How to Learn a Foreign Language Faster

foreign language study

As English speakers, we’re fortunate that our language is one of the most widely spoken in the world, meaning that when we travel, there’s a good chance we’ll be able to communicate in our native tongue. But there are so many positives to learning a foreign language – such as it not only helps you experience a culture more intimately, but also keeps your brain healthy – that it’s a shame not to at least try.

My first attempt at learning a foreign language was while studying abroad Barcelona. Though I came home from my year in Spain with a tolerable level of Spanish, I realized afterwards that there’s a certain knack to learning a language. So when it came time to learn French while living in Paris a few years later, I approached the process a little differently.

Here’s what I discovered about learning a language more quickly:

foreign street

Image via Esther Baseme

Put yourself in situations that make you feel uncomfortable.

Research has shown that we usually learn languages faster when our survival depends on it, meaning that if we have no other choice than to speak the language, our brains will strive harder to understand it.

Though my Spanish skills weren’t great when I arrived in Barcelona, they were enough to get me a job at a local bar in the city’s Gothic Quarter. Anyone who has worked as a server in a busy bar or restaurant likely knows what a stressful environment that can be. And imagine trying to do it while only understanding half of what is said to you (and deciphering the rest over loud music and lively chatter). It’s safe to say that I really wanted to quit after my first few shifts because I felt like I’d never be able to understand anyone. But each day, things became clearer as my brain seemed to kick into survival mode and I began to learn out of necessity. Soon enough I could understand almost everything that was said to me and I also picked up some quirky local expressions.

Learn to laugh at yourself.

As someone with perfectionist tendencies, at first I was too shy to speak Spanish unless I was absolutely sure that everything I said was completely correct. But as with most things in life, unless you’re willing to make mistakes, you’re never going to grow. The moment I learned to get over the fear of being being incorrect was when my foreign language skills really began to improve – but not without a few stumbles. After several months working at the bar in Barcelona, I began to notice that whenever I asked one of my coworkers for a dishcloth to wipe down the tables, they would almost always stifle a giggle. I soon worked out that instead of using the correct word for dishcloth, bayeta, I had instead been asking them to pass me the ballena – the whale.

But as with most things in life, unless you’re willing to make mistakes, you’re never going to grow.

Learning to laugh at myself in situations like these helped me overcome my fear of making mistakes, and gave me a head start when I began learning French. It’s very rare that someone will make fun of you for trying (after all, would you ever do that to a non-native English speaker?), and it’s more likely that they’ll appreciate the effort. And if you make it clear to your friends that you welcome feedback and corrections, you’ll be able to improve even more quickly.

studying girl

Image via Esther Baseme

Stay disciplined.

When you’re tired, overwhelmed, or stressed, trying to speak a foreign language can feel like your brain is filled with sand. But one of the biggest mistakes I made while living in Spain was speaking English whenever it was an option. While most of my friends spoke Spanish very well, I often took the easy way out and spoke English with them. Admittedly it made things easier for me at the time, but I was really just cheating myself out of hundreds of opportunities to practice my conversation skills.

When I moved to France, I promised myself that I would speak French wherever possible, even when it was clear that a person was willing to speak English. The key is to at least try – you can always revert to English if you find that you really can’t get across what you need to say in a foreign language, but the only way you’ll learn is by practicing.

Expose yourself to the language in all its forms.

You don’t always need to be in a foreign country in order to learn a language – it can also be a fun hobby to take up at home by signing up for classes or even dedicating ten minutes a day to an app like Duolingo. Whether you’re learning it out of curiosity or necessity, the important thing is to find ways to make the process seem more interesting.

Since there are varying skills involved with mastering a language – speaking, listening, reading, writing – find ways to practice all of them. To enhance your reading skills, for example, try to get your hands on a magazine in that language that also fits in with your other interests, like a copy of Italian Vogue or French Architectural Digest (you can often find these online).

building

Image via Esther Baseme

Another trick is to try to read your favorite book in that language. Since you’re already familiar with the plot, it will be a lot easier than trying to grasp it from scratch. You can also watch foreign movies (a good way to test to see if you understand without reading the subtitles is to look the characters in the eye), join a conversation meet up in your city, listen to podcasts, or even offer to do a “language exchange” with a native speaker of the language you are learning who is trying to improve their English.

Are you learning a foreign language? What are some of your tips for learning it more quickly?

Feature Image via Chloe Rey

Mikki is a writer, editor and photographer with a penchant for wandering the globe, and strives to always have visited as many countries as years she’s lived. Her work has been published in AFAR, Details, Icon, Luxe Interiors + Design, Metropolis, Wildsam Field Guides and many others.

20 COMMENTS
  • Natalie Ann Redman April 24, 2017

    Great post! Always wanted to learn a new language.

  • Anonymous April 2, 2017

    I found a language partner through a Multicultural Learning Center. They have a sewing studio there. So, I found someone who is willing to let me teach her how to sew, but I am using her language. I prepare by watching you tube (how to sew in my target language). It has been really fun, because she is very patient. I feel very lucky to have this situation.

  • Emily Danielisz April 2, 2017

    Love this post. Very helpful tips. I’ve been wanting to learn a second language for as long as I can remember. I learned basic Korean a few years back but unfortunately have lost it a bit over the years. Hoping to pick it up again this year. Would also love to learn French and Hungarian.

  • Brenda Sue April 1, 2017

    Since I was a child, I longed to learn another language. I always assumed that language would be French. Nope! I came to high school with a heart full of hope and was offered my choice of Spanish or German. Spanish made more sense as I wanted to have opportunities to speak the language, and living in the United States the second language IS Spanish, so there ya go! How delightful to see, for the first time, the quirky little words with the upside-down question marks on the printed page! I thought….hmmm! This is my future! THIS will be, and IS my second language.

    I had four years in high school. At the end of those four years….my mastery was primarily in being able to read and quickly understand those quirky little words on the printed page. I was also able to communicate well in writing. The rest–being completely conversational, making sense of the spoken language as it is spoken so many different ways in a variety of accents–cost me many years’ more effort.

    The journey began when I was 16. Reverse the numbers and you have my age NOW. It’s been an amazing lifetime journey! I explored so many different cultures that compose the Latin world; I learned so many beautiful ways to express myself inside those diverse cultures. There are such lovely things that you can say directly to someone in Spanish that you might never say in English! As they say: “Spanish is a loving tongue.”

    When I meet Spanish-speaking people, I never hesitate to launch immediately into their language. It took a long time to be able to do that and not feel apprehensive. But as mentioned, it’s vital to go right ahead and put yourself into uncomfortable positions and just DO it. Yes, you’ll look foolish here and there. Guess what? You always will. Accept that you are not a natural speaker if you have no Latin blood in your veins, and so…it’s OKAY. Why SHOULD you speak it flawlessly? It may well become part of your heart and soul, but it will never be your roots. That’s just the way it is.

    Where I live in Ohio, there is a melting pot of Spanish culture. Puerto Rican, Mexican, Cuban, Dominican and some South American countries are all represented here. Mexican Spanish comes most naturally to me; Chilean Spanish is like jumping onto a fast-moving freight train. Hold on tight until you catch up with the rhythm of the language. Keep your ears open and focused…. and you will be fine!

    When those who speak Spanish from birth, born in a Spanish-speaking country, meet me, they always seem a bit confounded. Looking at me, they known I have no Spanish blood and that’s true; my forebears a few generations back were actually Amish and spoke Pennsylvania Dutch and German! But my new friends learn right away, here is a woman who loves our people. This shows in my freeness of speech and the expressions I use, which come from EVERYWHERE. Many will say….where DO you come from? This is my speech is peppered with so many different -isms of so many cultures along with hints of Mexican, Cuban and Puerto Rican beats reflective of the way people in those countries speak the language. On top of that, because I began young, it is hard to detect an American accent when I speak Spanish. So I guess it kinda throws them!

    I often say my Spanish accent will be most affected by whomever I was speaking with last, or whatever program I was last watching on television. I watched the continuing drama on the life of Celia Cruz all the way through twice, because I loved it! But for some time thereafter, I had a rather strong Cuban accent!

    Anyway, go ahead and learn another language, whatever it is, and devote yourself to it until you are fluent. Promise yourself to become bi-lingual AT LEAST. Although I can read through and pronounce Portuguese fairly well, I’m not there yet, same with Italian and French. I only go so far with those beautiful languages, as I will not use them. I do not travel outside of the US and there are few people hereabouts that speak those languages. How glad I am that there is someone speaks Spanish at nearly every corner!

    I speak Spanish with pride as a gringa, and I hope I always will be learning something new, growing and expanding my knowledge with joy! I wish the same for all of you reading the blog post….go for it!

  • Sara Graham March 31, 2017

    I am about to go into 5 hours/day Italian language training so I am keeping your tips top of mind. Grazie!

  • Kylie March 27, 2017

    Growing up in Spanish class, I knew a wide variety of words and could easily form sentences. After a year off though, I lost a lot of my Spanish knowledge. It is amazing how long it takes to become fluent/semi-fluent, and how quickly it can slip away. Consistency is key!

    Kylie Hill | Lifestyle Blog
    https://ladylists.com/

  • Gosia March 20, 2017

    great post! speaking many languages gives such an independence!

  • Becky Griswold March 15, 2017

    I loved this! I agree completely with letting yourself make mistakes and being disciplined. I went to Argentina for a semester study abroad with no Dapanisj background at all. I learned enough to get me around, but I had no social life and my host Mom spoke English, which defeated the point. I then worries in Colombia for a year teaching English and had a host family that spoke no English at all. I was forced to speak and make mistakes. It wasn’t perfect and everyone I came across was patient with me. It really made a difference.

  • Ivan Borodin March 15, 2017

    This article has a captivating title and is fun to read.

    When I was a teenager, like many of us, I struggled with learning the language that was assigned to me in middle and high school. I actually picked my college based on the fact the curriculum would allow me to bypass foreign language.

    After college, I met a beautiful lady from Switzerland. Her whispered invitation to visit her spurred me to learn German. Really learn it. Stakes were high.

    What did it take for this previously-resistant mind to yield?

    A collection of materials, which included grammar books (with drills and answer keys to check them), audio programs with structured lessons, and the willingness to sit and practice daily. My passion for the Swiss seductress was the original motivating factor, until I saw the quite literal connection between hours invested in practice and improved speech and comprehension.

    Our high school experience, an overload of books, can jade us against the basics. Some badly-designed course materials don’t help. But finding the right reasons—and the right grammar books and audio programs—will open doors.

  • Allison March 14, 2017

    Ah! I haven’t taken French in school for about 3 years. I’m going to France this summer for Study Abroad and living with family in Luxembourg for the rest. I’m nervous to go, but I know that my family wants to help me speak French. Love these tips!

  • Lauren March 14, 2017

    I’ve been trying to learn Russian for the past few months and have convinced a Russian speaking friend to only talk to me (or text) in her native language. It’s been really fun and has strengthened our friendship!

  • Gemma March 14, 2017

    A really boring thing to say but it really does come down to practise practise practise! A sprinkling of confidence and just going for it will really help your language develop quicker : )

    Gemma
    http://www.fadedwindmills.com

  • Natalie March 14, 2017

    Love this! I really want to start speaking French again and this has inspired me to kick start actually doing it

    – Natalie
    http://www.workovereasy.com

    • Hanny March 14, 2017

      Bonne Chance Natalie! Love to see you want to speak French again!

  • Move to the country where you can’t speak anything but that language. It always works like a charm… my mother tongue is Chinese, but my Chinese s awful, until I went to a local university and was forced to speak it to have a social life. And now, I am (almost) fluent!

    Charmaine Ng | Architecture & Lifestyle Blog
    http://charmainenyw.com

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