Tips for starting a new language

I’m honestly not really sure what to do for the first post, so I think I’ll just share some tips on how I start learning a language, and what has been most successful for me so far. I’ll make a separate post for mistakes to avoid when learning a language!

Keep in mind these methods may not work for everyone, but this is what has helped me so far.

1. Learn grammar parts separately

For me, the first things I usually look up/study are: Pronouns (I, you, we…); Prepositions (in, at, before…); Verb conjugation with basic verbs (just the present tense at first!). For me, these three aspects of grammar give me basic building blocks to begin constructing sentences, and I think they’re some of the most important things to know! It’s always nice to learn stuff like greetings and common vocabulary as well. But for me, I really like to understand the structure of the language first, so that I can make sense of the things I read as I begin studying the language.

Example (French): Je mange dans le salon (I eat in the living room).

We have in this sentence a pronoun (je), a verb (manger), and a preposition (dans). For me, I would be able to tell, ‘hey! a person is doing something (in) somewhere’. Even if I didn’t know the word ‘salon’, I could look it up in the dictionary and see that it means ‘living room’. So if I already knew French pronouns, some common verbs, and prepositions, I could probably understand the first part of the sentence without looking it up, and that process goes much faster! Learning the grammar parts separately helps me to break the sentence up into sections and translate it much easier.

Of course this varies depending on the language you’re learning. For example, with Japanese, I first started by learning the particles like は、が、を、etc, because I was able to break up sentences easily that way! With Finnish, I learnt the case suffixes first (-lla, -sta, -n, etc), because they are one of the most essential and important parts of Finnish grammar. Otherwise you really don’t know what’s going on in that language sometimes.

2. Music

I always like to explain how I was completely befuddled by German pronunciation until I began listening to Tokio Hotel, and sat glued to their lyrics while I listened to the songs. It was an extremely helpful way for me to learn pronunciation (and also I love music, so it was a win/win). To this day, I have Tokio Hotel to thank for teaching me how to say German words (thanks guys).

Music is a great way to get familiar with a language. I remember the first time I saw Finnish was when I was looking up the lyrics to a song a friend recommended me. I was like ‘wow, I had no idea it looked like this’. I was also pretty confused when I was reading the lyrics to a Hungarian song while listening and thought ‘this sounds nothing like it’s written’ (yay consonant clusters!).

Anyway, reading the lyrics to a foreign song while listening to it can be really useful in learning the pronunciation. It’s best if you start with slow songs so you can really get a feel for the words, and then gradually move up as you become more familiar with it. When you become more advanced in your language, songs and lyrics are a great way to practise translation and see how sentences are constructed! Keep in mind some songs (and certain languages) are very ambiguous, and the word order that might be very eloquent and musical for a song may not actually sound right in everyday language!

PS: The first song I heard from Tokio Hotel was “Durch den Monsoon”. Go check it out (with the lyrics)!.

3. Subtitles on movies

Putting subtitles on movies that I would watch in English kind of gave my French that extra little boost it needed at that time. Even if your movie isn’t in the target language, putting the subtitles on can help you become familiar with the language and pick out certain words you recognise. I’m always giddy when I pick out a movie that ends up having several different subtitle options (Kingsman: The Secret Service had an option for Estonian!). Now that I’m trying to become more fluent in Spanish, I’ll put the Spanish subtitles on, and it helps me pick up extra vocabulary and become familiar with the way the sentences are constructed.

Movie subtitles aren’t always 100%, and may not translate exactly word-for-word, but it’s still a helpful tool to get your brain working and thinking about the language you’re learning!

You can also change the audio if there is an option, and put either English subtitles or the subtitles for your target language (although the subtitles tend to match the English audio rather than their corresponding audio language, which bugs me constantly). I LOVE watching Disney films in different languages. I went to the trouble of ordering Oliver and Company from a Finnish site, and the DVD ended up coming not only with Finnish, but also Swedish, Dutch, and several others (and the matching subtitles!). You can easily search Disney songs and clips in different languages on YouTube. Some users are even kind enough to add subtitles!

PS: if you order a movie from a different country/continent, it is likely going to have a different region code and therefore not play on your DVD player! You can order a region-free DVD player for like 40 USD on Amazon, or use your computer and change the regional settings (some only let you change it a limited number of times, so be careful!).

4. Practise with Native Speakers!

I remember when I barely knew any French, and I had the courage to go on a French forum and write a small post. I had very positive and helpful responses and it really boosted my confidence and gave me an opportunity to finally use French. Even if you aren’t very good at your language yet, talking with native speakers is so helpful because you get an authentic version of the language. You can see how sentences are normally structured, what vocabulary is common, and it gets you in the habit of using your target language in daily conversation!

I honestly contribute at least 80% of my French success to my Québecoise friend that I talked to every day online. Even though I ended up learning lots of slang and my French still sounds much more Québecois than French-French, my French still improved greatly thanks to the constant practise I was getting. Even if it takes you like ten minutes to respond, it gets your brain working, it gets you looking up words and making sentences, and I think that’s the best practise you could get!

There are tons of sites out there where you can practise with native speakers of a language and even get corrections and feedback. iTalki, Interpals, Polyglot Club, and even forums on places like WordReference. I met some of my best foreign friends (including my friend from Québec) on Deviantart (and also So there are many many places out there for you to find friends that speak the language you’re learning. Just look for them!

PS: don’t be offended if they correct your mistakes or give you advice, it’s just a way of helping and your language will thank you!

5. Roleplay!

Not the 50 Shades of Grey kind.

For those of you who don’t know what roleplaying, or “RP” is, it’s basically where you and another person (or multiple people) pick characters (they can be your own (OC), or already existing like Harry Potter or Frodo) and act like these characters in writing, essentially directing a story about your characters that you create. There are many different styles of RPing, so I’ll give a couple examples:

‘Simple’ RP is pretty much:

*touches your hand* I like you a lot / *I touch your hand* I like you a lot (alternatively you can use the characters’ names, like *Sam touches your hand* or *Sam touches Dean’s hand*).

This is pretty much first-person present-tense writing and it isn’t very complex, so if you’re a beginner or intermediate learner this is probably good to start out with.

Another kind is basically what I call “paragraph RP” or “detailed RP”. In this type, you actually write as if you were telling the story in a book.

“Sam touched Dean’s hand and looked at him sadly, wondering what they were going to do” (you can also use present tense if it is easier for you! “Sam touches Dean’s hand and looks at him sadly…”)

This type involves a lot more detail and is good for advanced learners or those who just really want to practise.

You might think it’s weird, but it’s just an option for people who already like to RP, or who want to try new ways of practising their target language. It helped me a lot with my French, and it was also just really fun to do!

6. Change programme and interface languages

Everything on my computer is in French. People who visit don’t really like using it.

If you have a good enough understanding of your language, and you feel comfortable doing so, you can change the interface language of programmes like iTunes on your computer. If you are familiar enough with the programme then you can see how certain words and phrases are translated, and get used to using your language in that way.

I think my cell has been in a different language my entire life. Right now it’s in Spanish because Android unfortunately doesn’t give me a lot of options, but when I had an iPhone I would constantly switch between French, Finnish, Japanese, etc. It was so fun! Until I was trying to use my GPS one day and it kept giving me directions in Korean.

If you’re a Windows 8 user, you should be able to change your entire computer interface language! Just make sure you know how to switch it back if you need to! (Mac users can also do this since like…forever.)

PS: It’s always kind to change the language back to your native one when you have visitors over and they need to use your programmes. Or you could just explain to them that “télécharger” means “download” and NO DON’T CLICK “ANNULER” OH NEVER MIND LET ME DO IT

7. Play video games!

Of course there are always lots of apps for your phone or tablet where you can play games to practise and learn language, but nothing really beats playing an entire video game in a foreign language. While not every game comes with an option to change it, you could start by changing the subtitle language with your native audio language, or vice versa. If you’re really comfortable, change both!

I was lucky enough that my friend found me a version of Fallout 3 in French for my PC that I played, like, constantly. Eventually I got good enough that I could turn off subtitles and just listen to the French audio. I was in language nerd heaven! The Sims 3 and 4 also lets me do this, but the Sims 4 has like a ton of other options. Mine is currently in Finnish and to be honest I’m really not sure what my sims are going to do when I click on something.

Video games are a great way to immerse yourself in your target language, and the Sims in particular is a very good option because it is pretty much all about daily life and tasks. You will learn how to tell someone to clean the house, ask them to flirt, or see if they want to Woo-hoo (I haven’t tried asking that last one in real life yet). You can learn the words for telephone, couch, pool, stairs, and literally dozens of other common vocabulary. It is really an indispensable learning tool and I love it!

8. Read books! 

One of my favourite nerdy things is to read Harry Potter in different languages. If you don’t think that’s nerdy enough, then let me tell you I printed out the entire first book in Finnish and put it in a binder because the shipping fee for the book from Finland was like 20 USD. I also downloaded the accompanying audio book.

For beginners or intermediate learners, children’s books are probably best to start out with. I would suggest things like “The Little Prince”. If you’re familiar enough with the Harry Potter books, you can always use them as well! But for regular novels, you’d need to have a pretty good grasp on the language (unless you want to be reading your dictionary as well). Though I’m a hypocrite, I read the book “Night” by Elie Wiesel when I was barely into French, and I had absolutely no idea what most of it said.

I currently have all the Harry Potter books in French, as well as one in Spanish and one in Simplified Chinese. The Chinese one takes me quite a while. Like an hour per page a while.

I love reading, so it’s a fun hobby for me to read books in my target language, particularly French and Spanish, as I’m well enough into those languages that I don’t have to look up too many words to get the message. Harry Potter is the easiest option because I’ve probably read the books like 20 times in English.

PS: If you’re nerdy enough, you can get two languages side by side and compare them!

There are plenty of other ways to learn languages, and many other tips I could give you, but I think many of them would be pretty obvious. I just wanted to share some of my techniques and hope that they might help you out! If you have any other suggestions feel free to add them in the comments! I love to hear how other people learn languages as well!


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