4 January 2016

10 Steps to Learn a Foreign Language

To me, languages are everything: a passion, a life committment and a continuous discovery. I love the process of learning languages or simply new words in languages I've never heard of. Using my experience as a Modern Languages student and a polyglot, I have thought of writing down a few tips that might be helpful in this field.

0 - Work hard on your textbook
Before we even start with the other tips, I will tell you about the main, harsh truth about learning languages that many posts rich with colourful flags and happy students' faces won't tell you: in order to be able to speak and write in another language, you must work hard using language textbooks. And I don't mean some kind of fun manual you find at the bookshop: those will help you once you already have the bases of a language. If you're a beginner, you will need those boring-looking, black and white books, because they are the only ones that can teach you best how to do it. If you were hoping that going to the pub for language exchange was my tip number 1, I'm sorry to have disappointed you. There's no elevator to success.

1 - Find your own method
Do you enjoy learning through an online course or do you prefer being in direct contact with your teacher? Personally, I have never tried online language learning; I only know that when I look up for information online as an extra help, I tend to find it less clear than the teacher's explanation in class. This varies for every individual: if you don't know what's best for you, you might want to sign up for free trial lessons and see which method you are happier with, then stick to it.

2 - Be consistent
In other words, study regularly. Consistency is what will help you remember as many things that you've learnt as possible. Sadly, skipping studying even for just two weeks will make you weaker. Besides, after a long break you are very likely to struggle with motivation, whereas if you've never stopped you'll find it easier to keep going.

3 - Be strict 
In order to actually get to learn the language, you have to own it! If you give in every time you feel like leaving your desk to go watch tv, you won't learn anything. Set a timer, a goal (e.g. finish three exercises a time) or establish some other kind of (realistic) rule you can stick to in order to nail that list of vocabulary. However, don't torture yourself! We want language learning to also be a fun activity: see points 5, 6 and 9.

4 - Be creative
Let's not forget that we can make language learning very cool! Some ideas to get creative are:

  • Stick small labels around your house with the names of the objects in the other language;
  • Draw things and animals and write their equivalent noun (plus article and plural form); 
  • Write on a sheet the bits you find harder to remember and stick them to your bathroom walls. You'll definitely have time to revise in there (I saw this when I went on a language exchange, at the girl's house I was staying at and thought it was super clever!); 
  • Play games with your learning friends. A fun one would be throwing a ball to each other in a circle, the first person saying a word or sentence and the one who catches it translating. A bit like what the Olsen twins did in Winning London.
These are some of my suggestions, but you can create infinite language games!

5 - Attend language exchanges
Yes, finally we got to the funnest bit of it! Language tandems, or language exchanges, however you may want to call them, are events where you meet other people like you who are interested in language learning (or maybe revising) and you make conversation with them in order to exercise - this usually happens over a drink in a friendly environment such as a pub or a students' union. Personally, I am an absolute fan of language exchanges! I used to organise the Spanish/English one for my university and attended the Erasmus ones as I had so much fun doing it and felt like my speaking skills improved a lot.

6 - Read in the other language
Read anything: blogs, books (there are many editions that simplify the language for beginners), comics, magasines and so on. It is vital to always have something to read in the language by hand. Something I like to do is following Instagram accounts and try and understand the general meaning of their captions.

7 - Watch in the other language
Watch films, series, YouTube videos... anything you can to hear the other language and get accustomed to it. When you're at the beginning, use subtitles in your own language, but as your level improves it'd be a lot more useful to use subtitles in the same language: you'll be making a reading and listening exercise at once.

8 - Make foreign friends
We all know that making friends is fun, but making foreign friends is even better! In this way, you'll be able to learn about each other's culture and get caught in language jokes (which linguists like me love to cringe at), and maybe one day travel to each other's homes. This is usually a very enriching experience, both personally and culturally.

9 - Be patient 
Language learning is a long, complex process involving ups and downs. There will be many times when you'll feel disappointed about not remembering this or that, annoyed at not being able to form a sentence and so on. There will also be days when you will feel brilliant and your speaking will sound almost native. What matters is to keep your goal in mind and stay positive. If you want it, you can do it!

10 - Travel to the country 
In my opinion, only after having followed these steps and got a solid linguistic bases can you travel to the country of the language and be able to actually get to practice it. Immersing yourself in the culture is the main key to understanding its people, why the language is what it is like and so on. The best ways to learn about the culture would be to stay with a family: Erasmus isn't even the best option, as you tend to hang out with international students and mainly speak English. Staying at a hotel won't improve your skills, as you'll end up only speaking briefly to the staff. And once you get a grip of how the country works, you can go back as often as possible and fall in love with its art, food and people. After all, this is what we've been aiming at!

I hope that you found my ten tips on learning a language useful. This is what I tend to do to study languages, and until now it's worked pretty well as I got to be fairly fluent in four languages (after eight years of hard work!) and still working on another two. Let me know what your language tips are!


  1. My language tip would be to listen to as much of the foreign language as you can! Through radio, podcasts when you're commuting, doing daily chores, driving etc. Over time you'll pick up phrases, pronunciation and fluency and find that you can imitate a native's speaker more easily, just by listening frequently (even if it's in the background).

    1. I'm not great at listening to radio programs but want to improve! I agree with you about the fact that listening improves your accent. :)

  2. I've been wanting to learn new languages, I start and then I just drop it. These points are brilliant. They bring back the reality! I agree you need to throw yourself out there, the more experience you have with the language the better and for longer it will stay with. Since I came to live in England I am forgetting my mother languages and probably the best way for me to keep them is to read in them. It is fun as you get to read but also super useful.

    1. Hi Iza :) It's not easy to keep learning. Some days you just can't be bothered! Usually I follow a course so I know I have to go to class and can't skip it. I agree, reading is definitely a useful practice for the mind Would love to know what your mothertongues are? Thanks for sharing your thoughts :)

    2. Assia, I completely agree. I see why you'd choose a course because it will motivate you so much more. I even tried apps and I found this brilliant one called Duolingo. It is fun and great way to memorise words and sentences. They have a lot of repetitions so you do remember certain things. However, the problem is sticking with it everyday. It is fun for a few days then you just forget about it.
      I speak Lithuanian and Russian as well as English. But I started learning English properly 6 years ago. :)

    3. Oh, thanks for the suggestion! I will look into it :) That's amazing, Lithuanian and Russian sound like really hard languages. It must have taken no time to learn English! Keep it up :)