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:
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.
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).
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
Thank you very much for your interesting tips. I work as a translator, and I constantly need to learn and improve in learning foreign languages. I am sure that after reading your article I will be able to do it even more productively. I hope that you will continue to make this type of content.
I’ve always wanted to become fluent in Spanish! My mom’s side of the family is from Mexico and often speaks in Spanish. Over the years my Spanish speaking skills have come and gone but I found they were the best when I took a particularly challenging Spanish course in college. The professor only spoke Spanish and really pushed us with assignments, projects, and tests. One thing that really helped me (particularly for learning spelling and grammar) was adding a Spanish keyboard to my phone! I would text my mom almost exclusively in Spanish and tried to use whatever topics I learned in class that day.
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.
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.
Sounds like an amazing experience in Colombia, Becky!
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.
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!
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