4 Steps to Starting a New Language
I recently started learning Russian, and I've been reintroduced to the fun, exciting, and infinitely frustrating beginners' stage of learning a language. It's like the honeymoon stage of a relationship. Every day I discover something new about Russian that reaffirms my decision to take on such a notoriously complex language. Despite this excitement, I am still very much at the stage where I can pick out the odd word or phrase, but generally, it's still a wall of incomprehensible sound. How do you get past this?
If you've already learned a few languages and you have a method that works for you, I'm stoked for you! However, if you're just starting out with your first foreign language, and particularly if you're a native English speaker who has grown up with people who think they're "bad at languages" or worse, people who see no benefit of learning anything other than English, you may be at a loss of where to start.
There are a million different ways to learn a language from scratch, and I wouldn't dream of prescribing one surefire method that can't be altered or deviated from (I'm not much of a linguistic prescriptivist).
I'm simply going to share my general method of beginning another language, with tips and tricks to avoid pitfalls and beginner fatigue. I'm aware that languages vary hugely in their script, phonology, grammatical complexity, resource availability, in addition to many other factors. I will try to be as inclusive as possible.
Step 1: Learn the Script
If you're a native English speaker learning a language that uses the Roman alphabet, congrats, you can skip this step!
Until Russian, the only things I ever had to contend with script-wise were the pesky little umlauts and the intriguing ß in German. The Cyrillic alphabet took mere hours to learn and feel comfortable with, and it was necessary to move forward with my learning. In Russian, as in many other languages with different scripts, there is no one-to-one sound equivalent to the Roman alphabet. The "r" sound in Russian cannot simply be written with an "r" because the sound itself doesn't really exist in English.
"OK, that's all well and good," you may ask, "but what if I'm learning a language that doesn't have an alphabet-based script? What if I’m learning Mandarin/ Japanese/ Arabic/ Bangla/ etc.?”
Step one and already we have a pitfall! Students learning abugida or syllabary-based languages may take longer to learn these scripts, and that's OK.
Students studying character-based languages spend YEARS learning the scripts of these languages. I haven't learned a language with a non-alphabet-based script personally, but through other learners, I would recommend at least learning common character constructions and things like stroke order very early in the game.
You can rely on learner aides for a while (I'm looking at you, Pinyin), but when you finally travel to the country of your target language, being able to read street signs and business names make your trip so much more enjoyable. Eventually, should you want to reach a higher level, reading literature is also a great way of deepening your cultural understanding.
Step 2: Get a solid intro textbook or guiding resource
I will admit here and now that I have NEVER finished a textbook cover to cover. I am just not a big textbook girl. That being said, I really believe that building a firm foundation in the basic grammar of your target language is essential (well, maybe not essential, but it will save you heartache down the road). I think textbooks can be an excellent place to start building that foundation.
If you're completely textbook averse, see if there are any guiding resources online for your target language that can help you start from scratch. If you're a Russian learner like me, the Real Russian Club youtube channel has a fantastic free intro course.
If you're learning a lesser-studied language like Catalan, Kinyarwanda, or Navajo, it may not be as simple to find endless textbooks and online resources. In this case, it may be necessary to be
Get a bit more creative and go to step three.
Step 3: Take lessons or Find an Exchange partner
Italki is an excellent place to find tutors of just about any language you could dream of! I am currently taking lessons with a wonderful Russian tutor who is patient, kind, and funny. I realize that this is an investment, and it's not something that is feasible for everyone.
If you can't swing lessons, get creative! You can improve by studying new constructions in flashcards, writing sentences and getting corrections online, or by finding a very patient exchange partner (I really found one, so I know they're out there!).
Step 4: Get immersed
Total immersion as a beginner can feel super scary and overwhelming. While some people swear by this all-in approach, I prefer to dip my toes in first. Passive listening is a great way to learn the language's sounds and get past that "wall of sound" phase.
Find music and TV shows in your target language and start listening. It doesn't matter if your Netflix show has the subtitles on in English, you're still getting valuable listening practice, and you may even learn some of the really repetitive dialogue.
There you have it! Four steps to get started learning a language. There is so much more to language learning once you've scratched the surface, but I hope these steps will help you manage that initial hurdles.
Happy language learning