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How to Learn a Foreign Language

1: Find Your Own Method

Many people will try to tell you there is a right and wrong way to learn a language. This is incorrect - different ways work for different people. You should try a few different methods and see which works best for you. A few ideas I used with my students for learning vocabulary include:

  • Pictures: Many people can remember words better if they see a picture instead of the word in English (or the person's first language). For visual people, picture flashcards are a better memory-jogger than words. Try flipping through pictures and saying the words until they come easily. Draw silly or over-the-top pictures yourself and see if it helps you to remember the word associated with it. Rhyming words can also help you to remember tricky vocabulary - see the picture.
  • Repetition: Some people hate this, but for others, it's the only way to learn. By writing or saying the word over and over it sinks into your mind. For students who could only learn by repetition, I found that a quick recap of words they had trouble with before beginning the lesson the following week was the best way to check that the words had stuck.
  • Sentences: For creative and imaginative people, making a sentence with the target vocabulary in it can really help to contextualise it. For example, for foreign students learning holiday vocabulary in English, making a short story with the vocabulary worked surprisingly well, especially if the story was funny. Here is an example: 'I went to the beach and a wave made me drop my ice cream. A seagull ate it and I bought fish and chips instead. I used a deckchair to catch the seagull. I went to my hotel and packed the seagull in my suitcase as a souvenir.' You can create your own simple but silly sentences with the vocabulary you are trying to learn and see if it helps. (Note:This worked for grammar, too - a funny or bizarre example of the present perfect, such as 'The dinosaur has eaten the umbrella' was more memorable than the boring 'I have ridden a bike')

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2: Find a Learning Buddy

Learning alone is hard. You can lose focus, lose concentration or hit a roadbump that it is hard to get over on your own. Having a support system can help you to keep on track. Plus, you have other people to practice with. Here are some ideas:

  • Join an Online Community: There are some great online resources. One of my favourites is Busuu, where you can reach targets and communicate with others online. Many other resources allow you to interact and converse in your chosen second language with other learners or native speakers, which gives you a way to use your new language in a natural setting, even if you can only tell someone you have a dog and his name is Pete.
  • Learn with a Friend: Two minds are better than one, and learning with a friend is a great way to motivate each other. Set a time for a daily, biweekly or weekly study session, set a target to reach and test each other. It's a great way to keep the momentum going.
  • Hire a Tutor: Although this is an option which requires you to spend some money, one-on-one language time is THE BEST way to learn a language. With guidance, corrections and a chance to speak and interact with someone, you'll learn your new language at a much faster rate. Put an ad on craigslist or ask around. If you know other people who want to learn the language too, they can take lessons with you and help you split the cost.

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3: Practise Constantly

No matter how busy you are, if you go a week or so without practising the language you are learning, it will begin to deteriorate. If you find yourself short on time, here are a few suggestions for keeping your language learning going:

  • Books on tape: Or, you know, whatever fancy iPhone apps people are using nowadays. Download your favourite book and play it for 20 minutes on your way to work or while you're on your morning run - even in the bath or while you are making dinner. Hearing a familiar book in a foreign language can help you to keep the dust off your growing vocabulary.
  • Quick Refreshers: Even if you can only spare 5 minutes in the morning, use them to check over your last lesson or the vocabulary or grammar point you learnt recently. It'll keep it fresh even if you don't have time to cover something new.
  • Write Yourself an Email: This can work if you have a pen-friend too. Even if it's a quickie, writing a brief email to yourself or your learning buddy in your target language is a great way to spend a little time each day working on your language. Note what you had for lunch or simply try to write your thoughts for the day down in your target language. It sounds silly, but it's better than nothing.

4: Visit the Country

This may be impossible, or it may have been your plan all along. If at all possible, find a way to book a trip to a country where they speak the language you are learning. It is a great motivational tool, since the more advanced you are, the more you will be able to get around. Here are a few suggestions on how you can make it happen even if time or money do not allow:

  • Take a Class: If you can't take time off work to visit the country, taking a class in the language can help you get to the next level. You could even enrol yourself in an Intermediate or Advanced course and work to get up to scratch before it begins. I managed to tuck in a good bit of Norwegian before beginning my university classes in Old Norse, and it helped immensely.
  • Au Pair or Teach English Abroad: If you dream about living in the country of your second language, think about au pairing or teaching English abroad. It'll make daily conversation practice much easier and motivate you to improve your skills. You can go for a few weeks or months or stay for years - up to you!
  • Host an Exchange Student: Learning a language but can't afford to go to the country? Then bring the language to you. By hosting a student from France, Italy, China or wherever, you can practice your French, Italian or Chinese while your exchange student learns your native tongue.

Set Yourself Targets

This ties in to each and every one of my tips so far - make sure you have a way to motivate yourself to learn. Losing interest and giving up is extremely common when learning a language, especially if you're doing it alone. Here are a few great motivators to help you reach the level you want:

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  • Finish Your Textbook, Book a Holiday: I did this the other way around, but the motivation was still there. I knew that I was moving to the Czech Republic in four months, and I set myself targets in order to complete the book I was learning from by that time. It was tough, but I did it, because I knew that the more advanced I was, the easier it would be to live abroad. Even if you're not moving abroad, the lure of a week's holiday in Berlin might just help you get to the end of your course module.
  • Read a Book in Your Second Language: After completing my month long language course in Iceland, I didn't want to go home and forget everything I had learnt. Before going home, I bought Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in Icelandic, and vowed I would read it once I got home, translating the words I didn't know. Reading a book in the language you are learning is a great way to see how far you have come.
  • Change Your Facebook into Your Second Language: Trust me, this one really encourages you to get better fast! Changing the language of your facebook, your favourite game, your satnav, whatever you can thing of, gives you a way to incorporate your second language into everyday life. Besides, it pretty much forces you to improve rapidly if you ever want to know how to change it back!

Do you speak a second language? How did you learn it?

I'd love to hear more tips and tricks from other language lovers!


Emily Nemchick (author) from Phoenix, AZ on June 05, 2013:

You're welcome. Good luck with your language learning!

Allison on June 05, 2013:

Oh, this is cool! Thank you so much for the article.

Already started doing some of this (my friends are constantly confused by the french on my mp3. :P)

Emily Nemchick (author) from Phoenix, AZ on May 15, 2013:

That's an awesome story and it just goes to show what you can do if you make the effort to speak another language. Thanks for sharing.

Bill Russo from Cape Cod on May 15, 2013:

Hi Emily. This is an excellent guide for learning a new language. I have tried just about all of the great tips that you suggest. I am pretty good in English, almost passable in Spanish, and can do an ok touristy French. I never studied Spanish but got started in the language by word trades at work. When I was working with people who spoke excellent Spanish but little English, I would trade words with them all day long. For example, I would give them the English word 'work' in trade for its Spanish equivalent. So I learned 'trabajo' while they picked up 'work'. After a few months of this, their English was much improved as was my Spanish.

When I vacationed in Mexico, I informed everyone, in my best Spanish, that I did not speak their language well but I like it and want to get better at it. If they spoke to me in English, I requested that they only speak Spanish so that I could learn more. This worked so well that I was welcomed everywhere and was given huge discounts in shops and restaurants. In a shoe store, I negotiated purchase of a pair of leather cowboy boots for my brother. The shopkeeper said, "For you, the price is 200 pesos". That was twenty dollars American for a wonderful pair of boots that my brother said were worth at least a thousand pesos. In a restaurant, we were told by an owner/chef that we could only have a cup of coffee. I was disappointed and discussed it with him. He said, 'No senor. You misunderstood me. I said, have anything you want. I am only going to charge you for a cup of coffee!" So not only was learning Spanish fun for me, it was also very profitable.

When I spend time in Florida in the Winters, I always head for the Spanish section, for food, shopping and conversation.

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