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5 Steps to Mastering your Second Language

How I went from novice to professional translator and interpreter in just 5 years…
(by Jack Brian Robinson)

About me

I had always wanted to learn a second language but (not for lack of trying) I could never seem to get there. Spanish, German, French, even Latin. I had convinced myself that I was just “one of those people” who would never be able to learn a second language. That was until I made the decision to move to Italy around 5 years ago. From that moment on, knowing that I’d have some serious hurdles ahead if I wasn’t prepared, I finally began putting everything I had into it. I sacrificed my time, I invested my money and I slowly whittled away at the part of myself that was terrified of making “mistakes” until eventually, once I landed here in late 2018, I already had enough of a solid foundation to begin conversing even within the first month.

In this article I’ll share with you what I consider to be the 5 most important steps towards truly mastering your second language.

Grammar

It seems a little obvious, but mastering the fundamentals of grammar often gets overlooked, especially by English-speaking language learners. I’m not suggesting that you learn every grammar tense, conjugation and combination before attempting to speak, but foreign languages are notorious for having a strong emphasis on grammar and the basics are essential.

Tip:

For technical grammar topics I would opt for a traditional textbook over language-learning Apps. Having all the explanations laid out plainly and concisely with several examples will help you digest them quicker. Remember: memorizing is useful but nothing trumps true comprehension.

Start by understanding and memorizing the simple present, past and future of the 5-10 most common verbs to begin with. Then in combination with the next step, you’ll have enough to start having basic conversations. Which brings us to:

Vocabulary

This is where your language-learning Apps come in. Those such as Duolingo and Memrise should be used, not for learning your target language per-se, but for introducing you to and boosting your vocabulary. These apps are really good at giving you the most commonly used words and having you repeat them enough times to make them stick.

All big fan of Duolingo in my family. I completed the Czech course, and am half way with German. It’s so handy, unlike the dozens of dictionaries I used to collect when I was younger 🙂

(Emanuele, Italian)
Tip:

Regardless of your method, try to focus on the 500-1000 most used words in your target language. The word “chicken” will be more useful to you in your everyday life than “pipe”. But then again, it all depends on why you’re learning the language. If it’s just for work-related reasons and you’re a plumber, then the inverse will of course be true!

I’m a fan of the Pareto Principle and we can apply it to languages as well: roughly 80% of consequences come from 20% of causes (the “vital few”). It illustrates that studying “hard” might not yield the same results if you’re not studying “smart”.

(David, Brazilian)

Music

What is the one thing almost all human beings have in common? A love for music! I say almost all because I actually met a person once who didn’t like music and I still can’t accept that… Alas! The majority of us are all alike in our love for music. Sure, we have our own particular tastes but a true music lover will find something good in anything (so long as it’s actually good, of course). 

Music can be so helpful in language learning as we’re taking something we love already and combining it with something we must learn to love. The biggest piece of advice I can give is to go on a YouTube spree until you find an artist or style of music in your target language that you love. Trust me, it will make learning your desired language so much more of a pleasure than a chore!

Tip:

Once you’ve found a song or an artist that you like, try to memorize the lyrics to some songs. After which you could compare the lyrics to your native language to learn from. Depending on your level you could even attempt to translate them for yourself first!

When I was very young and I first started learning English I would write down what the words in a song sounded like, so I could learn how to sing them, and then later I would look up the actual lyrics and connect those two things to figure out what words sounded like what. That helped me learn a lot of new words and a lot of pronunciation, and they would stick in my brain because these were songs I really loved.

(Kerol, Brazilian)

Film/TV

In the same vein as music, finding a TV show or film that you love in your target language is so helpful for language learning. Language teachers call this “passive learning” and, though it might not feel like you’re learning much, you’re actually developing one of the most important aspects: the sound and cadence of the language itself. This is in addition to being presented with new and existing vocabulary in a native setting which is truly priceless.

I am a huge movie fan, and I have watched movies since I was a kid. I think that helped me to learn English from an early stage.

(Sérgio, Portuguese)
Tip:

If you can’t find a show in your desired language that interests you, pick an existing show you know really well and start watching the “dubbed” version. We’ve all seen numerous repeats of shows such as “Friends” and “How I Met Your Mother” by now that we can almost recite entire episodes back-to-back. Hearing how these dialogues sound in your desired language will help you in multiple, unimaginable ways.

Conversation

This is the aspect of language learning which I would consider most important. Nothing can substitute the immersive setting of having a conversation in your desired language, especially with a native speaker. Not all of us have the benefits of living in the country of our target language, but we are lucky enough to live in an age in which we can converse with strangers over thousands of miles. If you can’t find a language partner locally, free Apps such as HelloTalk and Tandem will help you to find native speakers who are interested in learning your language and are interested in an exchange.

Few years back, I joined an international guild in a mobile game where they communicate real time with everyone online in English language; which is my second language; and it does improve my skill in conversing and writing. So having conversation is really an important aspect if you want to improve your second language.

(Yuni, Malay)
Tip:

Use whatever means you have at your disposal to find a dedicated language partner and try to have short conversations on a regular basis. Suggest to your language partner talking for 15-30 minutes in your native language, then do the same in theirs.

If you have the means available, try to find a teacher to meet once a week who can track your progress and point you in the right direction.

Conclusion

Language learning is hard, I won’t pretend otherwise, but I believe with enough hard work and dedication that anybody, any age can learn a second language. Now, get to it! In bocca al lupo!

To find Jack in our list of professional translators, just click on our Languages and then on English.

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