Strategies for Learning a Foreign Language

Daily Bits Of
Jun 30, 2015 · 4 min read

I was facing a very frustrated CFO. That’s not good. Not good for anybody. Not good for business. Not good for the people under her command. Especially not good for the person facing her. Me. The teacher. Someone who makes a living out of helping professionals learn a foreign language and overcome their learning obstacles.

The reasons for her frustration were clear as daylight. She was stuck, too busy focusing on the mistakes and the lack of progress. Too busy beating herself up about how she’s not doing enough. Too busy convincing herself that she was facing an impossible task, that she will never speak another language (notice the absolutes!) so she might as well give up now. In eight years of teaching languages to adult learners, I have witnessed the frustration surface and resurface at almost all levels of learning, from absolute beginner to advanced speaker.

If you’ve ever tried to study a foreign language yourself, these feelings might sound familiar. Many learners believe they don’t have the talent it takes to speak French, the stamina it takes to follow through when learning kanji seems gruesome, the dedication it takes to, once again, shuffle through your flashcards in search for reassurance.

I created a course on Daily Bits Of that will put all of these struggles behind you. In , we go beyond the common advice (use flashcards, space your reviews, practice with a native speaker) and delve deeper into the mindset changes that will help you enjoy the process and progress of learning a new language. Yes, there is always progress.

On Daily Bits Of, we explore these strategies in 15 manageable micro-lessons. The message are short and to the point, followed by an action step and links to further resources. Of course, you can use the lessons as a starting point to go deeper at your own pace. Here are 3 of them, to whet your appetite for learning:

1. Train yourself to tolerate ambiguity

When you’re trying to learn a foreign language, the willingness to tolerate ambiguity is key. Train yourself to tolerate ambiguity, to be comfortable with making mistakes, and to allow others to correct those mistakes. These are characteristics of a growth mindset, one in which the focus is on embracing challenges (even pursuing challenges) and the belief that abilities can and will be developed.

Processing new language, mixed with unfamiliar cultural concepts, can seem a tenuous task. Expect to come across multiple meanings, various ways of interpretation, not enough background knowledge and unfamiliar cultural norms.

It’s is ok to be confused. I would go further and say that confusion is a desirable state in language learning. It means that you’re processing words, ideas, concepts and notions. It means that you’re actually learning. Understanding comes in increments, and language is an interconnected mechanism. As you delve deeper into the language, you’ll see that things will start falling into place. For now, take a moment today to recognize and celebrate the progress that you’ve made so far. You can do this through keeping a language journal, in which you write down the expressions, grammar rules or new notions that you learned. You can keep it simple and just highlight the day on the calendar to show that you showed up and learned something.

2. Focus on getting better, not on being good.

Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson, from Columbia University Motivation Science Center, found that the people who adopt a “being better” mindset, are focused on inside growth and development. They are open to uncertainty, ambiguity and mistakes. They focus on improving, not on proving. They’re taking the time to learn. They persist in the face of adversity. They celebrate the small wins because progress, not perfection, is what matters.

On the other hand, having a being good mindset forces people to always try to prove themselves, compare their performance to other people’s, fall into a have/don’t have dichotomy (have enough talent for languages, have enough creativity), worry about mistakes, and often need external validation (is my teacher happy with me). When life happens, as it always does, these people immediately start to doubt their abilities, dwell on their failures, and are more likely to become depressed, anxious and stuck in inaction.

3. Practice mindful exposure

When we learn a foreign language, we tend to become obsessed with speaking it as fast as possible. So obsessed, in fact, that we lose sight of how important listening in that language really is. Don’t underestimate the importance of listening. After all, there is no conversation without listening to the other person. Listen a lot in your target language. The more you listen, the more you hear. The more you hear, the more you absorb. A language has its own rhythms, speech patterns and melody. Practice mindful exposure to all of these.

So how do you gradually shift your mindset to a get better mindset?

How do you learn to be comfortable with ambiguity?

How exactly do you get better at mindful listening?

I’ll give you the answers to these question, and a lot of other valuable tips for learning a foreign language on Daily Bits Of.

My name is Mickey Gast, and when I’m not teaching languages, I write about learning them at panglossity.com. I specialize in teaching adult learners because I get a tremendous amount of satisfaction when I see my students apply what they learned to their day to day life. I can’t remember a point in my life when I wasn’t learning or teaching a foreign language. I’m here to help you learn. I’m honored to do that.


Written by Mickey Gast, for more tips on how to learn a foreign language.

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