Katharine B. Nielson, chief education officer at Voxy, discusses how we learn languages, why it can get more difficult to learn new languages as we get older, and why the challenge of learning a language is good for our brains.
Here are a few tips that came out of our discussion:
The secret to language learning is 1) practice, 2) paying attention and 3) getting lots of real world input.
The way we often teach languages is incorrect. Nielson said: "We try to teach people the system of how a language works, but that's not how language learning actually happens." Memorizing Italian verb charts isn't going to do you much good when you get to Italy.
Practice listening to conversations people are having. Nielson said: "In reality you need to listen to people speaking the language and notice words and notice things you don't know and do it over and over again until you're able to do it."
Start by learning words for universal needs and courtesies like "Hello," "Thank You" and "Where is the bathroom?" Nielson said: "We find that the best language instruction works when it's needs based. When people can see right away that the words they're learning and the phrases they've picked up will help them. And it will give them building blocks to learning more pieces of the language."
Focus on tasks in the language you want to accomplish. If you want to learn French, figure out what it is you want to be able to do in French. "We should start with what a real person is going to say in France when he or she is going to order coffee in a coffee shop or going to a business meeting," Nielson said.
Don't be afraid of sounding silly. Nielson said: "learning a language is learning a skill and you have to practice it in uncomfortable situations."
Watch foreign media you find interesting. Leonard noted that one of his producers learned a fair amount of German by watching bad German soap operas. Nielson added "So much of learning a language is paying attention, and it needs to be motivating. If your producer thought that the German soap opera was interesting, already he's going to be in a better place to understand what's happening."
If you’re going to watch a foreign film, use subtitles in the language you’re trying to learn.