7 Tips for Learning a Foreign Language

There are many different programs out there to learn a language on your own like Rosetta Stone, Pimsleur, Fluenz, Transparent, Living Language, Mango and others. These can be quite effective for some people – just not for me.

I have develop alternative ways to learn a language that I find more dynamic. First of all, I believe that to learn any skill the first step is to value the skill by finding relevancy for it in your life. The next step is owning your learning processing taking it into your own motivated and creative hands.

In this article, I’ll share with you the creative methods that served me well in becoming fluent in 3 languages – Spanish, French and Italian

You need to know that just going to classes and doing your homework is not enough to get you conversational in the real world. The key is finding fun ways to engage with the language and making it a necessity for you to use it. And if you implement the following tips, you will find you’ll pick up a new language faster and with less actual work.

1. The Basics

At first, however, you’ll have to take some time to learn the absolute basics. Take it upon yourself to memorize the common words and phrases from “hello”, “my name is”, “nice to meet you”, “thank you”, “you are welcome”, “goodbye”, “excuse me” and “I only speak a little x-language.”  Learning these and other basic phrases will get you excited to learn more.

Start practicing your newfound phrases as much as possible. Be that annoying guy/girl at the office who says, Gutten Morgan (good morning in German) when you get to work. Or do whatever you can to insert these phrases into your daily life. The point is to just start using what you learn.

Also, it is important, when you are starting out, to get an overview of the language because every language has a blue print that it follows. So learn the structure of sentences by getting acquainted with the subject, verb, and adjective order. Learn the sounds of the alphabet. Find out if it is a tonal language. Know the way the language shows tense and deals with conjugation. And have a loose understanding of the way it uses masculine/feminine and singular/plural. You don’t have to memorize this information but it helps to familiarize yourself with it so you know what you are working toward.

2. The Relevant

Once you learn the absolute basics, focus on arbitrarily memorizing how to say things that are relevant to your life. Like if I were learning Italian, I’d memorize: “Sono una giornalista di viaggio.” That means, “I am a travel journalist.” And I’d know how to say, “habito a New York,” meaning I live in New York.

So, be able to say what you do for a living, where you live, if you are married and/or have siblings or kids, and what your hobbies are. These phrases are more likely to stick in your head because they mean something personal to you.

Once you have those preliminary phrases down, continue to build your vocabulary around subjects you find interesting and would naturally want to talk about or naturally need to talk about. Don’t get caught up on lots of grammar until you build a foundation in vocabulary about things you care about. Once you do that, then you’ll want to focus on refining your grammar.

3. The Obvious

My next tip is an obvious one, but it is also the most important. And that is, create frequent opportunities to interact with native speakers of the language you want to learn. Whether you can take an extended trip to another country, find people in your community to exchange with or even find a Skype buddy – make it happen because there is no replacement. This is what will take your language learning to the next level.

Of course, traveling is the best environment to learn a new language, as you’ll be forced to use it for survival.  If you choose travel, be sure to do steps 1 and 2 before you go. And if possible, take a language class while you are traveling.  Also, remember to find ways to interact with native speakers without fellow Americans present, so you are really forced to sink or swim. It’s the only way to go. Also, taking a trip to work on the ground with volunteer organizations can help you get in with a local community and up your chances to have meaningful interactions.

As for non-traveling language learners, look online for language exchange opportunities by searching any combination of the following terms “language exchange,” “Skype,” and “meet-up group”.  And put your city name in the search for organizations near you. You should most likely find someone to barter with where you spend some of your time interacting in the language you want to learn and some in English. Both experiences will help you learn your desired language.

And remember, acquiring a new language is a wonderful thing – don’t be ashamed of your beginner status. The more you let yourself freely gab, the sooner it will be natural. So, in your exchanges with other language learners, cultivate a supportive environment where you feel comfortable. And even if you are speaking with native speakers who are not learning, they will appreciate your interest in their culture. So, do not worry about sounding like a novice. You will find, most often, they will want to help you.

4. Music

Use songs in your desired language as learning tools. Start with one song you love. Go online and find the lyrics to that song. Then translate it line by line. Maybe start with an easy one with few words. And you can always use google translation or other online translation services to help you.

Once you know what the song is saying, learn it word for word. Listen to the song every day. Sing along or better, sing it on your own. And every phrase in the song will soon be part of your vocabulary.

Listening and memorizing songs is not the only way you can use music to help you learn a language. Try writing your own simple song in the language you are learning. I remember when I was studying Spanish, I made up a silly song to remember words and grammar for a test.

It started off “Yo quiero ir a la playa con me perro. Pero you no tengo un coche. Pero si tenia un coche….”

That is, “I want to go to the beach with my dog. But I can’t because I don’t have a car. But if I had a car…”  I know that sounds super, super nerdy. But it stuck, and that’s the point, isn’t it?

5. Slang

Learn slang. Try to get a grasp for what scenarios these slang words or phrases are used in, where they came from and what type of people generally use them. To learn slang, you’ll hopefully do that by interacting with a live human being. Plus, you will most likely remember it easier than an average word because its exciting insider information. And lets face it, slang is practical.

6. Friendships

Be open to and allow yourself to invest in relationships with people who speak the language you want to learn. The experience will help you in many ways. For one, you’ll make new friends. And that is always a plus. Two, you will learn about the culture through your friendship with this person/these people – making the language that much more appealing to you. Three, languages are like living breathing things– they need to be nourished and exercised to be kept alive. And if you keep your foreign-language-friendships strong, you will likely continue to improve your language with them. So don’t be shy!

7. Recommended Refresher Resources

If you are looking to just brush up on a language for which you already have a foundation, I like the Michel Thomas Method (no relation). You can download it on iTunes – and it helps you revive a language in a way that other programs don’t. For example, he doesn’t start the first lesson with “hello” but rather he starts with the word “Possible.”

There are a gazillion free podcasts out there that you can download and listen to. I recently started using DailyFrenchPod to brush up on my French – because it is like listening to my French friends speak.

Also for people looking to continue learning or brush up on their Spanish, there is an educational show I’d recommend. It is a telenovela or soup opera produced by WGBH Boston in ’92, called Destinos.  To be honest, it is a little old school but the narrative helps you stay engaged while it teaches you Spanish.  You can get it here.

Another great source is the BBC.  They are getting creative in finding new ways to help people learn languages. They have an interactive series called Mi Vida Loca for learning Spanish that is great. They have a similar one called, Ma France, for French. These require a bit of background in the languages.

Also from the BBC you can find language resources of all kinds for Mandarin, Greek, Portuguese, Italian, German and many others. Go to their language site and pick your desired language.

Overall, remember to be persistent and have patience with yourself. Learning a new language is no small feat, despite what all those advertisements for language programs tell you. But the fruits of exploring the world from a new language perspective will reward you ten fold. So do stick with it and challenge yourself to achieve your goals.

  • Adam Siddons

    Another helpful strategy is to label items around your house with post it notes in the foreign language you are trying to learn.

    • travelwkate

      Nice! I like that one. That’s what I mean about being creative and taking things into your own hands. How about writing your market list in the language and forcing yourself to figure it out once you are there!

  • Great tips and I love Adam’s idea. I bought a book called “Portuguese in 10 Minutes a Day” and it includes stickers.
    I also spent a week in Brazil April 2011 to immerse myself in the language. After 12 days of no English, it was amazing! You have to immerse yourself and surround yourself with the language.
    I also listen to Brazilian music at work.
    Love your post!

  • This was a great way to start off your blog. I came from Chris G. blog. You inspired me to try again learning Spanish at the young age of 74.

  • pika

    Your post couldn’t have come at a better time! I’m going to learn Chamorru! Even though it’s my island’s language, I never learned it, and only know certain phrases. My daughter goes to a school where they teach Chamorru, so she now knows more than I do. I’m going to apply your tips Kate! Thank you for this!!!

    • travelwkate

      That is wonderful! You are so welcome. You will be surprised how much you already know once you get started.

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