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Getting the Most from a Language Class

Earn a Life Skill, Not Just a Good Grade


class in venezuela

Una clase en Venezuela. (A class in Venezuela.)

Photo by Rufino; licensed via Creative Commons.

If you're like some students taking a foreign-language course, you may be satisfied with little more than a passing grade. But if you'd like to earn a top grade — and, more importantly, if you'd like to actually be able to put your language skills to good use eventually — here are some tips that might help you to fully learn.

Although these tips are written for people studying Spanish, most of them apply to those learning other languages as well.

  • Learn each concept: Make sure you understand each lesson or unit before tackling the next. In particular, most textbooks and classes take a sequential approach to grammar. If you don't understand how to use direct-object and indirect-object pronouns, for example, you're less likely to understand the concept of reflexive verbs.
  • Supplement your text with outside materials: Much of this site is designed specifically with that intent in mind, and various other sites and reference books can be used for the same purpose. If your textbook or your teacher doesn't make a concept clear, perhaps a different approach can.
  • Expose yourself to your new language whenever you can: Visit Web sites in your new language. Watching movies or videos in your new language can help you learn how words are really pronounced, even if you can understand little at first. Purchase magazines written in your new language. People en español is one possibility and is widely available in the U.S. Music can also be useful as a learning aid, although you need to be aware lyrics can be frustratingly difficult to understand both because of musical styles and because unusual vocabulary or word order are sometimes used to make the words fit the music. Some artists such as Enrique Iglesias have produced bilingual albums that may include Spanish versions of your favorite music.
  • Remember that learning a language is more than an academic exercise: I remember a few years ago when my daughter, then about 10 years old, was with me when I went to the gas station. A Spanish-speaking woman there was having difficulty fitting the gas nozzle into her car, so I explained to her how she needed to use the narrower nozzle made for lead-free gas. My daughter, having witnessed the conversation, exclaimed when I got back in the car, "I didn't know you could use Spanish to talk with people!" Indeed, remembering that learning a language is a way to help us relate to people can be a stronger motivation than mere academics can be.
  • Learn correct pronunciation as soon as you can: Poor pronunciation habits can be hard to break, and your efforts to make yourself understandable will be appreciated.
  • Plan a trip to where your new language is spoken: One of the biggest motivators I had to working on my Spanish was trips I had planned to Mexico (and later to Guatemala and Peru). My experience has been that people everywhere appreciate sincere attempts to use their language, and even a moderate level of language ability can open up doors that are closed to tourists who have to rely entirely on English. I remember a trip many years ago to the pyramids outside Mexico City. When some mariachis enjoying an informal jam session on top of the Pyramid of the Sun found out I spoke enough Spanish to hold a simple conversation, they wrote down the words to the songs so I could sing along, and then they invited me to join them in a friendly soccer game. That afternoon has become one of my most memorable travel experiences, but it probably wouldn't have happened had I not known the language.
  • If possible, converse with native speakers you know: A native speaker can help you with pronunciation and give you immediate feedback. You can also get the opportunity to learn some slang and other colloquial usages that aren't in your textbook.
  • Above all, have fun: For most people, learning is inherently enjoyable — watch any preschooler to see how natural learning can be! Look for ways to make language learning exciting, whether it's following one of the above bits of advice or coming up with a creative way of your own.

Hopefully these tips will not only give you the grade you seek, but also provide you with a lifelong skill that will enrich your life.

Other Indo-European Languages

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