If you have some free time over the summer to dedicate to independent study, why not try learning a language?
In addition to its many practical applications, learning a language is one of the most satisfying ways to expand your mind in new, unexpected ways. It’s what prompted the Australian author Gerald Murnane, who has only rarely left his home state of Victoria and has never left Australia, to learn Hungarian—not just to read Hungarian literature, but also for the sheer enjoyment of the sounds of textures of the language.
With any luck, a similar enjoyment will be available to you if you study a new language. You likely won’t have time over one summer to become completely fluent (it took Murnane several years), but if you approach your studies methodically, you should make some real progress.
1. Choosing a Language
Learning a language is often easier if you have some strong motivation to do so. For instance, if you really love Bollywood cinema and want to enjoy it without having to use subtitles or dubs, then the natural choice for you would be Hindi.
If you’re dying to read Clarice Lispector in an untranslated edition, then Portuguese would be a good fit.
Or perhaps you’re planning a trip to a place where your first language isn’t widely spoken, or you want to converse with your relatives. Having goals like these will keep you motivated and on track as you study.
You might also choose a language based on prior familiarity. Perhaps you’ve been studying a language in school and want to get fluent on your own time. Or maybe you spoke another language fluently as a child and want to recover that knowledge.
2. Choosing a Study Method
There are several ways to go about learning a language.
Duolingo has the advantage of being free, and of having a game-like structure. Duolingo can help you boost parts of your vocabulary, like colloquial expressions, that conventional textbooks might not.
Duolingo also emails you reminders to keep pace with your stated study goals. However, there are some disadvantages to using Duolingo (or at least to using it alone).
First, Duolingo proceeds thematically rather than according to grammatical rules. This can make many features of a language seem confusing and arbitrary; it may take several units before you understand why you’re doing the things that you’re doing.
Second, Duolingo’s audio components are a little hit-and-miss. The Japanese lessons, for instance, sometimes give the impression that certain syllables sound a certain way, when they actually sound quite different.
Third, if you look at the user comments underneath a lesson, you’ll often find warnings from native speakers that certain phrases being taught are slightly unidiomatic, slightly grammatically incorrect, or not commonly used.
There’s another popular language-learning app, Memrise, which has its own advantages and disadvantages.
You can access some elements of Memrise for free, but to get the complete experience you must pay a monthly subscription. Users have cited Memrise as a good program for memorizing words and phrases quickly, but perhaps to some extent at the expense of in-depth knowledge.
If you’re planning to use either of these programs, I suggest that you do so in concert with at least one other method, like a book, a set of CDs or audio files, or conversation sessions with a study group or tutor.
When looking for a good language book, try to find one that includes many written exercises and a clear articulation of grammatical rules. I use Gilda Nissenberg’s Complete Spanish Grammar, from the “Practice Makes Perfect” series, for this reason.
3. Making a Schedule
Learning a language is a bit like filling a bucket by leaving it out in the rain: a steady, drip-by-drip process rather than a sudden rush of insight. It’s best to study every day, even if only for fifteen minutes at a time—that way you’ll be better able to retain what you’re learning.
If you go without studying or practicing for too long, then your bucket of knowledge will dry out, so to speak.
To help you stay consistent, you might find it useful to set aside a regular time to read your book, listen to audio, complete exercises, and/or use a learning program. For instance, you might study for fifteen minutes in the morning and fifteen minutes in the evening each day.
Of course, if you have a specific, time-dependent goal on the horizon—maybe you need to learn enough Italian to read a newspaper and understand basic conversations before your trip in August—then you can be even more detailed in your scheduling, apportioning enough time each day to work through your book’s relevant units before your deadline.
4. Getting Creative
Even with a book, audio files, and software at your disposal, you may need to get a little creative in your study methods.
This is especially true if you want to speak the language you’re studying, not just read it. To boost your listening comprehension and vocabulary—things that are hard to get from even the most diligent book-based study—you should seek out opportunities to engage with the language as it’s really spoken.
Watching films and TV shows in the language you’re learning will help, as will YouTube videos made by those who want to share their experience of learning another language.
An even better way to improve your vocabulary and aural comprehension is by speaking the language with others. If you have friends or family who speak the language, or are also learning it, why not try to have a twenty-minute conversation with them?
Any time you’re faced with a gap in your vocabulary, try to either talk your way around it (for instance, if you don’t know the word for “laptop,” try “small computer”) or ask your conversation-partner for help.
You may even be able to find organized conversation groups online, or through local schools, libraries, or community centers.
For 24 more suggestions on how to spend your summer vacation, check out our previous post.