When adults learn a new language they often opt for conventional language classes, i.e. learn the grammar and follow a textbook. If they need to attain a certain level quickly (cfr. A1-C2 of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages or CEFRL), they follow intensive courses where they immerse into the language for 2 or more weeks. This works for some of them, but what I observe with my students is that when they try to use the language with native speakers they don't really feel comfortable to talk. How come that with all they've learned they can't put it into practice?
There are many different approaches to language teaching and learning for adults. The full immersion method is obviously the best way to learn or improve a language. The main reason for this is because immersing into a new language is very similar to how our children acquire languages when they're young. Parents usually keep talking to their children until they start forming first words and sentences.
Personally, I have acquired 2 languages autodidactically this way and I can highly recommend it to those who want to learn a new language or improve their language skills in a natural way, and can invest time and passion into it. One can also combine learning a language in a conventional course and acquiring it at the same time.
Here are my 4 tips on how to start with it:
1) Listen and like...
No matter if you have to learn the language or if you want to do so, trying to become familiar with the sounds of the language and liking some aspects of it will help you to start. Like with everything else in life: if we don't like doing it, it will all feel much harder and sometimes be even impossible to achieve our goal.
By actively listening to locals you'll first understand single words, then increasingly longer sentences, and finally entire conversations.
If you already know a language that sounds similar, the phonetical part will be easier. You'll automatically bridge between the languages you already know and the new one.
...you can either start by learning the rules and then play it, or observe someone else playing the game and copy it, learning the rules by doing.
2) Copy the sounds.
When our children start talking we usually model the language for them. It is difficult for us adults to find someone who models it for us – and who has the same patience parents have with their children! This is why we have to become active and find ways to get regular and repetitive input that we can repeat. You can start with repeating whatever you hear on the radio, on TV, in the street etc. – you don't have to say it out loud if you find it embarassing, but repeating it in your head and trying to articulate the sounds will help you to get a feeling for the language.
After a while you will feel more comfortable articulating the language with others. – I used to copy the phonetics and memorized entire sentences when I acquired Swissgerman and Dutch this way. Every language has its own "music", its very own intonation and getting familiar with it helps to memorize new sentences and new words. Listening to music is a great way to learn new vocabulary! Rhyming words, repetitions in general tend to be memorized easier. – It's no wonder that young children like songs so much and would listen to the same songs over and over again.
3) Read out loud.
Recognizing sounds, soundchains and words will help you understand also the written language – unless the writing system is completely different from what you know (like Chinese if you are used to English). But let's assume that recognizing the characters of the new language is not the problem:
In the beginning it doesn't matter what you read. Simple sentences like in nursery rhymes, childrens' books or short articles in newspapers (maybe choose a light or familiar subject) are good to help develop your narrative skills. Seeing the language in print helps to understand sentence structure. If you're not sure how to pronounce a word, some online dictionaries offer user recordings for the word (like www.dict.cc).
If you happen to want to learn Chinese and have a hard time to recognize the characters, I can recommend ShaoLing Hsueh's Chineasy: it's a very playful way to access this beautiful language!
4) Create a need to talk the language regularly.
Last but surely not least: creating a need to talk is the most important thing to do when learning or acquiring a new language. And it is a myth that only children can acquire a new language! Adults can acquire languages the same way children do.
All they need are people, preferably native speakers, with whom to interact with on a regular basis. – Maybe you have a hobby that you can do while talking the other language; workshops or team-sports tend to be better than the gym where we usually don't speak that much with others. Try to get out as much as you can and visit places where you need to use the language (restaurants, musea, theater, cinema etc.) and talk to locals, neighbours, teachers, collegues, vendors... Adults tend to feel embarrassed if they are not talking the language "well enough". I always advise to take our young pre-school children as role models: tendentially they would just rattle on. Start with short sentences, be prepared to make many mistakes and welcome that someone corrects you (and don't take it personally if they do it without being asked). – You're making a big effort and this is already more than "good enough"!
– À la prochaine! – Alla prossima! – Bis bald! – Tot de volgende keer! – See you soon!