The best way to learn a language is your own way

In linguistics, we often talk about two main types of motivation for learning a language: instrumental and integrative motivation. Instrumental motivation means that you are motivated to learn a language for practical reasons, such as professional advancement, business, integrating in order to benefit from rights accorded to citizens, or because the colonial oppressors do not allow you to use your own language when dealing with governmental administration or in court. Integrative motivation, on the other hand, means you are interested in learning a language for more personal reasons: because you are interested in the culture associated with it, want to be in touch with your heritage, want to speak your partner’s language, or simply for fun.

Neither really seems to be the better one without question; people with instrumental and integrative motivation can both get good results. It’s pretty safe to say, though, that more motivation is better! Integrative motivation is easier to increase or decrease voluntarily, so that’s what this tip is focused on.

My top recommendation for learning a language is this: make it fun! Listen to lots of Chinese and Vietnamese music, copy the titles into Google Translate, look up interesting words in wiktionary, and you’ll slowly start recognising more and more words, all while listening to amazing music. Get your hands on a Romanian novel; even if you can’t understand the story yet, it’s fun to read a page and see what words and phrases you already understand. Dream about Finnish forests, lakes and saunas, and tell yourself that one day, you may be able to  get around in Lahti with minimal help from English. Write a sentence or two in Russian in your diary; it’s not much, but it looks cool and it’s more than you knew a few weeks ago.

Associations are strong forces. Even something that doesn’t seem directly connected may have a very noticeable effect on your language learning motivation. The exquisite taste of a good Vietnamese tea can make you more willing to put in a bit more effort into learning the Vietnamese language. It also works the other way, however: an unpleasant assignment for French class can make you unwilling to have anything to do with French at all. When something like that happens, I try to remind myself that I like the language even if I don’t always enjoy the class.

Some things I mentioned above are related to getting input. Simply getting lots of input may work better for acquiring vocabulary than trying to learn word lists by heart. If you learn to sing a song, for example, you’re likely to remember what the new words mean. Different types of input have different merits, though: if you read a book, you can ignore quite a number of unfamiliar words. On the other hand, you will get far more input from a book than from a song, and you’ll see things you’ve come across before. Novels are really great for learning vocabulary in my experience because you get exposed to huge amounts of normal, natural language in a variety of styles and registers. This way, you can get a pretty good feel for how certain words are used or how to apply grammatical structures.

In the end, it’s tricky to give solid tips for learning languages. So many different factors come into play, and everyone has their own learning style. My advice really comes down to trying different tricks to find out what works for you, and most importantly, practise a lot.


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