How to learn that language you always wanted to understand

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Language learning tends to be touted as that thing we should all be doing – whether as something to do for fun, something to use on a CV, or just as a tool to be able to speak to more people with. But do us time-stretched Cambridge students ever really have time to learn a language? Why should we, anyway?

For some, language learning goes with school or university. Many of us had to study a language as part of school - I had the good fortune to go to a school which taught Chinese, which led me towards taking a GCSE and an A level. I chose Chinese out of curiosity more than anything, but ended up finding its grammar much more agreeable than the European languages I’d attempted earlier on. I also found the writing system incredibly interesting. It’s complex, but is a totally different way of thinking about writing to Latin script, combining pictograms, ideograms and phonetic markers.

Of course, by learning at school I was ultimately working towards a qualification. These are definitely useful to have, but I feel like learning a language for an exam or a piece of paper sort of misses the point. I left school being able to read and write well. However, my speaking and listening are decidedly average in most situations. I can just about order some dumplings from the stall in the market, but I definitely couldn’t have a proper conversation.

Part of this probably stems from the effects of an entirely classroom-based environment. Living in a provincial town lacking diversity, I had virtually nobody to actually speak Chinese with other than my teacher. As a result, I focused less on speaking than I should have, especially since it wasn’t a necessity to survive. If I’d travelled or immersed myself more in the language, perhaps I’d be able to speak better – or at least more functional - Chinese.

Nowadays, I’m working on learning Dutch, and seeing how it is to learn a language outside a classroom and without a teacher. Dutch might seem like a somewhat rogue choice for a European language, but my half-Dutch boyfriend and undying love of stroopwafels and poffertjes (look them up, you won’t regret it!) has made it somewhat of an obligation to at least try.

From this, I’ve found that self-study definitely requires a very different approach. Motivation can be difficult, and it’s even harder to balance language learning with other academic commitments when I’m not actually working towards an exam date or qualification.

Yet learning by myself has been a surprisingly freeing. I can learn at my own pace, and even if the going is slow, it’s still progress. I’ve learned to see language learning as more than a classroom exercise and find my own ways of studying. Online communities like Reddit or Youtube help me feel less like I’m going it alone and point me in new directions for resources or learning methods if I get stuck in a rut.

In essence, I’m not just learning a new language – I’m learning how to learn.  

This is why learning languages is such a good idea. Yes, you get a useful skill you can put on your CV. Yes, it’s great to be able to speak to more people in more places.  Whatever subject you might be studying, the benefit of this process is that you get to know your ways of learning. That's what makes independent language study so useful.  What could be better to know than how to get foreign vocabulary – and by extension, anything else - into your head?

So for anyone who’s thinking of learning a language – just have a go. You don’t have to be fluent, or be able to read a newspaper, or pass an exam to have succeeded. All you need is to have a good time and learn a few things along the way. We have enough learning-related stress in our lives, so why not let yourself enjoy it for once?

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