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.

21 COMMENTS
  • Henry Stivenson October 8, 2017

    A nice article. Here is what I say to my new students: Few people know about a pragmatic, efficient way to learn a new language. Those who do, advance in learning steadily and according to their schedule. While most people find themselves learning a new language as a necessity, many others do it because it is fun. It feels more sophisticated to know more than one language. It can be highly beneficial in your life over the long run. However, it is not an easy task to learn a new language no matter whether it is for fun or out of necessity. You’ve probably seen friends or acquaintances talk about wanting to learn a foreign language, then enthusiastically purchasing products, books, and maybe even enrolling into a course or program, only to ultimately see the reality of the fact that they have failed in their pursuit of learning another language. According to The Guardian, the ICM survey, which questioned 1,001 young people aged 14-24 from across the UK in June this year, paints a picture of a generation perhaps surprisingly open to the prospect of language learning, but often deeply lacking in the confidence of their ability to put their language studies into practice. Three in ten who chose not to study a language at GCSE or A-level say language learning is challenging, with almost half of all those questioned regarding grammar as difficult to learn and 40% seeing memorizing vocabulary as hard work. The research had indicated that A-level languages are perceived as being harder than other subjects and their content is demotivating. Sitting down with a language textbook and trying to teach yourself a new language is not only boring, it takes an inordinate amount of time. It can take months to capture the basics of a particular language. Fluency comes far later. Often, we don’t have the luxury of spending months learning a language. For example, those people who are migrating or taking up a job abroad.
    However as an individual learner or with a tutor, the student can cut down the time it takes him/her to master the basics of a new language. There are methods that can be used to reduce the time it takes.
    Main Essentials of Learning a New Language – They distinguish three main essentials associated with learning a new language; namely the vocabulary, basic sentence elements / patterns, and grammar rules. Vocabulary – the most basic step towards learning a new language is to learn its words. Familiarity with the words will lead you to form sentences. Sentence Patterns and Elements – this has to do with how you ask and answer questions. Making coherent sentences is the way to make someone understand what you are saying. The ability will also help you understand what others are saying and how you might respond. Grammar Rules – Each language has certain rules that need to be followed.
    There is a special type of media developed for the first and second component – a bilingual graded book. Bilingual graded books are also called bilingual graded readers. They offer a parallel translation that allows the user to learn a new language in less time. With the translation on the same page, learners can effortlessly learn what any unfamiliar words mean. They can quickly pick up new vocabulary and phrases that are used over and over in texts of bilingual graded books. When they read a graded bilingual reader, they can pick up chunks of language and vocabulary that they can use in conversation and other real-world applications. It also significantly reduces the amount of time it takes to become conversational in a new language. As you read a bilingual reader, your brain begins to remember words and phrases simply because you are exposed to them several times. You don’t even realize, until you have to recall what you’ve learned, that you have already learned the new words and phrases. Listen to the audio tracks that should always accompany a bilingual graded book to learn how words are said and to improve your overall ability to speak the new language. A good idea is to use the free VLC media player to control the playing speed. You can control the playing speed by decreasing or increasing the speed value on the button of the VLC media player’s interface.
    Decide what is better for you a paper book or an e-book. Many of the e-readers by Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Kobo have dictionaries pre-loaded on their devices, with options to download additional ones, for free. If you do not have an e-reader, you do not have to buy one, because you can download it as a free app to your phone and use it right away. Writing your own notes, searching or making highlights is ridiculously simple with an e-reader or e-reading app. Anything you do with an e-book is also synced to the cloud, ensuring any change will follow you, no matter what device you are on.
    At first search on Google for “bilingual graded books” or “bilingual graded books for beginners”. Choose and buy a book on a suitable topic, for example general, business, medical, culinary, dialogues, students, cooking, family, tourists, detective, short story or whatever you like. Read it for about twenty minutes a day. If you do it every day, you will be surprised how much you can learn in a month’s time. Try to use the target language after you have learned for a month. If you don’t have an opportunity to talk to native speakers at home or at work/study, use your target language in small talk on Skype or another online chat. Search on Google for “free online clean chat rooms” and pick up the one that suits your interests. Two or three minutes of small talk two or three times a week or more often will give you some motivation and encourage you to learn new questions and answers for new dialogues. Compile a list of questions and answers for your dialogues in a target language or find them on Google with keywords “Bilingual graded books dialogues” and try using them.
    Don’t be afraid of making errors. They are your steps to success. You will spot and correct them sooner or later anyway. They will not be for the rest of your life. Better not to talk at all than to talk incorrectly? Wrong! Start talking as much as you can! Your language will improve every time you talk. A learner who knows only a hundred words and isn’t shy of talking will progress more quickly than the one who knows a thousand words but remains silent because he or she is afraid of saying something wrong.
    It can usually take you from one to three months to finish a bilingual graded reader at beginner level (A1) and elementary level (A2). The amount of time depends on your previous experience with learning foreign languages and on your personal abilities. At this point you should be able to ask and answer simple questions with the following questioning words: What? Who? Where? When? Which? How many/much? As you improve and become more confident in your ability to use the new language, you can move on to the next reader level and continue your language-learning journey. After using a bilingual graded book for a week or two you are ready to study grammar rules, so buy a good grammar book. A grammar book will satisfy your curiosity about grammar rules awakened by the bilingual graded book. Read the grammar book to find out how you can use your target language more precisely. Follow this order – first read a reading book, then use a grammar book and exercises to make your learning experience uninterrupted.
    Language text with a parallel translation has helped many to uncover their potential for learning multiple languages. Whether you are learning a language as a hobby or for a necessary purpose, you will find such books are supportive. Using them is by far more pragmatic, efficient way to learn a new language than a “learn a language in two weeks” program. However you should frequently use the target language by using bilingual graded books with audio tracks, grammar books, chats, internet pages and even songs to maintain your motivation and progress. Remember – twenty minutes a day does the magic!

  • 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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