What are your tips for learning a new language?
I regularly get asked this question, because picking up foreign languages is one of my very few talents. I always say it’s connected to our musical ear. You know how it works. Some can teach themselves to play the piano by ear; some are natural born singers; others are able to easily learn a new language and use their musical ear this way. I also use it to make imitations and come up with cartoon character voices of my own, but this is a different story!
Anyways, that’s me and – come to think of it, this skill actually comes rather handy with my job as I am often on the road and need to communicate to people who do not speak Italian or English.
Mind you though. It’s not like I travel to a new place, listen to locals talk among each other and automatically master the language. Even I have to study, practice and all the rest. The main difference is that I may be more prone to learning than others – and even then, please observe that I wrote that in Italic!
My language learning experience goes a long way back. Other than Italian, my first language, I speak Sardinian (one of Italy’s minority languages) thanks to my mom and her family; English; Spanish; some French; enough German to get by; a few words of modern Greek (I can read it, so that helps!) and I am trying to learn Hebrew. That’s a tough one though, let me tell you!
As you can see, I have lots of experience and that’s why I think I can tell you what really works and decided to put together a post with my top tips for learning a new language. Because now is a really good time to do this!
Stuck at home? Make sure to read my posts “19 Productive Things To Do At Home When You Can’t Travel” and “Virtual Traveling: 13 Ways To Travel Without Traveling.”
20 Useful Tips For Learning A New Language
Define your objective
Defining your objective is key. This is one of my top tips for learning a new language. So ask yourself why you want to learn a new language. Because really, anything becomes easier when we find a purpose in it. For example, you may want to learn a new language because you want to expand your business to attract customers from a specific country. Or you may want to impress the guy you are having a relationship with (or his family).
If you need to learn a language because you are traveling somewhere or want to impress your beau, you may want to focus on learning a few key phrases that will help you with him or during the trip – for example asking directions; ordering at a restaurant; whispering romantic things etc. That’s definitely more urgent than learning perfect grammar, which on the other hand is needed if you need to use the language for business purposes (and especially if you have to write it).
Pick a language you are passionate about
Human beings are interesting creatures. Tell them to do something, and chances are they will try to find any possible excuse not to. Invite them to follow their passion, and they will put their mind, body and soul in it and chances are they will succeed.
This is to say: it’s definitely easier to learn a language you are passionate about. So, one of my most important tips for learning a new language is to follow your passions.
For example, I have a real obsession for the landscapes of South America and love reading South American writers such as Mario Vargas Llosa (Peruvian Nobel Prize winner for literature) among many others, so it made sense to me to learn Spanish, and I hardly felt I was making an effort in the process.
Are you passionate about Russian literature? Learn Russian! Do you want to read German philosophers? That’s your language!
Remember that language is a vehicle of culture
There is a wealth of literature that shows how language and communication help perpetuate and understand a culture, and that proves how, once a language disappears, a culture is destined to disappear too. What I mean to say is that, if you learn a foreign language, you are already a step ahead in appreciating a country or people’s culture, which will make your experience of visiting a place whole lot better. If this is not a good incentive, I don’t know what is!
Attend a course
You didn’t think I was going to say this, right? I didn’t want to put this first so not to put you off but… ladies and gentleman, the very best of all tips for learning a new language is to actually attend a course. Yep, you read that right. Even the most capable of us in learning languages have to do sit down, take classes, do homework and conversation.
In general language courses can be classified into two main categories. Each of them has its advantages (and disadvantages). The kind of course you pick is really up to you.
One of the best tips for learning a new language is to enroll in an online course. There is a wealth of courses you can take out there which allow you to learn from the comfort of your home. In fact, you can do it from anywhere, as long as you have an internet connection. It’s super convenient, really.
Depending on your needs, you can sign up for a course that is more or less intense and count on a variety of ways to learn. Some courses even let you practice conversation via Skype and find you tutors to help your studies. All you have to do is look for the one that you think is most suitable to your needs and budget.
I am a huge fan of the old way so among my secret tips for learning a new language I have to include taking a language course in person. You see, I am a bit of a geek at heart so I love the act of actually walking into a classroom, seeing the same faces, sitting down, talking to the teacher, participating in group projects etc. I think I learned Spanish so swiftly thanks to a combination of a great teacher that was able to keep the class interested and motivated, and a fun group that I was looking forward to see each time.
You can find a good language school in pretty much any city, so it is just a matter of browsing the internet and see what’s available.
Fair enough, you can’t exactly do this now – but when the time to travel comes again, go for it. It’s one of my best tips for learning a new language. My Spanish was decent, but when I started roaming Central and South America and I was immersed in the language, I improved a lot – especially since most people in the remote villages of the Andes don’t speak a word of English.
Go on a date
Ok so this is only applicable to those of you who are still single. But one of the coolest ways of practicing a foreign language is going on a date with someone who is a native and who doesn’t speak your language. If you like each other and keep dating, you will be learning the language really quickly. And if you have an argument, you can just assume you got lost in translation!
Learn common use words
One of my tips for learning a new language is to learn words that you are likely to use on an every day basis and learn them, make sentences with them, study just enough grammar to construct proper sentences and practice them. Sentences that start with “where is…;” “can I have…” or “how do I…” are likely to come in handy on an every day basis. Add a few other words of common use, the typical please, thank you, good morning, hello and goodbye and you will already have enough for a basic everyday conversation.
Do a bit every day
One of my favorite tips for learning a new language is to study a bit every day. It really is a matter of 15 to 30 minutes – do your homework, listen to a podcast, do some reading. It’s way better to do it this way than to spend a bunch of hours all on the same day – I did that mistake once, with a language I was trying to learn. It didn’t work – and I didn’t learn.
Keep at it
Be stubborn! There is always a learning curve, with all languages. The first few weeks will be fun and easy, but as you move along the learning process, grammar will become harder, words more complicated and you may feel overwhelmed. The minute things start looking complicated, is when you’ll know you will be improving a lot and going from very basic skills to intermediate or even advanced.
The key is to keep at it. Once you pass that seemingly insurmountable peak, it will once again become easy and fun. Just take my word for it.
If you feel like you are stuck in your learning curve, you need to set yourself a challenge. Most of us study a language up to a level where we can get by, perhaps understand close to 100% but speak poorly (that would be me in French, by the way). If you want to move forward, you have to set yourself a real challenge or commit to do something to improve.
For example, you could sign up for a big exam you will have to study for, if you want to pass – and remember, if you don’t pass the exam, you don’t get the certificate and the qualification that comes with it. If this isn’t a great incentive, I don’t know what is!
Netflix is your friend
One of my secret tips for learning a language is to watch a TV series or a show in the original language and with subtitles, also in the language. That’s why Netflix (but not only that) is your friend. You can watch a series, rewind, listen to a sentence over and over again matching the words you hear as they are pronounced to how they are written on the screen. I promise you it works.
So are books
One of my favorite old school tips for learning a new language is to read books in the language they were written. I do this all the time to improve my Spanish and it works wonders. By reading a novel in its original language you learn new words by putting them in context; you improve your grammar by reading sentences the way they are meant to be construed and you appreciate the various nuances.
Love reading? Make sure to check out my post “27 Great Books For Travelers.”
True story: my ex boyfriend learned English exclusively because he wanted to be able to sing and understand Pink Floyd songs.
Granted, many songs out there are in English or Spanish. But it’s worth scouting for artists that sing in the language you want to learn. Don’t know where to start? Google is your friend. Just key in “best songs in ” and a selection will pop up. The more you search the more you find.
Let me give you a hand and suggest a few Italian artists that aren’t obnoxious (I refuse to even name them for fear their voice comes to my mind!): Mina is the best Italian singer of the 20th century; Gianna Nannini is a powerful mix of rock and drama; Nina Zilli one of the best voices of Italy; for something really classy and old school download Francesco De Gregori and Fabrizio de André – both have the best lyrics; Vinicio Capossela is irreverent and political – you will love him; Cesare Cremonini writes songs that are poem like.
Listen to podcasts
Another great resource to learn a language is podcasts. You don’t even have to listen to any language learning podcast in particular. Just select by language, pick a topic you are interested in, and start listening. If you are scouting for something in Spanish, I can recommend Radio Ambulante. It’s a podcast about mysteries across Latin America, with intriguing stories that you will have fun to follow.
Don’t try to translate
This is the biggest mistake you can do when learning a language, yet so tempting. You think of a sentence in your own language, try to translate it word for word in the language you are studying, and whatever you say makes little to no sense – especially if the languages are not even remotely similar.
Obviously if you are a very beginner and know only a few words in the language you are studying, it will be hard to form sentences directly in said language. But still, try. The more you try, the easier it becomes.
It’s all about the slang
One of my top tips for learning a new language is to learn some of its most colloquial expression and slang. If you can master a bit of slang, you can consider yourself fluent. However, this can be a bit tricky with languages that are spoken in different countries such as Spanish, because – say – Cuban slang is by no means similar to Argentine slang (which is actually more similar to Italian), or Mexican slang. There are plenty of resources online to learn slang. You may want to check out Fluentu.
Laugh at your mistakes
Years and years ago (more than I care to remember), when I was still learning English, I was dating a guy from South Africa. I once told him I was fattening. I obviously meant to say that I was putting on weight, but he found it really amusing. We had to laugh at it.
Want to hear another one? My mom ordered a stick with fries at a pub in Dublin. She was so eager to order herself, since she was taking English classes. The waiter looked at her with a puzzled look so I had to tell her – and we laughed so much.
So, make a good not of this: laugh at your mistakes. This is one of the most important tips for learning a new language, because you will be making loads, you will be saying things that make no sense at all, and in some cases the things you are saying that make sense in a place, don’t make sense in another – for example, coche is car in Spain Spanish, but it means pig in Guatemalan Spanish. So if you say “coger el coche” it doesn’t really have the same meaning (ahemmmm!).
Use your smartphone
Technology always comes in handy when it comes to learning a language. Use your smartphone as a tool to learn. Download pocket dictionary apps and language learning apps. Duolingo is a good language learning app. Memrise is perfect for vocabulary. And if you are stuck for a word, Mr Google will help: either use the translate tool or write the word you are looking for in your language and then click on images until something relevant comes up. Show it to the person you are talking to and learn a new word that way.
Remember that different cultures communicate differently
You all know I am Italian – if there is something we are good at here is communicating in non-verbal ways. Call it body language, gestures, facial expressions: we got it. But different cultures and different people aren’t as good at it. Fail to pronounce a word with a perfect accent and the person you are talking to will not understand you – and in some cases they will actually pretend that they don’t (though you can never really tell).
Don’t let this put you off! Verbal communication consists in talking and in listening, so if someone doesn’t understand you it’s as much your fault as theirs. And just as well, if someone talks to you in a foreign language and you can’t understand them, perhaps it is their fault for not being able to talk in a more understandable way?
Practice anywhere you can
Last but definitely not least in my list of tips for learning a foreign language, I recommend practicing at each and every occasion you can find.
I never miss an opportunity to speak Spanish. If I realize that a person I am talking to is a native Spanish speaker, I immediately switch to Spanish, ask where they are from, and take it from there. Do the same – and you may even end up making new friends.
You can find language conversation groups in each university city – there will be exchange students that will attend those groups so that is your chance to practice even when you can’t travel.
Do you have any more tips for learning a new language that you want to add to this list?
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