Yo! After a 1.5+ year long nerve injury and the general life changes of graduating from college, I'm done with Powlyglot. If I find myself sharing my language experience in another format later on, I'll probably link to it here, on my personal site, or on Twitter at @mpvboehme. Thanks for reading.
3 Ways to Get the Most Out of Your Language Class

3 Ways to Get the Most Out of Your Language Class

At the end of this semester, I will have taken five years of language classes. One thing I’ve noticed in that time is that I’m handling these last couple of years far better than the first few.

When I stop to think about it, I think I can attribute my success now to three core things that I try to do with language classes now that I never did before. So let’s get to it.

Here are the three philosophies I try to follow now that keep me on top of my language studies in school.

1. Stop speaking English, obviously.

Do you know how many people continue to speak English in class when they’re trying to learn something else?

Too many.

I suppose this doesn’t matter if you’re just taking the class because you have to, but why would you be here if you didn’t actually want to learn?

One of the first things you will (or should) probably learn is how to say “How do you say ___ in ___?” in whatever language you’re learning. Use it. Even if it’s not related to the class material, ask. It’s best that you learn the vocabulary that you use in your everyday life sooner rather than later. I ask a completely unrelated question almost every day in my French class. Your learning isn’t confined to a syllabus.

Learn the question words quickly, too. Don’t even say “What page?” in English. You’re breaking your focus – you want your mind to get used to using these kinds of phrases without thinking or translating in your head. You won’t get there by thinking that you can just ignore the small things.

Don’t know one word you wanted to say and can’t ask at the moment? Look it up on the smartphone you probably already have in your hand. Use that word in English and say the rest of the sentence in the language you’re learning (I’d keep this to classroom use though – it can become a bad habit elsewhere). Describe it instead of using the word directly. There are many things you can do to overcome this. You really don’t need to default an entire sentence to English because of one word.

Even when you’re not paying attention, keep English to a minimum. If you feel the need to have a conversation in class and ignore the assignment and/or teacher, talk in the language you’re learning. I promise they’ll be less mad than if you were ignoring them and speaking English – especially if you’re doing a good job.

2. Don’t cram for tests.

Please. You know this isn’t how you learn things long-term. You just know it.

Go ahead and cram for your other tests if you need to, because maybe you don’t want to remember those things long-term – but it’s a terrible tactic for language-learning.

Now don’t get scared – I didn’t stay don’t study. I just said don’t cram an entire chapter’s worth of information into one night and expect any benefit a couple weeks after the exam’s over with.

Ideally, you should be studying a little bit each day/every other day/something similar. When it comes time for a test, your goal should be to just be able to take it as if it were in English. Language is one subject where if you’ve been keeping up with your learning, you can probably (theoretically – don’t hurt me) just wing the test.

How might you do this? Well, practice, tutors, and actually doing your homework are some pretty time-tested ideas. Yet another would be Anki, as I’m sure you’ve got plenty of vocabulary on your plate. In fact, please use Anki or something similar. (Note – don’t do what I did the other day and completely forget to put in the new vocabulary. It doesn’t help at all on the quiz.)

Oh, and if you need some extra motivation to remember this stuff long-term, you should be aware that to a degree, language classes are, by their very nature, cumulative. Maybe you’re not tested on old material specifically, but you’ll need it to understand anything moving forward. Unless for some reason you’re not expected to actually learn the language, in which case I am sorry for you and your classmates.

3. Start your accent early.

This one’s my favorite, because it has the most constantly apparent results. Let’s start off with a story.

Once upon a time, I was planning on taking French in the fall. To prepare for and embrace this challenge, I spent the summer before class practicing my French accent.

As you may recall from my post on the 6 essential skills for language-learning, I believe that pronunciation is a skill completely separate from actually knowing the words in a language. It’s all about the physical aspect of speaking, and making sure your mouth, tongue, and throat can cooperate to make a new sound.

So anyways, back to the story.

I spent the summer repeating little phrases with sounds I didn’t know how to make, like the French ‘r’. A few of my favorite words were ‘très’, ‘zéro’, and ‘compréhensif’. This was hard, and I probably sounded like an idiot if anyone heard me muttering French to myself while on a walk or in the shower.

When I got to my first French class though, it was all worth it.

One of the worst fears of new language-learners is sounding stupid – sometimes through grammatical errors, but especially through having a bad accent.

This is bad news. This fear can keep one from speaking up in class, asking questions, and feeling confident enough in the language to make mistakes and bounce back. Confidence when speaking is absolutely essential, and having a good accent is one sure-fire way to make you feel proud of your language skills.

I didn’t say perfect accent, either. Mine wasn’t perfect, and still isn’t. Just good enough so that I feel good about myself when using what I’ve learned. Whatever you need to feel confident is where you need to get – once you get the pronunciation down, you can focus twice as much on just learning the language.

So there you have it. Stop speaking English. Stop cramming for tests. Practice pronunciation and build your confidence early. Learn – just remember that learning isn’t limited to the classroom.

I’m sure I’m not the only one with something to say – got any other tips you’ve used to master your language class? Let us know in the comments!

photo source: classroom
  • http://collegeinfogeek.com/ Thomas Frank

    “Your learning isn’t confined to a syllabus.”

    Best quote from the whole article. That’s pretty obvious when we’re talking about out-of-class learning, but it totally applies to in-class learning as well. If you truly care about the class, you’ll want to wring a lot more worth out of it than what’s laid out on a sheet of paper.

  • Joey

    I have Anki on my computer, but honestly I tend to not use it very much because I just don’t have enough time when I actually am home.
    So I use a free flashcard srs app for iPhone, and I do most of my studying on the bus/subway/walking. I actually end up looking at my flashcards about 2 or 3 times per day this way, instead of playing Angry Birds or Plants vs Zombies haha

    • http://martinboeh.me/ Martin Boehme

      I probably wouldn’t use Anki nearly as much if I didn’t have it on my phone either, but that’s pretty great that you’ve found an alternative for cheaper on iOS! Does it have any sort of synchronization with web, or is it just phone-based?

      • Joey

        Yea it connects to quizlet and dropbox. The app is called “Flashcards”

        • http://martinboeh.me/ Martin Boehme

          I’ll have to check it out. Thanks for the heads up!

  • Tombo

    Hey Martin, I just wanted to see that I am a huge fan of your website and I enjoy using it. I was just wondering if you have heard of an app called MosaLingua. It is similar to Anki but it is cheaper and it comes preloaded with all the relevant language flashcards. The only thing is it solely translates text to text, rather than text to picture. I was just wondering if Anki is better or if I could carry on with MosaLingua, it does use SRS.

    • http://martinboeh.me/ Martin Boehme

      Hey Tombo, I’m glad you like the site!

      I actually hadn’t heard of MosaLingua until you mentioned it just now. It sounds great!

      My biggest reason for using Anki is custom decks, so I can use the OVA method (http://powlyglot.com/how-to-boost-your-vocabulary-with-ova/) to learn words specific to my life. If MosaLingua is working for you and it has all the words you think are important right now, then I don’t see any reason you’d need to make the switch to Anki, since the SRS functionality is in both.

      I’ll make sure to check out MosaLingua myself soon. Thanks for the heads up!