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.
It’s not like I travel to a new place, listen to locals and automatically master the language. I do study, practice and all the rest. The main difference is that I may be more prone to learning than others. It comes from being born in a bilingual family. My dad speaks Italian, which is my first language; but my mom speaks Sardinian (one of Italy’s minority languages). Other than that, I speak English; Spanish; some French; enough German and Greek to order a sandwich without butter and a glass of water. Oh and I am trying to learn Hebrew.
So, do you want to know my tips for learning a new language? Read on!
20 Useful Tips For Learning A New Language
Define your objective
In other words, ask yourself why you want to learn a new language. Because really, anything becomes easier when we find purpose in it. You may want to learn a new language because you want to expand your business overseas. Or you may want to impress the guy you are dating.
Pick a language you are passionate about
It’s definitely easier to learn a language you are passionate about. If you want to see the landscapes of South America and enjoy South American writers such as Mario Vargas Llosa (Peruvian Nobel Prize winner for literature), it makes sense to learn Spanish.
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. Sadly, once a language disappears, a culture is destined to disappear too. If you learn a foreign language, you are already a step ahead in appreciating a country or people’s culture.
Attend a course
You didn’t think I was going to say this, right? Indeed, the best way of learning a new language is to actually attend a course. At some point, we all 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.
There is a wealth of courses you can take online 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 learning methods. 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.
The good, old fashioned way is that of 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.
This is 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.
Traveling to Italy? Check out The Most Useful Italian Phrases For Travelers.
Go on a date
Only for the single ladies (and guys)! But one of the coolest ways of practicing a foreign language is going on a date with someone who is a native (best if she or he doesn’t speak your language). The best part is that 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. Add a few other words of common use – thank you, good morning, hello and goodbye – and you will already have enough for a basic everyday conversation.
Do 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-
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 be improving a lot and going from very basic skills to intermediate or even advanced. Once you pass that seemingly insurmountable peak, it will once again become easy and fun.
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. Sign up for a big exam you will have to study for: if you don’t pass the exam, you don’t get the qualification that comes with it!
Netflix is your friend
Watch 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, 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. 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. You then 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 type in “best songs in [language of choice]” 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: Mina is the best Italian singer of the 20th century; Gianna Nannini is a powerful mix of rock and drama; Nina Zilli is 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; 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 keep you listening.
Don’t try to translate
This is the biggest mistake you can do when learning a foreign language, yet so tempting. You think of a sentence, 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. 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 foreign 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, or Mexican slang. There are plenty of resources online to learn slang. You may want to check out Fluentu.
Laugh at your mistakes
You will be making loads of mistakes in the learning process; you will be saying things that make no sense at all but hey, it’s fun to think about it! For example, 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 obviously meant steak. But the puzzled look of the waiter kept us laughing for the rest of the day.
Use your smartphone
Technology always comes in handy when learning a language. Use your smartphone as a tool to learn. Download pocket dictionary apps and language learning apps. Duolingo and Memrise are both great. 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. 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 – or will pretend that they don’t.
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, 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?