The One-Stone-at-a-Time Approach to Language Learning

A few years ago when we were working in the backyard we discovered a bunch of cut stones abandoned at the top of the property. They were buried just under the soil so it was difficult to tell exactly how many we had, and it was work to get them out. But wouldn’t it be great if we could use these stones to build a new wall around the patio? At the time we were in the process of a major reconstruction project that included rebuilding this area. Moving the stones, however, was just the kind of project that is easy to put off – hard work, slow and above all, no fun.

I was spending many days in the garden that summer re-landscaping the beds and decided to just start moving the stones. Not all at once, just one wheelbarrow full a day – about eight to ten stones. With a delicate back that was about all I could manage. It seemed crazy in the beginning. It would take me forever to move all the stones. But no, not forever, just the summer, at the end of which we had the stones for the patio wall.

For all the romantic notions of how great it would be to learn a second language the actual process, unfortunately, is the mental version of moving stones. Yes, everyone’s sister-in-law’s cousin once removed went to Italy for the summer and came back totally fluent. Yeah, right.

These accounts just add to the fantasy that maybe we too could just move to a country for a month and pick up the language. It would be easy, immersed in the native tongue. I’m sorry to say that except for the gifted few, and I mean few, this is unrealistic. Language learning takes great effort and discipline, in-country or not.

But enough with the pessimism. You really can learn a second language at any age no matter the skill set you were born with. Motivation it turns out is a much greater indicator of success than innate abilities. I know lots of people who for various reasons – more articulate, better ability to distinguish sounds, smarter – should be able to learn a second language more easily than me, but I’m the one with the motivation and have therefore actually done it. 

In this age of instant gratification learning a language the fast and easy way sounds appealing, but moving those stones just a few at a time will actually get the job done. The key is to take things slow at first and focus on just one day a time. Today I will study French for 30 minutes. Don’t worry about whether you studied yesterday, or whether you think you have time tomorrow or next week. Only today matters. Just do it. And remember to pat yourself on the back for having finished the lesson. If you miss a day, a week or a month, don’t beat yourself up, just start again. Over time you will learn.  By this time next year you will look back with amazement at how much you have learned just one stone at a time.

General Tips for Starting a Second Language

Start slow. Get familiar with the sounds, vocabulary and the idea of learning language. If you try to do too much too fast it can become overwhelming. As you become familiar with the language you will be able to study longer and take more in.

Find a method that you like or least don’t mind doing. In the beginning it’s about staying motivated. Don’t worry about what the best method is. If it is something you detest doing, you won’t keep it up. If you are social, takes classes. If you are a bookworm or independent learner, start with grammar books or computer programs. Just start.

Focus on the practical. Take a moment and think about why you want to learn the language and what you imagine yourself doing with the language. Learn the structures and vocabulary that relate to your particular needs and interests. This will get you using your new language sooner. Love food and restaurants? Learn food words and how to read and order from a menu.

Remember that language is generally used for oral communication. So unless you are learning a language purely to be able to read Flaubert in the original French, make sure to include listening and speaking activities in your daily practice.

Play to your strengths, but don’t ignore your weaknesses. If, for example, grammar is easy for you, great, learn grammar. But don’t ignore listening and speaking practice. You will most likely need extra practice in those areas to be able to communicate in the language.

And finally if you are thinking about an in-country immersion program, which I highly recommend, start learning in your home country first. The more you are familiar with before beginning your studies abroad the more of your new language you will be able to take in and use.

3 thoughts

  1. I can’t imagine I will ever need to learn a language but have just always wanted to learn one. In my blog foraging today I found your blog and have enjoyed reading it. You inspire me. Thank you.

    1. Thanks for your kind words. If you do have a desire to learn a second language, I encourage you to play around with it. It’s amazing what you can learn about yourself as well as another culture.

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