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How to see language learning as a joy, not a chore

I’m absolutely crazy about languages, and when I don’t have the opportunity to actually travel, immersing myself in a new language is the next best thing. I wasn’t always dreaming in French and slinging Italian proverbs at the dinner table, though.

Back in school when learning a language in a classroom was presented to me as a chore, I didn’t take my learning journey into my own hands, and I missed out on the opportunity to enjoy the process.

I felt like learning a new language was a difficult and monotonous task, and I certainly wasn’t alone; in a study learning foreign languages where students in the UK were asked: “What are the three main downsides to learning a language?”, the most common answer was “Learning grammar is difficult” with 48% of respondents citing this reason.

“Learning grammar is difficult!”

Going through a grammar book is not most people’s definition of fun, and I’m here to say that grammar exercises are not the best way to learn! Of course, grammar is important, and maybe you have to do grammar worksheets for school, but there is so much more to learning a language.

Let’s look at a few tricks to help reframe how you think about language learning, every step of the way.

Learn from babies

Have you ever thought to yourself, “man, I wish I was as smart as a baby”? Ok maybe you have, maybe you haven’t, but a lot of people see the way babies acquire languages as some stroke of magic reserved for tiny humans only. The good news is, you can use the way babies learn as a technique as an adult.

So how do you learn like a baby? The key is immersion in the language. I like to put on YouTube videos, podcasts, music, or whatever in the language I’m learning in the background while I’m working, going on walks, grocery shopping, whenever! This kind of passive listening is the easiest thing you can do, and incredibly important to get you familiar with different accents and how native speakers actually communicate.

Even if you’re just starting to learn and can’t understand anything, this is valuable! I also like to repeat sentences I hear to work on my pronunciation and generally get used to making the sounds of the language.

Some languages have sounds you’ve never made before and will make you twist your face in shapes you’ve never seen, so it’s best to get used to it! Speaking to yourself is the first step to getting comfortable with speaking to others. 

Trick your stubborn inner child

This one is like sneaking vegetables into your kids’ food, except you’re the kid. Take the things you already enjoy and spend a lot of time on, and find a way to incorporate a foreign language.

I waste a lot of time on YouTube watching cooking videos and home tours, so finding this kind of content in the languages I’m learning is like hitting the jackpot for me. This also helps me learn vocab that’s relevant to topics I actually care about so that when I talk to native speakers, I’ll be ready to talk about the things I want to talk about.

And as I go through my daily routine, I can remember the words I’ve learned as they come up in my daily life, like when I reach for my padella (Italian for pan) and make my uova (Italian for eggs) in the morning.

Start talking like a grown-up

One of the most frustrating things is mastering a language’s grammar rules and building a huge vocabulary, but still not knowing how to say common phrases you use daily. This is where a classroom education tends to fall short, and it’s a shame because this might be the most fun part about languages!

My last two tips are great ways to pick up on these kinds of idioms and slangy phrases, but when you have something specific in mind that you want to learn, the best thing to do is just look it up. This may sound like the worst piece of advice, but stick with me here!

Pay attention to how you speak, and take note of what phrases you use over and over again. Maybe you can’t stop saying “whatever floats your boat”, or “over my dead body!”, or “what a drag”. If you translate these word for word into another language, you’ll probably get a phrase that doesn’t make much sense.

So please don’t use google translate! My advice is to use context.reverso.net, which gives you several translations in context so that you can make sure you’re saying what you mean. And once you’re equipped with common phrases, use them! Annoy your family and friends by throwing in some foreign language phrases in your daily speech, and you’ll never say che palle (Italian for “what a drag”) at the thought of learning a language again.

I hope these tips help you see that incorporating language learning into your daily life can be fun and nearly effortless. Enjoy the process! 

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Manolya Altan
Patient and kind MIT grad tutor | + posts

I'm a language and math nerd and I love sharing my passion for these subjects with learners of all ages. I have a degree in Math from MIT and work as a software developer by day, but after work, I look to work with real people and help them overcome educational challenges. I know that everyone learns differently, and I'm here to make learning individualized and as simple as possible!

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