How do I start learning a language?

Congratulations! I am happy to hear that you want to learn a new language. However, we need to temper expectations.

There are different language skills

First, realise that learning a language means picking up certain language skills. It’s best to split these language skills into 4 parts:

  • Listening
  • Reading
  • Speaking
  • Writing

You might be better at speaking and listening and be worse at reading and writing. You might be (and probably will be) better at the passive skills of listening and reading compared to the active skills of speaking and writing. So it’s normal to be great at understanding what someone says, but be completely unable to answer in return.

It’s ok to give more importance to one or two language skills

You might be aiming for fluency in all 4 aspects of language learning. However, this raises the question of what fluency is. A common example of the ambiguity of fluency is to ask something like “if you can talk about movies and debate about the law, but can’t talk about biology, are you really fluent in the language?”

You might argue that that example is too specific and point out that even fluent speakers of English can’t understand every domain’s technical language. But we can extend that example further. For example, if you can talk about food, but can’t talk about movies, are you considered fluent? After all, these are different domains and come with their own vocabulary.

The important lesson to pick up here is that fluency can mean different things to different people. You might want to focus on reading so that you can read literature in the target language, ignoring speaking and pronunciation. You might want to ignore writing, or focus just on typing, say, mandarin characters. You might think not being able to write might not be real fluency, but an increasing number of native Chinese speakers now struggle to write characters, resorting mostly to typing and character recognition.

Exams are useful guides, but can be demotivating

You might have noticed that I haven’t mentioned exams or certifications yet. Feel free to use exams and certifications as a guide to how well you’re doing in a language, but realise that focusing a lot of your time on language exam preparation doesn’t mean you are necessarily able to use the language in real life.

Exams also mean that you need to learn what the syllabus wants you to learn. If what you want to learn and what the syllabus wants you to learn coincide, that’s great! But if you don’t really care about what the syllabus wants, then trying to get certification might put you off learning the language.

Make language learning fun and align learning to your goals

Why do you want to learn the language in the first place?

You might want to learn a language for economic gains, such as learning Bahasa Melayu to do business with Malaysians. You might want to learn a dialect for family reasons, like learning Hokkien or Teochew to speak to a loved one. You might want to learn a language for aesthetic reasons, such as learning Tamil because the language sounds beautiful to you.

Regardless of your reasons, you should aim to make language learning fun for yourself, and within your budget. If you find that you’re criticising yourself harshly, remember that you’re learning this language for yourself.

Aiming to be perfect in sentence construction is a hindrance

Jumping from English to Tamil, Malay, or Chinese means learning a new set of language rules. It might be going from subject-verb-object (‘boy kicked dog’) to subject-object-verb (‘boy dog kicked’). It could be the addition of suffixes (e.g. ‘ber-‘ and ‘men-‘ in Malay, ‘-iinga’ in Tamil), or the use of a different script (e.g. Mandarin characters or Tamil script).

You will make imperfect sentences, misunderstand people when they speak, and blank out. It’s perfectly normal and is part of the experience.