What You Need to Know to Learn a New Language Successfully

Tips and tools from a lifetime language learner

Language skills seem to matter more and more in the increasingly connected world we inhabit. If you know a country’s or culture’s language you can communicate and connect as well as travel and move around comfortably. Imagine how the world would be if we didn’t learn each other’s languages: how would we be able to communicate? We all know that English is one of the most spoken languages all around the world, along with Mandarin, Spanish and Hindi, but how does one achieve full proficiency?

I have been learning languages since I was in kindergarten and through the years have had to overcome several challenges that have to do with grammar, culture, false friends, diction and much more. Still, I have found ways to overcome them and consider myself a student of Portuguese (my mother tongue), English, Spanish and Italian. Here are my tips for you!

Get the Basics!

As language learners, we are often tempted to either only study grammar or not study grammar at all. Grammar is like the skeleton of any language, it systematises the way a language works and establish rules that, knowing them by heart, will help you out in every situation. Get a nice grammar book, learn it and practice: exercising is the key here, especially if you, like me, are really bad at memorising information. You can get tasks and tests on several specialised internet websites by searching for your target language and your learning level (usually ranging from A1 to C2). Practising grammar means doing a lot of exercises, if you think you have done enough, then you have not.

However, to know the basics of a language, you also need to know its vocabulary. Words are only words when in context, so you need to try to understand that context. One helpful tactic for learning vocabulary is making themed lists of words with the corresponding meaning in your language. Categories can be as simple as clothing, seasons, the home, public transport and others.

Cultural Immersion is Everything!

My favourite way to internalise both the grammar rules of a language and the way its words work is with cultural immersion. This means that you search for everything you can in your target language from movies and series, to books, music and podcasts and immerse yourself in it. Our words are charged with cultural significance and experience that culture helps to get away from the rules and start using your intuition to select proper words and tenses for each situation. For example, the Italian language has several greeting expressions according to the times of the day you need to understand them to use them correctly: at night if you say buona notte (good night) to someone, they will assume you are off to bed, you should use buona sera instead, which means good evening.

Search the internet for engaging content in the language you want to learn and dedicate time to interacting with it daily! If you can, the next step is to spend some time with people who speak that language or in a country where it is spoken: the more you are in contact with a language, the more and the better you will learn it.

Practise, Practise, Practise

Studying a language requires that you use it! This means that you need to go beyond your grammar and vocabulary exercises: you need to speak out and try to communicate. Listen to how an artist sings a song and go along with the lyrics, try to formulate your own sentences, translate basic (or more complex) sentences, speak to yourself in the mirror, get a pen pal, there is a multitude of options here! Language learning has a very practical component like you need to exercise your body to create muscle, you need to exercise your language skills in order to make them better. It is not enough to keep that exercising in your head, you need to verbalize it. Only if you keep practising every aspect of a language will your proficiency increase: challenge yourself to do more and more difficult things as you start feeling comfortable.

Do not expect to know everything right away! Understanding, speaking, writing and reading in a new language is something that evolves with time. It is more probable that you will receive and learn a lot of information before you feel ready to start using it. Just never give up!

Use Technology to Your Advantage

When I started to learn English there were not any smartphones or apps out there and I find that they revolutionised my language learning process. I especially love using Duolingo to practise both my grammar and speaking skills (and I love how they implement vocabulary). There are other apps and websites out there like italki and Babbel. Other things that can help to use technology to your advantage is changing the language of your phone to the language you are learning, writing on your text software and using the autocorrect to spot mistakes and connecting to online communities that promote language exchanges!

Be Consistent and Enjoy the Ride!

I just listed a lot of tips and tricks to improve your language learning journey but, if you retain only one thing from this post please let it be this: do it every day and do it in a fun way. Your brain requires repetition and routine to understand and memorise the language you want to learn, 20 minutes a day for the whole year is better than 8 hours in one day every month. This is where your discipline needs to come in! Be consistent, do it often! This 20 minutes a day can consist of listening to a podcast or reading something in your target language, it is as simple as that.

It is also very important that you do not forget to have fun! Language learning opens up new worlds and new cultures for you to enjoy, see it as a path to that and not as something you have to do! Whether you are doing it on your own or leaning in a class, you can always find the fun in a language. I love to learn sayings and jokes on my target languages, it helps me to have fun and enjoy them more. You just need to find the ingredient that makes it fun for you!

Passionate reader and writer with a profound interest in history and literature. B.A. in Languages, Literature and Culture; current M.A. Communication student.

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