Learning a language can be challenging, so here are 3 tips from one of our italki tutors on what to focus on in order to reach your goal!
1) LEARN THE STRUCTURE
Learn the structure first, with limited lexicon, by making up a lot of
sentences, with the help of a native friend or teacher.
Languages are all about composing sentences, recounting facts and expressing any
kind of idea or thoughts. You do not need to know a lot of words in order to
make up many useful, real-life phrases. Learning a language should be mostly a
constructive process: the more sentences you build, the more you understand and
remember the syntax of the language. You can’t learn by reading only. You have
to make the effort to write and speak, that is to communicate.
There are two aspects to every language: syntax and semantics. Semantics is
usually quite easy: a good dictionary can tell you the meaning of an unknown
word. If a word has many possible meanings, you will be easily able to tell the
right one from the context. Idiomatic expressions can be difficult to look up in
a traditional dictionary, but there are many online resources out there to help
you with that as well.
Syntax is the real tricky thing, because word order can be very different from
your own language, as well as the usage of verbs, which is very important to
master correctly as soon as possible. Here you absolutely need a native to tell
you whether the sentences you invent are grammatically correct or not. It is helpful to be
aware of all correct word orders in which you can express a certain sentence.
In order to become fluent, you need to build into your brain a sort of grammar
machine for the target language: an “automation” that is able to generate all
grammatical sentences and recognize the ungrammatical ones. This is where a
native teacher can and should help you most.
2) RELATE WORDS
Do not try to memorize words, but instead relate words between each other both in the
target language and in the languages you already know. Compare the structure of
the languages, too.
There is a lot of contamination between languages. Depending on the relative
geographical nearness of people speaking different languages, you will find more
or less cognates or loan words. Sometimes a word is borrowed by a language
indirectly from another language, e.g. English borrowed many words from French,
and French from Latin. These words happen to be similar to Spanish or Italian,
because of the common Latin origin.
Anyway, you do not need to know the exact etymology of each word, which
sometimes remains controversial, in order to speak a language. Just exploit both
similarities and differences between the languages. They both can help you to
remember, so it is important you are aware of them.
Never try to learn a word by heart, without understanding a bit of its internal
We cannot learn a language using word lists and we cannot remember a lot of
words without relating them. Paradoxically, it is easier for us to learn many
related words together than unrelated words separately. Also, you have to use
words to make sentences many times until they go into your permanent memory and
you will never forget them.
A good teacher can help you to practice the same words in different contexts and
will not introduce too many new words at a time. He will also never pretend you
to learn by heart sentences where you do not understand the meaning of each word
and the grammatical structure. Both are needed if you want to reuse what you
have learned to make new, different sentences.
(*) For instance, the word for both “why” and “because” in Italian is “perché”.
By learning this word and recognizing its structure, you can easily learn three
words in one, since “per” is “for” and “che” is “what”. So “why/because” is “for
what” in Italian. By the way, “because” in English is not the contraction of “be
cause” but comes from “by cause”. The latter would be “per causa” in Italian.
Causa comes directly from Latin. “Because of me” in Italian is just “by cause
my/mine” or “per causa mia”. It is not “by my cause”, because (no pun intended)
in Italian we put an adjective after the noun in order to restrict its sense:
“per mia causa” would be correct but there is no stress on “mia” if put before
the noun it refers to. In other words by putting “mia” after causa we mean “mine
and not another’s cause” and that equates to stress “my”. This is typical of
Italian: you can revert the order with other adjectives as well, not only
3) USE A METHOD WITH YOUR LANGUAGE PARTNER
Use a method to structure your language exchanges and make them more fruitful.
With a proper method you can make the most of the usually limited time available
to practice languages with native speakers on an exchange basis.
First, make sure your language partner has the same level of knowledge of your
mother tongue as you have of his/her native language. Also, make sure he/she is
a native speaker of the language you want to learn.
Second, arrange the exchange so that both languages can be practiced at the same
time, so neither will get bored.
Third, do not be afraid to ask questions to clear up any doubt, e.g. ask about
word choices and correct structure and possible variations on the same sentence.
Avoid using complex grammar terminology, which most native speakers do not know.
Answer the same questions for your own language too, so your partner can learn
something as well.
Fourth, build up complex sentences step-by-step, by starting from simple ones,
adding to them and joining shorter sentences to obtain longer ones.
A funny and informative way to practice with a language partner is to simulate a
conversation between two people in a real-life situation – e.g. between a
customer and a salesperson in a shop, two friends in a pub, two students
taking an exam together, two friends who meet up after a long time etc. The
possibilities are endless and no personal questions are involved.
Invent the dialog on the spot, without any prior preparation, starting from a
sentence and adding more sentences as you go. In turn, you and your partner make
up the next sentence of the dialog in the languages you want to learn, the other
checks whether the sentence is correct and translates it in the other language.
So you both make the effort to make the sentence in your target language and
have their phrase checked by a native. Any mistakes should be pointed out by
trying to explain both what is wrong, why it is wrong and how to make the
sentence grammatical. You can first pronounce a sentence and then write it down
in a text chat. The exchange transcript can be copied and pasted and used for
brushing up by both.
About the author: Antonio Bonifati is an Italian language teacher for speakers
of English. He has a fondness for both natural and formal languages, like those
used in mathematics and computer science to unambiguosly describe information
processing and trying to simulate human intelligence. In 2010 he developed a
mnemonic language teaching method primarily based on the structure of languages.
Antonio has a 5-star feedback rating, and has taught over 52 sessions on italki.