Most of the posts on this blog have been directed to people who already have a familiarity with or even work with languages other than English on a regular basis. However, I should acknowledge the fact that many of our readers may not be bilingual but have come across our blog due to their interest in languages.
The first aspect of learning a new language has already been identified: desire. You can’t do anything in life unless you really want to. In addition, you need to dedicate that energy to the subject over time. Time is essential…language learning is complicated and intense and it requires practice time much like learning to play a musical instrument (I can’t hand you a guitar for the first time and ask you to lead a band in a concert). Finally, the other aspect of the traditional pillars of language learning is contact with the new language.
I do not advocate any particular learning method: immersion versus distance, textbook versus freeform, drills versus incorporation, etc., with one important exception. However, being able to come in contact with a new language as it is spoken by native speakers is an element that cannot be replaced. Thanks to the internet, that is possible for any person in the world with a connection to discover native speakers of any language on a regular basis.
The aspects that I find to pop up in my own personal experience are things that I don’t hear people talk about as much. One common phrase for language learners is “I am thinking in the new language!” While that is exciting, I find that it only means that the learner is rehashing the same limited vocabulary and grammatical mistakes in their new thoughts as in the rest of their language-learning endeavor. What is instead important is to think as a speaker in the language thinks. This is a much more abstract concept that requires the learner to separate his or her traditional approach to a situation and to see it through the eyes of the new language, in terms of vocabulary and structure. The simplest example in learning Spanish would be a sentence such as a sign “Staff Entrance Only”. A normal learner would translate it as “Entrada de Personal Solamente”. Only through experience and learning to approach it in a way that would lead them to understand and be able to recreate “Prohibido el ingreso de personas ajenas de la empresa”. This process is not about time or dedication; it is about seeing the world through new eyes.
The other aspect that I feel is undervalued is television. Watching a station broadcast in the language to be learned addresses all of the new speaker’s needs in terms of contact with native speakers, listening, and reading. Plus, it transmits cultural aspects that are nearly impossible to understand by reading a two-paragraph write-up in a textbook. (If you are American, think about how much you learned about English and about life from Sesame Street) If you are planning to learn a new langauge, find out how you might be able to watch a television station and take advantage of that invaluable tool! Yes, kids…WATCH MORE TV!