Learning a new language can feel overwhelming – especially when it is online! If you’re wondering how to successfully pass a language course online, here are some tips:
Be familiar with the basic parts of speech in your native tongue.
Whether or not English is your native tongue, you need to know the parts of speech in your first language. Although new languages have foreign words for familiar objects, it is almost never possible to substitute foreign words into an English sentence. This is because other languages will use the words differently in relation to each other.
Greek, for instance, frequently patterns its sentences in a way that sounds almost like Yoda from Star Wars – the verb may be the first word in the sentence. Rather than saying, “The dog runs,” the sentence may be, “Runs the dog.” This can be confusing to first-time students!
If word order starts tripping you up, the single best thing you can do is review the parts of speech: noun (specifically pay attention to subjects and objects!), pronoun, verb, adjective, adverb, preposition, conjunction, and interjection. Every language has some sort of clue that will tell you which part of speech a word is.
In English, word order gives us almost all of those clues, but many other languages use other clues to help you figure out which part of speech you are looking at – perhaps a standard letter combination tacked onto the end of a word, or certain vowels inserted into the word itself.
Respect the differences.
If you have ever seen the movie Arrival with Amy Adams, you know that the language we speak trains our minds to see the world in particular ways. That is, different languages organize the world according to completely different patterns.
For instance, various tribal languages in Africa divide the color wheel in different places than English does. In such languages, red and purple (two separate colors in English) may be considered different shades of the same color. These languages have organized the color spectrum differently than English. So those who speak such languages may see the world in a fundamentally different way than an English speaker does. When native speakers of these languages are asked to identify shades of red and purple, they cannot tell them apart. Their language has wired their brains to organize the world one way.
Other languages lack English concepts of “left” and “right.” Instead, speakers refer to every direction as north, south, east, or west – even when indoors. People who grew up speaking this way cannot identify their right or left hand because their brains are hardwired to re-label their hands whenever they turn their bodies to face a different direction!
Similarly, the languages of those living in the northernmost regions of the world are said to have dozens of words for snow. English has a handful such as sleet and slush, but other languages have trained their speakers’ minds to articulate exactly which kind of snow it is. The brains of English speakers are not organized this way, so, when presented with different types of precipitation, they cannot tell the difference.
In order to do well in a language course, recognize that your native tongue may have a different organizational pattern than the language which you seek to learn. Respecting your new language’s categories will immensely improve your performance in an online language course.
Study vocabulary or do homework for the course at least 5 days a week.
That’s right. Five days a week. No less. Unlike some other subjects, languages cannot be crammed into one diligent hour-long study session each week. Because languages actually wire our brain’s interpretation of the world, students who wish to succeed in an online language course must pace out their homework to last most of the week. That way, the brain has lots of practice re-mapping its deeply ingrained categories.
Remember, every single time you speak, your brain reverts to using your native tongue’s organization of the world. Therefore, learning a new language is always going to be like swimming upstream. You have to fight against your brain’s natural organizational pattern, because that is the system that it uses every time you open your mouth! Your brain needs plenty of time each week to re-categorize the world. It has been hardwired one way your entire life, and it needs lots of practice to rewire itself to the categories of a new language.
Learning a new language allows you to communicate with entire people-groups who were previously inaccessible! For this reason, it can be one of the most rewarding experiences in an academic career. Don’t waste it!
Macy Johnson teaches several courses with TEL, including Introduction to Christianity and Stories of the New Testament. She has a Bachelor’s of Arts in Biblical Studies from York College and a Master’s of Divinity from Harding School of Theology.