How to Learn a Foreign Language: 24 Firsthand Tips

If you’ve ever tried learning a foreign language, you know that familiar sinking feeling: Whether it’s to order a meal or make an appointment, you say the words in the exact order as you’ve seen them, heard them, written them down 20 times – and are met with a look of utter incomprehension. It stings for a moment, but don’t give in to it – rally and come back stronger! You also know that familiar excitement of saying a bunch of gobbledygook in your target language and somehow, miraculously, connecting – the victorious feeling of being understood, of making progress.

In my life so far, I’ve made serious attempts to learn four foreign languages: Spanish, Hebrew, Czech, and Danish. One of the most helpful things for a language lover like me is to live in the county of my target language, which I absolutely recommend if you have the opportunity. This is how I feel I’ve picked up my most useful language skills in Czech and Hebrew, by fully immersing myself in the cultures of its speakers by living in Czech Republic for a longer period and in Israel at different times.

These tips take the approach of learning a language directly as an expat living in a country where that language is spoken. I also understand that some people are unable to move abroad, and have included some evergreen tips as well. There’s something here for every language learner 🙂

See also: The Three Stages of Language Faux Pas

There are so many routes to reach Pernštejn Castle! Which one will you take?

Have a Goal in Mind

It often helps to ground a lofty goal, like “Learn Spanish Fluently” in more realistic and achievable steps. For example, by the end of my first year in Czech Republic, I wanted to be able to hold a basic conversation in general (ex. how are you, I’d like this), by the second year a simple conversation over lunch with my a single colleague at a time at school (whoever was the lucky and uncomfortable person who sat down with me… ;), and by my third year I wanted to be able to hold a conversation over lunch with multiple people and not feel lost.

I achieved all three! It really helps to focus your efforts, particularly because remaining engaged in a foreign language is hard at first. In the beginning, listening and speaking for 30 minutes would leave me exhausted. Soon, I was able to last an hour without losing focus. Now, it takes little effort for me to spend time in a Czech-only environment for a day or more at a time. It will come!

Connect to the Culture

The concept of linguistic relativity, or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, says that language and culture directly influence each other. The semantic realm of your target language influences the things you are able to say and think. This is why it’s extremely helpful to learn the culture alongside the language.

Finding a connection to your target language is a good gateway to the motivation you need to stay engaged for the long haul. For example, I know many people who want to learn Japanese because they love anime. This also gives great context for remembering culturally-specific and useful terms and phrases. Being able to build strong connections is like being that dog attached to a contraption that dangles a bone just in front of your face – close enough to attain success, out of reach enough to keep you always moving forward.

FOOD is a wonderful motivator!

Go to the Grocery Store

Really! This is where I always start when I move abroad, and I can literally spend an hour or two grocery shopping and reading all of the product names and labels. Since you’re going to have to go there anyway – you need to eat, after all – this is a great place for learning a basic and quite useful vocabulary to help with cooking, going to restaurants, expressing what you do and don’t like when visiting friends.

Plus… it’s an excuse to eavesdrop on real-life conversations! From your expertise in fruits and veggies, you can move on to recipes and piecing together basic verbs. Speaking of which…

Immerse Yourself

We all have different strengths and weaknesses when it comes to learning. Some people are visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learners. Find out how you learn best and pursue that route! Read everything (signs, tickets, advertisements). Watch the news. Listen to the radio. Fill out workbooks. Take a skill-based class, like sculpture or yoga. Find a one-on-one teacher. Learn in context so you can make the connections you need to recall vocabulary and commit the words to memory.

Here I am, learning in the classroom just like my students!

Ask Lots of Questions

See two similar words and don’t understand the difference between their use? Not sure why someone expressed something in precisely that way? My classic American overexaggeration leads me to ask colleagues and friends, “Can I ask you an annoying question?” to help me break down barriers.

My question is almost never annoying, though – it’s interesting! The person I ask has likely never thought about their linguistic nuances that way – or at all. It can also be fascinating for native speakers to understand how non-native speakers approach their language. That’s why “why do we do this?” or “why do we say it like this?” is a fun exercise in listening and understanding together. It’s also a great way to build your cultural understanding.

Repeat Words

When you hear a word for the first time, ask about it. The person will repeat it, helping you to hear the sound. Repeat it back as you’ve heard it, and ask if it’s correct.

Even though Czech is a very phonetic language, its crazy combinations of consonants make it necessary for me to listen carefully. (I’m looking at you, vzdělání and hřbitov.)

“City Library”

Make Excuses

If it helps you to rely on a phrase to diffuse the tension of speaking to new people, do so! Different things that have worked for me; for example, “I’m a little nervous to say this, but,” or “I’m not a native speaker but…” The longer you are learning, the more your excuse-phrase will evolve, until you eventually drop it entirely and speak with confidence.

Get Drunk (but Not Too Drunk)

In my experience, it works. One positive aspect of alcohol is that it allows you to let go, take risks, and get creative. Aim for that sweet spot at around “moderately tipsy” where you’ll feel like a superstar – but if your focus for any given night out is the language, don’t go further than that (it’s not really a good look in any language and you might forget where you live 😉 )

If you don’t drink or live somewhere that alcohol is taboo, there are other ways to meet people where they are at. If you’re comfortable with it, pubs often serve non-alcoholic drinks. Cafés are a great alternative generally. A lot of people relate well over a hookah. This exercise may work better on the weekends when people are generally in a different mindset and want to let loose.

A very clever ad spotted at Prague Airport.

Go Somewhere No One Knows You

If on the other hand, having a relationship with someone makes it much more difficult for you to practice your language skills with them, take a trip somewhere no one knows you and practice on shopkeepers, baristas, people on the train! They’ll never see you again, so you don’t have to be embarrassed 😉

Refuse to Switch to Your Shared Language (Most of the Time)

It often happens that people will switch into a shared language (ex. English) to help you express yourself. If you feel confident that you can express yourself without that help, encourage them to switch back by simply continuing to speak in the language. This should cue them to to stay engaged with you. If it doesn’t, you can ask them directly to stay in the target language.

Take a Break

That being said, it’s also important to take breaks and let your brain rest, process, and organize what you’ve learned. If trying to push out a sentence takes too much out of you and you feel discouraged, it’s totally okay to step back. But try to make it a positive. Can you ask some “annoying” questions to get clarity on the next time you attempt the sentence?

Go everywhere, and annoy people with your language-related questions, with joy.

Accept Feedback Gracefully

If in the process of trying to communicate, someone gently corrects you – pronunciation, grammar, word choice, etc. – try not to take it personally. More than likely, they are trying to help! If it is helpful, don’t feel embarrassed. Start your clause again, repeating the correction so that you can internalize it. Then move on to the next~

Think in the Language

This is hard, and it comes with time! But there are micro-ways you can adopt the structures of your target language while working through it, rather than trying to force your structures on it.

If you repeatedly hear something said in a different way than you would say it either in your native language or the target language, think about the logic of why. Is it connected with a different sentence structure generally in that language? Can you make small tweaks to bring yourself closer to that structure? For me, listening at length really helps me internalize different phrasings. Over time, the choices become more natural because I can call on them from my collective unconscious of conversational tidbits and reproduce them independently.

Join the Conversation

Try to speak at every opportunity. Compliment someone on their outfit. Tell the waiter how much you enjoyed the food. Ask the train conductor a question that you know the answer to. Keep trying even when you feel embarrassed – it gets easier the more you speak. You just have to take the leap and do it! The key is persistence even when you want to give up.

Describe Things

My English conversational students would often get discouraged when they didn’t know or forgot the exact word they wanted to say. It would derail their entire sentence, and they would stop speaking. Just because you are missing a word doesn’t mean you can’t express yourself! You might know a synonym or alternate pathway towards what you want to say. Try not to default to a dictionary or switching into your native language. Instead, talk around things and describe them when you don’t know the word so that your conversational partner can help you identify it.

For example, I was recently missing the word “criminal.” I said, “How do you call a person who does something bad and goes to jail for it?” After I got the word, I returned to and continued my original thought without breaking out of the language.

Laugh off Pronunciation Trouble

One of my most famous mistakes in Czech was to confuse kočka (cat) with čočka (lentil). We still remember it and laugh about it to this day – and guess what? I’ve never forgotten the difference again. Mistakes can be extremely teachable.

I like to say that when I came to Czech Republic, I signed an invisible contract to amuse people with my language faux pas. Czechs aren’t used to seeing non-Czechs learn or speak the language, so even the teensiest mistake can send them into the giggles. When you make it a game and let everyone know you’re in on it, though, people will surely laugh with you rather than you fearing they are laughing at you.

Doing a cartwheel on a grassy plain in Ireland.

Praise Yourself / Recognize Your Progress

Have you been making steady progress? You deserve a standing ovation. Marvel at yourself. Ask yourself, “How the f*** did I get to this point?” especially when you feel discouraged. When someone tells you how impressed they are with you, accept the compliment without justifying it – they think you’re great, so you should too! Say thank you and mean it.

Choose a Daily Word to Use

Another pro tip courtesy of my students. A lot of times, they would let me know how frustrating it was that they could understand much more than they could speak. This is always the case with learning a language – it takes time and effort to switch your passive vocabulary to your active vocabulary. It always happens to me that once I learn a word, I suddenly hear it everywhere when I thought I never heard it before. My recommendation is to latch on to the specific word you feel is important and try to use it in your conversations at least once, but ideally multiple times, over a whole day. This helps you practice and build your active use muscles. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Throw in Fancy Words

One of my favorite strategies to impress new people and anchor my own self-confidence when I’m feeling discouraged is to throw in idioms or high-level words I know where they are relevant. It makes people think you are way smarter than you are, and the confidence boost can only help your following attempts to speak 🙂

My favorite idiom to use in Czech is “My o vlku, a vlk za dveřmi,” which translates to, “Speak of the devil.” (We’re talking about the wolf who’s behind the door.) This has never failed to impress! (Now you know my secrets.)

I recently wrote about funny Danish idioms here.

Find a Community

Do you live outside of the country where your target language is spoken? Keep practicing and stay immersed even if you live abroad. There are so many ways, and different ones will be viable for different situations: Speak. Write. Read. Listen. At the very least, maintain a cultural connection by keeping current with English-language news from that country. Furthermore, is there a language exchange event you can go to? Is there a community of people speaking your target language located relatively close to where you live? Be a part of the language where you can find it. Even listening to real-life conversations without putting pressure on yourself can be immensely helpful.

Recognize Your Steps

You will encounter obstacles at each level of your language learning. When I started formally learning Hebrew, it was easier because I had learned the Aleph-bet in my childhood. Other students were stopped in their tracks by this new set of letters. My first challenge was making linguistic connections between words in a non-Romance language where I had no reference point, ex. cat and chatool. Once I saw the word written or spoken 10 times, I would know it. The next was learning that most words in Hebrew have a three-letter root that reoccurs and ties the word meanings together. An additional challenge was “mastering” the seven-tiered verb system.

Every language is different and incredible. Imagine – there are roughly 6,500 languages in this world. They all have their own sets of logic, and their speakers all manage to make themselves understood! When you move up a step on your language-learning ladder, congratulate yourself. You are making incredible progress, whether or not you’re doing it as fast as you’d like to.

Take Your Time

This is a good philosophy for life as well as language: Refuse to let people rush you! Sometimes it’s unavoidable that people will be less patient with you because you’re not a native speaker, but sometimes you can assert yourself in a way that makes people patient, resist the urge to finish your sentence for you, and listen. I find a good strategy is just to continue speaking when you’re interrupted. It will remind that person to quiet down and wait for you to finish. But it does take practice, since communicating in the first place can be anxiety-provoking. The good news is you get to start anew every day and create new opportunities for patience and connection.

It Takes Time, in General

Remind yourself, “I have all the time in the world to learn this language.”

Finally, Never Stop Learning

You are never so “educated” that you don’t need to learn more. Even native speakers of any given language continue to read and create new neural pathways for new ideas. We are never finished even when we are relatively fluent. Stay hungry, be voracious. Ask questions. Absorb. When you see everything as an opportunity for growth, life will always remain an exciting adventure!

3 thoughts on “How to Learn a Foreign Language: 24 Firsthand Tips

  1. I’ve been trying to learn Japanese since college, which was decades ago, and I have to confess that I’m still struggling with it now. My goal was to be able to watch Japanese movies and TV shows without English subtitles. However, I can only understand a few words or sentences here and there. Maybe my motivation was too weak. 😅

    Like

  2. Great tips! I have something to add: create jokes in that language. That’s one thing I love to do

    Like

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