Aah, being fluent in another language and impressing other people. Looking elegant while saying “Bonjour, je suis une belle baguette de la tour Eiffel.” People admiring your adventurous spirit when they hear you utter “Me gusta importar pimientos y faltar un tortillo.” Learning a foreign language without actually making too much of an effort is on everyone’s bucket list. Right next to licking Leonardo Di Caprio’s face and telling your mother to stop talking to you. Wait, that’s my bucket list.
I’ve spent my life learning foreign languages, for some reason. I was born a French speaker, started learning Dutch in elementary school, then English on my own; and later in high school, German. I went on to do my translation studies at uni, and that’s when I learned Spanish and even a bit of Swedish (hej, suddgummi). The only foreign language that I still master to this day is English and the reason is simple: I taught myself when I was a kid (ok, a weird, lonely kid) and I went on improving it on my own.
Fair enough, the younger the learner, the faster the learning process. I still believe, however, that with a bit of self-discipline adults can learn a foreign language without having to attend classes.
Did I forget to mention I taught English as a foreign language? Here are a few things that I have been telling my students to do to learn languages or improve their language skills.
Turn off those damn subtitles
A lot of my students have this ridiculous belief that watching films or series with the subtitles on is going to make them experts at learning a foreign language. Wrong. The only thing you’re going to learn is how to read.
I can watch a Bulgarian movie with the subtitles on (in English) and still learn nothing Bulgarian related.
If you’re a beginner: pick your favourite film and watch it in the language you are trying to learn. An alternative is to try and watch cartoons in the target language. With Netflix, it’s really easy to do.
If you’re intermediate: as of now, watch everything in the target language with the subtitles on (in the target language)
If you’re upper-intermediate: just turn off the subtitles. Period.
Make sure you watch actively: pay attention to what people say, how they say it and why they use certain words or tenses to express certain things.
2. Use the language as a way to get info about what you like
If you’re into fashion or computer maintenance, read magazines about those topics in the target language (again, easy to find online). If you like cooking, try following a recipe. If you’re into makeup, get on YouTube and try following a tutorial. If you like a certain type of music, discover artists that are famous in the country where the target language is spoken.
What matters is that you combine learning a foreign language with something you already like and/or master.
When I was a kid, I would spend hours learning the lyrics to the songs that I liked, even if I didn’t fully understand what they were about, which, in retrospect, was plain weird (I remember listening to the Outhere Brothers in my parents’ car and thinking it was cool).
Weirdness aside, listening to music and memorising the lyrics to all the songs that I liked really improved my vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation. Even to this day, I’ll use certain turns of phrases because I learned them from George Michael or Oasis.
Reading is probably the best way to improve your vocabulary. Because of its obvious pace, it’ll give you time to think about what you just read, to try and guess the meaning, to look up words or just to read all over again if that’s needed. And no, reading subtitles doesn’t count as reading.
Choose your level carefully, though. I know for a fact that English has graded readers. Granted, it feels a bit humiliating to read books that were rewritten for your level, but it’s the best way to go at first. There’s nothing glorious about having a pre-intermediate level in Swedish and sitting there with one of those Millennium books and not having a scooby what you’re reading.
5. Speak to yourself (out loud)
Ok, I am fully aware of the fact that this might be odd if you’re not the type of person who speaks to themselves in the first place, but bear with me. Speaking to yourself out loud will help you work on your fluency without having to deal with the stress of speaking to other people. This might be useful if you’re shy or introverted.
6. Speak to other people
You don’t necessarily need to be specific about native speakers. Speaking with non-natives will help your fluency as well.
Now, if you’re in it for the accuracy you’ll have to find native speakers, of course. Finding native speakers in this day and age is really easy, thanks to the Internet. However, don’t expect them to explain the difference between the present perfect simple and the present perfect continuous.
Specifically ask them to correct your mistakes if you want to be corrected. Keep in mind that not everyone does it automatically. Think about it: if a foreigner was speaking to you in your mother tongue, would you correct every single mistake they made if they didn’t ask you to?
7. Immerse yourself at home
Living or studying abroad is not always feasible or necessary. There are cheap ways of “living” in a foreign language.
- switch your phone and computer language to the target language
- play video games in the target language (The Sims is great for every day vocabulary)
- Listen to the radio / webradio
- If you live with someone who speaks it, only speak to them in that language (even if it’s your boyfriend and causes a lot of frustration)
- start a blog 🙂
8. Fall in love
I’m not telling you to ditch your partner and get a new one for the sake of learning a foreign language.
But let’s be real: falling in love with someone means that you’ll want to talk to them for hours, understand every single thing they tell you and want to express your feelings in the most precise ways. Later on in the relationship, you’ll want to make sure that they know they are wrong and that takes language skills as well!
In addition, loving someone who comes from another country is an invaluable access to the culture of said country. Learning a language without knowing anything about the culture(s) it comes from is
If you’re serious about learning a foreign language, don’t…
- buy 8 grammar books, 3 dictionaries and 4 self-study books (you’re not going to use any of them). Just buy one good, reliable dictionary (if possible with a grammar section in the middle) and that’s all you’ll ever need.
- force yourself to watch the news in the target language if you’re not interested in the news in the first place. It’ll just make you sick of the language in no time.
- waste your money on language learning apps
- think that going to the country is the only way you can learn. It is one of the ways, but there are a lot of people who speak foreign languages well despite not having lived anywhere else. Conversely, there are a lot of people who have been living in a foreign country for years and still can’t speak the language properly.
- hope that you’re going to be learning a foreign language in a few weeks/months time. If it was that easy, everyone would speak tons of languages.
I hope these tips help 🙂
Do you speak other languages? How did you learn? Would you add any tips to this list? Leave your comments 🙂