How to Learn a Foreign Language

Don’t ask why, but lately I’ve been craving some traveling. I’ve never really left my little hometown, except for a few trips in the States and exploring my own province a little bit (read about my day in Montreal here!). But Netflix has been adding a lot of amazing movies this past month and a couple of hours later, here I was, imagining myself roaming the streets of Rome with Julia Roberts in Eat Pray Love. 

But the thing is, I cannot really travel. Or at least, not right now. With college under its way and me working almost every week (and weekend!), I don’t have that much time to dedicate to travel. Add to that my hunt for an internship and homework, and I’m full!

One of the ways I love to get closer to a country and exploring its culture is learning its language. As a former language student, learning a new foreign language is something I love doing. It’s a lot of work, yes. But it’s also a lot of fun!

One of the ways I love to get closer to a country and exploring its culture is learning its language. Click through to find out how you can do it at home!

You might or might not know that English is not my mother tongue *gasps*. So trust me when I say that learning new languages will take you far! It’s a skill that’s never lost. Where would I be if I hadn’t learned English? No matter what field you end up working in, knowing more than one language is always helpful. You never know when you might meet someone who simply doesn’t understand a word you’re saying (and trust me, it will happen, one way or another).

And even if that doesn’t happen at work, knowing more than one language is a great asset, especially when you’re traveling! You’ll get a lot closer to the local population if you can speak their language. You’ll get to experience the true traveling experience, and that simply doesn’t have a price!

Over the years as a language lover, I’ve developed a few tips that helped me understand a foreign tongue better and learn it faster! And no, it does not require you to spend a penny on anything! (Unless you want to book a ticket to your dream destination, then please, be my guest!) 

Read

If you want to learn a new language, the first thing to do is learn new vocabulary. How do you expect to express yourself if you don’t know how to say anything? A great way to do this is to read. Read anything. Whether it is a newspaper, a blog, a book, a magazine… Make sure you pick something you love. Take something that will spark your interest, and start reading!

Pro tip: Pick your favorite book and read it in the language you’re trying to learn! That way, you won’t have to focus on understanding the story and can actually try to catch new words and expressions!

Reading is probably the easiest and the first step you should take when wanting to learn a new language. Why? Because you can go to your own rhythm. With a movie, you have to adjust to what’s happening on screen. But with a book, you can take your time. No one is going to force you to go any quicker than what you’re comfortable with! So open your book, make sure you have a dictionary on hand and start reading!

By the way, I know at first you’ll be tempted to look up basically every word in the dictionary. You might get frustrated, and that’s normal. But, my tip is — and that might feel counterintuitive — , don’t look up every word you don’t understand. If you understand the general meaning of the sentence, move on. Otherwise, reading gets frustrating and you simply won’t want to continue. If you don’t understand what something means and that’s really confusing, look it up, but otherwise, just go with the flow. Sometimes, just seeing a word in its context will be enough to you to understand what it means without having to look it up. So use a dictionary, but don’t overdo it!

Watch material

The next step when learning a new language is getting the right pronunciation. To help you get it right, watch movies and TV shows! Watching TV is definitely what helped me the most with my English. It’s not only a great way to learn how things are pronounced and to get a general idea of the intonation, but it’s also another great way to learn new vocabulary and expressions!

About subtitles

I know that’s probably a question you’re asking yourself. Do I go for subtitles or not? Well, I find that to be a hard question. Everyone is different. For some people, they really help, but for other, they’re just getting in the way. I tend to fall into the latter category. I find that having subtitles in my mother tongue while I’m watching a movie in a different language is confusing, and I’m not paying that much attention to the movie and the story since I’m translating what the characters are saying in my head. You have to assimilate what you read on the screen to what you hear, and I find all that to be very confusing and counterproductive.

If you really need subtitles, try to have them in the language you’re learning. So if you’re watching an Italian movie, for example, put the subtitles in Italian. If you’ve already started reading in that language, you’ll find that it’s not that hard to follow.

Practice practice practice (every day!)

But the one and most important step that will most definitely help you learn a new language is to practice! And preferably with a native speaker or someone who speaks it fluently.

Practice makes perfect, as they say! Find every opportunity you have to speak and try. Order at a restaurant, ask a local for something, speak up in class… Just find opportunities and don’t be shy!

If you don’t have anyone to practice with… talk to yourself! I know, that might seem very weird. I mean, what kind of weirdo talks to herself? I bet you’re thinking, does she have entire conversations with herself? As a matter of fact, I do! Would you believe me if I told you that I talk to myself in English on a daily basis? That’s what helps me practice my English! Just look at yourself and the mirror and talk about your day, your favorite book or what you thought of that movie you just watched! Prompt yourself and get talking! I know, it seems completely silly, but trust me, it works! And the best part? No one can make fun of you if you don’t nail the pronunciation or don’t use the correct term!

Talking to people who are native speakers can most definitely help though because they can help you pronounce correctly or explain the meaning behind certain expressions. There are things even a dictionary can’t tell you! And it’s always great to have feedback so you can improve!

Also, it’s super important to practice often! The more you’ll practice, the easier it’ll become. Practicing every day ensures that words stay fresh in your memory. If every single day is too much for you, schedule it! Just know that spacing out your practicing time too much will make it harder for you to learn and words won’t necessarily stay committed to your memory.

Don’t be afraid of making mistakes

I’ve always dreaded (and still do) talking to strangers (and even more so my friends) in a language I don’t feel comfortable in because I was afraid I was going to be made fun of, but I’ve come to realize that people who laugh at you are normally the ones who cannot speak more than their native tongue. People are often kind and will correct you or help you if need be. No one will be judging you for trying!

Take a class

Well, that’s a given, I think. If you have the opportunity (or the money), a great way to learn, and fast is to take a language class! The teacher will run you through the basics or more, depending on your level. I think taking a class is a great start, especially if you’re learning a second language for the first time. It gets easier with time, so you might not need it if you’re learning your fourth, fifth, or eighth language.

If you’re not comfortable with the idea of having a teacher or if you don’t have that kind of money, don’t worry! There are online solutions that can help you. I’m sure you can find videos on YouTube or tutorials on Google. I know that they are some audio lessons that you can take. I know my library offers them, but I’m sure you could also find something online.

One of my favorite ways to learn is with language apps! I recently discovered Duolingo and I simply fell in love. It’s a great learning tool that can help you acquire new vocabulary and expressions. I’ve been practicing my Spanish with it, and recently started Italian as well! I’ve been using it for a couple of weeks and I love it already! Duolingo reminds you every day to use the app and practice, and if you don’t, you lose all of the progress you’ve made so far. What I love about this app is that it’s easy to use and it doesn’t take a lot of my time. I can practice while I’m on the bus or before I go to sleep. (By the way, this isn’t sponsored by Duolingo. I just genuinely love that app! There are other apps on the market that do basically the same thing, but I’ve never tried them.)

Go to class

If you do take a class, with a real teacher and all, make sure you actually go to class. I know a lot of people in the language program skipped Spanish classes because they were easy, but that’s actually a bad idea. Not only is the teacher giving you time to practice (and if you haven’t done so during the week, now if the time to make up for it!), but they also give you great tips to become a better speaker and to help you learn!

But my favorite type of language classes were the cultural ones. I loved learning about the history of a country and its language, the most important sightseeings, and watching movies! That’s what made me really fall in love with languages. I’m a citizen of the world. I’m a traveler at heart, even if I haven’t gotten far. Getting to know a different culture through its music, its movies, and its literature is what makes my heart sing.

Do your homework

If you’re going to class and your teacher gives you homework, do it! Your teacher is once again granting you the opportunity to practice and to learn outside of class! Even if you’re not practicing to talk to other people on daily basis, retaining vocabulary, grammar, and cultural information is practice! It’s all going to help you learn in the end.

Do you speak any other language? Which one(s) would you love to learn? What are your tips to learn a new language?

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  • I actually think Mango languages is better than duolingo! It’s the similar concept but goes through grammar a bit more.

    • I’ve never tried this one.. I’m definitely going to have to check it out! Thanks for the recommendation!

  • Hannah Haefele

    I love this post! I am actually working on an independent study project on why it’s important to learn a second language. I especially loved your tip on reading. I also like to listen to music in my target language, for the same reasons as watching movies and tv.

    • That’s such a great idea! Totally forgot to mention that one! Do you speak any other languages or are you learning one?

  • I had never thought about reading a book I’ve read before in another language! That is such an amazing idea!

    Caitlyn | http://www.collegewithcaitlyn.com

    • It’s a great way to learn new vocabulary and expressions! And like I mentioned, you already know what happens, so it’s easier for your brain to associate the vocabulary to what’s going on!

  • I love this post! I was able to improve my English a bit when I started reading books in English, because I got to learn a lot of new words. What I used to do in the beginning was write down the words I didn’t know and then go check their meaning after my reading session, instead of looking them up while in the middle of a chapter.

    The other thing that helped me understand English a little better was watching tv shows in their original languages. At the beginning I really couldn’t watch them without subtitles in my L1, but after a while I switched to English subtitles, so I wouldn’t translate anymore and I could also check how words are written.

    I used to study English in school, but I ended up learning more from books, shows and song lyrics than from class.

    • Those are such great ideas! I definitely learned more on my own and from class, but I think classes are a great way to familiarize yourself with the language first! Once the teacher has run you through the basics, it’s a lot easier to go on your own and learn than having to start from scratch.

    • Those are such great ideas! Writing down the words you don’t understand and looking them up afterwards would definitely make reading in a language you don’t understand less annoying!

      I learned more on my own too, but I think classes are a great way to get you started! Once the teacher runs you through the basic grammar and vocabulary, it’s easier to go off on your own instead of having to learn everything from scratch yourself!