How to Learn a New Language

Olesya Kisselev Lectures on Language Learning Strategies

Languages have many dialects. These include not only regional dialects, but also more personal dialects: how you speak to your parents compared to your siblings or friends, and how you speak in formal or informal settings. Though we may not treat dialects as separate languages, according to many linguists, the distinctions between dialects and languages are mainly political. In fact, many children who grow up bilingual use different languages in the same way you might use different dialects in different contexts. So even if you only speak one official language, it is likely you are already, in a linguistic sense, multi-lingual. However, though children may be able to pick up new languages with mostly unconscious effort, and you may be able to pick up a new dialect when the dialect uses familiar words or sounds, learning an entirely new language and method of communicating in adulthood requires a lot of conscious effort. So what are some strategies that you can use now to help you learn a new language?

University of Texas Professor Olesya Kisselev, who has a PhD in Applied Linguistics and has been a long term supporter of Reed’s Russian Department, gave a talk on Friday, September 28 on “Science-Based Strategies for Learning a New Language.” Kisselev used the reverse pyramid of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages proficiency scale to describe the uphill battle of learning a new language. As you progress from one level to the next, the breadth of what is possible to learn expands outwards, so progressing to the next level becomes much more difficult, and progression in itself becomes much more difficult to see. This means that you need more support and to further engage in your learning as you slowly expand your language abilities. An important step in mastering a language is committing to the journey, despite the blow to your ego when you learn you are not funny in that language, the amount of time it takes to learn, or the number of mistakes you make.

Kisselev emphasized two cognitive strategies for increasing your proficiency in a language: developing knowledge and developing skill. In terms of knowledge, paying attention to every aspect of the language is important, from vocabulary to pronunciation to sentence structure. However, it is not possible to pay conscious attention to every aspect at once, so instead a useful strategy is to break the language into parts and focus on each part individually. This allows you to utilize the conscious part of your brain without overwhelming it with information. In addition, according to Kisselev, our brains are great at memorizing things short-term but these memories are lost very quickly without enforcement. So, practice!

Once you are somewhat familiar with the language, strengthen your knowledge by repeatedly exposing yourself to different parts of the language in different contexts and formats, such as through a written passage or recording. A lot of new information arises through context and through the relations between different aspects of a language. In addition, by studying in context, you are consciously focusing on a small amount of information, while unconsciously processing the other aspects of the language in the rest of the passage, so you learn faster. You can use similar techniques to memorize exceptions to patterns in the language. However, make sure to pay attention to the patterns themselves, which your brain is excellent at recognizing.

You can also bolster your memory by creating your own associations. According to Kisselev, the more associations you make with new information, the easier it is to remember. You can associate words in any way that helps create more neural connections in your brain. For example, you can create visual associations by making association maps to connect similar words and categories to one another, making word clouds online to keep track of the most commonly used words in a passage, or looking at a picture and describing everything in that picture using the language you are learning.

Some fun ways to learn a language that help stimulate growth include looking to the world around you for access to the language. This helps you learn through context and exposure, taking advantage of other aspects of your brain connected to memory and exposing yourself to the political or cultural aspects of the language. Some examples that Kisselev mentioned include finding a casual, non-evaluative environment in which to practice. Good places to find such an environment at Reed are at the language houses on campus, the library’s language conferences, or with friends. Surround yourself with the language — label everything in your dorm in that language, change the language of your phone and computer, and find any way to stimulate your unconscious brain so the language is on your mind more often and becomes more familiar to you. Seek out videos, pictures, Instagram posts, movies, newspaper articles — anything which is subbed or dubbed in that language or which you can associate with the language. If you are taking a language class, ask your professor for recommendations. Especially seek out anything which triggers emotion, because memories processed through your amygdala, the part of your brain which deals with emotion, tend to be stronger than other memories.

The skills aspect of becoming proficient in a language is relatively straightforward, and mostly means practice. Practicing or studying in frequent yet smaller chunks is much better than doing so in fewer and larger chunks. The good news about this strategy is that for each session you don’t have to use as much energy. Practicing means doing drills, reading out loud, learning poems and songs and reciting them to yourself often, and finding every opportunity to practice in class or outside of class. Do so every day, and focus on a wide range of subject matter, and you will progress steadily and quickly.

So, now that you know what it takes to learn a language, why not go ahead and try? If you choose to do so, good luck and have fun.

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