As a Canadian, I’ve grown up learning French since I was around 9 years old. Back then it was just another school subject that we had to do, a benefit if you were looking for a certain type of job in Canada.
As I got older I did develop a more genuine interest in language—not just the “because-I-have-to” attitude. I took a couple courses in French and Spanish at university, but still wasn’t dedicated to putting any extra time and effort into my language studies. I was always “too busy.”
Then enter the year in South Korea. I really thought the learning would come naturally. I was, after all, in a country where a very small minority spoke English. But again, working full time and still attending school by distance exhausted me and I let it slide and slide and slide—to the point that when I left the country my speech was still limited to basically just counting and ordering food.
After some traveling through several countries, I found myself back in Canada, unemployed and left to contemplate my true desires and motivating forces in life. I began to study French—in Canada this is never less than beneficial in terms of finding work—and kept my love of Spanish(language and culture) close by but never in full focus.
I think once you begin to dedicate yourself to language learning, suddenly the floodgates open and you want to learn another and another and another. It’s as if you’ve opened the world to another culture and you begin to lust for more. I find it so hard to stick with French all the time when I have thoughts of Spanish, accompanied by fleeting moments of lust for Italian, Swedish, etc, etc. I began to research differing opinions on the subject of learning more than one language at once. The overall consensus is somewhere between “it can be done” and “keep it to a minimum”—which I took to mean that as long as I am dedicated to regular French study and practice, it won’t hurt to venture into some light exploration of other languages.
After all that has been said, I’m still not close to what I would consider fluency in any other language. So to end this post I thought I would share some of the resources I find useful—and the good and bad to each.
1. Duolingo— This is a free language-learning app that you can download for Android, iPhone, or use online. It’s limited to instruction in Spanish, French, Italian, German, and Portuguese. It operates by breaking languages down into skills (such as phrases, animals, foods, adjectives) and includes several lessons which must be completed before passing the next checkpoint. You can gain points and compare to your friends and follow your progress from week to week.
- It’s free
- It allows you to interact with your friends and following their progress
- It gives you a concrete idea of your progress, along with goals and a point system to motivate
- The lessons use a lot of repetition to help you get more comfortable with words
- Using the audio allows you to practice correct pronunciation
- After the first few lessons, it gets difficult to keep track of new words without taking notes
- There isn’t a lot of explanations on grammar or sentence structure
- The program can be overly sensitive to typos
- Doesn’t really give practice for speech
2. Tandem Exchange—This site pairs you up with a language exchange partner. You enter what language you speak, what you wish to learn, and then they pair you with someone of your target language. You can choose how often you want to exchange emails, or if you want to also engage in Skype conversations. Normally, you then write to your partner half in their language and half in your own.
- Also free
- A great way to meet someone of your target language, especially if you can’t study in that country
- A fun way to learn about another culture firsthand, and to understand why that person is interested in your culture
- Great for putting actually skills learned into practice
- Writing may be above your skill level, which can get frustrating at times when you have to look up words and phrases constantly
- Can become easy to rely on Google Translate, defeats the purpose (don’t do it!)
- Again, not really speech practice, unless you expand into skype calls
3. Language texts and online resources— This can be websites or books focussing on grammar, speech, reading, writing.
- There is a plethora of information that can be obtained freely from the internet or libraries
- You can focus more on what you know to be your weakness and don’t have to follow a specific plan
- Go at your own pace
- Concepts are explained more throughly and you get a chance to better understand why things are the way they are
- Good resources may cost money
- No interaction with other people
- Have to look up audio on your own if you need help with pronunciation
- Can be boring
- Can be overwhelming and leave you not knowing what to do next
4. Tutor or language exchange partner— Someone to meet up with one-on-one or in a class to practice conversation skills(and maybe other skills). A tutor will be paid (unless it’s a generous friend) to help focus on your skills alone. An exchange partner will be free, but half the time you will be helping them learn your language.
- A tutor is someone with expertise that can really help you improve quickly and give direction
- A language exchange partner is a person who you can practice with for free
- Both options give you the chance to practice really speaking and simulate real-life language use.
- Can be a great way to interact with someone who also shares your interest in language and learn about them
- Over and above all others, gives you real practice and is a fast way to learn
- A tutor may cost money
- If you are really interested in reading and writing, you will need to supplement with other written resources
- You will need to help the other person if you have a language exchange partner, which is not necessarily bad! But depending on the person and amount of time you have, you may just want more focus on your own learning.
These are just a few of the available resources (specifically ones I use). There are so many options available and many for free. And these things can be found with a quick search online. In the future I hope to do a separate post on music/tv/movies in other languages that not only help you learn, but help you become more inspired and interested in other cultures.
I think it’s important to remember that there is no clear line between not knowing and suddenly knowing a language. There is just constant improvement towards varying levels of conversation and fluency. Everyone has different goals when learning, whether that is to be able to order a meal, speak to a friend in their language, or even conduct business in another language. A little bit everyday can go a long way.