How to Master a Second Language Like a Pro

Updated on May 19, 2017
Virginia Matteo profile image

Virginia has a Bachelor's degree in Spanish and English Literature.

I’m not going to lie to you – learning a second language is rather a long process that requires some commitment. In my experience it takes about two years of intense work to arrive at B2/C1 level. However, the time of language acquisition varies greatly in individual cases depending on such factors as the proximity of the target language to your mother tongue, the number of foreign languages you’ve learned so far, the amount of hours you spend studying and the learning styles you adopt. Generally, the more languages you’ve mastered, the easier it gets. You know what works for you and what doesn’t, you start noticing similarities between languages, and, most importantly, you know that mastering a language IS possible, no matter how impossible it seems at the beginning.

But before going into any detail let’s ask the most basic question: is it worth it? If half the world speaks English nowadays, what’s the point of knowing another language?

The Benefits of Learning Another Language

As a passionate language learner I can confidently say: yes, it is worth your time. Acquiring a new language is a great exercise for the brain, and we generally don’t want the old fellow to get too rusty, do we? Apart from that, you’ll find that suddenly a whole world of fascinating opportunities opens up to you. The most obvious advantage is better qualifications on the job market, especially if you want to spread your wings in an international company. But not only that; as a university student you’ll have more confidence to participate in student exchange programs and gain an amazing life experience. Or, you can decide to quit the old life and start a new one in another country. The world is your oyster! Language is a tool and it’s up to you what you want to do with it. I know it is a cliché to say, but participating fully in another culture will change you and the way you think in ways that you can’t even begin to gauge if you’ve never lived beyond the borders of your own country. Suddenly what you thought were universal truths turn out to be particular quirks of your particular context. Gaining that additional perspective is fascinating and help you grow a lot as a person.

Motivation

I would say the hardest part is to keep yourself motivated for over a year, and most probably, for much, much longer. Maybe even for a lifetime of constant learning and discoveries, who knows? Where to find the strength to carry on? What works for me is setting long-term goals that are somehow connected to the language I’m learning. It’s the prospect of a year abroad in Spain that currently keeps me going. But it can be any target, really; sometimes something as simple as wanting to be able to read your favorite author in his/her native tongue. Or, a desire to live in this country one day. Or, it may be because you want to impress the family on a holiday trip abroad. Whatever it is, keep reminding yourself about it when you run out of motivation to carry on. It may also be a good idea to join a study group on the internet, or to have a friend who is also learning the language. A sense of healthy competition is sure to keep you up to speed.

Grammar

I can hear you moan. Yes, grammar is important. Of course, you can choose to pay as little attention to grammar as possible, focusing instead on developing communication skills. Some schools of thought actually say that immersion is all you need to learn a second language, and that may well be true. However, in my opinion grammar simply speeds things up. Besides, as it is perfectly OK to make mistakes at the beginning of your learning journey, at some point you want to be able to use the language flawlessly. This is where the hundreds of exercises you’ve done come in handy. It is much easier to have a particular grammar problem explained to you and then practise, practise, practise it than to try to figure everything out on your own. I promise, it will pay off in the end.

Immerse Yourself

When you’re tired of grammar (and you will be), switch to something more pleasant. Find texts suitable for the linguistic level you are currently at. Don’t worry if you don’t understand everything at first! Use a dictionary to check vocabulary that is frequently used; when a specific word crops up again you will be able to consolidate it in your mind. However, don’t overdo it. If you spend more time rummaging through dictionaries than on reading, you are likely to get frustrated. Focus rather on what you already know and the overall message of the text. Over time you will be able to move to more and more complex texts, without really needing to learn long tedious lists of vocabulary taken out of context. And that’s the point!

Another pleasant activity you should pursue is watching videos in the target language. As with reading, start with the easy ones, preferably those that are designed for language learners. Try to get the gist of what’s being said. Your comprehension will gradually build up allowing you in the end to watch films and series.

Activate What You've Learned

Use your language. Find a conversation partner on the internet or practice with a friend. Building even the simplest sentence, as daunting as it may seem at the beginning, is a source of immense satisfaction. This is the time to put into practice all you’ve passively assimilated so far. You’ve learned some new words during the day? Brilliant! Build sentences around them, play with different combinations, revise actively. And remember not to be discouraged if you make a mistake – it’s all learning. You sure won’t make the same mistake in the future.

If you’re lucky enough to find a native speaker who would be willing to read and check what you’ve written, all the better. When you speak you want to focus more on getting the message across rather than on using flawlessly complex grammar structures. Writing is an altogether different matter. You’ve got some time to check appropriate vocabulary and ponder over the right grammar usage. That’s why getting feedback on your written work is so important – you can identify the grammar and vocabulary areas that still need improvement.

Enjoy It

Despite some boring aspects to it, learning a new language is fun. Or, it can be fun if you choose it to be. The better you know the language, the more fun and rewarding it is – you start reading newspapers and literature in the language, watching films and just generally engaging with the culture. So good luck and enjoy the experience!

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