A quick introduction to Language Learning

Hi there! Welcome to the world of language learning! I am so excited for you, but you could be feeling all sorts of emotions, like impatience to get started, or fear of not knowing where to start, or wondering if you have to learn everything about a language. Not to worry, I will address these emotions and other issues here.

This introduction goes through:

  1. Thinking about how much of a language you want to learn
  2. Planning out how to learn a language
  3. Not understanding languages and disappointments (See “Answers to Questions” for more unanswered questions!)
  4. Handling emotions and why regulating them is important.
  5. Expecting the “intermediate plateau”

Thinking through how much of a language you want to learn

You can think of learning a language as being split into 4 general skill areas, listening, speaking, reading, and writing. If you are learning a language for fun, you can just start with any one of these skill areas and dive into it. If you’re learning a language for a specific purpose, then you’ll need to work on the skill area(s) appropriate to it. For example, if you want to do business in your target language, then you’ll probably need to work mostly on listening and speaking and less on reading and writing. If you’re traveling, then you’ll need to focus more on listening and speaking, perhaps understand script, and not focus on writing at all.

Planning out how to learn a language

Linguists have divided the study of the different properties of language.

The study of a language’s sound system is Phonology.

The study of how humans produce language sounds is Phonetics.

The study of words and how words are formed is Morphology.

The study of sentences and how sentences are formed is Syntax and Grammar.

The study of language meaning is Semantics.

For a language learner, you will gain most from Morphology and Syntax/Grammar. Later on, if you want to focus on pronunciation, you can focus on Phonology.

Managing common questions and disappointments

A common situation language learners find themselves in is one where they might have learned to read in a language, but cannot write or speak in that same language. Or they can understand what people are saying, meaning their listening skills are good, but they cannot answer in the target language, meaning their speaking skills are not good enough.

This is a common situation, and points to the fact that just because you’re skillful in one skill area does not mean you will be skillful in a different skill area. Unless you’re learning a language just to read, or to understand what people are saying, it’s usually better to work on each skill area together.

Handling emotions and why regulating them is important

You will face a variety of emotions in your language learning journey. You could feel anger, disappointment, or apathy after learning for a period of time.

Most of these emotions will stem from feeling like learning is very difficult and not fun. For commonly learnt languages like Japanese, Korean, or Mandarin, there’s a large amount of resources that you can choose from, some of which are more effective, others less so. Finding the right resources and learning how to use them takes time, practice, and reflection. If something isn’t working for you, it doesn’t mean you’re stupid. It just means that method is not effective, so you can choose other methods.

For minority languages that have fewer/no resources, you will have to get creative and make the most of any resource you can get your hands on. If that means becoming an amateur linguist, then you’ll have to do so. The process is more fun than you think though, and you’ll form a mental map in your mind.

The key thing to remember is that the art of learning becomes easier over time.

Expecting the “intermediate plateau”

After learning a language for a while, there will come a point where you’ll feel comfortable with your language skills and struggle to make progress. This is not the article to address this point, but you should prepare for this eventuality once you’ve made progress in your language learning journey.