How to Learn a Language, Finally. Part 1: Smart Goals

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name is Linda, I work as a Nerd on Nerdify, but that’s not my major achievement so far. As my Grandma said on Thanksgiving Dinner, I’m “family’s smartest woman within the generation.” While that’s not true unless I got my Nobel Prize, there are some language achievements under my belt.

I have B2 certificate in German. I was able to order dishes and ask for directions on vacation in Japan. I have some Skype friends who speak Russian, so do I. Importantly, languages have nothing in common with my profession, at least directly — I’m the Master of Arts in Social Sciences. That makes me feel to be the right person to talk about learning a language by yourself.

Let me get straight to the point of this article.

The most effective way to study any language is to set smart goals and approach difficulties with a method.

It is far more complicated than it looks, but far less painful than it sounds.

What Makes Learning Hard for a Beginner?

Perhaps, the hardest part is actually to start learning a language. You can postpone the beginning for ages. Until Sunday, until Thanksgiving, until cousin’s name-day. Every excuse works just fine. Alternatively, the abundance of resources may lead to the scarcity of actual work. You managed to start; you found textbooks and podcasts for all your interests; you even signed up on the Easy Language Exchange…

Still, you did not manage to do any sustainable work with them.

We can find hundreds of guides to tell us how to learn a foreign language. Unfortunately, the majority of the guides doesn’t work, and we will be stuck in dozens of problems, barriers, and obstacles. Why?

Right question, my friends. We start with it. There are two reasons why we cannot learn a language.

  • First, the guides don’t teach how to set smart goals.
  • Secondly, they don’t teach how to overcome the typical challenges of learning a language.

You ask me: “Then if I deal with these problems, will I become a superior language master?” Yes, you will, because it’s true for gaining any existing skill.

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Source: Nerdify

All the methods that I’ll mention in the article, I’ve tried by myself, and they were verified by education and psychology Research Nerds from Nerdify. There are a lot of ways of learning — some will surely become useful for you.

Setting Smart Goals

You ask me “What are smart goals? Does that mean there are stupid goals?” No, my friend. There are goals which difficult to reach because you don’t know how to measure a result.

For instance, you aim at learning the German language from scratch. The trouble is that this goal is not specific. Moreover, it has a different meaning for everyone. For some people that means to be able to read and write academic papers, while others will be satisfied with watching series and reading news.

Alright, maybe do you want to speak fluently or read Karl Marx “Capital” in the original? That’s better, but I offer you to go back to real-life examples.

  • The aim “I want to learn German” doesn’t work, but “I want to pass a language test” does. That means a smart goal must be specific.
  • If you learn German from scratch, you cannot pass TestDaF at the very beginning. It would be realistic if you pass the A1 test. Then, the goal must be achievable.
  • If you feel that “to pass the test” doesn’t inspire you, that means your goal is not relevant for you. Сool and right goals should summon butterflies in the stomach. That’s pretty clear, isn’t it?
  • Finally, we made it to the main problem of unattainable targets — we don’t know when we should expect the result. The smart goal must be time-bound. The intention “I will pass the test one day” will never work, my friend. “I am going to pass the A1 test in three months” sounds better.
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For example, I am going to learn Japanese for a visit to Osaka in six months because the majority of Japanese don’t speak English well (specific, relevant, time-bound). I need to talk with waiters in restaurants or to ask for directions (achievable, measurable).

As soon as you know how to set smart goals, you can learn more effectively. You don’t need to try to embrace everything, and an enormous amount of work will be reduced.

How Long Does It Take to Learn a Language?

Courses and advertisements promise you to “learn a language in two months,” your genius groupmate has learned Mandarin Chinese in two weeks, and you feel that dreams can become true… But then, after two months, you may feel terrible, because you personally might not have produced an outstanding result.

By now, you should have already understood that “language in two months” can’t be true — remember about smart goals. Unless your classmate doesn’t have a genius certificate, in two weeks, he could only remember popular cliches or forge a fake. It’s possible to reach something in learning a language in a short period, but this “something” is always specific and small.

In two months, you can develop a strong beginner level in almost every language.

What can you reach in two months realistically? In that time, as a rule, you can develop a strong beginner level, sometimes an intermediate level in almost every language. Your actual duration of learning depends on the length of your classes and their frequency. However, there are other factors which can speed up or slow down your learning.

When you learn at home, learning is significantly slower than when you go abroad. If you’re in a foreign language environment, you can use the only language you learn, and all the information you receive is new. It forces your brain to adapt and develop your language skill faster. Such stress is impossible to recreate at home unless you make your family or roommates speak only Japanese with you.

Another strategy is to free some additional time for languages by finding a professional mentor to accelerate your progress in college or at work on Nerdify.

By gaining competencies and removing study blocks with the help of a professional, you will find a paramount of free time even on business days.

In the upshot, six months — one year is a minimum to learn a language sustainably. Still, you’ve lived decades of your life without learning a language. Start now, and in a month, you will have only five months left! It’s scary to start, but it’s foolish and painful to waste the time you could put into practice.

What are Four Components to Learn Any Language?

Now, we are getting from the philosophy to practice. A language is not an abstract thing. It includes four main skills, listening, speaking, writing and reading.

The surprise is that four language components are completely separate skills.

You can read a dozen foreign books, but you can still write like a first-grader. It’s alright. Maybe you can listen to a science podcast freely, but when you try to speak, you get a silent dog syndrome: you understand everything, but cannot say a single word.

As you see you don’t need to master each competency in some way. It means you can choose speaking skill only if you want to travel and feel free abroad. Alternatively, you can improve writing skill for talking with people on the Internet.

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All you need to set priorities and perceive a language as a kit of four parts. You should focus on the parts you need first, and then build up the rest. There are many items and instruments in plumber’s case, and the plumber needs to have them all. However, if he wants to screw a bolt, he will use only a wrench.

The situation is the same with languages: you don’t need to boost your writing skill if you are going to trip abroad. You should train your speaking and listening skills.

That’s true for both the easiest language and the hardest language to learn. All the people in the world think similarly on the basic level, so they develop these same four competencies.

For the same reason, language learners usually don’t stop on one language and continue to learn more. They save their ability to train speaking, listening, writing and reading. Then, learners transfer these skills from French to German, from German to Korean — till the cows come home.

Getting Up the Nerve

Mastering new languages is a long way, but you’ve already made your first step. In the following parts of this article, we will learn:

  • How to make study plans that you’ll actually complete.
  • How to incorporate language learning into a busy college and work life.
  • Best methods start learning a language at home right now.

For now, think about the smart goal you want to achieve, and what of four language components you want to master first. Christmas is a great time to determine what do you want to accomplish in the next year 🎄. For language learning, this is of crucial importance.

In the next part of the article, we will start putting your plans into practice. It will be published after Christmas — I have another dinner with my Grandma to survive.

If you enjoyed this article, please, 👏 — it’s free. Share it so that others can find it too.

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