On Learning Languages

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” -Nelson Mandela


For years, I have wanted to speak multiple languages. It has always enticed me, and I see it as a way of connecting with history and learning about other cultures to a much greater degree. I have tried (and failed) to learn new languages, though recently I have set out to learn German. I have only dabbled in it thus far, however, I have now formulated a detailed plan for how I will learn both the German language and any others I may try my hand at in the future. In this article I will lay out my reasoning for learning another language and then explain my plan. I am not a language expert, but I hope that this article can provide some helpful information on learning another language and that some insight may be gained from my experiences in this endeavor.

Why learn another language?

The first question one might ask regarding learning a tongue other than their own is why? Why should I learn another language? What is the value? Everyone else speaks English and, besides, Google Translate is a thing now.

I believe there are a couple flaws to this mindset.

For one, it is incredibly selfish and lazy. Every culture has a unique language (or dialect of another language), and it is arrogant to expect everyone else in the world to accommodate you by learning your language and using your language within their own borders. Instead of putting in any work to understanding another language, you are relying on others to put in all the work to understand your language. Many Americans are (unsurprisingly) frustrated when people who are travelling or even living in America can’t even speak English and, yet, many of these same people are shocked when, say, French citizens become irritated about them not speaking French while in France.

Furthermore, as you start learning another language, you begin to learn and understand another culture. Language shows the way another group of people communicate and think, and to understand how another group of people communicate and think is the basis of understanding them as a whole.

Another good reason to learn multiple languages is that it is traditional and widespread. Most people in the world at least have some understanding of another language besides their own, and it is very likely that Jesus spoke multiple languages, with Aramaic as his primary tongue and Greek, Hebrew, and perhaps even Latin alongside it to lesser degrees.

Knowing another language also has proven benefits to your mind. Viorica Marian, Ph.D. and Anthony Shook write that “Being bilingual can have tangible practical benefits. The improvements in cognitive and sensory processing driven by bilingual experience may help a bilingual person to better process information in the environment, leading to a clearer signal for learning.”

Finally, learning a new language is incredibly humbling. Beginning to learn German has taught me that I will never know everything, and that there is always something new I can learn. Maybe I do know a lot about this subject or that subject, but there are thousands of languages out there that I will never even dream of being able to master.

How should one go about learning another language?

Having given my reasons for why learning a language is beneficial, I will now explain simply how to actually do it as well as my personal experience with learning another language.

The most important thing to remember regarding learning a new language is that immersion is very effective. Consuming the language by hearing it and seeing it on a daily basis will make it feel more natural to you. You will hear words you already know, and you will remember them. You will hear words you don’t already know, and you will learn them. The “flow” of speaking and writing in your desired language will come to you over time. If you constantly read grammar and phrasebooks, you will get nowhere. If you read books in your target language, you will advance more quickly. Additionally, watching foreign television can be helpful. Just turn on the subtitles and allow yourself to hear the other language and focus on what words match with the subtitles and what phrases you can remember.

Obviously, on your first day, you can’t just jump straight into reading the Old Testament in Hebrew, or Meditations in Latin, though. In order to start learning a language, you have to ease yourself into it. As I already mentioned, you can’t immediately start with books that are hundreds of pages long and use complicated grammar to learn a language. No, you must start with something simple and, as time goes on, take on more complex materials to immerse yourself and learn. This is exactly how children learn their first language, and this is how you should too. Using a language learning app or a simple grammar book can help you with memorization and the technicalities, but these should be used alongside your immersive learning instead of being totally relied on.

One important thing I have learned from trying and failing to learn a language over and over again is that, once you start, you need to ignore the “how to learn a language” content. Once you create a plan, you need to put it to action and stick to it. Listening to other plans that are contrary to your own is completely counter-productive and a waste of time. It can even be harmful! I used to pick up on a language then watch a random video giving advice on learning languages, suddenly realize my plan was missing one tiny detail, and scrap the whole plan altogether. This is obviously not good if you are seriously trying to learn a language. You need one plan and you need to commit to it.

To give you an example of what it looks like putting all of this into action, I will tell you what I have already done and what I plan to do with German. Last week, I started to ease myself back in (I say “back in” because I have tried to learn the language time and time again, to no avail) by using Duolingo, Drops, and Speakly. I’ve heard a lot of the language learning gurus criticize Duolingo for not being a good source, but this criticism is more pointed towards people who use Duolingo exclusively. If you use more than one source, Duolingo is a great way to review words you already know and hammer them into your brain. Drops and Speakly also serve very similar purposes, although Speakly is probably the best out of these three, as it gives you words in context. Using all three of these sources has helped me to ease my way back into the language and it has proven quite effective. I’ve only been using these three sources to learn for a little over a week and I am already confident that I could start a very brief conversation in German.

Starting today, I am going to try and start listening to German music more than I did before. Years ago, I used to listen to a lot of German folk songs (for example, Dr. Ludwig on YouTube) and I want to get back into listening to content like that. It is helpful as you learn how to actually pronounce words in whatever language you were listening to. When I first started learning German, I actually had less difficulty in pronouncing words, even the more complex ones, as I had already consumed a lot of German music and sung along with it beforehand. I still remember some fairly random words from listening to German music, such as Schwarzbraun, meaning blackish brown, and haselnuss, meaning hazel nut. This effect is common among those outside the United States, as they often watch American TV and listen to American music and pick up on words and phrases without even trying. You can do this yourself for other languages.

By the start of next week, I hope to find some magazines or kids’ books in German. Both magazines and kids’ books are commonly recommended by language learners, as they use simpler language and lots of imagery, helping you to remember words more easily by associating them with visuals. I will also try to have a full conversation in German with a native speaker every day (if that is not possible, then as much as I can do that.) One of my close friends is fluent in German, so finding someone to talk to in German won’t be difficult. I then hope to start reading more complex short stories and Wikipedia articles in German, abandoning the kids’ books when I can.

Eventually, I will set my phone and computer in German. This will be difficult to adapt to, but it is an effective way of immersing yourself into a language, as it exposes you to your desired language even when you’re too lazy to actively practice and study it. After this, I will start watching TV shows and movies in German, both shows and movies I’ve already seen dubbed in German as well as shows originally set in German with English subtitles. When I have advanced enough, I will try to read entire books in German, especially ones in which German was the original language. I believe that when you read a piece of text in its original form, some meaning that was lost in translation can be revealed to you. I hope that, at some point, my knowledge in German will be strong enough that I can read the works of Nietzsche, Spengler, and Junger in their original text.

I haven’t actually decided when I want to do this, but at some point, I will try to read poetry in German. The great thing about poetry is that it can introduce you to figurative language that only makes sense in the writer’s language. If you translated a German poem into English, it would make very little sense to the average English-speaker, as it would require a strong understanding in German figurative language. Thus, I think reading poetry in German will also be a helpful way for me to continue learning.

With this method, I will start from a very simple base and slowly build up to a more complex understanding. All the while, I will have deeper conversations in my desired language until it just comes naturally to me.

I hope to write a follow up article on my progress after a few months of using this plan. Thank you for reading, I look forward to coming back with new thoughts and experiences on this subject!

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