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10 Effective Tips to Help You Learn a New Language

Luke Armstrong | Dec 21, 2020

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Many who love to travel are also among those who love learning about other cultures. And the window into someone else’s reality opens widest when you understand how to communicate in his or her language.

A little bit of language goes a long way. Just a few words in another tongue can get you to the bathroom, order you a beer, and give you the freedom to announce to everyone on the dance floor, "I dance like a maniac!" (Aka, the first thing I opted to learn in Icelandic).

People approach learning a language like they do spaying cats and filing taxes—with a reluctant I'll-get-to-it-one-of-these-days attitudes. But if you keep putting these things off, soon you'll have unwanted kittens and have no idea how to explain to your Spanish landlady that "No te preocupes, los gatitos no van a vivir aqui siempre!"

Learning a language can seem like studying calculus in a mosh pit—frustrating and without clear rewards. But there's something magical about those moments when you find yourself understanding and being understood in a foreign tongue.

As it is with juggling fire, so it is with linguistics—the key to learning a language is a sustained commitment to keeping up the study of language learning—practice, practice, practice.

There are a lot of expensive language learning programs out there. Some work better with different learning styles. But there are also no shortage of free language learning resources on the Wild World Web. A good bet for language success is to commit to completing one level of learning program that you like (or commit to one class or tutoring arrangement) and then adopt some of the following language learning practices into your daily life.

Despite what you may have picked up in high school Spanish, language is not a test to cram for. It's a slowly acquired skill that if you're serious about requires a daily commitment. Here are 10 practices to incorporate into your life that will signify increase the speed at which you are able to learn a new language.

1. Learn a New Language by Keeping a Notebook With Accompanying Flashcards

More than the rules of grammar and syntax—which in some languages can be explained and understood conceptually in a few days—it's the memorization of vocabulary that pushes many language learners off the cliff of frustration.

Your best friend to overcome this obstacle is time and paper—or time and a mobile device with a flash card app. 

Keep a notebook (or a digital equivalent) and write in it all the words you have learned, slowly adding the new words you want to learn. Some language notebooks are cleanly separated into categories based on meaning and some are chicken-scratched pages that chronologically lists learned words—either works.

What won't work, or won't work very well, is studying these like you studied for grade school spelling tests—reading each word over and over again.

Make a flash card for every vocabulary word you have in your notebook and try to go through that deck everyday. Then you'll be a language legend.

A language legend studies by going through his or her flash cards in the following way: Go from foreign side to English. Set aside every card that stumped you. When you finish go through the pile of cards that stumped you. Set aside any you miss and repeat the process until you've gotten them all.

Next, go through the whole deck again reading the English side first and translating each word into the foreign counterpart. Repeat the same process—set aside the ones you miss and don't set down the deck until you've translated each card correctly from both sides.

This may seem like a daunting daily task, but it gets to be a much quicker process with time. Soon you'll have memorized 100s of words and will be able to breeze through a thick stack of cards in minutes.

2. Learning a New Language With Your iPhone’s Autocorrect

Type in the language you want to learn in the iPhone’s notepad. When I learned French in Spanish, it led to often speaking Frenchlish, a little known dialect that only I understood.

The best way I found to correct this was chatting with French speakers and typing in my iPhone’s notepad with the French language keyboard activated. Doing this flags the words you have misspelled and shows you the word you are intending to write. It is the best way I have found to master the spellings of a foreign language.

3. Learning a New Language With Music

Listen to songs in the language you are learning and read the lyrics. Lookup any vocabulary you do not know. Whenever you need any of these words in the real world, odds are you will be able to find them in the song you’ve embedded inside you.

4. Learning A New Language With Post-it Notes

Put labels with an object’s foreign name on your household furniture. Put them on your food. Your body parts. If she's willing, put them on your cat. If you are learning Korean, put “바나나” on your bananas. Yes, Arabic students, people may question why you have “مرحاض” written on your toilet. But this is between you and the language you want to learn. So go wild, go postal, and post notes with key vocabulary terms all over your life.

5. Learning A New Language By Showering

Wash away your grammatical ineptitude by posting a new printout language lesson every few days at eye level in the shower. If you are like me, time in the shower is often filled with replaying yesterday’s soundtrack, thinking about what you should have said and done, but didn’t, falling into existential doubt about whether or not you are living the right life. So silence those little inner demons, look straight ahead, repeat after me, “Io sono il miglior pilota di elicottero nel mio villagio” Rinse, lather and repeat.

6. Date Someone Who Speaks That Language

You don’t have to. Try to actively avoid doing it if you are married. But there is a reason that “language” in Spanish also means, “tongue.” You can also just make friends with someone in another language. But really, nothing beats someone who is a native speaker of another language.

If there is no one in your area to be a language exchange partner, find one online. Couchsurfing has hordes of forums of people from one language who want to find a language exchange partner over Skype in the other.

7. Learn a New Language by Changing Settings

I wouldn't recommend this to beginners of a language, but as you progress in your language learning there comes a level when it's time to change your phone, TV, computer, and other devices into the language you are learning.

"Why is your phone in Danish?" your friends may ask. "How do I turn it back to English?" you might ask during some of the inevitable moments of frustration that are sure to follow. But it's basically a guarantee that after a few months you'll know how to speak basic phoneish in your target language and will have mastered words like, "Contacts, space, enter, email, calculator, App Store, airplane mode, notes, music, camera, maps, etc."

8. Learn Verbs in a New Language by Talking to Yourself

In Buddhist mindfulness practice, there is an exercise in which a student keeps a running inner monologue about everything he does. If he makes tea, that monologue would sound like this, "Opening cupboard. Reaching for mug. Touching mug. Filling pot. Turning on stove. Placing pot."

A day of this drives some novice monks crazy, but if you change the language to one you are learning incorporate this practice into different compartments of your life it will give all those nouns you are learning some verbs to move them. One great place to start this practice of talking to yourself is when your cooking alone in the kitchen.

9. Learn a Language By Watching Cartoons

You know those favorite cartoons you used to watch as a kid?—the one that you have every word to memorized? For me, those movies are Aladdin and  The Lion King. Whichever was yours, odds are (unless you are learning Sanskrit) that cartoon is available in the language you want to learn.

So watch those cartoons in that language and really listen to what's being said—this is a great practice to perfect your accent and acquire language like you're fresh from the womb.  

10. Learn a Language by Keeping Up These Lessons

When it comes to learning a language, failure doesn't exist—there are only varying degrees of success. I've seen ads for programs that claim to get you fluent in as little as 10 days. Like anything worth attaining in life, learning a new language will take a lot of time spread out over months and years. But if you can have fun along the way—if the journey involves singing songs, taking long, luxurious showers, and watching cartoons then it should be something you can not just handle, but have a blast doing.

About the Author

luke armstrong

Luke Maguire Armstrong is the author of "The Nomad's Nomad." He has spent the last decade traveling, writing and designing, and funding philanthropic programs around the world.

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