foreign language

How to Learn a New Language

Hola. Bonjour. Merhaba. Konnichiwa. Salve. Hello.  

Imagine being able to travel the world and speak every language there is. You could visit a new country and not worry about ordering an exotic dish that will leave your stomach churning or getting on the wrong train by accident. 

People like to learn a new language for fun. Others do it to widen their job opportunities. Whatever the reason may be, we can all agree that learning a new language can be one of your most significant accomplishments. 

Yet the whole process of learning a new language is anything but glamorous. It’s like going back to elementary school and trying to relearn everything from scratch. But before you start to re-think your desire to learn a new language, you’ll be relieved to know that it doesn’t have to be a slow, tedious process for anyone. 

With the right language learning tips up your sleeve, you’ll find yourself conversationally fluent in just about any language that you take the time and effort to learn.

What Is the Best Way to Learn a New Language? 

You probably don’t know this (or don’t care enough to find out about it), but Natalie Portman can speak fluent Hebrew and conversational French, Japanese, German, and Spanish like a pro.

Not to rub it on anyone’s face. But if an A-list actress can find time to learn, not one, but five different languages despite her busy schedule, shouldn’t that give you the least bit of motivation to start learning your language of choice? 

Maybe she had a team of the finest tutors to help her, or perhaps she’s one of the test subjects of the secret pill that lets your brain absorb every bit of information in mere seconds.

Whatever it is, wouldn’t it be nice to learn it fast?

While we have yet to get our hands on that pill, here’s a couple of language learning tips that you might find useful:  

Set a Goal

You won’t come across a lot of people who want to invest in language learning just for the sake of it. That’s because most people struggle with how to learn a new language, often forcing themselves to a brain melt—you know when your brain feels like gravy from the information overload. It’s always best to have a reason to take up the challenge in order for you to stay motivated, especially when it requires hard work and commitment to conquer fully. 

So, for the first step of learning a language, make sure to set a goal for yourself. 

Focus on why you want to learn the language and when you’re likely to use it. You can have multiple goals that make up a long-term dream. It doesn’t matter how shallow nor how personal it is. Noting this down in a piece of paper is one way to remind yourself why you’re doing this in the first place. 

Have a Study Schedule

Not all of us have the luxury to put our entire life on hold in order to learn a foreign language. 

However, if you want to know how to learn a new language, you need to make sure you can stay committed to the journey. Dedicating some time of your every day to learning a new language will help you focus on your priorities and remain consistent. It can be a minimum of 20 minutes to an hour per day, depending on how much time you’re willing to sacrifice. Keep in mind that the more time you are able to commit, the faster your progress will be toward reaching your goal.

Start with Common Words

Let’s try not to get ahead of ourselves, folks. 

As much as you want to speak French as fluently as the popular girl in school, there’s so much value in taking your first baby steps. 

The whole learning process requires an immense amount of patience, to begin with. You don’t want to overwhelm yourself with words and expressions without knowing how to use them correctly in a sentence. It’s always best to learn a new language by studying the most common words and phrases that a native speaker would use to go about with their day. Not only is it an essential survival skill to have in a foreign country, but it can also make your learning experience feel a lot more fulfilling as a beginner. 

Carry a Dictionary Around

Before the mental picture of you bringing a big, fat dictionary starts sending shivers down your spine, perhaps the existence of pocket dictionaries can offer you some sort of relief. It’s a lightweight alternative that won’t be embarrassing to carry around in public. 

Or if a pocket dictionary seems like a burden to take around, you can download an app on your phone instead. You never know when you might find yourself in the middle of a conversation, and someone brings up a word you aren’t familiar with. It only takes a few seconds to look up its meaning on your phone and carry on with the exchange, now with a new word added to your vocabulary. 

Download Foreign Language Learning Apps

As previously implied, you might want to use technology to your advantage. 

Gone are the days when people relied solely on books to find the answers to their questions. It’s funny to think that there was a time when we had to search the meaning of a certain word by scanning through a 6000-page book. What most people did over a decade ago sounds pre-historic in today’s context. 

In the age of technology, tons of language learning apps will help you learn the basics of learning a foreign language. Mobile apps like HelloTalk, Drops, and Duolingo offer free language learning services at your convenience. You can dedicate at least 15 minutes of your day to learn something new from the platform. There are even games that you can play to make things a bit more interesting. 

Although you wouldn’t want to make this your only source for learning, using an online target language app is still an excellent place to start. 

Useful Links:

Study Pronunciation Patterns

Most foreign languages have pronunciation patterns that you’ll notice when comparing them with their English counterparts. But there’s more to it than merely adding a vowel at the end of an English word to make it sound Spanish (which is often correct). It differs with every language you’re trying to learn, so be sure to keep your eyes peeled for any noticeable patterns that you may use to process information better. 

Learn about the Culture

Learning a new language does get boring, regardless of how excited you were at the beginning. And you’ll find yourself learning the language more as an obligation as opposed to a product of your own interest.

When this happens, you need to allow your curious mind to wander. Getting to know the culture and history of these words is one way to bring everything to life. It’s a chance for you to dig deeper into what people who speak that language say and do, offering you more insights on how certain words are used in daily conversations. 

Try Out Audio and Visual Techniques

If you’re looking for an excuse to binge-watch Money Heist for the nth time on Netflix, watching foreign movies and TV series to learn a new language does work for most people. You can pick up a lot from what the characters are saying based on how they express themselves. It also offers you a few ideas on how you can use certain words and expressions in a conversational setting.  

You can also take it one step further by putting your singing skills to the test. Say, Justin Bieber’s Despacito? Or how about Ellie Goulding’s Love Me Like You Do in la langue françaisé? Hitting those notes in French is definitely a whole other level of awesome. 

Or maybe you’ll want to start with something more practical, like an audiobook of your favorite novel. At first, you’ll understand nothing, but nobody expects you to be the master of everything after the first try. Keep in mind that language learning is often unconscious, so allowing your brain to process it gradually will eventually get you to where you want to be. 

Get a Tutor That Teaches Foreign Languages

This might not be the cheapest advice, but it’s definitely one of the most effective means on how to learn a new language. People who hire private tutors have a better chance of learning a language with a lower level of difficulty. 

While you could always enroll yourself in a group class, it’s not exactly the best option for most people. That’s because group classes tend to move at the pace of the slowest person in the room, which can be frustrating when there’s a lot more to cover. 

One-on-one classes also offer more opportunities for you to tailor the lessons according to your goals. You can ask questions and engage in activities that work for you. It’s probably one of the best ways to learn a language (if you have the money to spare). 

Practice, Practice, Practice

There’s no doubt that the best way to learn a new language—or to master anything in life, in general—is to practice. 

Practice with a native speaker by sparking a conversation. It can be with a friend or a complete stranger. You can even challenge yourself to think in the new language or develop monologues in your head. You’d be surprised by how naturally these words can come out of your mouth when you try talking to yourself in front of a mirror. 

The more practice you do by initiating fake conversations with yourself, the more accustomed you become to using the language like it’s your native tongue. 

Engage in Conversations

The fastest way to learn a new language is to converse with others who know the language better than you. If that sounds horrifying, think about everyone you know who spent most of their lives speaking a foreign language. Pretty sure they had to survive several awkward and strenuous conversations with others before they could finally adapt. 

If you have a friend, partner, or neighbor who might be a native speaker of another language, try practicing with them. You’ll notice how different it is to actually use what you’ve learned in a real-life setting compared to just memorizing every word inside the four corners of your room. Doing so will teach you how to use certain words and expressions in their proper context, and make you more confident.

Find a Language Buddy (or Someone Cute Who Speaks the Language)

If a private tutor is too steep of a price, you can find a few language exchange websites and apps, such as Bilingua, HelloLingo, and even Reddit, to look for a language buddy willing to trade their time and effort to teach you in exchange for learning the language that you know. 

But if an Internet buddy doesn’t seem exciting to you, try dating someone who could be your personal coach. It’s much of an investment, and not for the faint-hearted. But if you want to take the extra mile to learn the language—it’s not a bad idea. Not only do you have a practice buddy who’s fluent in your target language, but you also get a partner to explore the language we’re all familiar with: the language of love. 

Ask for Help

When you’re in a foreign country, asking for help is the only way to get yourself out of difficult situations. You won’t get the answers you’re looking for by staying mum about it. Don’t be afraid to ask a store clerk or a random shopper about the name of the item you want to buy. You can use your hands to point to the item or make hand signs that resemble the item you’re looking for. If you have friends who know the language quite well, see if they can help you out.

You’d be surprised by how most native speakers are kind enough to assist you even when it’s more than you admit you need. 

Test Yourself

Tests can be a burden. And they can definitely put you under a lot of pressure. 

But before you cancel out this learning approach, you can’t deny how tests can often motivate you to learn faster. It can be anything from an online exam to a random language learning game. Online practice exams can be found in almost any language, including German, Spanish, and Japanese. It’s a great way to test your proficiency in the language, especially as a beginner. 

And if you’re looking to take a standardized exam for school or employment, make sure you have enough time to learn the language on a superior level. This can keep you motivated to keep learning more than you initially planned. 

Get Creative

When figuring out how to learn a new language, you’ll learn faster by designing a method that suits you. 

In fact, incorporating your usual study habits may be the best way to learn a new language.  

You must be wondering, “How can I make the most out of it when I only know a handful of words?”

It’s simple. Think about all the times you struggled with a Math problem or a Physics topic. You didn’t get the answers that you need by giving up. Instead, you used notes, flashcards, videos, and quizzes to fill in the blanks. This is a learning technique that’s unique to everyone, so make sure you know what’s engaging, effective, and efficient FOR YOU. 

Make It a Part of Your Every Day

Not saying you should dedicate your whole life to mastering the language, but the little attempts to further learn the language in between your daily activities are small victories worth celebrating. 

It can be anything from reading flashcards during your daily commute to practicing common expressions during study breaks at the campus library. Even as you wait for your best friend to finish volleyball practice before the two of you head out for a milkshake. The goal is to familiarize yourself with the sounds of the language until you’re ready to put the pieces together. 

Getting Lost in Translation: It Happens

No matter how good you are in your new language, you’re likely to struggle with ambiguity and miscommunication often. 

Think of it this way. Google Translate has a database of every possible language there is. But the fact of the matter is, many of these words and phrases shouldn’t be taken literally, which is why Google Translate isn’t 100% reliable. Translations are not always direct, as the meaning of these words may vary according to particular situations and contexts. 

And if you think that’s going to be a challenge, wait until you start learning idioms. 

Chances are, you’re not likely to have a complete grasp over the slight differences between these words and phrases. And no one expects you to, considering how native speakers haven’t quite mastered this part despite living their entire lives with the language. 

Accept Your Mistakes 

You’re going to make mistakes. A lot of them. Some of these mistakes will embarrass you or even get you in trouble with a local. Your knowledge of the language as a beginner is at the same level as that of a toddler. Foreign people say stupid stuff that native speakers laugh about all the time. But let’s not forget that messing up is all part of the learning process. 

Learning a new language is often about swallowing your pride and coming to terms with the fact that you won’t know everything overnight. 

And that’s okay. 

Don’t be too confident unless you have any reason to be, or you may end up saying the wrong things and getting slapped by a local. In that case, you might want to practice how to apologize in the language as your first line of defense.  

Travel to Foreign Countries

Thinking about taking a gap year just for the hell of it? Traveling might be the most effective way to learn a new language. It’s part of the things that motivate people to go beyond their comfort zone and practice speaking in some other person’s native tongue. Traveling and living abroad, even temporarily, is arguably the best way to learn a new language. You can backpack across the globe, meet new people, study unique cultures, and learn a new language without even trying. 

Useful Links:

Make It Fun

Never associate learning with memorizing. It’s not the same thing, and it never will be. 

People who memorize words and phrases of another language are likely to forget everything they’ve learned after some time. There isn’t a hard-and-fast rule on how to learn a new language. But if there was, it’s to have fun while learning. 

This basically means exploring new ways of learning that will keep you from staring at the pages of a book all day. Books can only get you so far. But life experiences? It makes everything else worthwhile.

Final Word

It’s never too late to learn a new language—whatever your reason for learning it may be. The real challenge comes with the grueling process of becoming accustomed to your foreign language. You can read up dozens of articles on how to learn a new language, but without the drive to pursue your goals, you’ll only find yourself in a dead-end. 

Remember, learning a new language is not an impossible thing. Nor is it too ambitious. There are fun, free, and interesting ways to break down barriers and expand your vocabulary. The secret to success is to find a learning style that works for you. It’s about experimenting with different approaches to see what you consider the best way to learn a new language. 

Who knows, you might even develop an interest in learning more. After all, passion is the only requirement to become a polyglot. 

Don’t limit yourself.

Amusez vous bien!

This article was written with the help of Rachael Walker, a language tutor from PapersOwl. Being a polyglot herself, she has helped and tutored a lot of people, students, in particular, to start and advance in learning languages.

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Todd VanDuzer

Co-Founder & CEO at Student-Tutor
Hello! My name is Todd. I help students design the life of their dreams by ensuring college, scholarship, and career success! I am a former tutor for seven years, $85,000 scholarship recipient, Huffington Post contributor, lead SAT & ACT course developer, host of a career exploration podcast for teens, and have worked with thousands of students and parents to ensure a brighter future for the next generation. I invite you to join my next webinar to learn how to save thousands + set your teenager up for college, scholarship, and career success!
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