Few would argue that the most ideal way to learn a foreign language would be equal parts of total immersion and formal classroom instruction. Being forced to handle everyday tasks in the new language reinforces the classroom drills in a way that manufactured language tapes cannot. But spending a few years in China to grasp the nuances of the Chinese language, for example, is not always practical.
If you are like many students, you are forced to rely on your three-hour weekly language sessions as a substitute. Understandably you find your slow progress and inability to practice with natives quite frustrating. Although nothing can take the place of in-country language instruction, there are a few practices new language students can implement to increase their pace of foreign language comprehension.
The beauty of totally immersing yourself in another language is that your written, auditory and oral skills are forced to operate in that new language. Lacking this benefit of living abroad, you must then create the illusion of total immersion.
Improve your writing skills, for example, by attempting to write everything in the language of study. Start first with simple lists like to-do and grocery lists. Lists are perfect for beginning students because there are no sentence structures to perfect. You simply need to look up the word in the language dictionary and jot it down next to the English equivalent. Each new list means new words but also repeats from prior weeks. Soon enough you’ll begin to remember the foreign equivalent without the aid of a dictionary.
Intermediate students can graduate to more complicated thought formations. If you are a journal writer, take one paragraph to express your thoughts in your new language. If your entries are not too personal, you can even ask your language teacher to critique your paragraph to perfect your skills. A good source of basic sentence structures can be found in children’s books whose simple themes and bright pictures are quite useful.
More advanced students can move on to newspapers and magazines in the language of study. Always read with a dictionary at hand and put the English word in the margins for easy reference. Even if you throw the paper away once you’re finished, the act of writing down the definition of the unfamiliar words serves as another form of reinforcement. Reading anything in the foreign language gives the student a better grasp of how to properly form sentences and thoughts, and eventually trains the student not to translate directly from English.
If you can improve your writing skills by scribbling constantly in the foreign language, then you’ll enhance your auditory skills by listening frequently to the language of study. Children’s shows are ideal for beginners who do not need to be overwhelmed by complex ideas or sentences. If you are an intermediate student, you can begin to check out the news clips or videos typically offered by language labs or the local library.
At first, the jumble of strange words might seem completely incomprehensible, but your ear hasn’t yet adapted to the true pace of the language. Use this adaptive period constructively by picking out objects in the news clips that the journalist is sure to identify. Look up the name of the object and some related verbs in your dictionary and replay the news clip listening only for those words. Over time, your ear will learn to adapt to the pace. Larger cities typically have international radio or newscasts.
Look for listings in your local paper and listen when you have some free time. At first, it will seem futile as every word is a complete mystery, but slowly you’ll begin to recognize one word then another until you are identifying the gist of entire sentences. Remember that this is how you would be exposed to the language in a foreign country.
Perhaps the most difficult skills to improve without the benefits of total immersion are your oral, or speaking skills. If you live in a small town or are learning a more obscure language, the chances to engage in light conversation are limited. Check local newspaper listings for small, informal groups that might be meeting at nearby churches, for example.
If no organized group exists, then consider forming your own among your classmates. Once or twice-a-week chats can be very useful granted the members are diligent about not lapsing into English. If all else fails, there is always yourself with whom to communicate. When you have a few moments, close the curtains and lock the door then hold a conversation with yourself. The exercise is more like a speech than dialogue, but you are still exercising your ability to express yourself orally.
Simply choose a topic that interests you and imagine a question someone might pose in an informal setting. If you breed Greyhound dogs, for example, explain aloud the history of the breed, or its particular characteristics. Beginners should keep their responses to three to five sentences. Think of what you would say in English and try to express it in your new language, but keep your sentences short and simple. Any verbs or nouns that are a mystery should be looked up in the dictionary.
If you are more comfortable, write down the response then read it a few times. Finally, without looking, try to say the sentences aloud. Intermediates can focus on more precise vocabulary and complicated sentence structures, while advanced students can practice speaking with little to no preparation. From speech to speech, if you change topics, your vocabulary will begin to expand rapidly, as will your confidence to express yourself.
Other tips to help in the absorption of a new language include posting notes on objects around the house. For example, the word for the window in your language of study would be posted on the actual window so you associate the new word with the physical object on a regular basis.
Students of foreign languages say that they truly understand a language when they begin to dream in that language. Perhaps the reason total immersion techniques are so successful for many students is that the constant absorption of the new language – whether sitting idly on the bus or haggling with the grocery clerk – reaches subconscious levels. If you are unable to benefit from that experience abroad, however, engage your subconscious by recreating that immersion as best you can in your everyday life.Students of foreign