One’s ability to learn languages depends on a number of factors.
Scientists have proven that younger people learn languages at a faster rate. Linguists have debated the value of immersion and translation, although individual learning styles can be a factor. I learned most of the seven languages I know through formal schooling, but I learned the others through familial and cultural exposure, as well. While I feel more comfortable speaking in certain languages, like Bengali, I am more confident reading or translating others, like Persian or Italian. This is simply due to how I learned them—through real-life interactions or through textbooks and literature, respectively. These various differences in language acquisition and confidence levels are even more stark when one considers the vast population of foreign language learners, from high school and college students in America to those learning languages for business, graduate work, or even for fun.
Even though there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for language learning, I’m going to share my two favorite study methods. Ideally, these will help you retain grammar rules and vocabulary words while making it easier to speak the language.
1. ORGANIZE YOUR STUDY MATERIALS.
Don't just get all your notes together in one folder—really get in there and organize everything. Find all of your notes and the textbook pages that deal with verb conjugation. Make a master chart with the conjugations for every verb form and tense. Make charts for irregular verbs, too. Browse your notes and text for every vocabulary word and make flashcards. Search for everything you’ve been taught about syntax (how to string sentences together) and write out basic rules and examples. Find information on adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, interrogatives, and exclamations. You may have to use outside resources to collect all of this material; ask your teacher for a good dictionary or grammar reference to use. Don’t just Google it. You may not be getting the most accurate information.
2. EMBODY THE LANGUAGE.
Think about how you use English: you gesticulate, use body language, change your intonations, and use a different register (formal, slang, etc.) when among different groups of people. Language is embodied—it’s produced by a complex interaction of our brain, lungs, vocal cords, mouth, tongue, teeth, and lips. It’s tied to how we move, to whom we’re speaking, and where we physically are. In order to really learn a foreign language, you need to embody it, too.
The easiest way to do this is to find movies or songs (YouTube is amazing for this) in the foreign language and mimic them in front of a mirror. It may seem silly, but you’ll be able remember things better (and correct your movements and expressions) if you watch yourself in the mirror. With songs, you can also develop some interpretive dance moves to help you remember what’s going on in the song. You can use this technique with vocabulary words, too: come up with gestures for each one, and you’ll be creating muscle memories that will back up your brain power.
If you regularly practice your language this way, your accent should improve. You’ll recognize grammatical structures and vocabulary words, which will help you to memorize them. Once you’ve gained confidence talking to yourself in the mirror, you’ll also be more willing to speak in the foreign language to others.
These are not quick-fixes by any means; these methods both require a lot of work, review, and practice on your part. But, if you are ready to commit, you’ll see your language skills improve significantly.