It is often said that the key to mastery of a foreign language is practice. This statement is true, but it does not go far enough. Practice accomplishes little if it fails to reinforce the correct lessons, and it can be counterproductive if it reinforces the wrong lessons. If one wishes to speak naturally in a foreign tongue, one must first learn to integrate practice into one’s everyday life.
Languages are complex structures, and like any complex structure, they can only be built gradually by assembling many smaller pieces. In languages, these smaller pieces are vocabulary, grammar, and syntax. At some point, one must struggle with vocabulary lists and tables of noun declension and verb conjugation if one wants to move on to the real lessons.
At the same time, it is crucial that one does move on from such study aids, sooner rather than later. In real life, the test of one’s ability in a foreign language will not consist of the ability to recite “I am, you are, he/she/it is,” but rather, to be able to say into the telephone, “I am at Track 15 in the Stuttgart train station. Where are you?” The memorization of tables is of limited value. Fluent speech relies on the ability to recognize verbal patterns and to create new sentences based on familiar models without preparation.
Speech will only become natural and automatic when one becomes comfortable enough with the tools of a foreign language to arrange one’s thoughts in that language. As long as one must first compose a thought in one’s native language, and then translate, one will always be slow and hesitant. On the other hand, when one is capable of thinking in the foreign language directly, one is ready to jump into a conversation and follow it wherever it leads.
There is no substitute for engaging in conversation with native speakers. Such conversations develop both passive and active skills, allowing one to hear new words and recognize key grammatical patterns, and then to try to use them in one’s own responses. Through conversation, one has the opportunity to imitate the other speaker, but at the same time, one must find contributions of one’s own. Fortunately, it is often possible to work around gaps in one’s knowledge. The ability to find a different way to express oneself when a desired word has been forgotten momentarily is a key skill even in one’s native language.
Finding ways to have regular conversations in a second language is the best step one can make in improving one’s skills. When one has a friend or relative who speaks that language, it can be fun and easy to do this. Alternatives are available for those less fortunate in this respect. Those who are learning their second language in school can easily find other students learning the same language and plan regular lunches for opportunities to practice. Ethnic restaurants and stores can provide additional opportunities to meet speakers of one’s chosen language.
Unfortunately, this is harder for some than for others. A person who has undertaken to study Basque will simply have to work harder to find conversation partners than someone who is learning Spanish. One can still make significant progress by regularly engaging in passive reinforcement, namely reading and listening in one’s language. With the determination to make this a priority, anybody can find the time and opportunity to practice.
Those who spend a great deal of time driving, for example, can benefit greatly from listening to radio or recorded speech. Those with extensive cable choices or large DVD collections can watch TV or movies in their chosen languages; this is always helpful, but especially when one disables subtitles. Books and magazines are very fine teachers when they are available. Failing that, however, the Internet is also a fine source of reading material in any language.
Any of these choices will go far; any combination will be better. These options generally benefit passive recognition more than active ability, but strong passive skills will be very helpful when opportunities for conversation do arrive. It is crucial that the use of a second language should become habitual, especially when conversation partners are scarce. Writing in a foreign language is useful as well, as it provides an opportunity to make active use of the language; the main disadvantage is that one might not learn for some time what mistakes one has made.
In the final analysis, success in learning a second language will only follow when one makes a priority of making use of that language. There are many ways to do so, but it is easiest to stick with a plan when one has found ways to integrate it with one’s life. This is the only way to get the kind of practice that achieves results. Those who practice well and often will go on to speak their second language naturally and automatically.
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