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Starting anything new can be daunting. And whether you’re just starting on your first foreign language or seventh, it’s important to take the correct first steps to make the whole process easier for yourself in the long run. You’ll need to set your learning goals and keep them in focus, get yourself an excellent teacher, and make learning a habit. But once you’ve created a successful routine, there’s still the question of what you should focus on as a beginner language learner. Should you focus on grammar, vocabulary, or listening to native speakers? That’s the question we’re answering in today’s blog post.

Learn entire phrases

As with much in language learning, the exact steps you should be taking really depend on your particular goals. However, if you, like almost every other learner, simply want to communicate in your target language, then you should start with learning a few phrases by heart. This comes especially handy if you’re travelling to a country where your target language is spoken and you don’t have much time.

Learning phrases like “Where is the bus station?” and “I’m sorry, I don’t speak X” will come handy for everyone travelling to a foreign country, but even if you don’t have a trip coming up, they’re still a great way to get started. Knowing a few useful phrases by heart, such as “My name is.. “ and “I live in X” is simply a great way to boost your confidence. You don’t need to understand the intricacies of grammar to start with very basic dialogues, and that’s a great way to keep yourself motivated.

Omniglot provides an excellent phrasebook (together with pronunciations) for a bunch of languages – an excellent starting point.

Words, words, words

If there is one thing you can’t speak a language without, it’s words. You can string together sentences using no grammar at all but if you don’t have the necessary vocabulary, you’re doomed. That’s why the second step, after you’ve memorised a few sentences, should be to start work on expanding your vocabulary.

It’s important to first start off by learning vocabulary that’s important to you. Learn words to describe your hobbies and profession, or anything else you feel passionate about. Once you feel like you’ve made enough progress on those, you can start widening your circle of interest. For example, a fun way to increase your vocabulary is to search for loanwords or onomatopoeia in your target language.

Spend time on your pronunciation

Another great way to make yourself feel good about your progress is to work on your pronunciation. This actually works on two levels.

First, you start to sound more like a native speaker or at least someone who has much better command of your target language than you actually might. This is another morale boost. And the best way to improve your pronunciation is to essentially watch videos on Youtube of people speaking your target language natively and try to mimic them. There are even ones specially dedicated to helping you improve your pronunciation. And while you’re doing that, your ears are getting more used to hearing your target language, improving your understanding of it in general. This is the true essence of hitting two birds with one stone.

The other option is to spend time learning the sound system of your target language. There are different apps and websites that help you do that. While this is certainly a viable option, the process itself might prove too boring for many. So it’s really up to you to choose the approach you can stick with.

Forget grammar, for now

For most language learners, learning grammar as the first step is the wrong choice. Sure, you can plug it in as much as you need. For example, conjugating “avoir” in French to the extent you need but, in general, grammar is not going to help you much at the start. You certainly shouldn’t be pouring over grammar books.

One good way of getting just enough grammar to keep you going is using Duolingo, for example. It’s a brilliant app for beginner language learners anyway but its approach to learning little grammar is especially useful. You’ll spend most of your time repeating useful sentences like “The invisible bear is purple” or “I am a turtle” (actual examples). However, you’ll pick up just enough grammar to sustain your progress without it turning awfully dry.

Conclusion – When first starting, focus on communication

The most important thing to focus on when you’re first starting to learn a language is its usefulness. You need to direct your efforts to help you actually communicate and keep your motivation up. So, don’t spend too much time on grammar or reading (both of which are rather passive). Instead, focus on learning as much vocabulary as you can, memorise entire phrases, and improve your pronunciation, which will, at the same time, also train your listening skills.


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