Katie Holmes, April 2020.
I personally love learning new languages and believe that there’s no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to language learning, as different people work better with different methods. I thought it would be fun to host a page here about all the different ways people study languages. Here’s the request I put out:
We’d like to compile a list of all the different tips people have for language learning. What’s worked for you and what can you recommend? List the language you learned and your favorite way to learn it. Personal stories welcome.
What follows is the submissions I received. Feel free to submit something yourself!
I set up my company, The Adventurous Mailbox, to inspire kids to explore the world and pick up another language or two. I was inspired by my own adventures living abroad for 15 years, and by my adventures in language learning.
When I moved to China at the age of 32, I didn’t speak a lick of the language. I can’t really claim complete fluency now, but I can have conversations approaching depth, express my opinions, and understand 90% of what is spoken to me or what I hear on TV. Sure, my pronunciation isn’t perfect, but I am okay with that. I am still able to communicate effectively in Chinese, which is something I never dreamed I’d be able to do.
When you start studying, it is hard at first because it doesn’t feel like you are making progress. You may also feel intimidated by the amount of learning set out in front of you. You have to remember, though, that there are probably lots of English words you still don’t know, but at some point you decided you were fluent enough. Do the same with your new language and set realistic goals. Are you wanting to write novels in your new language, or just be able to communicate enough to learn about another culture?
If the latter, take it easy on yourself. I suggest a two-tier approach. Enroll in a class at your local university or community center, or even invest in a language-learning app, and start by adding to your vocabulary and foundations in grammar. At the same time, though, your endeavor has to be fun and relevant. You need to think of how you like to express yourself in English – what the phrases are you usually say and what the questions are you usually ask, and make sure you quickly acquire these in your chosen language. For example, the very first phrase I had to learn in Chinese before I even knew how to count to ten was, “I’m joking!”
But really, why waste time learning how to ask, “When is the next train to Dansk?” when you really want to ask, “Have you been watching The Crown? I think it’s overrated.” Or: “Is the iPhone 11 worth it? Is it really better than the 10?” If you pester your teacher or native speaking friend into teaching you how they would form these questions, you have not only learned something immediately useful and relevant, but you will also pick up a lot of little stuff along the way. In these two questions, you will learn useful descriptive words, but also learn a couple constructions such as making comparisons. These constructions stick around, and you just have to learn new vocab to put into them.
Learning another language is also a great excuse to watch bad TV. Go rent an old DVD of Friends and play around with the subtitles. Watch an episode first in English and pick out the phrases you want to learn how to say in your target language. Then, watch it again, but changing the subtitles to your target language, writing down in a notebook the phrases you want to incorporate into your conversations. As you get better, start watching TV shows or movies in your chosen language. Watch it for 10 minutes at a time without English subtitles and see how much you understand. Then watch it again with English subtitles and see how close your understanding was, teaching yourself new words and phrases as you do.
Finally, when starting to study a new language, you have to allow yourself to make stupid mistakes and embarrass yourself from time to time. You will most definitely say the wrong things at times, and you will most definitely mess up pronunciation to the point of hilarious results – like the time I wanted to say, “I am looking forward to seeing the panda” in Chinese, but ultimately said, “I am looking forward to seeing your chest hair.” Chest hair and panda are homonyms, varying only in tone. Laugh it off, be proud of yourself, and remind yourself that every mistake is an opportunity to get it right the next time.
–Andrew Bliss, The Adventurous Mailbox
I have a Masters degree in linguistics and translation (French and Spanish), although now currently working as a photographer!
While not always practical, the most effective way to learn any language is to go and live in that country. Being surrounded by the language and culture far outweighs sitting and learning grammar rules. In my personal experience, even just 5 months in France improved my French more than learning it for 6+ years in the UK. Grammar rules are one thing but the way people actually use a language can be totally different than you’d expect and if you can immerse yourself in their culture, you’ll notice huge strides.
More practically, and on the lines of immersing yourself in culture, I have found that watching foreign movies and TV programmes with foreign subtitles switched on to be greatly beneficial. If you’re learning Spanish, for example, go watch Breaking Bad dubbed in Spanish, with Spanish subtitles on. When locals are having a conversation, it can be hard to pick up every word and you’ll easily lose context and meaning. However, with subtitles, you can get used to how the words sound while reading along. You’ll also learn tonnes of slang which helps your conversational language. The same is true for songs – listen to foreign songs with the lyrics in front of you.
For the fundamentals, you get away with a surprising amount sticking to the present tense. So, once you’ve nailed some basic vocabulary, focus on sentence structure and conjugations. You’ll soon be able to string together some basic sentences i.e. I am Connor, I am a photographer, I want to go here etc.
–Connor Mollison, Connor Mollison Photography
The best way to learn a new language is to expose yourself to it. This includes changing all your devices to that language, listening to music, and watching movies on a language you want to learn. We have a privilege that everything is just a few clicks away from us, so reading newspapers or comics and children’s books online is accessible and can help us learn a new language more easily.
–Luka Arezina, Data Prot
I’ve found iTalki to be the perfect tool for learning languages online, as it allows me to learn in a more casual and conversational setting. What I love about it is that you can choose a tutor based on your own specifications. So I can choose to specifically learn the language of a particular country I want to visit. For example, since I plan on traveling to Columbia soon, I’ve chosen to learn how to speak Spanish the way locals would speak it in Bogota. The classes are not free, but they are inexpensive for the value they provide, and you can find a good tutor for less than $10 per hour.
So far I’ve had a great experience using iTalki and have made some friends amongst the tutors that I hope to meet in real life sometime. I’ve found the platform to be much more enjoyable than using DuoLingo and other more solo-oriented methods of learning foreign languages. Especially during these times of self-isolation, it’s great to be able to make pals all around the world.
–Torben Lonne, DIVE.in online scuba magazine
Learning a foreign language presents a challenge, and that challenge varies from person to person. I was fortunate enough to live in Italy for 2 years, and in that time worked hard at becoming proficient in the language. My number tip for learning a language is to be consistent. I spent 1 hour a day for 2 years studying the language, and the rest of the day I would be speaking the language to other people. At first, you struggle, and you kind of smile and nod as people talk to you and you have no idea what they are talking about. Don’t let them revert to English if they speak it. Ask them to slow down and help you with the language. Most people are willing to help someone learning their language when given the chance. It also helps to be surrounded by the language. If you think you can just study flashcards, you’re wrong. Don’t get discouraged when you make mistakes. When I was learning Italian, I made many mistakes. The verb to discourage oneself is scorragiarsi and the verb to fart is scorregiare. So often when I thought I was telling people I won’t get discouraged, I was actually telling people I won’t fart. Either way, I’m sure they were happy to hear it.
–Justin Lewis, Kiki Photography
For me learning another language successfully has involved a multi-pronged approach. Diversifying sources makes a world of a difference. My current language learning project is European Portuguese. Things that have helped me to begin with have been the Michel Thomas method, listening to Portuguese radio stations (you can find them online), watching Portuguese kids TV clips and news on Youtube, translating my favourite songs into Portuguese so I can start to sing the language and watching Portuguese movies. I managed to go to Portugal and improved my learning by always asking a question in shops. For instance, I would ask Excuse me please, where is the sugar? in Portuguese of course. I would change it up each time and in those interactions I learned a lot. Sometimes they would correct me, which is exactly what I needed. Finally, listening to Portuguese before sleep absolutely helped me. Every night for a few months I would listen to the same tape. I started to know it off by heart which was fantastic. I am now comfortably at higher intermediate level after 6 months of these various strategies.
–Melba Gunura, Melba’s Finest
As a person who speaks 5 languages now, I know something about effective learning. Here are 3 main tips to succeed in taking the grip of a new language: 1. Structure the process: it’s very important to have the vector and understand at what stage you are right now. Determine your level, segment the curriculum (vocabulary, grammar, speaking, listening), and set up your goals (for example, move from A2 to B1 in 6 months). 2. Practice with a native: only a native speaker can explain all the ins and outs of the language to you properly: accent, pronunciation, grammar, and even the mentality of the speakers. Whether it is a private tutor at Preply, or a speaking partner from the Tandem App, always try to find a native speaker. 3. Establish full immersion: start watching movies, reading news, download Duolingo or Memrise to surround yourself with the language you want to learn.
–Vlad Turchyn, Preply
I’ve been learning Spanish since middle school – like many Americans – but it was really only in the last few years that I’ve taken it seriously. My tip for language learning is to watch shows in the native language with English subtitles – Netflix makes this a breeze. Other variations are to watch an episode once with English subs or/and dubs and then watch the same episode again with no English subs or dubs once you know the gist of what’s going on and what people are saying. This is a great way to get exposure to culture, slang, as well as the target language.
Other things I have done are to listen exclusively to Spanish radio while in the car and also to replay videogames with the language setting set to Spanish. These are all variations of the same tip – immersion while at home, which is absolutely accessible to anyone with an internet connection.
The best way to learn a foreign language? Start going out with someone who speaks that language.
Many years ago, I met a woman who was deaf and I didn’t know any sign language. On our first date, we wrote notes back and forth and she gave me a book on sign language.
You can learn fingerspelling in a day and within a few weeks, you can learn a lot of sign language, especially when you start going out with someone.
She and I have been married now for over 30 years.
Also, if you go into a foreign country and you have to get along in that language, you can pick up what you need to know very quickly… and you’ll learn it a lot faster if you start going out with someone.
(Too bad I wasn’t going out with my calculus teacher.)
–Robert Barrows, R.M. Barrows, Inc. Advertising & Public Relations
Here are a few of my favorite tips:
*1.* Find fun, easy-to-read texts in the target language, but ones that are easy enough for you to understand (don’t try to be a hero – having fun is one of my tips down below!). Our students read through *Familia Romana*, a novel written entirely in Latin. There is not a lick of English in that book. *Familia Romana *gradually introduces students to Latin vocabulary and grammar using nothing but Latin itself and illustrations. Once students have read fifteen or so chapters of *Familia Romana * and its companion *Colloquia Personarum, *they are then able to read tons of easy novellas https://ancientlanguage.com/latin-bookshop/> written in Latin.
*2.* Don’t stick to text: Find ways to expose yourself to as much audio and video as possible. For our Latin students there are tons of resources available. Here are three great examples: Scorpio Martianus , Magister Craft , Latinitium .
*3.* Find ways to use the language actively! Compose your own sentences and speak in Latin in accordance with your ability. This is especially useful if you do it with someone who can give you feedback! I often have my students write their own stories in Latin.
*4.* Whatever you do, have fun! My students are often shocked at how quickly they learn Latin. How does it happen? I focus on making language learning fun, so it doesn’t even feel like work. That way, my students end up choosing to study harder and more often because they have a good time doing it. More fun, more study, more learning!
–Jonathan Roberts, Ancient Language
I am from Bulgaria and my mother tongue is Bulgarian, but learning foreign languages has always been a passion of mine.
I started learning English when I was 6 years old. Then I decided to go for Spanish and Portuguese, which I am still learning. After visiting certified European language schools, I found out that at some point the best way to continue learning is to travel and speak with native speakers, just to hear what words the locals use, or to practise your pronunciation.
I am intensively working on my Spanish skills now and I have been travelling to Spain as much as I can for the past 5 years. My favourite way to learn is to get lost in the streets of Barcelona and talk with locals, and ask them for advice about where I should go sightseeing or what typical dish to have. It is such a precious moment when we communicate and yes, they can tell I make mistakes, but you shouldn’t get discouraged. The most important thing is to never stop trying. Only that will make you grow.
For me, using a language learning app was of great help. It kept me practicing for 10-20 mins every day and kept me learning some grammar. It doesn’t matter which one you choose. You might play a game with Spanish settings, watch a movie in the foreign language you are learning, or listen to songs in that language. That was the best way for me to learn.
I have fallen in love with languages, and after I master Spanish I am going to continue with Portuguese and Italian. To me, a new language is a new open door and we should always keep learning them, no matter our age. Foreign languages are helping me in my work and personal lives – thanks to them, I have made friends from all over the world. Contact between people is priceless.
–Kalina Stoyanova, Independent Fashion Bloggers
I have been studying languages all my life. So far I speak 4 – Bulgarian (which is my mother tongue), English, Japanese, Russian, and Dutch (which I picked up recently). Given my background, I have gone through a number of different language-learning tactics. Here is what I found useful:
My most effective and fun method to learn vocabulary is to associate quite visual images with something that sounds like the word you want to remember. Every person has their own method of association, so this is why I will give a personal example.
I am currently studying Dutch. The Dutch word for ‘fast’ is ‘snel’. I imagine a snail and note to myself the absurdity of a snail meaning ‘fast’ in Dutch. My imagination then takes this a bit further and starts building an even more ridiculous picture in my head – now I can see a racer snail which is getting ready to compete in a race. This image will be harder to forget and will be more prone to get stuck in my memory.
For inspiration on keyword associations, you can take a look at memrise.com until you get better at creating your own.
This method uses flashcards and asks you to keep the hard words you have difficulties with at the top of the deck and push through to the bottom, which has the words you do know. The quicker you remember a word, the further down in the deck it should go.
In the digital age, there are plenty of apps that can help you out with this. My weapon of choice is Quizlet – an app which lets you create different study sets with flashcards and allows you to make different games in order to remember vocabulary. Quizlet also supports different testing strategies, which might work for you (they sure do for me), so be sure to check it out.
When I was studying Japanese, I was so hooked that I barely consumed any Western media, as opposed to Japanese ones. TV shows, anime (of course), music, news sites, books, articles… I even downloaded a weird app that allowed me to stream Japanese television in real time. Every time I had an opportunity to talk to a native, I was thrilled. At one point I even visited the Japanese embassy in Sofia and talked to the people there, borrowed some materials for studying, and volunteered at some events they held.
It’s not only about the language, though. Japanese culture played a big part in maintaining my motivation to learn the language. History, art, haiku, origami, ikebana – these small things can go a very long way in keeping you curious and striving to achieve more. The biggest problem that most language-learners have is that they give up too quickly because they lack motivation. So keep yourself entertained and find your own way of staying connected with the language.
I hope my tips help! I’m always very supportive of anyone who wants to learn a new language – it’s actually not as difficult as most people think.
–Snezhina Piskova, Excel Template
One of the accomplishments I am most proud of is being fluent in French.
I started learning in elementary school when I was 9 years old and transferred into a language-based elementary school. Students received 45 minutes of daily language. Although being young helped my language acquisition and pronunciation, I credit the consistent daily instruction.
Continuity is also important. I continued French in high school and college. Yet, despite my years of classroom study, fluency didn’t happen until I spent time in a fully-immersive environment through a 6-month study abroad https://usinsuranceagents.com/travel-and-health-insurance-students-studying-abroad/> program in Paris during my junior year of college.
The experience of living abroad, even on a short-term temporary basis, forces you to hear, think and speak a foreign language during your waking hours. I even began dreaming in French, and was thrilled when I couldn’t easily recall the English word for things.
Then came life, marriage, kids and career, and French fell to the wayside for two decades. My fluency was almost gone and I missed it sorely until I decided to take the steps, and the time, to get it back.
I started by enrolling in a weekly grammar and conversation course for adults. For me, regularly speaking with others was important as I worked to get my basic language skills back, which didn’t take too long.
I also started looking for cheap airfare to French-speaking places like Montreal, Martinique and Paris, and planned vacations to locations where I could practice. Even a week of immersion does wonders to keep a foreign language fresh in your mind and on your tongue.
These days, with Netflix, it’s easier than it has ever been to brush up on my French by watching at least one French film or television series per week. I watch programs in French with French subtitles, rather than English subtitles. If that way is too hard to follow, I rewatch it with English subtitles.
This is the story of my language journey. From it, I found out that the key to foreign language proficiency is not just in the learning; it’s in the continual practice.
–Lauren Blair, USInsuranceAgents.com
Recently, I started learning the French language, as I wanted to immigrate to Canada, where French is one of the official languages in many provinces. So, to ensure that I settle easily there, I started learning French. Most people make a mistake of focussing on vocabulary and grammar only. In my opinion, you need to start using it in your everyday life, as soon as you feel comfortable. I started using a few words in my daily life to help my brain do the translation easily to a new language. Then, I started translating every sentence into the French language. I would ask my mentor whether I was right or wrong. She is a great teacher, and would correct me everywhere I went wrong. Later, I started conversing with a few of my friends, who live in Canada, right now. This way has helped me a lot in learning a new language. I hope this will work for others as well.
–Rajandeep Kaur, TeacherOn.com
Since it often take a few hundred hours to get to a level high enough to have a decent conversations, you must learn the most relevant, daily-used words, and you must be able to pay attention to the language for an extended period of time.
I studied Spanish in formal school for roughly 8 semesters. I even took 3 classes in Spain, but never truly LIVED in the language, because I was in class with others who spoke English, just like me!
But when I took a job in Mexico, everything changed. I truly learned how to learn another language.
Because I was living in the language, I was learning the most-used words. Don’t worry if you can’t move there. You can do casual conversation with a native speaker over Skype or another platform. Just beg them not to teach you grammar! Get to know each other, form a friendship, have everyday conversations so you learn the most-used words.
And it also has to be interesting. If someone gave you a lecture in Spanish, you would probably fall asleep. But if you watch your favorite TV show in Spanish, you will already know the storyline, and it will keep you entertained. Netflix allows you to switch the audio to quite a few different languages these days. Or, watch short Youtube videos about topics that interest you. Learning Japanese and love makeup? There are a TON of Japanese Youtubers that talk about makeup all day long. Learning Spanish and love cars? Watch some fixing cars videos on Youtube. These videos are typically short, with lots of visuals to help you understand the context, with diagrams often, and very expressive. I believe Youtube even allows you to read a transcript or put up subtitles, so in case your ears aren’t trained well to the language yet, you can still follow along.
Music! Those who listen to music in the target language often have a kick butt accent. Why is this? Because they aren’t thinking about saying each word. They are thinking about producing the sound that they hear. It’s just like a child. Children do not read first. They listen to you and repeat. This is what music does. And it’s really fun! You can learn so much grammar this way, and use the formula to apply to other situations. For example, in English, there’s a lyric that says, “I’ll love you forever.” So you know to use ‘ll in this instance and not the present tense: “I love you forever.” You will naturally sound more like a native. Not to mention, you’ll use those contractions, and not separate the words (I will), which most definitely makes you sound more like a native speaker!
When I was in Mexico, we listened to the radio all the time. I came back to the US as the Queen of Reggaeton! I knew the slang. I had a great pronunciation. And I knew all the lyrics to the songs when at the salsa club. I impressed them, for sure! Not only did I learn the language, but I learned about culture as well.
So, most definitely toss out that grammar book, and turn the volume up!
–Micah Bellieu, Fluency CORP