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How do you study for foreign language courses?


In the course of my research, I’ve talked with top scoring students from a variety of majors. A recent reader e-mail, however, alerted me to the fact that upper-level foreign language classes have somehow escaped my scrutiny. Until now…

Share Your Expertise

I’m looking for students who have taken upper-level foreign language classes. I’m interested in learning what study techniques worked for you (and people you know) and what techniques did not.

If you fit this description, please consider shooting me an e-mail or leaving a comment on this post with any advice or experience that comes to mind. I will compile what I learn for an upcoming post on how to most efficiently prepare for these classes.


13 thoughts on “How do you study for foreign language courses?”

  1. The most important thing when studying a foriegn langauge is interactivity. Unlike other subjects, it is not enough to simply sit down and read information; you must read it, listen to it, speak it. Also, I have found that you should interact with the language on as close to a daily basis as possible, for it is much more all inclusive than other fields, i.e. when using a language, you need to draw on all of your studies, not just whatever the most recent topic is. It is totally cumulative, in my opinion. Thus, even if you don’t have class on a certain day, find some music or watch a movie in the language you are studying, just to keep your mind used to actively working with the language.

    The biggest thing is NOT to use online translators! These are such crutches!

  2. While I have not taken an upper level foreign language course as of yet, the single thing that helps me the most is speaking/writing daily in that language even if my sentences are nonsense.

  3. Genius is a great Mac flashcard program for preparing for these courses. I find that repeated use of flashcards is great for vocabulary, and the rest (grammar, speaking, writing) is all about practice through doing it on a daily basis.

  4. While this is a pretty straightforward and basic tip, I find it helps me a lot. When working with new vocabulary or a new sentence structure (or really anything for that matter), I find it best to relate these to things that are in your life. Write sentences or paragraphs using the new [sentence, vocabulary, tense] with real-life ideas, and suddenly these sentences are easy to remember, and will become your mental “blueprint” for using what you’ve learned.

  5. I’ll have to second that. In my upper level spanish classes, english was not spoken at all during class. Doing so resulted in deduction of points (every class session was considered its own “quiz”).

    Another trick I learned for outside of class: singing. If you happen to subscribe to a particular flavor of Christianity, for example, many popular hymns have been translated into most languages. Otherwise, just pick a genre of music you like, and look for artists in the same genre singing in your language of choice. You can usually find lyrics, and translate them. That probably helped me the most. I sang hymns when learning spanish, and when I learned portuguese, I was studying Capoeira, where singing is an essential part.

  6. What works for me:
    * a good flashcard software (FullRecall, Mnemosyne, Pauker, Anki…)
    * learning phrases and sentences, not just isolated words
    * bilingual listening/reading (reading the same book in English and Spanish + listening to the Spanish audiobook)
    * concentrating on vocabulary – this is the hardest part of reaching a proficiency level, you need to learn 15-20.000 words
    * studying every day

    What does not work for me:
    * conversation lessons without any particular aim
    * avoiding your native language at all costs
    * too much concentration on grammar rules and talking about the language instead of using it
    * studying in a group (instead of on your own or one-on-one)

  7. Thank you everyone who has commented so far. Excellent advice. I’ve also been receiving some great tips via e-mail. I’ll combine soon into a more comprehensive post on the topic. Until then, keep sharing anything that comes to mind.

  8. My advise is reading, reading, reading. Try to find some rather easy stuff like blogs that aren’t too challenging but interesting in their content. Buy your books in the foreign language instead of the English pendant. While reading, don’t look up all words, but rather just scribble them down and look them up afterwards and try to learn them by flash cards.
    This does work for an upper-level niveau class for me (at least quite :> )

  9. Most effective for me is using the language with native speakers every day. Of course, in most cases you have to travel to do this… Normal, real-life exchanges (buying food, taking public transport) then motivate and focus you during lessons.

  10. I’m getting a minor in Japanese, and I found that there are usually two parts to learning a language. The first part is understanding the grammar structures, and the second is knowing the vocabulary. A student must grasp both parts and put them together to be fluent in speaking and understanding the language; saying “pencil” in another language won’t get you anywhere, but saying “I have a pencil” or “I need a pencil” will.

    For me, I drill myself with vocabulary, and I make sentences using the structures I’m supposed to know. That way, I can fuse both parts together and get comfortable with the language.

    With Japanese, as with any other Asian language, you have to learn a new syllabaries too. For that part, flashcards work for recognition, and drilling works for recitation. Same approach works with vocab too.

  11. I have studied 7 foreign languages so far, and the tip I always give people is to find texts to read in the foreign language on a topic you love. It could be auto racing, or vegetarian food, or fashion… I personally love to read/write children’s books, so the first books I read in a language are for 2nd-4th grade, depending on my level. There is now so much text on the Internet, just look up a few words in the language related to your hobby/interest and read a bit every day. You might even find magazines or blogs. You will improve your reading comprehension and grammar rules will become embedded as you read (the correct grammar will sound right to your “ear”).

  12. Learning a foreign language is not so easy for everyone. I’ve learned 3 languages so far. The things helped me are to read the certain language based books, to focus on the grammar, to communicate with near ones in the specific language(talk to your own self), to search in the web. Perhaps it is the most effective way of learning a foreign language. In the web one can find many text and videos that would help one to acquire a language perfectly. This is all I can say. But don’t learn something without understanding.


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