The beauty of learning a language is that you can make up your own rules. What exactly could you be doing to achieve language learning success?
As a teacher of English and a learner of Polish, I always ask myself how my own language learning can be best applied to teaching. Of course it is always an advantage for any language teacher to learn a language at the same time, because: you put yourself in a learner’s shoes, you seek out the best ways to learn, you get to feel the ups and downs of the process, and you acquire an intuitive feel of what it takes to get to grips with another language. And crucially, for me at least, I realised something very valuable – that there isn’t a single guaranteed way to learn a language.
Language learning consists of multi-pronged attacks from all angles, over time, combined with a consistent effort. Now maybe I didn’t choose the easiest of languages to learn (as so I am regularly told), and it’s true that after three and a half years of conscious effort (having lived here for almost seven years), I am still a long ways from being fluent in Polish. However, I feel the progress, and perhaps my biggest hindrance on the road to language learning glory is that I don’t use Polish in my everyday work -- which obviously takes up a significant amount of my time in a day.
Other than packing in my job as a native teacher of English and finding employment in a Polish firm, there isn’t an easy solution to that situation. Nevertheless, I have reached a good level of competency in Polish, and mostly without the help of a teacher, so what are my strategies for achieving language learning success? I will tell you my ten strategies below.
1. Find your motivation (or let your motivation find you)
Motivation is obviously at the top of most people’s lists when doing anything in life. It is true that when your back is against the wall, or when you have some extraordinary motivation, you tend to pick up a language faster. In my case, I don’t need Polish for work, but now that I have a daughter who was born here, and I realise that I am here for the long haul, I can actually envision future conversations with my daughter’s teachers (and my wife). Such conversations are where I don’t want to look stupid, ignorant, feel embarrassed, or simply just feel disengaged from activities and situations that involve my family. Until I got married and had a child, motivation was always a problem for me. Now my family is all the motivation I need.
2. Find a system
For me, it was stumbling upon a website for Polish learners which eschewed grammar and simply focused on listening and reading. I had a daily text for each day of the year, accompanied by the audio of that text read by a native speaker. I could check words I didn’t know on Google translate. I had found my system. I already knew a lot of basic Polish from earlier efforts with CD/booklet-type packages, so this was a good way to challenge myself to a new level. The material was also stimulating and focused on driving students to higher levels of motivation.
3. Pay up
With the abundance of learning materials out there in cyberspace, it’s tempting to think that you can learn any language for free, and that might well be true, but it might also be erroneous thinking. Why pay when you can get it for free? Simply because it’s an investment. When you invest money into something, in my experience, your drive is doubled merely by the thought of getting your money’s worth. You are less likely to take a day off when you consider the hard-earned money you have poured into your little venture. It’s instant motivation.
4. Hit the road
Take your learning material everywhere you go. We live in a new digital frontier. The possibilities for learning now are limitless….smartphones, MP4s, tablets…you can utilize your transit time from home to work or wherever to maximum effect. Often, I will just repeat some earlier podcast and read the text at the same time, on some small journey across town. I keep in constant (daily) contact with my learning materials.
5. Learn something new – in your target language
Having set up my own website, I was becoming more interested in the mechanics of Internet marketing and website building. Again, I stumbled across something, Google’s free course entitled ‘Internet Revolution’ (but of course in Polish). There is a whole course laid out with multiple subjects connected to website building and marketing including videos on every subject with a transcript of the video. This was something I really wanted to know more about. The language level of the course is higher than what I was used to, but I had the motivation to finish it…because it's something I would like to know more about.
6. Read aloud to yourself - a lot
Apparently reading aloud can help you remember twice as much as when you read in silence. But that's not the only benefit. It also gets you into the habit of speaking your target language. You can hear it, you feel the rhythms for it; and most importantly, you break your own resistance to speaking. Granted, it is not the same as a live conversation with a stranger in a lively public venue. But it does get you started on the road to talking.
I read aloud every single one of my Polish podcast texts, got to 365, and then started again from the beginning (sometimes reading more than ten a day). Create the habit of talking by talking to yourself. Therefore, when the time comes for you to initiate a real conversation, you won't be afraid to use words you already understand and have spoken to yourself.
This is an obvious and effective method. I soon realized that within those 365 daily podcasts was what I needed right there, just about everything I needed to be able to communicate in Polish. Of course there are words which don't crop up in these lessons, but let's be realistic, there are even words in English that I don't know, or can't explain the meaning of, and I have been speaking English for 41 years! It's better to focus on repeating the materials you have, regularly, in order to give you a good foundation for communication. You can branch out later when you have mastered the basic communication structures.
7. Join a group
Safety in numbers? Maybe, but group learning is always useful, especially when you can communicate with a non-native learners like yourself. It takes the pressure out of the situation and allows you to communicate freely, make mistakes, listen to someone else’s struggles with your target language. Learning in a group is where you can give and receive mutual support.
Where I live, there is a language café that meets twice a month and this offers the opportunity to speak with other Polish learners and native speakers all at the same table. A very good idea, as you eventually have to get your head out of the books and podcasts and just go and speak – and a supportive environment is a good way to nurture confidence. And of course with the Internet era of things, you can join groups without even leaving the house. Just look at italki for starters!
8. Watch films with subtitles
I always learn better when I watch any film in my target language with subtitles in the same language. There is something about watching, for example, an English film with Polish subtitles, that really hinders my mental flow and doesn’t help me to improve. Better to hear it and read it in the same language, that way anything that you don’t understand might be clearer from the subtitles. If not, then, well, that’s life, and you can’t always catch everything.
9. Build good (daily) habits
How badly do you want to learn? Are a couple of lessons a week with a native speaker enough for you? No doubt for some people it is enough, depending on their language level and ability, but for most people the time in between lessons is just as critical. I had a couple of private Polish teachers. In all honesty, it amounted to maybe 30 or 40 hours of lessons, which of course was not enough for me.
Now I maintain daily contact with the language (okay that’s easy as I live in Poland), but I actively do something every day, seven days a week, 365 days a year; even if that’s only 10 minutes of reading an article that was linked through Facebook. I read children’s books too – they are great for revisiting simple structures; and the power of rhyming really helps you to remember words. Be systematic, even on those days when you feel like you can’t be bothered. That’s my key to language learning success.
10. Awareness of the language learning process
I am skeptical of any course that professes to offer you language fluency in two weeks. There are such courses. I have never tried them, and actually I am not sure that such courses exist for Polish. I believe there is a language learning process and I respect this process. When someone told me Polish was a ten year language, I could believe it, although I am sure that some people have mastered it far quicker than that. What’s my point here? Patience, perseverance, strategizing, thinking, analyzing - not biting off more than you can chew. Know where you are on the journey and enjoy the journey. You don’t have to rush it, respect the process and know your current place in the process. It doesn’t matter how fast you are learning a language, the important thing is that you are learning it.
As a wise person once said...“The slower you start something, the faster you will finish it.”