5 Language Learning Tips

5 Language Learning Tips

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So, you want to learn another language.

You´re not the first, as you know, with the development of vast arrays of programs like Pimsleur and Rosetta Stone available. “Learn a language in X amount of days”; “learn a language as easily as a child would”… the promises pile up. Sounds good? Unfortunately, it´s not that true. Some people have a natural aptitude, some do not, but everyone has to put in the hard work, and it cannot just come from one source as different methods and media types suit different people. So, whatever shortcuts might tempt you, they’re phonies.

Learn-a-LanguageLearning a language is challenging but completely possible. All those Europeans and Latins you met traveling who speak great English are not geniuses, and they don’t have anything you don’t. They had to work, fair and square, and spend a lot of time slogging through muddled conversations and tripping over strange sounds. And there’s absolutely no reason why you can’t do it too, without paying huge sums for well-marketed schemes.

Certain factors are involved. Sure, age can play a role, but it’s not as definitive as you might think. Most multilingual people you meet became that way as teens or adults. Exposure to other languages is a great help and learning a language in school, even if not used until much later, still gives the necessary grounding for grammar and structure if not actual conversation yet. We are innate communicators and the language center in our brain has enormous capacity for multiple languages. Even if you are not used to language learning or have never tried before, you are comfortably monolingual, so you’re not bad at languages, and you are not lazy so it’s not too late for you. You just need the push and the motivation.

All you need is to get through a whole sentence without resorting to your native tongue, no matter how slow it goes. You can start using pantomime and hand gestures to fill in new words, and asking in the second language how to say them. The mental barrier you need to break is one of perseverance, no matter how slow it feels, half the battle is to just to keep speaking.


sculpture-university-of-houston-a-a_lLanguage learning is be one of the most fun and rewarding things you will do, even as it demands hard and sometimes frustrating work. It requires memorization, patience and attention to detail, but also style, imagination, humility, curiosity, and a sense of humor. So don’t psych yourself out– if you want to do this, go out and do it!

So in this article we want to give you some tips on how to get started. There’s no such thing as a language-learning “hack”, but if you know what to expect, it’ll take you miles towards plotting your own journey of learning.


1. Know your learning style

SocialmediapeopleBreaking the language barrier of conversation requires you to have to the tools first, i.e. the words. The relationship between memorizing and talking is a self-feeding loop: the more you memorize, the easier you can get talking; the more you talk, the more you’ll want to memorize because you’ll see how much it helps you.

There is a school of thought that divides people into four types of learners which is very helpful to bear in mind in deciding what your best method of language learning will be: visual/spatial, aural/auditory, verbal/linguistic and physical/kinesthetic. Learn how to keep it fun for you based on what you like doing most in your own language. You will know what you like best and if you don’t, there are plenty of quizzes online to help you figure it. Anyway, it’s just as well to keep all the four styles in mind, and use them as inspiration to find the tricks that really work for you.

• If you are a visual learner, you will learn best by looking at charts, color-coded lists or other infographics, comic books, and basic text reading and writing.

• If you are more an aural learner, you might prefer to listen to CDs or podcasts, and would get a lot out of a shortcut like learning a song in your target language.

• A verbal learner would do better in a long conversation with someone who’s willing to provide vocabulary and/or explain things.

• A physical learner does best with movement,like incorporating pacing or drumming a desk into studying, playing ball games or the like that require memorization or using the kinesthesia (physical movement) of writing like copying down lists or lines to hammer things into your head.

Everyone has little quirks for language learning. If you discover yours, it’ll give you a major head-start and will be the fastest way to get that lingo in your brain.


2. Study verb lists

A lot of phrasebooks, language primers, and so on will assume that your first priority is getting through certain situations with the phrases you need. But unless you have a pocket phrasebook open with you at all times, sticking to stock phrases for the airport, the doctor’s office, and so on is not going to save you much time. This method works fine for very basic phrases like “the check, please”, but language is far too playful and unpredictable for you to get far sticking to only certain situations. It’s like doing the same motion every day without getting any further.

verb tensesSo it’s important to keep in mind what you will be using the language for, vacation/travel, business, socializing, cultural integration etc. This will affect the type and extent of vocabulary you will need to focus on at the start. The focus of your memorization once you’re past the very basics is verbs. They are essential for the structure of any sentence and high-frequency verbs repeat way more often than the high-frequency nouns. “Man” and “house” are all well and good and will definitely come in useful more than once. But they don´t cover the value of common verbs like “be”, “have” and “do” in filling in massive amounts of possibilities of constructing a sentence and understanding what is said to you.

It’s not that scary or boring as long as you make it fun for yourself according to what kind of learner you are. Look for a list of the 100 Most Common Verbs online. Start with the top 20 verbs, then the top 50. Spend the time memorizing and it will skyrocket your ability to improvise, pantomime, and get most of your thoughts out into words.


3. Find a friendtor

Many say moving to a country where your target language is natively spoke is the best way to learn. It’s not exactly a shortcut but places you in an environment where you have to speak; you are surrounded by the language on street signs and hearing it spoken, so it can improve rapidly (we can tell you that from experience). But moving abroad is not the only or even the best way to put yourself in this situation.

students-working-outsideIf your first language is a widely-spoken one, like English, you´ll find many locals and travelers alike who want to practice with you. It can work both ways. But, it’s easy to slip into old comfortable habits too – reading online news; hanging out with ex-pats – that limits your need to speak your target language. So avoidance is an issue to be aware of. If you know you can get away with plopping your postcards down at the post office, with just the words for stamp and the destination country, then you may take the easy way out in other encounters too.

The best situation for advancing in a language is when you know it will benefit you and be valuable in any situation. This is where the idea of the Friendtor, a friend/mentor. Sure, it’s my hokey made-up word but in our experience, using the language for jokes, conversations, or just imitating someone you honestly have gotten to know and like takes you miles towards tricking your subconscious that remembering this stuff is really worth your time.

sesame-intercambio-de-idiomas-9-agosto-2012Find a friendtor, it’s your key into a language. And it can happen without traveling at all. You can become a Baja expat and stay aggressively bad at Spanish, whereas in Alta California, hanging out just a few times with a Latino group of friends can be the catalyst for your subconscious to take a Spanish-learning attempt seriously because you are motivated to communicate.

This piece of advice requires confidence. Find someone you enjoy spending time and try a language exchange. If they are interested in learning in your language too it will be mutually beneficial. And don’t let your friendships naturally slip into one language or another. Have guidelines of e.g. one hour in their language and one hour in yours. So get out there, get social, join language exchange groups, find people on Skype to practice with and remember to be generous with each other to improve your skills. This is what will make the language really come alive for you and make it fun too, so keep it in mind.


4. Find your balance between just getting talking and being grammar fanatic

Grammar is important but don’t stress it. It’s true that you need to let go of your inhibitions if you want to make any serious progress in a language. Don´t think twice about jumbling the words you know together rather than resorting to your native tongue to complete a sentence. Chances are you wouldn´t be understood anyway. Embrace and enjoy those conversations that go something like, “I Tarzan. You Jane.” You will be understood and it’s better than switching to your own language to fill in the gaps – a whole lot better. It will also highlight what words and grammar you need to improve on. But like we said above, people only progress as far as they need to. And certain mistakes and quirks of accent will never really get in the way of communication. The only person who can get you speaking and sounding better is you.

grammar2That’s when it pays to learn some grammar. You’re not going to just “pick up” things like verb endings and noun genders. If you want to say them right (and it’s certainly not a given that you have to), you’ll have to pay a bit of attention.

On the other hand, a lot of language-learners – ironically, often those who Love Grammar – can’t get past a certain level, because they’re afraid to make a fool of themselves. If you’ve given someone else crap for “slaughtering” an accent, then you’re probably given pause by the knowledge that you have some karma coming back to you.

If this is you: it’s sweet that you want to respect someone else’s language and culture by speaking it “properly”, but all attempts to communicate will be really appreciated it and will come with a patient listener. So, you are just going to have to get over this. There’s no such thing as “slaughtering” a language. The language will be fine, its native speakers will keep their beautiful accents and its books of poetry intact long after you open your mouth. And if anyone you meet isn’t able to deal with that – most harshly, that person isn’t worth your time. More generously, that person just won’t be speaking your second language with you.

Remember, don’t let it bother you when you make mistakes, and you will, lots of them, we all do. No matter how bad you think you sound, talk, talk and talk. But try to pay attention to your mistakes if you can. And if you notice them, try to fix them. Listen to who you´re speaking with, they will likely be subtly paraphrasing your words in their response to help you out. So, take your time and cook up the grammatically-best sentence you can… then whether it’s good enough or not, open your mouth, and go for it.


5. You’re never off the job. Use your imagination!

If there’s one thing you take from this article, it’s that learning a language isn’t massively different from learning any other skill – a new sport; a new instrument. And as with anything, the best way to learn is to practice, practice, practice.

main-qimg-c8ad155fdfa911fa721b9519878a3c9dLuckily, though, you do have one advantage. You can only learn to surf on the waves, and you can only learn the violin with one in your hand. But language is everywhere. For somebody somewhere, the language you’re learning is how the whole world is defined. So enter this new world and look around! Listen to songs, watch movies, read signs, and take notes about everything. Even when you’re doing something random like playing soccer, wonder what the words are for ball, goal. If you already know the words, say them to yourself. Then do the same thing with plants in a garden, cutlery on the table, parts of the car you get a taxi ride in, and on and on.

A little word of caution…Speaking a language is not like riding a bike. If you don’t practice, you will forget. Fact. A language is only the sum of the communication you can have in it, and so you will maintain it as long as you’re connecting with people. So whether it’s for an upcoming trip, wanting to talk with your immigrant co-workers or your spouse’s family, for a job, or for any other reason – go out and use language to make some human connections! As long as you’re doing that, the only way to go is up.


Ben Lilly

I'm an aspiring writer with a bachelor degree in linguistics. No, linguists don't all speak many languages; but yes, I speak four and a half. My passion for languages is only the beginning of the curiosity for new landscapes, cultures and stories that pushes me to wander this world. I've never found a place I love quite as much as my homeland of Northern California, but the search continues - as does the search for the perfect taco (the best one so far was in a place called Camalú, in case you're wondering). I hope my contributions help make this little blog a worthwhile stop on your own journey!

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