9 Things That Surprised Me About Learning A Language For A New Year's Resolution

Whether you're learning French or Punjabi, here are some tips to help you get started in 2022.

Senior Global Editor
9 Things That Surprised Me About Learning A Language For A New Year's Resolution

Mehnu tori-tori Punjabi aandi hai.

I know some Punjabi (but it's not ready for prime time yet).

Still, it's one of the few New Year's resolutions that I've ever followed through on, and probably one of the best things I did with my time in the early days of the pandemic.

I chose to learn Punjabi in early 2020 because the language means a lot to my wife, Kiren. She was born in Edmonton but she has roots in India, and a lot of people speak the language in her family and in the wider Sikh community.

But that's only part of the story. Kiren's grandmother moved to Canada from India, and she taught Kiren how to speak Punjabi while helping to raise her as a girl.

Kiren and I got married in 2018, and her grandmother died a few weeks later. With her grandma gone, it became even more meaningful for Kiren to keep the language in her life — especially since she'd married a white guy from Toronto who didn't speak it.

We talked about it a lot, and I eventually decided to dive in and try to learn Punjabi from scratch in my early 30s.

I won't say I'm a pro now, but I worked at it for over a year, and here's what I learned about starting a new language of any kind.

1. It's hard to learn from someone you know

Kiren is awesome and she was 100% the reason I decided to learn Punjabi. She's also not a trained language teacher and she sometimes gets impatient, especially when she's dealing with a student who can't stop cracking jokes (i.e., me).

Those factors combined to make learning Punjabi from her a bad idea, even though she was a free tutor living in my own house. We could never carve out the time to work on it consistently, and our "lessons" were a struggle because she didn't know where to start. She spoke the language, but she didn't know how to teach it.

After a few starts and stops with her, I discovered that I'd be better off learning from someone outside my own household.

2. Libraries have free language programs

If you've ever dabbled in language courses, you're probably familiar with that Duolingo owl. He'll virtually stalk you until the day you die, reminding you about all the lessons you haven't done. And that's just one of the many paid language programs out there that you can use.

But there's another, more self-guided option for learning a language: your local library.

In Toronto, for example, you can borrow a bunch of audiobooks that will get you started on many different languages, including Punjabi. They're free, and you don't even have to visit a physical branch to borrow them.

3. Consistency is key

Sorry, but it's true. You can't spend a weekend on a language and expect to be good at it. You've got to practice and keep coming back to it. Find a conversation partner, practice on your own or do whatever else you can to keep building your skills over time.

4. Solo learning will only get you so far

I fiddled around with flashcard apps, audiobooks and other language programs for a while, but they're really only good for getting you started on a few basics and simple phrases. They're also a bit limited when learning a language like Punjabi, because it's not as common for a second language as something like French or Italian.

But no matter what language you're learning, the whole point is to eventually know how to speak it, and at some point, that means bringing in another person.

Once I started practicing with someone else, I quickly learned how to use the language on the fly, rather than writing it out thoughtfully on a page. It was also much easier to learn the grammar once I had someone to work with.

5. You can find a language tutor online

If there's one thing on this list that I recommend you try, it's getting a tutor. And don't just take my word for it; I got the idea from Benny Lewis, a polyglot who says he can learn a new language in three months with focused help from a native speaker.

Sites like Preply let you find tutors in your chosen language from around the world, and you can schedule classes at the time and price point that work for you. Many of these tutors have full lesson plans ready to go, so they can walk you through a language and help you with all aspects of it.

I learned more Punjabi in a few months with my tutor than I did in several years of my grade-school French class.

6. A new language can bring you closer to loved ones

I've mentioned what Punjabi means to Kiren, but it also became a way for me to get closer to my in-laws. I understand some of their jokes and puns, and we can even have little exchanges in public where others don't know what we're saying.

I can also catch what they're saying when they speak to Kiren on the phone — something they've teased me about several times now.

"He knows what we're saying now," my father-in-law sometimes jokes. "We need another language to stay ahead of him."

7. Be prepared to show off

Once you've got a grip on speaking some of your new language, you might want to memorize a few fun phrases.

I can't tell you how many times I've been put on the spot and told to "say something in Punjabi," either to native speakers or to someone who knows nothing of the language.

If you've got something fun in your back pocket, you'll be ready when this happens.

8. Find fun ways to get an "ear" for the language

Listening to an unfamiliar language can feel like drinking from a fire hose. It comes at you fast and it takes time to develop an ear for it.

Luckily we live in a connected world where you can easily find ways to listen to your target language so you can get used to hearing it in the real world.

Watching movies in another language is a great way to get an ear for it, especially if you turn off the subtitles and just listen. That way, you'll have visual context to help you put together the meaning.

I also found it helpful to listen to news podcasts in my target language. It's a good way to practice getting the gist of what someone else is saying.

9. Use it or lose it

This is the part where I admit I've been a bad student lately. I fell off my lessons this year because life got in the way, and my Punjabi progress has slipped because of it.

Learning a language is not like riding a bike — if you don't keep up with it, it'll fade from your mind.

I still have a fair amount of what I learned, but it's harder to recall without a bit of practice. My resolution for this new year will definitely be to restart my lessons.

So if you do decide to learn a language in 2022, don't set it aside in 2023. Find ways to keep using it on a regular basis, and you'll make that New Year's resolution last far longer than a calendar year.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Narcity Media.

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