22 Tips For Learning A Foreign Language

When I arrived in Buenos Aires in the beginning of 2010, I could barely order food in a local restaurant. Two years later, I calmly explained the mechanics of Russian grammar to a Guatemalan friend… in her native Spanish.

Today, I’m conversationally fluent in both Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese, and low conversational in Russian. I’m not going to blow smoke up your ass and tell you it was easy or that there’s some shortcut or hack. I practiced my ass off. Honestly, I’ve seen the supposed “hacks” for language-learning, and none of them worked for me. It took hours of study combined with stumbling through many, many conversations.

Here are some language-learning tips I’ve gathered over the past few years:

1. Conversation, Conversation, Conversation. If there’s a “secret” or “hack” to learning a new language, it’s this: hours and hours of awkward and strenuous conversation with people better than you in that language. An hour of conversation (with corrections and a dictionary for reference) is as good as five hours in a classroom and 10 hours with a language course by yourself.

There are a few reasons for this. The first is motivation. I don’t care how cool your study guide is, you’re going to be far more invested and motivated to communicate with a live person in front of you than a book or audio program on your computer.

The second reason is that language is something that needs to be processed, not memorized. I’m no expert on language learning, but in my experience staring and memorizing a word in a book or with flashcards 100 times does not stick the same way that being forced to use a word in conversation a mere two or three times does.

I believe the reason is that our minds place more priority on memories which involve actual human and social experiences, memories which have emotions tied to them. So, for instance, if I look up the verb for “to complain” and use it in a sentence with a new friend, chances are I’m always going to associate that word with that specific interaction and conversation I was having with her. Whereas I can blow by that same word 20 times with flashcards, and even though I may get it right, I haven’t actually practiced implementing it. It means nothing to me, so it is less likely to stick with me.

2. Intensity of study trumps length of study. What I mean by this is that studying a language four hours a day for two weeks will be more beneficial for you than studying one hour a day for two months. This is one reason why so many people take language classes in school and never remember anything. It’s because they only study 3-4 hours per week and often the classes are separated by multiple days.

Language requires a lot of repetition, a lot of reference experiences, and a consistent commitment and investment. It’s better to allot a particular period of your life, even if it’s only 1-2 weeks, and really go at it 100%, than to half ass it over the course of months or even years.

3. Classes suck and are an inefficient use of time and money. All things considered, you get a really poor return for your time and effort in group classes. There are two problems. The first is that the class moves at the pace of its slowest student. The second is that language learning is a fairly personal process — everyone naturally learns some words or topics easier than others, therefore a class is not going to be able to address each student’s personal needs as well or in a timely fashion.

For instance, when I took Russian classes I found verb conjugations to be simple because I had already learned Spanish. But an English classmate struggled quite a bit with them. As a result, I spent a lot of my class time waiting around for him to catch up. I also had a German classmate who had already been exposed to cases, whereas I had no clue what they were. I’m sure he ended up waiting around for me to figure it out as well. The larger the classroom, the less efficient it’s going to be. Anyone who had to take a foreign language in school and retained absolutely none of it can tell you this.

4. Start with the 100 most common words. Not all vocabulary is made the same. Some gives you a better return on investment than others. For instance, when I lived in Buenos Aires, I met a guy who had been studying with Rosetta Stone for months (not recommended). I had been working on and off with a tutor for a few weeks, but I was surprised by how he could not follow even the most basic of conversations despite months of study and living there.

It turns out, much of the vocabulary he had been studying was for kitchen utensils, family members, clothing and rooms in a house. But if he wanted to ask someone which part of town they lived in, he had no idea what to say.

Start with the 100 most common words and then make sentences with them over and over again. Learn just enough grammar to be able to do this and do it until you feel pretty comfortable with all of them.

5. Carry a pocket dictionary. This made a much bigger difference than I expected. I carry an English-Spanish dictionary app on my phone and I used it all the time when I live in Spanish-speaking countries. My first two weeks in Brazil, I was lazy and kept forgetting to download an English-Portuguese application. I struggled in my conversations A LOT during those two weeks, despite knowing basic Portuguese.

Once I downloaded the dictionary, there was an immediate difference. Having it on your phone is great, because it takes two seconds to look something up in the middle of conversation. And because you’re using it in conversation, you’re that much more likely to recall it later. Even something that simple affected my conversations and ability to interact with locals a great deal.

6. Keep practicing in your head. The other use for your dictionary is that you can practice while going about your day and not talking to anyone. Challenge yourself to think in the new language. We all have monologues running in our head, and typically they run in our native tongue. You can continue to practice and construct sentences and fake conversations in your head in a new language. In fact, this sort of visualization leads to much easier conversations when you actually have them. For instance, you can envision and practice a conversation about a topic you’re likely to have before you actually have it. You can begin to think about how you would describe your job and explain why you’re in the foreign country in the new language. Inevitably, those questions will come up and you’ll be ready to answer them.

7. You’re going to say a lot of stupid things. Accept it. When I was first learning Spanish, I once told a group of people that Americans put a lot of condoms in their food. Later, I told a girl that basketball makes me horny. Um, yeah… It’s going to happen. Trust me.

8. Figure out pronunciation patterns. All Latin-based languages will have similar pronunciation patterns based on Latin words. For instance, any word that ends in “-tion” in English will almost always end in “-ción” in Spanish and “-ção” in Portuguese. English-speakers are notorious for simply adding “-o” “-e” or “-a” to the end of English words to say Spanish words they don’t know. But stereotypes aside, it’s surprising how often it’s correct. “Destiny” is “destino,” “motive” is “motivo,” “part” is “parte” and so on. In Russian, case endings always rhyme with one another, so if you are talking about a feminine noun (such as “Zhen-shee-na”), then you know that the adjectives and adverbs will usually rhyme with its ending (“krasee-vaya” as opposed to “krasee-vee”).

9. Use audio and online courses for the first 100 words and basic grammar. After that they should only be used for reference and nothing more. There are a lot of study materials: Pimsleur, Rosetta Stone, Berlitz, DuoLingo, etc. These courses are great for getting you from absolutely no ability in a language to being able to speak basic sentences and phrases within a few days time. They’re also good for teaching the most fundamental vocabulary (words such as: the, I, you, eat, want, thanks, etc.).

But the weakness of study materials is that they don’t allow for much useful practice. The greatest return on investment in language learning is forcing yourself to speak and communicate with others, and when you’re sitting in your bedroom with a book or a software program, you’re not being forced to formulate meaning and significance in the new language on the spot. Instead, you’re encouraged to parrot and copy concepts and patterns you’ve observed elsewhere in the materials. As mentioned before, I feel that these are two different types of learning and one is far more useful than the other.

10. After the first 100 words, focus on becoming conversational. Studies have shown that the most common 100 words in any language account for 50% of all spoken communication. The most common 1,000 words account for 80% of all spoken communication. The most common 3,000 words account for 99% of communication. In other words, there are some serious diminishing returns from learning more vocabulary. I probably only know 500-1,000 words in Spanish and in most conversations I never have to stop and look a word up in my phone.

The basic grammar should get you speaking fundamental sentences within a matter of days.

“Where is the restaurant?”
“I want to meet your friend.”
“How old is your sister?”
“Did you like the movie?”

The first few hundred words will get you pretty far. Use them to get as comfortable as possible with grammar, idioms, slang and constructing thoughts, jokes and ideas in the new language on the fly. Once you’re able to joke consistently in the new language, that’s a pretty good sign that it’s time to expand your vocabulary out.

A lot of people attempt to expand their vocabulary too quickly and too soon. It’s a waste of time and effort because they’re still not comfortable with basic conversations about where they’re from, yet they’re studying vocabulary about economics or medicine. It makes no sense.

11. Aim for the brain melt. You know how when you do a lot of intellectually-intensive work for hours and hours on end, at some point your brain just feels like a lump of gravy? Shoot for that moment when learning languages. Until you’ve reached brain-gravy stage, you probably aren’t maximizing your time or effort. In the beginning, you’ll hit mind-melt within an hour or two. Later on, it may take an entire night of hanging out with locals before it happens. But when it happens, it’s a very good thing.

12. “How do you say X?” is the most important sentence you can possibly learn. Learn it early and use it often.

13. One-on-one tutoring is the best and most efficient use of time. It’s also usually the most expensive use of time, depending on the language and country. But if you have the money, grabbing a solid tutor and sitting with him or her for a few hours every day is the fastest way to learn a new language I’ve ever found. A mere two hours a day for a few weeks with a tutor in Brazil got me to at least a respectable conversational level — i.e., I could go on a date with a girl who spoke no English and maintain conversation throughout the night without making too much of a fool of myself.

Speaking of which…

14. Date someone who speaks the target language and not your native language. Talk about investment and motivation. You’ll be fluent in a month. And best of all, if you make them mad or do something wrong, you can claim that it was lost in translation.

15. If you can’t find someone cute who will put up with you, find a language buddy online. There are a number of websites of foreigners who want to learn English who would be willing to trade practice time in their native language for practice in yours. Live Mocha is a great resource for this (I’m not a huge fan of their lessons, but the ability to video chat with other members is priceless).

16. Facebook chat + Google Translate = Winning.

17. When you learn a new word, try to use it a few times right away. When you stop and look up a new word in conversation, make a point to use it in the next two or three sentences you say. Language learning studies show that you need to hit a certain amount of repetitions of saying a word within one minute of learning it, one hour of learning it, one day, etc. Try to use it immediately a few times and then use it again later in the day. Chances are it’ll stick.

18. TV shows, movies, newspapers and magazines are a good supplementation. But they should not be mistaken or replacements for legitimate practice. When I was getting good at Spanish, I made a point to watch a couple movies each week and read an article on El País each day. It was helpful for keeping me fresh, but I don’t believe it was as helpful as my time spent in conversations.

19. Most people are helpful, let them help. If you’re in a foreign country and making a complete ass out of yourself trying to buy something at the grocery store, ask random people for help. Point to something and ask how to say it. Ask them questions. Most people are friendly and willing to help you out. Learning a language is not for shy people.

20. There will be a lot of ambiguity and miscommunication. Fact of the matter is that for many, many words, the translations are not direct. “Gustar” may roughly mean “to like” in Spanish, but in usage, it’s more nuanced than that. It’s used for particular situations and contexts, whereas in English we use “like” as a blanket verb covering anything we enjoy or care about. These subtle differences can add up, particularly in serious or emotional conversations. Intentions can be easily misconstrued. Nuanced conversations over important matters will likely require double the effort to nail down the exact meaning for each person than it would between two native speakers. No matter how good you are in your new language, you’re not likely to have a complete grasp over the slight intuitive differences between each word, phrase or idiom that a native speaker does without living in the country for years.

21. These are the phases you go through. First, you’re able to speak a little and understand nothing. Then you’re able to understand far more than you speak. Then you become conversational, but it requires quite a bit of mental effort. After that, you’re able to speak and understand without conscious mental effort (i.e., you don’t have to translate words into your native tongue in your mind). Once you’re able to speak and listen without thinking about it, you’ll begin to actually think in the foreign language itself without effort. Once this happens, you’re really hitting a high level.

And the final level? Believe it or not, being able to follow a conversation between a large group of native speakers is the last piece of the puzzle to fall into place. Or at least it was for me. Once that happens, and you’re able to interject, come in and out of the conversation at will, you’re pretty set. After that, there’s not really anywhere else to go without living in the country for at least a year or two and reaching complete fluency.

22. Finally, find a way to make it fun. As with anything, if you’re going to stick to it, you have to find a way to make it fun. Find people you enjoy talking to. Go to events where you can practice while doing something fun. Don’t just sit in a classroom in front of a book, or you’re likely to burn out fairly quickly. Talk about personal topics which you care about. Find out about the person you’re talking to. Make it a personal, life experience, or else you’re going to be in for a long, unenjoyable process which will likely end up in you forgetting everything you learned.

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