Strategies for Learning a Foreign Language  

Learning to communicate in another language is a little like learning to play tennis or learning to play the piano.  You can read the manual and study all the rules and memorize them and get an A on the test about the rules, but it won't mean you can speak or understand anything, just like it won't mean you can play tennis or the piano.  What do you have to do to learn to play tennis or the piano?  You have to practice.  And you could even learn to play quite well without ever reading the book, if you play regularly with experienced folks and are observant and apply yourself.  The following are some suggestions to help you learn to communicate in another language.  Remember that you have to participate and play along if you want to learn.

1. Think of reasons for studying a foreign language.  How is being able to communicate in the language going to help you?  Think about your future career options, as well as your future travel or leisure time activities, your appreciation of diversity and other cultures.  Think about your contributions to society and how knowing another language can help you be a better citizen.

2.  In language learning, "study" doesn't mean the same thing as it does in some other disciplines.  It doesn't mean looking over a textbook and quietly reading or memorizing facts.  "Study" really means "practice" so think of the ways you can actively practice the material.  The following are some ideas for practicing.

3.  Memorizing verb conjugations:  For some items, like verb conjugations, you really just have to memorize the patterns.  That means you should say them out loud repeatedly, apply the patterns to as many verbs as possible, and say them over and over.  Writing them over and over also helps.  Then applying them to forming meaningful sentences helps to make it all relevant.  Make up sentences or conversations using the verbs.  Do the textbook or workbook exercises orally and in writing.

4.  Memorizing vocabulary:  Vocabulary words lend themselves in most cases to visualizing the item or concept that the word describes.  In many cases, pictures or drawings accompany the vocabulary in your book.  If not, make up pictures in your mind, and draw them using simple stick figures.  Always associate the new words with the images rather than with the English words.  Making a list of target-language words with pictures is much more helpful than words with English translations.  Making flash cards with the target-language word on one side and a picture on the other is good practice, and using the flash cards to practice with friends is even better.  And if you can then try to use the words in meaningful sentences or conversations, you are going to remember them more easily.  So make up lots of conversations or short passages using the new words, and make sure to say them out loud.  You can also take turns acting out the words to identify them.

5.  Keep up with all of the out-of-class assignments.  These are not "busy work."  All of the activities assigned have a purpose in leading you to be able to communicate in the target language.  So you must keep up and complete them daily.  Don't stop at just writing assigned textbook or other activities; go back and say them all out loud and pretend you are having meaningful conversations using the expressions.  Do this with a partner, and it will help even more.

6.  Limit your homework or listening time to about 20 minutes per session.  After 20 minutes, your brain is tired and much of the time you spend after that will not be as effective.  Take a break, even if for only 10 minutes, and then come back to it if you are not finished.  After 20 minutes, take another break, or leave it for later.  Many short sessions are much more effective than one long session.  You will really see a difference if you do this.

7.  Attend all classes.  Participate actively.  If you miss even one class, it is really hard to catch up because in a language class you are engaging in activities, not just taking notes.  You can't really make it up if you miss it.  So you must be present and active to learn a language.

8 Take advantage of the free tutoring offered by the Academic Support Center.   The hours are announced in classes.  You should also find a partner to practice with, or a "Study Buddy".

9.  Remember that you should spend at least 2 hours in activities outside of class for every hour spent in class for a passing grade in any college class.  This is for a grade of C.  You should spend more time if you want an A.

10.  Reading strategies:  When reading anything in another language, such as instructions for homework exercises, captions under pictures, magazine or newspaper articles, stories, anything, you should follow these steps:

            a.  First skim:  read for the gist, not for details.  Guess at meanings, based on the context, and try to get a general idea.  Take into account any pictures, titles, subtitles and format.

            b.  Think about what you already know about the topic.  Bringing to mind concepts that may have something to do with what you are reading will help you to understand more.

            c.  Assume that cognates mean what they look like (although they don't always).  Guess.  Guessing is good, if it is based on things like the context, what you already know about the topic, the part of speech, etc.

            d.  Skip words you don't understand.  (Skipping is good;  guessing is good.)

            e.  Predict and revise your predictions about what is going to occur in the reading.

            f.  If at this point you really can't get an idea about what's going on, choose two or three words to look up.  No more.

            g.  Read the passage over several times, revising your predictions.  Each time you read it you will understand more.

            h.  Make lists in the target language of relevant ideas from the reading:  characters, places, events, objects, chronology, whatever seems to be pertinent.

            a.  Don't look up lots of words in the dictionary; limit yourself to looking up one word per 100 that you read, or less.  You don't have to know everything, and you won't remember those words and all that looking up will interrupt your train of thought.  When you read in English, you usually don't look up words you don't understand.  You use the context to get the general idea.  Do the same in your second language.

            b.  Don't translate into English.  You'll understand much more if you stay in the target language, and you will be progressing toward being able to read easily.  But if you translate many words, or whole lines into English, you will only be teaching yourself to translate, and to understand the English you wrote.

11.  Writing Strategies:  When writing in a foreign language, you should follow these steps:

            a.  DON'T write in English and then translate.  You will make your task much more tedious and time-consuming than necessary, and the language will be very far from accurate, making what you write very difficult for anyone to understand.

            b.  DO:  Brainstorm ideas and words you will need.  Think of how to say things with words you already know in the target language.  Keep it simple.  Look up two or three words if you think you must.  Make a list of words as you brainstorm.

            c.  Write down ideas and make lists as you think of them, even if you have some notes partly in English. 

            d.  Identify your audience:  who are you writing to? 

            e.  Identify your purpose:  why are you writing?  What do you want to accomplish?

            f.  Start composing in the target language, using simple language.  Compose on the computer (here at Longwood you have Word in French, German and Spanish, as well as the keyboards for those languages, available on your personal computer and in the Language Lab).  Circumlocute, using words and grammar you know, and keeping in mind your audience and purpose.

            g.  Print it out.

            h.  Read over your text and add ideas; re-arrange ideas.  Think about information that would make it more interesting or more precise and add it.

            i.  Read it over again, to see if you are covering all of the points necessary to achieve your purpose.  Put yourself in the place of the intended audience:  does it achieve your purpose?  How does it affect you?  Is it convincing?  What are the omissions or weakness in the arguments or ideas?  Make revisions.

            j.  Read it again, this time looking at the verbs.  Check the tenses and make sure the verbs agree with their subjects.  Make corrections.

            k.  Read it again, this time looking at adjectives.  Adding adjectives can make your text more interesting and vivid.  After adding adjectives, check them all for endings that agree with their nouns.

            l.  Read your text again and correct the punctuation, spelling and diacritical marks.

12.  Speaking Strategies: 

            a.  Circumlocute:  you don't need to know all the words for the things you want to say.  You can describe, using simple language and words you already know to get your point across.


If you have suggestions for adding to this list of strategies, please send to: