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It Started with a Lisp: Tips For Learning A New Language

It Started with a Lisp: Tips For Learning A New Language

Kyiara shares her journey in foreign language learning.

By Kyiara Griffin

February 07, 2012

“She sells sea- She sells- She sells seashells by the seashore.” It was a problem- a minor one in North America, but big elsewhere. In Mandarin Chinese, there are five consonant sounds I still struggle with, especially when presented in rapid succession, and two of them appear in that line.

Generally, I avoid saying certain phrases in English (“we were where”), but it is difficult to avoid words with a limited vocabulary. When spoken practice makes me tongue-tied, this English tongue twister, along with some Chinese tongue twisters, are practiced slowly and carefully. It may sound like torture, but the effort pays off. With a few tips, you too may be well on your way to finish language credits for college.

Understand the Parts of the Language and Prepare Accordingly

Some languages, such as American Sign Language and Braille, logically focus on specific mediums of communication. Many languages have additional mediums. If you are beginning to learn language, set aside time to practice each part. Think about how important each aspect of communication is: you have to interpret information (listen, observe, or read) and provide appropriate responses (speak, sign, type, or write).

When I first started having practice conversations- and this applies to studies in Latin, Japanese, and Chinese- dividing my attention between notes and the person in front of me was enough of a strain: the thought of practicing any written component during those early conversations was impractical. When you study on your own time it is possible to say every word or character as you write, but set aside time for each aspect of the language.

Have a Personal (Preferably Specific) Goal for the Language

To effectively learn a new language, you should have a target, something to aim for during the course. The goal is good so long as it is specific. “I want to recognize 100 words/characters.” “I want to write a letter to my friend, who is an international student from that country.” “I want to know the alphabet.” “I want to talk with an older relative in our native language by a certain holiday.” “I want to know all of the lyrics to a song and what they mean.” If you keep the time limit and the target reasonable, then the possibilities open up.

My goal for the end of this semester is one relaxed conversation with my professor in Chinese with full comprehension and no mistakes. Although the goal is born from a previous error, the goal itself is solid. The professor is well aware of what she has taught us, so she tends to stick to words I should have learned. Conversations also have natural time limits between each response, so it is fairly easy to tell when a response is taking too long by the other person’s body language.

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Find a Good Dictionary

There is only so much time to cover material within the classroom, so professors tend to stick to the essential of a course, especially with something as broad as a language. That means you’ll probably have questions about words and phrasing beyond the information received in class.

That’s where a good bilingual dictionary is useful. Between meetings with a professor or a language tutor, a dictionary can be used in conjunction with class notes to practice building sentences and conversations. Depending on if the focus is conversation or writing, the dictionary will emphasize common phrases or the many meanings and uses for a word/character. Either way, you can almost always walk away from a good dictionary with a greater appreciation of the language.

Make the Language a Part of Your Life

It is one thing to talk about college; it is a whole new creature to attend it. Likewise, truly learning a language requires embracing the language. Look up an accurate translation of something you say every day, and try it out when you have downtime at home. Grab a classmate and have a conversation, mistakes and all, over a sandwich.

Language is heavily influenced by the way people live, so learning about the place the language came from should also enrich the study of the language. Find out if there are any cultural festivals that are unique to the native speakers of the language and, if so, why the festival exists.

If you really want to get involved, then find out if there are other students with similar interests. Although I only studied Japanese at a previous university, a campus organization taught me a lot about East Asian countries and cultures in general- enough to appreciate the importance of reoccurring words and images of various groups and to understand the nuances that accompany them.

Learning a new language makes you a different person. Every time you practice an unfamiliar sound, you open your mind and experiences to new places. Although the English language was my first and greatest love, each language I have embraced has led to a greater understanding of the people whom speak it. I started to want to see the faces with whom I shared this very thin, but common thread.

Though the history remained important, all of the study led to the present. Language, with the assistance of the study of culture and history, has acted as a gateway to the thoughts of the people. Through learning new languages, I have learned to stop seeing groups and start seeing the people themselves. Hopefully, your new language skills, with the assistance of these tips, will stir the same feelings in you.


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