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Guide to Learning A New Language Gradually

When learning a language, we normally recommend focused and sustained daily lessons, paired with regular practice. That’s the best way to learn, after all. For some people, however, it may not be what’s necessary.

If you don’t have a pressing need for a target language (e.g. you’re only learning for fun or for challenge), you can skip the intense study and learn peripherally instead. By that, we mean doing away with the structure of formal lessons and just following whatever it is about the language that interests you.

Some people call this process “grazing” — basically, letting your gut and your interests lead you to what you’ll learn next. Me and my friends like to call it “follow the shiny object” because you pursue whatever piques your interest, which is typically something “shiny” (in this context, we mean that to be “attention-grabbing”).

Language Learning Materials

When you learn this way, language materials are secondary. Sure, you can pick up a language software and study whatever lesson drives your interest. For the most part, though, you can use any resource you want — YouTube videos, language blogs, a phrasebook, a subscription language learning website, and whatever else catches your fancy. It’s all about finding something that interests you in the language and then pursuing that with a singular mind, whether it be a 3-minute spiel you saw in a movie, language you can use when shopping or, everyone’s favorite default, all the cuss words in the target language.

You Can Do This Free

For the most part, you can do this for free. The internet is a veritable playground for this unstructured type of language learning, allowing you to get the information you need without any additional expense than what you already spend on your existing connection.

Say, you think it would be fun to learn how to talk to cab drivers in Paris. You can go to Google to look up websites with survival phrases for that situation or search YouTube for videos of similar interactions. Same when you suddenly have it in mind to learn Spanish pronunciation. You just go to YouTube or DailyMotion, then search for language learning videos that cover that subject.

The Path To Language Fluency

Can you ever get fluent doing this? Probably not in a long time. What it will do with a good likelihood of success, however, is make you conversant on things that actually interest you. For many adult learners who aren’t studying a language for a pressing need, that might actually end up being more effective than traditional modes of learning, like memorizing vocabulary from the ground up, studying grammar and working on comprehension.

Language Learning Is Often Boring

Unless you find it particularly thrilling to memorize long lists of vocabulary items and grammar rules, you’ll probably find traditional lessons boring. That’s because most language lessons are structured to teach you the same way you were taught in school. And we all know how you felt about sitting through those numerous hours of lecture at the time.

A lot of language learning is really just boring. You sit through an instructor blabbing in front; you park in front of a computer reading text and listening to audio; you sit with a book and read through gobs of paragraphs about how to form proper sentences. If you’re the type of person who aren’t too thrilled with those, you’ll probably love this approach, since it strips all the structure away. Instead of coming across a big lump of information that you have no control over, you pick up one thing at a time with no pressure to follow a prescribed path towards a goal.

Oh yeah — goals. That might be the biggest casualty here. It’s tough to set goals when you don’t work with a structure. Since you don’t know what you’ll be studying from day to day, it’s hard to be working towards a single goal. That’s the big trade off. Basically, you’re relying on gut to let you know whether you like how you’re doing, rather than having an external metric to base success from.

Exposure To The Language

Even if you plan to take formal language classes or software lessons, this type of learning can be very helpful as a way to acquaint yourself with the target language. If you haven’t quite gotten around to picking up that French training software or signing up at the Alliance Francaise, this could work as an effective introduction even when done within a short period of time.

This exposure, unstructured as it is, gives you plenty of context for experiencing and understanding the language. You’ll be surprised, in fact, at how much easier language concepts during formal lessons will become after you’ve gone through a pace of just chasing language elements as you feel like it.

You Manage Anxiety Much Easier

It’s much easier to manage anxiety and pressure when you learn in this manner. Since you aren’t striving for any concrete goals, you’re free to just enjoy the process. There are no lessons to finish, no tests to pass and no lists to exhaust — you just learn at your own pace whatever element of the language piques your interest at any given time.

The result is you’re able to learn without any pressure (whether from external sources or from yourself). As such, you might actually be able to pick up some amount of the language without actually (gasp) giving yourself unnecessary stress.

You Will Notice Patterns Organically

Through frequent exposure, you’ll begin to notice the patterns: how certain words are used, when specific inflections are made and so on. As a result, you learn how to use various language elements much more organically — a far cry from the heavy memorizing that more structured language lessons often rely on.

Again, we’re not bashing on structured learning. If you need (“need” being the operative word) to be conversant in Chinese or Italian within four months, in fact, we’d highly urge you to pick up a language software and work through it, fighting through boredom, stress and whatever other negative emotions you conjure about studying. This is for those whom a pressing need isn’t in the discussion — these are the type of folks who could truly benefit from this pressure-free type of learning.

Spaced-Repetition Language Learning

“Spaced-repetition” may sound like a daunting name for a system of learning.  It’s implementations are a lot less scary, though.  In fact, you’ve probably used one of the most popular spaced-repetition tools many times in the past: the good, old flash card.

For rote memorization, there are few tools that offer better convenience/effectiveness ratio than a simple flashcard.  Whether in physical or software forms, you can rely on it to commit many elements of language to memory.

The basic modus operandi for using flashcards to learn a language is:

  1. One side of the flash card has a question (e.g. an English phrase), the other side has the answer (e.g. the French equivalent).
  2. You read the question side.
  3. You recall the answer from memory.
  4. You check the answer side to verify if your recollection is correct.

If you can manage it, we highly recommend going with software-based flashcards for a variety of reasons:

  1. They’re more convenient.  Unlike physical cards, you can’t lose question and answer pairs you’ve made once.  Unless you wipe them off the database, they’ll simply sit there for future use.
  2. They offer a better scoring system.  Some flashcard software I’ve seen can rate your guesses from a range of 1 to 5, with “1″ being totally off-mark and “5″ being perfectly on-point.  Your recollection can be almost perfect (“4″) or barely missed (“2″), after all.
  3. They can track your progress.  A software program can easily monitor how well you’re memorizing specific flash cards.  That allows you to invest more time working with the phrases you’re struggling with.
About Sally Morgan

My name is Sally Morgan, I'm American and currently a Language Teacher in New York State Schools for French and Spanish. I have studied Foreign Languages, translation and teaching at the Columbia University in New York. I lived for 3 years in Europe including France, UK and Italy.

I am a passionate linguist and love how speaking another language opens the doors of communication and therefore a whole world.

Please ask me any questions below

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