Learning a language is a lot of work, but it’s also super fun and rewarding. There are no shortcuts or magical methods, you simply have to put in the time to study and practice.
There are, however, ways of getting the most of your time and maximizing your effectiveness. I self-taught myself French and German, and in doing so I’ve figured out what tools and exercises seem to work best and what language learning techniques weren’t so effective. So here’s 12 tips that I believe will really enhance your language learning experience:
1. Active Learning
What I mean by active learning is that you really have to want to learn a language. You’ll learn so much more if you are interested in learning a language and actively use your brain to build vocabulary and make sentences in your head on a daily basis, compared to just memorizing words to pass a test.
Make learning the language part of your every day life, even if you’re in your home country. While your walking around town, try and think of the foreign word for every day objects you see, label items in your house with the corresponding foreign word, or translate in your head sentences you overhear people say.
2. Be careful what learning products you buy!
I borrowed German Rosetta Stone from a friend and gave it a long try for a month, completing Levels 1, 2 and 3.
The concept is very unique, but I find that it is a relatively slow and time-consuming way to learn a language. Also, if you aren’t proactive going through it, due to it’s multiple choice-style teaching, it’s easy to passively breeze through it without really absorbing the vocabulary. It is also extremely expensive!
I think workbooks and free online tools are just as useful, and allow for more active learning.There are plenty of free and cheap tools out there! For instance:
3. Quizlet.com – a flashcard site
Simply a flashcard-making site. This promotes active learning and thinking. Many methods of language learning are very passive and don’t allow the vocabulary and grammer to become part of your long-term memory. Quizlet lets you store and build flash card sets. Keep a journal of terms you want to learn, then transfer it later to your Quizlet flashcards. That brings me to:
4. While travelling or living abroad, write vocabulary daily in a journal or your phone, and have a dictionary always handy
I found it extremely useful to always have my phone or a journal that I could write down new and useful phrases that I encountered in a day. Or if there was a French word I didn’t know, I would write it down, then translate it and add it to my Quizlet flashcards later so you can later bury it in your long-term memory.
You don’t need to carry around a 1-pound dictionary- it’s the 21st century! There are great dictionary apps available for cell phones and tablets.
5. Language Podcasts
There are plenty of great language podcasts out there. If you’re new to podcasts, I personally like to get them from iTunes or a great iPhone app called Downcast. There’s podcasts like Slow German and One Thing in a French Day, where you can follow along with a piece of text and listen to the words spoken slowly and clearly. Then once you’d like to listen to more naturally spoken language, the next level is downloading one of the many news programs in the language you’re learning so you can get accustomed to the natural slang and shortcuts that native speakers use.
6. Have a good base of the language before you leave
If you’re really keen on learning a language when you’re travelling or living internationally, start learning months before you leave. It’s way better to show up in a country already able to say basic phrases and order food for example, than to be learning your ‘Yes,’ ‘No’ and ‘Thank you’s when you’re on the beach in Brazil.
Ideally you can arrive reasonably proficient with an idea of how the language sounds so you’re ready to interact with the locals on day one.
7. Have no fear of embarrassment
You’ll realize when learning a language the hardest thing isn’t the memorization or the grammar, the hardest part is approaching a native speaker of that language and trying to talk to them, especially if you are at all shy. You don’t want to say the wrong thing or look foolish. But it’s so important to try, and you get used to making mistakes and realizing that people don’t care as much as you think. Plus it can make for hilarious stories later!
Here’s one of my many embarrassing stories: Once I asked a lady on the train if the bathroom was free (felt proud of myself for asking), but had no idea what she said in response. So I panicked and replied “thank you” and walked away, only to later look up what she said. It turns out the word I didn’t understand was ‘available.’
So turns out, I asked if the bathroom was free, she replied ‘it is available’ and I said ‘thank you’ and walked away. It was so embarrassing at the time, but I learned a new word, gained some courage and now I have a great story to tell. I just tell myself “I’ll never see that woman again so big deal.”
8. Persistence in conversation
In places like Germany or Quebec for instance, where they speak English well, you might start the conversation off in German or French, just to have them immediately realize you are English-speaking and then switching the conversation to English. Here you must persist! Remember in some cases they want to practice their English, so even if they speak in English to you, reply in their language.
Remember, you can practice perfecting your grammar and vocabulary at home all you like, but you won’t progress nearly as quickly as you will just getting out there and talking to people! (Just think, talking to strangers, you’ll never see them again so just go for it.)
9. Immerse yourself
Learning a language in a foreign country can be exhausting. Going through a whole day where everything is in a different language takes a toll, so it can be easy start avoiding conversation with people or situations where you need to speak/listen. It’s important to take a break and know your limits, but you have to keep truckin’.
If you are visiting France for example, even if you’re taking a break from speaking, try to have french radio on while you are making breakfast, see french movies with English subtitles and connect spoken words with the subtitles.
When you are ready to speak again, make a point to find reasons to interact with people- at the grocery store, even if you know where something is, ask “where can I find the canned tomatoes?” anyways.
10. Find a Tandem partner
Tandem is simply a meet-up with, let’s say for me, a native German who wants to practice their English. So we meet at a coffee shop and speak German for an hour then switch to English for an hour. It’s fantastic because both parties gain amazing language experience, plus you make a friend and have great conversation about life in your respective countries.
Normally Tandem meetup requests are just posted on Kijiji or the country’s equivalent ad posting website.
11. Head to the farm for some WWOOFing
The Tandem program and WWOOFing are the two biggest things that I attribute my success at learning languages. The hundreds of $$ I spent on German classes and books didn’t even compare to how much I learned for free with a tandem partner and on the farm with a real German family (though the classes were still needed to build a base).
WWOOFing stands for World Wide Organic Farming (hmm missing an ‘O’ somewhere). I worked on farms both in France and Germany, which turned out to be my favorite parts of my entire Europe trip!
Just like the multiple benefits of Tandem, WWOOFing gives you not only second-to-none language immersion, you also experience living the life of a German farmer (having family dinner, cooking food from the garden, selling food at the market etc.), you learn about organic farming and you earn your stay by working.
This experience felt 1 million times more genuine to me than walking around taking pictures of churches in a big city. You feel as if you’re leaving a positive impact on the places you visit.
12. Couchsurfing – host a guest or stay at someone’s house
If you’ve been travelling you’re most likely familiar with the concept of Couchsurfing. It’s a great website that connects you to hosts all over the world.
The idea is you stay for free at their house, in exchange simply for good times and conversation. Also you can return the favour by hosting guests when you get home. This is a great tool because you can continue to practice the language even at home! For example, we had German and French guests come stay with us and they were so thrilled to speak their language and help me with any questions I had.
Learning a language is an excellent way to stimulate the brain and enhance your travelling experience by leaps and bounds. People very much appreciate that someone who has worked hard and is willing to learn their language. I guarantee your success at learning a language is much lower if you don’t have fun and enjoy the language learning process. So enjoy the journey!