I recently sat down to study Japanese (something I have been doing a lot more of lately) and something came to mind as I looked down at my language materials (pictured above). Choosing the right materials and the right method of study is just as important as how hard you study. This statement holds true in just about anything you try to learn. You can get more out of practicing something right 10 times than you can in doing it wrong a thousand times.
When it comes to learning a language, the first thing you should consider is why you are studying and what you want to get out of it. Do you want to be able to communicate on a vacation or do you plan to work in a foreign country. Studying to communicate on a vacation would require that you focus on the spoken and listening aspects of the language and the latter would require that you also learn to read and write. Participation in normal daily conversation would also require a much smaller vocabulary base than someone working in a foreign country. This gap can get even wider when you consider the complex alphabets containing thousands of characters in the Japanese and Chinese system.
Living and working in Japan, the reading and writing skills are important to me. However, since the character set is large and complex, it means that I spend the majority of my time learning them. Spending time learning all the characters and words that are rarely used slows down my ability to obtain oral fluency. There are thousands and thousands of words, but only a small portion make up the majority of most conversations. The same 80/20 rule that applies to work, stating 80 percent of all the results are achieved through 20% of the tasks, also applies to languages. I have listed a few recommendations for getting the most out your language studies.
1. Set a clear goal- Decide what you want to accomplish by studying the language as the materials will change drastically. If oral fluency is your goal then you need to focus on a different skill set than someone who wants to read e-mail with a pen pal.
2. Choose your materials carefully- Keep your goal in mind when choosing how and what you will study. If you want to gain oral fluency, then a formal class and materials structured to learn grammar will not be effective in helping you to reach your goal. Spending time to find the best materials will save you a lot of time later.
3. Choose study methods that meet your life- Everyone learns differently and has a different schedule. For someone with a long commute focusing on oral communication, audio programs in the car will be a way to learn words and gain listening skills. Where as someone studying written language may need to read from a book during their lunch hour. If you are not sure how you learn the best, try different methods and see which one works best for you. I believe combining visual with audio is best, but that may not be possible in all situation (ex. learning while driving).
4. Use technology- Use technology to increase study effectiveness and study where traditional materials wont go. The Iphone or Itouch have a number of language programs and flash card application as does the Nintendo DS. Not only are they small and can be used without a light source, but allow you to focus on the areas you want. You do not have to follow them like a book. These types of technologies also help increase the study time by cutting down on the waste. You can spend much more time studying using an electric dictionary than fumbling through a paper one.
5. Ask for advice- Talk to people who have already mastered the language you want to study. Chances are they can give you some tips that will help you speed up your learning. They can also generally provide a large dose of inspiration.
6. Have fun- Learning a language should be fun. Enjoy the time that you spend learning and try not to get overwhelmed. You will be amazed at how much you can learn if you keep at it.
7. Practice makes perfect- Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. One of the biggest mistakes people make is not using a language because they are afraid to make a mistake. If you don’t use it, you won’t get much better. I tend to learn the best after making a mistake. My mistakes have also created some great laughter.
8. Study continuously- Language is like not like riding a bike. If you don’t use it you will forget it. Use it when ever you have the chance. Luckily, once you learn it, you can re-learn it very quickly.