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Let’s say bonjour to a new year and a new language

Tips from UTSC Professor Rena Helms-Park on how to best learn a language — and stick with it
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Learning a new language can be both challenging and rewarding but it is one of the most useful things to add to your skillset. AVILA SANCHEZ/THE VARSITY
Learning a new language can be both challenging and rewarding but it is one of the most useful things to add to your skillset. AVILA SANCHEZ/THE VARSITY

Duolingo, Babbel, Memrise. It seems that language learning is becoming more and more accessible, but why is it that whenever you try learning Beginner Korean, you end up giving up after just one week? The material is there, but the power to trudge through the actual learning process is suddenly missing in action.

Annyeonghaseyo, motivation? Oh, it flew away along with that $80 you impulsively spent on Korean textbooks.

But this is a new year, and you are once again being bombarded by advertisements from language apps and schools. Maybe you can give language learning another shot.

The Varsity reached out to UTSC Associate Professor of Linguistics Rena Helms-Park, whose research includes second-language acquisition, to discuss how students can tackle their goal of learning a new language in the new year.

Avoiding the language slump

When you see famous polyglots like Tim Doner, who speaks over 20 languages, you may wonder how they manage to do that, when you, on the other hand, cannot even grasp the numerical system in French.

Was it ‘huit-dix,’ or — what was ‘80’ in French again?

After a bit of head scratching, you remember that ‘80’ in French is ‘quatre-vingts’ which means four 20s, or four times 20. More importantly, you remember that you are also bad at multiplication.

And so you cry in a corner.

En français, of course.

With a stick of baguette and some “Comptine d’un autre été” to match the mood.

And then you tell yourself that you simply do not have the talent to learn a new language — Java and C++ may or may not apply here — and that you are too old to absorb a language like three-year-old Patricia Cruz can.

However, according to Helms-Park, adults have some advantages over children in that adults “are often better than children at analyzing linguistic structures and learning [grammar] rules.”

Nevertheless, many people give up learning a language for various reasons, including being too worried about pronunciation.

Here, Helms-Park mentioned that environment plays a role in language learning. For example, when one’s goal is to interact with native speakers naturally, strictly learning grammar in a school setting can hamper that goal.

Talk to any Canadian who stopped taking French in high school and they will give you the spiel.

Another hindrance, said Helms-Park, is when people are “too worried about not seeming intelligent… when speaking a non-primary language.”

You simply cannot expect to have a full-on French conversation about Voltaire after three weeks on Rosetta Stone. While Voltaire is talking about éclaircissement, you are there talking about how there is a pomme on the table.

Easy, grasshopper. Take it slowly.

Language learning tips

Helms-Park is convinced that success in language learning is tied to the target language’s relevance to a person’s life and career.

For example, if you suddenly find yourself living in Japan where most people do not speak English, you will eventually realize that unlike in anime, there are no subtitles there. And you cannot exactly get by with just ‘nani’ and ‘omae wa mou shindeiru.’

Thus, the necessity to communicate with locals and land a job will make you more likely to learn Japanese.

So think about why you want to learn this language and how relevant it is to you. Could it be that you have roots in a country that speaks that language? Or that you want help in boosting your salary?

For people who want to learn a language “from scratch,” Helms-Park recommends first learning the target language’s 2,000 most frequently used words.

There are many websites online that list these words, such as Wiktionary.

After learning these initial words, Helms-Park suggests learning the rest in social contexts.

“With vocabulary, growth is slow initially and then generally becomes… faster,” said Helms-Park.

An advantage to learning a language that is related to a previously-known language is that the two languages may have words that are similar to one another.

“It’s a good idea to look out for cognates such as… chaise in French and [chair in] English,” said Helms-Park.

To remember vocabulary, Helms-Park likes to rehearse words and phrases silently in her head.

Immersion can also be beneficial in language learning. “[Talk] to people at the bus stop… [watch] TV, engage in social media in the target language, [make] lots of friends who don’t speak your own language.”

Whatever path you choose, just remember that just like any other path, there will be hurdles — and that is normal. At the end of the day, if you end up sticking with your language, then you can finally — and honestly — say ‘sí’ when the hiring manager asks if you are bilingual.