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How to learn a new language 🌏🌎🌍

Usually, I write about technical topics or community events but this time I’ve chosen to write about my experiences learning a new language.

Which language? ABAP? Javascript? Python?

No.

I am writing about the process of learning a new spoken (and written) language such as English, German, Portuguese, or any other.

Yes, learning a new language is a process and this process is very similar regardless of which language you are learning. Surely there are differences in difficulty arising from the fact that we already know other languages from the same groups (Romance languages or Germanic languages, for example) and writing systems.

Anyway, learning a new language is not nearly as difficult as we are used to thinking about.

Why learn a new language?

I moved from Brazil to Germany without speaking any German besides a few words I’ve unknowingly learned as an ABAP developer (Ort, Land, and Werk sound familiar to anyone?).

At first, it felt really good to find that it was possible to live in Germany as an English speaker because of the excellent English skills Germans have. But I soon came to realize that it is not enough if you want to feel “at home” in Germany in a broader sense.

I have found a series of motivations to learn German. Then I started to think that I have been in contact with the English language since I was a teenager: it means, more than twenty years had passed. I didn’t want and didn’t have all that time to learn German. So I started to do some research about what I could do to learn German faster.

While I’m still a beginner, I’m making progress way faster than I could ever realize. To me, this came as a surprise, especially given the reputation of the German language being a very difficult language to learn.

Indeed it is difficult, but the secret to learning any new language is…

First, learn how to learn

Yes, this must be the very first step.

It would sound natural to just sign up for a class and do your best. But the available options didn’t sound good for me: it would take a very long time in regular classes with other students or it would be much more expensive than I could afford if I wanted to have full-time private lessons.

So I did some online research on how people can successfully learn a new language in a short time mainly by themselves. And I found lots of inspiring people doing that!

One of the most inspiring is Steve Kaufmann, who at 75-year-old is well-known for speaking twenty different languages. What mostly got my attention about him is that he first had a successful career as a diplomat for the Canadian government and learned most of his languages only after being retired when he was around 60 years old. This instantly canceled any idea I would have about the need of being “young” to successfully learn anything. So I studied Steve’s methods and read his book twice.

Some of the most important ideas and strategies used by Steve were learned from Stephen Krashen who is a very well-known and respected scientist in the area of language acquisition. I learned from Stephen how important it is to read and listen to the language you want to learn in a very particular way. After a few weeks, I was already reading some basic books in German and I am now always looking forward to the daily improvements I can clearly see in my understanding of the language.

Steve and Stephen gave me the most important ideas on how to learn a new language, but I’ve searched and found many other successful language learners and teachers who could in a few months go from zero to a decent level of knowledge on very different languages.

Of course, it depends on how much time you can find to learn and especially how you use that time. I learned very different things from all those people and built a system of learning for myself that works way better than I would ever dream of.

Choose your goals and build your learning plan

It will help you a lot if you carefully choose your goal to learn a new language: is it to move to a new country? To be able to learn or teach in another language? To work with people abroad? You must find your motivation and then find out what level of knowledge in the language is enough for your goals. Also, any language has four components (read, write, listen, speak) and different levels of competency on each component are relevant depending on your goals. An effective learning plan should take all these into account.

Depending on your goals and your available time, your plan can have very different shapes. This is one of the reasons why I do believe that traditional language classes are not the best approach. Surely they have a place for some people in some scenarios, but as I said, for me they were not the best option.

As a general rule, I would say that you can successfully acquire “enough of” a new language, let’s say up to an intermediate level, within a year when you can study for at least one hour every day. This is probably good enough to have informal and not professional engagements using the language. Obviously, “knowing enough of a language” is relative and can be defined in very different ways depending on your wishes and needs.

The key concept here is that “study” does not mean necessarily sitting somewhere with some specified book or class. Learning can take many different forms if we get purposefully creative about it: we can listen to podcasts and audiobooks while exercising, driving, commuting, or while doing house chores; we can watch classes and content from Youtube and other video platforms while exercising indoors; speaking classes can be taken anytime and anywhere using our mobile devices; finally, lots of books specially designed for language learning are cheap and easy to get through digital platforms such as Amazon’s Kindle.

Measure your improvement

There is a popular management thinking that says that you must measure what you want to get done, and it is true for language learning. I learned that it is important to measure both practice and results.

First, it is important to measure practice. In the very beginning, you are supposed to not see any meaningful results because you are building the needed fundamentals. Sometimes you are going to feel like you are back to your childhood, seeing yourself unable to speak as effectively as a 5-year-old child could. This is true, but as an adult, you will soon achieve leaps of improvement that are unthinkable for a child because you already have lots of learning techniques and resources you developed through your life. You must decidedly persist in your learning during these initial steps until you are past the early beginner phase when you will finally start to understand things “like an adult should”. So, at first, measure only your engagement with your learning schedule, not your results. You will surely advance if you do it.

But then you should start to measure also your results. It is because the quality of your learning will matter both for your understanding of the new language as for you being able to express yourself clearly enough to be understood by the speakers of your new language. This will be a more rewarding phase of your learning and depending on how much time you have available to study daily, it will not take long to reach this point.

Enjoy the results!

Finally, you want and deserve to enjoy the results of your efforts. It would be through socializing with native speakers of your newly acquired language (even remotely these days). It can also be through consuming new knowledge or entertainment. Also, you can produce knowledge and content in the language that will be valuable to others. In the end, you will open a whole new world for yourself where you can learn from and share with thousands or millions of people with whom you now can effectively communicate.


Book recommendations

If you are interested, here are some awesome book recommendations that helped me a lot in discovering new ways to learn a language. I have also learned from other books, teachers, linguists, and polyglots, but I think these are a very good start.

 

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Becoming%20Fluent%3A%20How%20Cognitive%20Science%20Can%20Help%20Adults%20Learn%20a%20Foreign%20Language

 

I know that many people in the SAP Community have already gone through the process of learning a new language for career-related reasons and this is a topic of interest for many.

Now, what about sharing your experiences learning languages in the comment area below so we can learn new ideas and tips from each other?

 

Cheers and happy learning! 🌎🌍🌏

6 Comments
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  • There are various apps out there and some are very good indeed. Duolingo seems to be the most popular, but I never really made friends with it. The one I use regularly is Memrise

    Both use spaced repetition flashcard-like systems based on scientific principles. Duolingo has a heavier focus on grammar, and I found the sometimes nonsensical generated phrases annoying. I found Memrise more natural and includes video clips of real-world speakers, but is limited to its (many) predefined phrases. But it's good enough to get you started in a fun and engaging way you can do in small chunks wherever and whenever you find a minute or two throughout the day.

    • Hi Mike, your language learning experiences look really useful. Thanks for sharing!

      I think there are so many apps for language learning that it is even difficult to choose which ones to use. 

  • Thanks Douglas Cezar Küchler  for your blog, very inspirational. In my case with Italian, just can only add that daily calls with my italian colleagues has become my best way to improve my skills with this language. At the begining in my case I was very shy to start to speak, but this is the starting point to get better level every day. Then I also complete it with reading italian newspapers or listening news on some italian tv channels.

    • Hey David, very nice and useful idea.

      I've learned that daily use of a new language is very important during the acquisition phase. So it looks like your experience confirm that! 🙂

  • I learned even more useful information. Thanks. By the way, I found an interesting website where I managed to read an extremely interesting article about how to learn German. With the help of the information on the website at this link, I was finally able to figure out where I should start studying a new subject. I advise you to also read this interesting article.

  • I think the best way to learn a new language is to live abroad. For example, if you want to learn Vietnamese, move to Vietnam. Of course, this does not sound very realistic, so you can try this tactic: first, schedule time to learn the language; listen to podcasts in the language you are learning; write in that language whenever possible, and even think as often as possible in this new language! I also learn a language with the help of a translator, read a text or watch a movie and write out unfamiliar words, then I press translate from english to vietnamese, it helps me so I remember new words better.