Being interested in languages – and also as a teacher of my mother tongue, Italian – I decided to write about some difficulties you can encounter when you set off to study a language. Much of what I write isĀ  based on my personal experience, both as a teacher and as a student, having learned a few languages (English, French, German, Spanish, modern Greek, Dutch) to various degrees. I hope you will enjoy reading this post and find it useful.

1. Pronunciation

This is the toughest part in learning a language, because every idiom has peculiar sounds, different from other ones. The problem is not in the sounds themselves, but in how the mouth – and all the muscles, the bones, the organs used to emit those sounds – are articulated from a physical point of view. In other words, every language has a proper way of articulation.

This articulation is what we learn in our mother tongue since we start to talk, becomes natural and automatic to everyone of us. But putting aside your way of articulating and getting used to reproducing a different one as an adult, that is more difficult – you have to temporarily change your muscle memory.

That’s why many times you recognize a foreigner when he/she tries to speak your own language, also if his/her grammar, syntax and lexicon are perfect. Also, that’s why it can happen – and has happened to me too – that when you try to speak a foreign language, despite your grammar, syntax, etc., being fine, the native speaker that you are talking to will not understand you.

This is not to say that proper pronunciation and articulation cannot be learned. On the contrary, training your muscles to become familiar with the new movements, as well as just lots of listening (in short: practicing), can really help. So one way to help improve your speech is to practice in front of a mirror, so you can see if your movements are correct. (Proper English or “received pronunciation”, for example, is sometimes referred to as a “smiling” language: just look at the mouths of British newscasters when they speak.)

I know it can sound silly, but if you don’t see what you do, you don’t know how you do it, and if you don’t know, you can never learn it properly or correct mistakes, right? And this mostly useful and important to do right when you start studying a language, because if you get used to something wrong from the start, it becomes new, wrong, muscle memory and it is more difficult to change further down the road.

Also, listening is very helpful, to know if the sound you emit is close to what it should be. In this case, a musical ear is helpful, because if you are trained to music you are trained to understand and reproduce specific sounds.

2. Comprehension

When you start studying a language, you should keep in mind that in the beginning you will be able to understand very little. That’s normal. You will just get the very general sense of what is said, or even written, through some key words.

First, and this applies to the spoken language, this happens because you have to get used to the new sounds, so it can even happen that a word you know when you see it written, you won’t recognize when you hear it.

You should also be aware that you have to build up your grammar and, mostly, your vocabulary to actually be able to understand – the more you know, the more you understand.

In other words, you have to get acquainted to the language you’re learning. So, the more you engage in the language (for example though hearing and reading), the more you will learn. The more you learn, the more you understand, and the more you understand, the more you can engage in the language: it’s a virtuous cycle.

Advice? Read books in the language you want to learn. In the beginning it will go very slowly and it will be frustrating, because you will have to look up many words in the dictionary. But the more you read, the faster it will go eventually, because you store more and more words in your memory. Also, continual practice will make sure that you won’t easily forget new words.

Watching TV is also useful, because you get familiar with the sounds, colloquialisms, and the normal speed of the spoken language in question. The beginning may be frustrating because you understand very little, but if you keep watching you get acquainted to it, and you will see that you’ll understand more and more as times goes on.

From this point of view, listening to the radio can help, but TV is easier and more helpful, mostly in the beginning, because you will have visual clues to contextualize what you hear.

3. Speaking

Understanding, as tough as it can be, is easier than speaking yourself. When you want to say something, you have to use you memory and other skills to find the words, use the correct grammar and syntax rules, use the right pronunciation (in speaking), etc.

In the beginning especially, this is difficult, because you have yet to master all the elements required. Also, you are afraid of making mistakes, not being understood and appearing silly. Well, let me tell you that making mistakes is fine. Of course you should aim at speaking as perfectly as you can, but keep also in mind that a language is simply a means of communication.

So, use that language to actually communicate with people, regardless of anything. Be aware that they will appreciate that you are making an effort to speak to them in their language, so don’t be shy. Try to talk to people, ask them to repeat if you don’t understand, ask them how to say something if you don’t know it already, ask them to correct you if you don’t speak properly yet.

Otherwise, if you don’t do that, studying a language will lead nowhere and you will never be able to practice. To know your stronger and weaker points and to improve: practicing is the only way to actually improve and learn. After all, if you already knew everything about it, you wouldn’t be studying it, right?

4. Writing

Well, most times when you learn a language, your first worry is to be able to speak, not to write. But writing is a basic skill that you should acquire, though it is a tricky one, because you don’t have an immediate reaction from someone else, usually.

In speaking, you have an interlocutor, a person you’re talking to, that listens and immediately replies, and to whom you can immediately clarify and elaborate your statements. In writing, you have a reader that has first to spend time to read your text, and only then can reply. Everything has to be totally clear because you have no occasion to work on your statements.

Also this skill requires practice. At the beginning is goes very slowly (as for everything, as the reader may have noticed by now) and you will need to look up many words and will wonder many times if your word order, your syntax, is right. But as you practice you will see that you become more familiar with the language and you will improve.

Reading can help you a lot, as you get to see practical examples with regards to spelling and syntax. Also, mostly in the first stages, it can be useful to have somebody to correct your writing.

The trick, in writing as in speaking, is thinking directly in the language you want to speak or write in, though this is difficult and, again, takes practice and a lot of hard work. This is an important step to achieve, though, because every language has a proper set of rules, or, better, a proper mindset, that can’t be applied to another one.

But I will write about this, and other tricks to learn a language faster, in another post. For now, I hope you liked reading these suggestions. Do you have any comments, suggestions, questions, or personal experience you would like to share? Feel free to do so in the comments below. I would love to hear from you, and I hope to welcome you back soon on this blog. Ciao ciao!

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