Learning a new language is an essential part of almost any education experience. While some students decide to limit their learning to strictly inside the classroom, you may choose to branch out and pursue language learning on your own time. Maybe your school does not offer the language you want to learn, maybe you want to work or study abroad somewhere with the language you didn’t learn or maybe it’s your dream to fall in love with a beautiful French man who will whisk you off to Paris with him.
Whatever your goal may be, learning a new language is no cake walk. I speak four languages with relative fluency and am working on number five. I’ve learned a few tricks along the way. There are four essential parts of learning any language: reading, writing, listening and speaking. Here are practical tips to get your journey started outside of the classroom.
1. Use apps like Duolingo and Mango to learn new vocabulary on your phone.
Chances are, you already spend entirely too much time staring at your screen, so why not take some of that time to help learn new vocabulary? On apps like Duolingo, you can learn new vocabulary and phrases in your target language in a fun, online style that does not feel like learning. I downloaded Duolingo when I began learning German. Silly phrases like “the dog eats bread” helped me remember the most obscure words, the way they are pronounced, their genders and the syntax, all of which are essential when learning a new language.
Mango functions on the same principle of repetition, making you repeat the same sentence over and over and over and over again until you could probably recite the sentence in your sleep. Flashcard apps such as Anki are also a popular method for learning vocabulary, if that is the style you learn best with.
2. Watch your favorite Netflix shows in the language you are learning.
If you are anything like me, there are certain shows and movies on Netflix that you have watched at least seven times and whose dialogue you can recite from beginning to end. One of my favorite ways of learning new phrases and words is to watch my favorite shows in the language I am trying to learn or improve. Log onto Netflix on your browser, press the Browse button and select the Audio and Subtitles button to find what shows and movies you can watch in each language. Pick a show that you are already familiar with so that even if you do not understand every word, you have the context to understand what is going on.
Write down words or phrases that you have never heard before so you can remember them or look them up later. Watching a program in your target language will help you put your new vocabulary into action, teach you how natives pronounce certain words and give you an excuse to sit around watching Netflix all day and call it “studying." Depending on the show you are watching, I can guarantee that you will learn some, shall we say, colorful new phrases that you cannot find in any grammar book.
3. Listen to music.
One of the most fun ways to learn a language is by listening to music. Go on Spotify’s Global Charts and find the playlist of a country’s top 50 tracks. While it is very possible that most of the songs will be in English (thank you, globalization), you will find several jams in your target language. Make a playlist, put it on while you drive or when you’re working out and take the time to read the lyrics and understand what they are saying. This is also a great way to learn more about the culture of the language you’re trying to learn, which adds another layer of depth to your language learning journey. You may be surprised to find that your thing may be German Rap or K-Pop. Music is universal; use it as a tool.
4. Cook recipes in your target language.
The way to the heart is through the stomach, and there is no yummier way to learn a language than through cooking and baking. Go on Pinterest and type in the name of a food recipe in your target language and make a feast. The beauty of cooking and language learning is that cooking uses all of your senses and gives you different ways to associate words that do not necessarily involve translating. When you use your sense of smell, touch, taste and vision, words are more likely to stick with you. If you’re learning French, make a quiche. If you’re learning Italian, find a recipe for the perfect lasagna. You can even find recipes that you would otherwise read in English just to give yourself an extra challenge; if you’re cooking steak for dinner anyways, then why not find a recipe written in Spanish? Print the recipe out, look up words you are not familiar with and make little drawings next to words you’ve never heard before (for example, draw a mixing bowl next to the word for mix, or an oven next to the word for bake).
5. Journal in your target language.
This suggestion came from a friend of mine who studied abroad in Germany and kept a journal for the entire year he was there, written entirely in German. Journaling forces you to put the words you learn into practice, along with making you practice the past tense, a struggle for any language learner. At the end of the day, make a bullet-point list of all the things you did that day, maybe some new words you learned that day.
At first, this may take a lot of effort and brainpower to do something as simple as describe your day, but as time goes on you will learn essential phrases and the journaling will become habit. Writing in a language flexes your writing muscles, which often go unused if you’re learning a language outside of a classroom setting, but are one of the core components of learning a language. Plus, it is a great way to track your language learning journey. You will eventually look back on the journal and have physical proof of how much you have improved, and you’ll be able to laugh at the time you switched the word for dog and car.
6. Find speaking buddies.
The fourth core component of learning a language is speaking. There is no way around this; speaking is often the hardest part of a language to learn. Many people spend years in a classroom learning a language and can barely order a coffee, which is not because they’re lazy or did not try, but simply because speaking is difficult and takes a lot of practice. There are people who can understand a foreign language perfectly but literally cannot formulate a sentence if their lives depended on it.
The only way to practice is to speak, without fear of embarrassing yourself or being wrong or sounding silly. Find someone who is either fluent in the language you are trying to learn, or is also trying to learn the language. Meet up with each other a few times a week at a coffee shop or the park and talk about your week, your life, your interests. Your buddy can help correct your pronunciation, teach you new words and help you find other resources that you may not have otherwise known about. Your speaking buddy arrangement can also be a quid pro quo set up; find an exchange student who wants to improve his or her English and will help you learn their native language in exchange.
Learning a language is not easy. It takes a lot of time and commitment, and it is easy to get discouraged when it doesn’t come naturally, but the payoff is incredible. There is nothing quite as gratifying as being able to hold a conversation in a language you didn’t know a few months ago, or understanding the lyrics to a song or dreaming in another language. Stay motivated and have fun with the process: learning a language does not have to be about sitting down with a grammar book or drilling yourself with flashcards until your eyes bleed. The more fun you have with it, the more likely you are to stick with it. Charge onward, young linguaphile!