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 tướng a Guatemalan friend… in her native Spanish.

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Today, I’m conversationally fluent in both Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese, and low conversational in Russian.

I’m not going to tướng 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 learning a foreign language, and none of them worked for u. It took hours of study combined with stumbling through many, many conversations.

Here are 25 tips I’ve gathered over the past few years:

1. Conversation, Conversation, Conversation

If there’s a “secret” or “hack” to tướng learning a foreign language, it’s this: hours and hours of awkward and strenuous conversation with people better kêu ca you in that language.1 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.2 I don’t care how cool your study guide is, you’re going to tướng be far more invested and motivated to tướng communicate with a live person in front of you kêu ca a book or audio program on your computer.

Guy and girl talking under red curtains

The second reason is that language is something that needs to tướng be processed, not memorized. I’m no linguistics professor, but in my experience, staring and memorizing a word in a book or with flashcards 100 times simply does not stick the same way as being forced to tướng use a word in conversation a mere two or three times.3

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 tướng 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 tướng associate that word with that specific interaction and conversation I was having with her. Whereas I can blow by that same word đôi mươi times with flashcards, and even though I may get it right, I haven’t actually practiced implementing it. It means nothing to tướng u, so sánh it is less likely to tướng stick with u.

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 kêu ca studying one hour a day for two months. This is one reason why so sánh 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 tướng allot a particular period of your life, even if it’s only 1-2 weeks, and really go at it 100%, kêu ca to tướng 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 learning a foreign language is a fairly personal process—everyone naturally learns some words or topics easier kêu ca others, therefore a class is not going to tướng be able to tướng 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 tướng 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 tướng catch up.

I also had a German classmate who had already been exposed to tướng cases, whereas I had no clue what they were. I’m sure he ended up waiting around for u to tướng figure it out as well. The larger the classroom, the less efficient it’s going to tướng be. Anyone who had to tướng take a foreign language in school and retained absolutely none of it can tell you this.

4. Know Your Motivation for Learning a New Language

It’s silly to tướng even have to tướng say this, but knowing why you’re learning a foreign language is key to tướng mastering it.

Many people start learning a language with no idea of what they’ll use it for. And, sure enough, they fail. You can know all the tips and tricks there are to tướng learning a language, but if you don’t know the why behind it all, how it’s going to tướng enrich your life, chances are you’re going to tướng lose motivation and the learning will fizzle out lượt thích an engine sputtering out of gas.

Are you looking to tướng start a new life in a different country? Are you learning a foreign language because you’re fascinated by the culture and want to tướng dive in at the deep end? Are you planning a trip to tướng a foreign land and simply wanting to tướng be able to tướng order street food and tell the xe taxi driver where you’re going in the local language?

These are all good motivations to tướng learn a foreign language.

And yes, there are bad ones too. If you want to tướng learn Russian simply to tướng impress that xinh tươi Russian you met at the bar, if you’re thinking of picking up French phrases to tướng impress people and look smart, well, I have bad news for you.

Motivation is a tricky thing. You can will yourself to tướng learn something difficult for a short period of time. But in the long run rẩy, you need to tướng be reaping some practical benefit from your efforts. Without that, you’ll eventually burn out.

5. Set Learning Goals to tướng Learn a Foreign Language

Language-learning goals are best if they are short, simple and easily measurable. Many of us embark on studying a language by saying, “I want to tướng be fluent in Japanese in six months!”

The problem is, what is fluency? Fluent in what way? Casual conversation? Reading and writing? Discussing legal issues for your business?

Instead, it’s better to tướng phối clearly defined goals. Start with something lượt thích, “By the kết thúc of today, I will know how to tướng greet someone and introduce myself. In two days, I will learn how to tướng ask someone what they bởi for a living and explain to tướng them what I bởi. By the kết thúc of the week, I will know how to tướng procure food and avoid starvation.”

And to tướng get you started, I’ll give you the goal of all goals, the milestone that will take you furthest on the path to tướng fluency: “Master the 100 most common words in X weeks/months.”

6. Start With the 100 Most Common Words

Not all vocabulary is created equal. Some gives you a better return on investment kêu ca others.4

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 tướng ask someone which part of town they lived in, he had no idea what to tướng say.

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

7. Carry a Pocket Dictionary

This made a much bigger difference kêu ca I expected.

I carry an English-Spanish dictionary tiện ích on my phone and I used it all the time when I lived in Spanish-speaking countries. My first two weeks in Brazil, I was lazy and kept forgetting to tướng tải về 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 tướng look something up in the middle of conversation. And because you’re using it in conversation, you’re that much more likely to tướng recall it later.

Even something that simple affected my conversations and ability to tướng interact with locals a great giảm giá khuyến mãi.

8. Keep Practicing the New Language in Your Head

The other use for your dictionary is that you can practice while going about your day and not talking to tướng anyone.

Challenge yourself to tướng think in the new language. We all have monologues running in our head, and typically they run rẩy in our native tongue. You can continue to tướng practice and construct sentences and nhái conversations in your head in a new language.

In fact, this sort of visualization leads to tướng much easier conversations when you actually have them.

For instance, you can envision and practice a conversation about a topic you’re likely to tướng have before you actually have it. You can begin to tướng 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 tướng answer them.

9. You’re Going to tướng 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 u horny. Um, yeah… It’s going to tướng happen. Trust u.

10. 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 kết thúc in “-ción” in Spanish and “-ção” in Portuguese.

English speakers are notorious for simply adding “-o” “-e” or “-a” to tướng the kết thúc of English words to tướng 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 sánh on.

In Russian, case endings always rhyme with one another, so sánh 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 tướng “krasee-vee”).

(For a language-learning method that focuses on pronunciation, kiểm tra out The Mimic Method).

11. 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 out there (I recommend Benny Lewis’ Language Hacking courses, but there are tons). These courses are great for getting you from absolutely no ability in a language to tướng being able to tướng 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.).

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I’ve already mentioned Rosetta Stone which I’m not a người hâm mộ of (you can get better bang for your buck elsewhere—read on and find out). Other kêu ca this, there is no shortage of language apps for you to tướng take your pick: Babbel, Memrise, and Duolingo being the most popular ones.

Each has its own shortcomings. None is a magic pill that gives you miraculous language abilities. But there is no doubt you can use them to tướng complement your learning. If anything, the crowd-sourced sentences Duolingo uses to tướng teach you grammar and vocabulary will provide great entertainment (and often a peek into what goes on in the minds of the people whose language you’re attempting to tướng learn).

But remember, the greatest return on investment when learning a foreign language is forcing yourself to tướng 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 tướng formulate meaning and significance in the new language on the spot.

Instead, you’re encouraged to tướng 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 effective kêu ca the other.5

12. After the First 100 Words, Focus on Becoming Conversational

Studies have shown that the most common 100 words in any language tài khoản for 50% of all spoken communication. The most common 1,000 words tài khoản for 80% of all spoken communication. The most common 3,000 words tài khoản for 99% of communication.6

In other words, there are some serious diminishing returns from learning more vocabulary.7 I probably only know 500-1,000 words in Spanish and in most conversations I never have to tướng 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 tướng meet your friend.”
  • “How old is your sister?”
  • “Did you lượt thích the movie?”

The first few hundred words will get you pretty far. Use them to tướng 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 tướng joke consistently in the new language, that’s a pretty good sign that it’s time to tướng expand your vocabulary.

A lot of people attempt to tướng 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.

13. Aim for the Brain Melt

You know how when you bởi a lot of intellectually intensive work for hours and hours on kết thúc, at some point your brain just feels lượt thích a lump of gravy?

Shoot for that moment when learning foreign 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.

Concentrated young man with his head melting in tangled lines

14. Use the New Language Daily

Unless you have superhuman abilities, you’re not going to tướng become fluent in a language if you don’t use it often and consistently. And the best way to tướng ensure you hit both marks is simply to tướng use it daily.

Keep having those mental monologues. Go over those 100 words and conversational phrases you learned so sánh they stick.

Better yet, immerse yourself in the new language. Changing the operating language on your browser or phone will leave you disoriented for a few days, but it will get you used to tướng seeing the language in your daily life. Listen to tướng podcasts or the radio in your target language on your commute.

Watch YouTube videos in the language you’re trying to tướng learn. A lot of foreign-language videos will have English subtitles. And if you’re feeling bold, you can even watch them without the subtitles! The Internet is your friend. Let it help you melt your brain every day.

15. “How Do You Say X?” Is the Most Important Sentence You Can Possibly Learn

Learn it early and use it often.

16. 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 tướng learn a foreign language that I’ve found.

A mere two hours a day for a few weeks with a tutor in Brazil got u to tướng 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…

17. 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 bởi something wrong, you can claim that it was lost in translation.

18. If You Can’t Find Someone Cute Who Will Put Up With You, Find a Language Buddy Online

There is a number of websites of foreigners who want to tướng learn English who would be willing to tướng trade practice time in their native language for practice in yours.

Here is an overview of language exchange websites and apps. (The reviews are written by Bilingua, which is itself one of the apps reviewed, so sánh take their bias into tài khoản.)

19. Facebook Chat + Google Translate = Winning

Seriously, technology is amazing.

20. When You Learn a New Word, Try to tướng Use It a Few Times Right Away

When you stop and look up a new word in conversation, make a point to tướng use it in the next two or three sentences you say.

Language learning studies show that you need to tướng hit a certain amount of repetitions of saying a word within one minute of learning it, one hour of learning it, one day, etc.8

Try to tướng use it immediately a few times and then use it again later in the day. Chances are it’ll stick.

21. TV Shows, Movies, Newspapers and Magazines Are Good Supplements

But they should not be mistaken or replacements for legitimate practice.

When I was getting good at Spanish, I made a point to tướng watch a couple movies each week and read an article on El País each day. It was helpful for keeping u fresh, but I don’t believe it was as helpful as my time spent in conversations.

gasps in spanish

22. Most People Are Helpful, Let Them Help

If you’re in a foreign country and making a complete ass out of yourself trying to tướng buy something at the grocery store, ask random people for help. Point to tướng something and ask how to tướng say it. Ask them questions.

Most people are friendly and willing to tướng help you out. Learning a foreign language is not for shy people.

23. 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 kêu ca 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 tướng nail down the exact meaning for each person kêu ca it would between two native speakers.

No matter how good you are in your new language, you’re not likely to tướng 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.

24. These Are the Phases You Go Through to tướng Learn a Foreign Language

First, you’re able to tướng speak a little and understand nothing. Then you’re able to tướng understand far more kêu ca you speak. Then you become conversational, but it requires quite a bit of mental effort. After that, you’re able to tướng speak and understand without conscious mental effort (i.e., you don’t have to tướng translate words into your native tongue in your mind).

Once you’re able to tướng speak and listen without thinking about it, you’ll begin to tướng 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 tướng follow a conversation between a large group of native speakers is the last piece of the puzzle to tướng fall into place. Or at least it was for u.

Once that happens, and you’re able to tướng interject, come in and out of the conversation at will, you’re pretty phối. After that, there’s not really anywhere else to tướng go without living in the country for at least a year or two and reaching complete fluency.

25. Finally, Find a Way to tướng Make It Fun

As with anything, if you’re going to tướng stick to tướng it, you have to tướng find a way to tướng make it fun.

Find people you enjoy talking to tướng. Go to tướng 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 tướng burn out fairly quickly.

Talk about personal topics which you care about. Find out about the person you’re talking to tướng. Make it personal, a life experience, or else you’re going to tướng be in for a long, unenjoyable process which will likely kết thúc up in you forgetting everything you learned.

And those, my friends, are my 25 tips to tướng learn a foreign language effectively. Now go and get learning.

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  1. This is exactly how all of us learned our native language as children. See: Clark, E. V. (2018). Conversation and Language Acquisition: A Pragmatic Approach. Language Learning and Development14(3), 170–185.↵
  2. If you want to tướng learn more about the role of motivation and language learning, here’s a collection of studies to sink your motivated teeth into.↵
  3. Here’s what an actual former Professor of Second Language Acquisition (SLA) says on the topic: “SLA is best conceived of as involving multiple processes that in turn may contain subprocesses that work at every stage of acquisition.” Yep, processes galore.↵
  4. Have a guess what the words with the highest returns in English are… (Answer: ‘the’, ‘of’, ‘and’, ‘a’, ‘to.’) See: Fry, E. (1999). 1000 Instant Words: The Most Common Words for Teaching Reading, Writing and Spelling. Teacher Created Resources.↵
  5. If you want to tướng learn more about speaking and foreign language acquisition, this book is as good a place as any to tướng start.↵
  6. Native speakers typically know 15,000 to tướng đôi mươi,000 lemmas in their language (‘lemma’ meaning a root word and all its inflections e.g. ‘run’, ‘running’, ‘ran’). But this is not a realistic goal for language learners. If you know the 3,000 most common lemmas, you’ll already be able to tướng understand dialog in film or television (which is more difficult kêu ca day-to-day speaking). And if you want to tướng master the written word, the number you’re looking for is 8,000-9,000 lemmas. See this Đài truyền hình BBC article for more.↵
  7. This study, for example, finds that knowing up to tướng 11,123 words in Dutch helps to tướng be able to tướng understand first-year university reading material, but knowing more kêu ca that won’t get you much further.↵
  8. This study, for example, finds for Japanese students learning English that, “[i]f learners encounter unknown words ten times in context, sizeable learning gains may occur.”↵