Learning a new language is never easy. It takes a lot of commitment, time and energy (at least to learn it well). It is amazing how much people can pick up and not even be aware that they know it. For example, a student may be absolutely sure that they cannot read, speak, or understand French, and yet, they have no problems doing their homework, talking to their teacher or even helping their classmates. In order to make it as easy on yourself (or your child) as possible, we’ve put together a quick blog post of things to keep in mind when you’re learning French or any other language.

First, we need to make some clarifications. For most types of knowledge, there is a passive and an active version. The passive version is understanding, but maybe not being able to use the skill. For example, you’ve seen your parent make pancakes countless times, you know the steps and you can recognize it when you see it, but you cannot make them. Active knowledge is where you know what something is and can do it. E.g., you learned a new phrase in class, and you can use it efficiently and correctly. For the purposes of this post, we will cover both passive and active knowledge as they are both needed in learning a new language.

Our initial, and probably most obvious tip, is to practise as much as possible. By this we mean do not be afraid to make mistakes. Often students stick to sentence structures and words they have mastered, as they are afraid to try different styles and to make mistakes (and, as a result, get lower marks). This is fine in the beginning, but as you get more experienced, your vocabulary and sentence structure should also improve. Imagine if an adult spoke and wrote the same as when they were in the first grade. “It is good”, “She is nice”, “I like the dog” are examples of sentences that a lot of students use when just starting to expand their vocabulary. For that age range or when just starting, this is an excellent foundation, but sentence style, structure and vocabulary need to be refined as well. Now, one excellent way to improve, is to get feedback from your teacher, tutor, or someone who knows the language and can tell you that what you said/wrote is incorrect, awkward, or is simply never said that way. This is more of an active way of learning since you are studying your mistakes and learning how to stop making them.

Helpful Hint

If you do not understand a movie or series, consider watching it with subtitles in a language you do know. After a couple of months, watch the movie or series again without the subtitles and see how much better you can follow the events. This is a great way to passively learn new vocabulary as well!

Another tip for learning a new language is to try to immerse yourself in it as much as possible. Chances are, you won’t go to Paris for a year to truly immerse yourself in the French language, but there are ways to do it in the comfort of your home. Consider listening to a French radio station, watching a French series on television, or reading a book, newspaper, or blog in French. This is an excellent way of getting a feel for the language. After a while, you will pick up some new vocabulary and phrases that you can use. This is a more passive way of learning a language, as you are (probably) not paying attention to the specific happenings within the medium you have chosen. It is more that you are getting used to how the language sounds, its intonations and inflections. This is an often underestimated aspect of studying a new language.

One more important tip is to not translate from another language. This is a mistake that a lot of people make. When you are just starting to learn, you will have to, since you do not know any other way, but do not let this become a habit. As a native speaker of any language, you are probably not aware of the number of idioms and (phrases that only make sense in that language because of continued use) slang terms you use in everyday life. A common example is that “it’s raining cats and dogs”. If you were to translate this to another language, chances are people would think that actual animals are falling from the sky! It is best to try to keep the languages separate in your mind as much as possible, instead of trying to translate what you want to say in one to the other. We often encounter students who have prepared their assignments in English and are having a hard time translating it into French (or, even worse, tried translating with an online translator). Often, online translators are good for specific words, but not great at phrases. This can become even more complicated when the translator uses a tense that hasn’t been learned yet. These are clear signs to your teacher that your are not completing the assignments in the way they were intended to be done. 

Now, we might have made it seem like you need to study actively in order to learn a new language, but this is not the case, as both active and passive knowledge is important in day-to-day activities. Consider how often you are talking to someone and you would never use the phrase they used, but you know exactly what they meant. For example, you hear someone say that something is “the bee’s knees”. You probably know what they said, but you yourself would never use that expression. This is your passive knowledge being used. In communicating in a foreign language, it is not enough to be able to understand what is being said (since this is a very one-sided conversation), so you must also practise your active knowledge. Do not be afraid to make mistakes, thinking it will lower your mark. In fact, chances are your teacher will be very happy that you are trying something new, and will reward you for it, even if you’ve made mistakes. Both passive and active knowledge are needed to be able to communicate efficiently in any language. By practising, and making mistakes, you will (with enough time and energy) master the language and you may not even be aware of it.