them right away but you see them in the subtitles, you can always rewind and listen again.

2. Familiarize yourself with the basic parts of grammar in English (or your native language).

With any language, you’re going to have to eventually get into some grammar; after all, words are useless unless you can string them together in a meaningful way. Learning Italian is going to be hard if you don’t know what “third person singular” means when it comes to conjugating verbs. Likewise, German and Russian get difficult if you don’t know what a preposition is, or the difference between a direct and an indirect object. I could go on, but you get the idea.

My point is that it’s a little easier to familiarize yourself with these things in English before all sorts of foreign words and constructions get in the way.

3. Get yourself at least one good grammar book.

I recommend getting at least one physical book so that you can scribble in it, bookmark useful pages, highlight stuff, etc. There are several ways of finding a good grammar book.

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Me with my very first Russian grammar book.

First: Go to your local library, because hey, it’s free! See if they have any books in your chosen language, just to tide you over while you do some research. They might have a gem that you love and will want to buy a copy of yourself; if you’re like me and gravitate towards languages that aren’t as popular, you’ll probably just have to forgo this step and skip to the next one.

Second: Get online and do some research. No one likes spending $40 on a grammar book they’re never going to use. A simple Google search on something like “best grammar books for learning Russian” will pull up lots of blog posts and articles on what people have found helpful.

Third: Take those suggestions you’ve found online, and read reviews of those resources on Amazon. This will let you make a better decision about how much money to spend, and on what. Then you can either order what you want or see if it’s available at your local bookstore. In some cases (as I found with Korean), you can even fine free web copies of great books online.

4. Diversify your resources.

In addition to the one physical copy that you now own, make a special folder in your internet browser for additional resources. Bookmark blogs that talk about intricate grammar issues, even if you can’t understand them yet. Bookmark online textbook resources. Bookmark a couple online dictionaries (although if you eventually get serious enough, having one of these in physical form is a good idea too). Bookmark the websites where you can either stream or download dramas and TV shows. Bookmark Reddit pages with links to good articles. Hell, even visit used book stores and get the cheap 50-year-old Spanish exercise book that no one else is going to buy. Just make a note of anything interesting you come across that looks valuable as you find it, because you never know when you’re going to need it when stuff starts to get confusing.

5. Search for some beginning online lessons.

This the tip that I hesitate the most to mention, because some online lesson courses can be really good, and others can be really frustrating and completely opposite of how natural language acquisition works.

Try, if you can, to find a website with a set of lessons that provides basic rules on writing or pronouncing the alphabet, basic greetings, and basic grammar. It’s good if the website has some audio so that you’re not left guessing; it’s even better if there are actually little quizzes you can do to test your memory.

If the language is closer to English (i.e. German, French, etc.) your chances of finding online lessons that actually do all those things are much higher. For others, these resources will be fewer and far between. Use discretion.

My favorite program that I’ve ever for beginning languages is Duolingo. It’s free, you can use it on your phone, the vocabulary is fairly useful, and while you’ll probably have to supplement the grammar it teaches you with other resources, it introduces new concepts pretty naturally. It doesn’t have every language though (sadly, the big East Asian languages are absent) but it does include a lot of others that people might be interested in. (https://www.duolingo.com/)

My other, all-time favorite program is called GLOSS, which is run by the Defense Language Institute. It’s also online and completely free, but beware! You have to be at a pretty high level to even start with this program, and the lessons are really not for the faint of heart. If you can handle it though, it’ll improve your vocabulary and language comprehension by leaps and bounds. Here’s a great article on what GLOSS is (http://www.fluentu.com/blog/dliflc-gloss/) and here’s the link to the program itself (https://gloss.dliflc.edu/).

6. Find a good flashcard program, and USE IT!

This is the number one takeaway I got from learning Korean. For the longest time I only listened to shows and music, occasionally consulted grammar resources, and only picked up vocabulary through natural acquisition. This is great, and a really good way of learning a language if you have years and years, but unless you’re moving to a country and you’re going to be immersed it’ll only get you so far. I wound up with a GREAT grammatical basis for Korean and a pretty limited functional vocabulary. That was when I started GLOSS, and began memorizing words en masse.

I would really recommend avoiding this whole problem. Just start memorizing vocabulary from the get-go because it’ll save you a lot of frustration down the line. I used to memorize German vocabulary by sending my dad a list of words and having him quiz me over the phone. For most people this just isn’t an option, which means you either need to make physical flashcards or get yourself a good flashcard program.

My favorite that I’ve come across is definitely Anki (http://ankisrs.net/). It lets you create different lists of words and randomizes them when you study (both in the order in which they appear and which “side” of each flashcard you see first). You can also tell it on a case-by-case basis whether you’re having difficulty remembering a particular word or not; if you tell it you’re having more difficulty, or you consistently get a word wrong, it’ll keep bringing it up until you get it right enough times. Words that you rate as harder will show up sooner in your overall study schedule.

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My sorry set of Anki study lists. You don’t need a million for it to work!

I will admit, this program comes with a pretty steep learning curve, and you’ll need to do some research online in order to figure out how to get all the settings the way you want them. Once you have it down though, it’ll do just about anything you want.

7. Learn how to read… and especially how to write and type.

This obviously only applies to people who are learning languages without the Latin alphabet, but I have to include it. I will say it again: If you are learning a language that uses a different writing system you MUST learn how to use it.

The first thing is to learn how to read. I can’t stress enough that when you are looking up new words, or you are coming across new grammar, it’s important to see what you’re learning written in the actual language, and not just a Romanization of the language. (For example, 장근석, the name of a popular Korean actor, can be written “Jang Geun Suk” or “Jang Gun Suk” or “Jang Geun Seok” or “Jang Gun Seok” etc. It’s SO much easier to just look at the Korean and know automatically what sounds you need to use rather than scratching your head over which Romanization is correct.)

The second thing is to learn how to write. One of my major stumbling blocks with starting Russian was that I didn’t know Russian cursive. This made taking notes on pen and paper extremely difficult.

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God help me.

The third thing, once you’ve mastered reading and writing, is to learn how to type. Go on to Amazon, and find yourself some keyboard stickers for your language. I used to have them in Korean, and now I have them in Russian. They make learning to type less a matter of trial and error and more just building a habit. You can’t easily look up grammar constructions or words in a dictionary if you can only type them in English. Learning how to type also means you can start using flashcards on your computer instead of on paper, which I highly recommend.

8. Befriend a native speaker.

This is so important no matter what stage of language learning you’re at. If you’re a beginner, a patient native speaker can help you learn natural sentence intonation and check your pronunciation. Once you get more advanced they can tell you which words have which shade of meaning and which word or sentence construction is more natural depending on which situation (i.e. the difference between извините and простите, which both technically mean “excuse me” in English). And of course they can help you practice your speaking skills!

9. Get into the culture

I can’t stress this enough, because this is just what makes a language FUN.

When I started Korean, I began my cultural education by learning all about famous Korean foods. I then found recipes in English online, found an H-mart, and tried to recreate them myself. Then I graduated to going to Korean restaurants. This made it easier to know what bibimbap and ddeokbokki were when they were mentioned in dramas. Believe it or not, there’s a lot of food talk that goes on in every culture, and you need this vocabulary and general knowledge. Don’t just learn the names of the foods, go try them!

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But seriously, this book as actually been great and I feel a tiny bit more Russian. Don’t avoid reading culturally relevant stuff in English!

Likewise, know what the really popular television shows are, and the names of the major network channels. Familiarize yourself with figures in entertainment, or the government, or the military. Know the pop culture! And learn a little bit about the history of the country where your favorite language is spoken.

Not only does it deepen your knowledge of the culture itself, but it lets you eventually begin to talk about things that the natives talk about, and there’s no better feeling that being told that you may as well be an honorary Russian/ Korean/ Thai by native speakers of that language.

 

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One comment

  1. Yukechii · · Reply

    Hello Kate,
    So I was only able to read this blog post now. But I didn’t forget it. Finally the last exams of my school year are done and I want to teach myself Korean in the holidays… Your list helped me a lot and I already bookmarked the websites 🙂
    But actually I would like to have a workbook or something I can orientate myself.
    So I just wanted to ask you, because you already learned Korean, if you have specific recommendations of workbooks and grammar books.
    Sorry for this late answer and thanks a lot for this Tips! I am sure I will use it a lot

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