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Starting a new language

Updated: Sep 15, 2019

When embarking on a new language it can be difficult to decide where to begin. I have had this problem on a number of occasions, as there are too many resources to choose from. In this post I want to share some of the ways that I went about starting and improving my language skills, and hopefully you can use some of them yourselves.

Starting a new language can be a daunting task

Starting a new language

Where to begin? I have started a few languages from scratch and I can say that it's no easy task getting the right materials to start learning. When I started Japanese I had an Assimil book which I used for many weeks and I found that it gave me some of the skills I needed to start building my own sentences, but I found that the material got very difficult very quickly and I didn't have the chance to practise the grammar. This was partly my fault since the books are for "faux débutants" and I was a complete débutant. All was not lost though, as I did pick up some of the necessary skills to build very short sentences so I couldn't say I don't recommend it entirely but it didn't work all that well for me.

My personal biggest problem is maintaining my interest in the material. I found that Assimil's lessons and the lessons in other textbooks got quite boring after a while, and I needed to find something else to maintain my interest. This is a problem that has plagued me in all of my language learning studies! So, if you're anything like me, try to find a couple of resources you can use to jump between.

Here are some ideas:

Find a teacher: You can try to find a teacher on the website, which has a number of relatively cheap lessons. You can try to find someone willing to give you lessons on the basics. I'm sure there are tons!

Duolingo: I should preface this by saying that I don't personally use duolingo, but there are many people who use it, and it does provide some basic grammar. I personally found it a lacking explanations and vocabulary, but other people swear by it.

Clozemaster: This is a litte known app which you can download for free on the app store. The sentences are taken from the Tatoeba corpus which is a large compendium of sentences and their translations in many languages (this is a useful resource in its own right). On Clozemaster you have to fill in the missing word in a sentence in your target language. This is useful for getting used to sentence structures and basic vocabulary. However, some of the sentences can be a little weird, so watch out for that.

Anki: This is also an app which can be downloaded from the app store or the play store (it's free on the play store for some reason, but quite expensive on the app store). Despite the price, this app is VERY useful for practising sentence structures and vocab. It's basically a flashcard app, but the cards you find difficult are repeated more frequently to improve retention.

I personally write flashcards so I translate from a language I know into the language I'm learning. I also only use whole sentences, because I have learned over the years that it's not useful to only learn single words, and I recommend that you avoid doing this, too.

A typical card might look like this:

Front: You'll see the house today

Back: Tu verras la maison aujourd'hui

I take the sentences from the clozemaster app or from a textbook I have. This way I can go over what I have learned from the book or repeat a sentence structure that I find useful.

Read children's books: This is also a very good way to improve your reading, and expose yourself to as much of the language as possible. When I say children's books I don't mean fairy tales and so on, I mean a contemporary novel/short story. I tend to find that reading fairy tales relatively useless in terms of vocabulary. If at all possible, find a book that you have already read in English (or whatever your native language is), that way you won't be disheartened if you don't understand a particular paragraph/sentence. Personally, I used the Harry Potter books to learn German and Japanese, and I can say that they have helped me a great deal. It did, however, take a long time to get to a point where I could read them fluently, so I would suggest that you read something a little easier to start with. An example of that would be novelised versions of movies for children. I found many Disney movies in book-form in Japan. I started by reading "Inside out" which gave me some useful everyday vocabulary and exposure to more complex sentences.

You might think it's strange but children's books can be a good place to start

Find a children's TV show: If you want to improve your listening find a children's TV show that you wouldn't mind watching. For me, I used Doraemon on Netlifx. This came with subtitles so I could read the kanji while improving my listening. I will say that, at the beginning, you will probably understand next to nothing, but if you persist and keep reading books as well, you will find that your efforts eventually pay off. For Japanese, it took me a few months of consistent reading and TV shows to really understand what everyone was saying without too much thought.

Finding a good TV show is a good way to engage with a language. There are many on Netflix

So there you have it, some tips to start learning a language. There are many other sources you can use and you can find your own. The most important thing is: if you consistently read, watch and listen to things in the target language, then you will reap the benefits later. It does, of course, take a while to get used to this, and it can seem a bit futile at first. Believe me, that's normal. I never thought I would be able to memorise Japanese vocabulary, but after a few months of exposing myself to the language through various media, I can say that it gets a lot easier over time.

I hope this helps. If you have any more ideas let me know!

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