How I was learning languages
4 min read

How I was learning languages

My journey started at school where I was learning English since ... I don't even remember, I guess since 4th grade? I didn't have the motivation to learn it. I was finding the lessons boring. We read texts, memorized them, studied grammar. I had a fundamental grasp of the language, but I'd prefer to have more than that after spending so much time on learning.

At university, I had English lessons for 2 years. No benefits.

I also was learning Italian for multiple months and reached a basic level. I studied German for 2 months in a free university course. I studied Spanish with Duolingo. I forgot all these languages while having some basic level of understanding.

A few observations at this moment:

  • it's easy to forget a language you don't use;
  • it's hard to learn a language if you don't know its application in real life;

I started noticing I need English for my first software development job. Software documentation is better written and updated in English. The customers send their requirements in the language as well. I should have googled problems in my native language because I'd get poor answers otherwise. It seemed like decent reasons to start worrying about language learning again. But this time, more productive.

Why school language classes are boring?

Reading and memorizing useless information doesn't make sense, right? That is how it seems to us when we study something at school or university. Without a clear indication of real-world usage, we don't see a point in learning anything. We could have non-boring classes and teachers, it'd help to encourage interest. Yet I, at least, should understand the real-world application of a thing I try to learn.

Educational establishments give us the necessary and unnecessary fundamentals. Though they don't provide information on how, when, and why to use them. They give us many things to memorize, yet they don't say why we need them.

Learning a language is difficult and requires a long-term commitment. How to do this effectively when you don't know the end goal? "It's important to know a foreign language". I got this, but where exactly it's important? Why should I use a foreign language?

Defining a goal

So, back to my first IT job. I started using English every day when writing or reading documentation, talking to clients, googling information. I got used to reading content in a foreign language. I started using Reddit, reading books with parallel translation(and without it too), watching movies and series.

I knew I'll be using the language more and it's super applicable to daily life. That's why learning becomes much easier. Now I'm gonna describe what I've tried, what worked for me, and what didn't - to make this article useful a bit. These tips apply to any language you learn.

Reading books. In the language you learn, of course. I was reading mostly programming books at that time. The technical language was simpler to start with. I downloaded English versions of some programming-related books and started reading them. It was unusual at first, I didn't understand much. Though after reading more and more, it became easier. After some time I tried the same approach with not only technical books. It was more difficult than reading technical information. Fiction books are the hardest because there are many adjectives and phrases people don't usually use.

It's an effective technique to learn how to use and interconnect the words and build sentences. This method also improves your talking(makes words simpler to produce with your mouth) if you read aloud.

Memorizing words. When you just started it's useful to know the fundamental words you can use. It's worth remembering the top 100 or so of the most used words in the language. Later, the situation becomes complicated. Rote words memorizing doesn't help much if you don't use the words you memorize. Don't forget about the forgetting curve.

I tried writing words down, making visual associations to every word. It didn't help in a long-term perspective. The words I remember are the ones I met in some context more than once.

Talking. It helps to automate producing phrases in your brain. To improve this skill, you should, guess what, talk. I found multiple language exchange buddies that helped me with English and I helped them with Ukrainian or Russian. Reddit has such subreddits, or you may take a look at various Discord servers.

This method also means chatting and speaking with people without exchange, just usual talk. Find communities where you can share your opinion and read what other people talk about. Engage in discussions. I used Google Translate when I talked on such platforms at first.

Listening. It also means watching videos, listening to podcasts. It helps you get used to how people talk in the language. I tried listening to podcasts, but it doesn't help much and it's boring when you don't understand most parts of it. However, there are podcasts for entry-level practitioners, they may be fun. I tried to watch movies, but it wasn't a fun experience. It's active learning, not laying on a bed and enjoying. Yet it's an effective way to get used to how others pronounce words and connect them into sentences.

Writing. It's an underrated exercise. Join various communities you like and chat with people. And, don't skip this one, write notes. Create a diary, if you don't have one. Or, start a blog. Or, a private notes space. Write your thoughts, plans, goals, fairytales somewhere. Writing helps you connect all the aforementioned skills to produce meaningful text. It indicates what words you don't know, don't understand, and grammar rules you miss.

If you noticed, I didn't include a grammar section. You should know its basics, but if you don't understand some parts, it's okay. Go practice and you see what are your weak parts in understanding it.

If you don't know what to write about, I suggest these exercises:

  • Write what do you see now, describe everything.
  • Pick a random word and write its definition. It can be a noun, adjective, concept, etc. We all know what water, car, and cynism mean, but try to explain their meanings. Then, pick another word from a previous sentence or a random one again and explain it.

The most important thing to do is to find what interests you and integrate language learning there. You may find watching movies stupid, but you like playing games. Think of how to play games and learn the language. Maybe playing some game with foreign people with whom you can talk? If you like science, you may try watching YouTube videos explaining some aspects of it in the language you learn. Or, find scientific papers and read them. There are many possibilities. Try something and see what do you enjoy.

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