How to learn a foreign language

Remember when I promised some time ago that I’d be doing a series of posts about language learning? If you’ve hopped onboard only recently, you can check out the fist post here and decide which language you’d like to use these super duper cool-as-ice tips for.

(As to how my Portuguese is going… Well, I know how to ask “Your place or mine?” but not tell my age… but, uhh, I’m getting there.)

To start off this post, I need to admit something – I don’t have a nice, clean list of methods to present that will work with every single language learner. We are all different and so are the ways we comprehend and grasp the world. When you start learning a new language, it is worth taking a second to stop and think of different ways you usually learn things, whether it be a  maths class or a safety demonstration at work. If you don’t know for sure or you’ve never learnt a language before, try out different methods and see which one works the best. Most likely you will end up using a mix of different learning methods, which is only good since you will most likely need writing and reading skills as much as you need listening and speaking skills. if you’re interested in knowing more about different types of learners, this site does a nice summary of the three main types. (You can also be a hybrid.)

By the way – I’ve accompanied this post with pictures from some of the countries I’ve been to, captioned with idioms used in these countries. Now since I’m not particularly fluent in Greek or Hindi, I’ve had to Google most of these… So I hope they are right. Also I think I should definitely write a post about the most bizarre Finnish idioms because who even says ‘chicken cage of terror’ to express

“Ei kukko käskien laula.” Finnish; “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” Literally: The rooster does not crow on command.


amsterdam (50)
“We zullen dat varkentje wel even wassen.” Dutch; “We’ll get around doing it.” Literally: “We will certainly get that piglet washed.”
Live like a local

Are you trying to learn Spanish while living in Spain or studying Vietnamese in a small town in Norway? Immersion is a great way to support your learning so obviously you would have a better way of switching your brain to Spanish in Spain than to Vietnamese in Norway. Especially if you learn by listening, you will pick up new expressions and vocabulary easily and be able to communicate effectively in everyday situations. Living or travelling long term in the country forces you to use the language in meaningful contexts, provided that you spend your time somewhere where people don’t speak English very well and/or that you make a conscious effort to use the language you are learning.
It can be useful to carry around a pocket dictionary. Even though flipping through the pages in a conversation can be awkward and downright impossible, you can use it to later check a word you forgot. Having a dictionary with you works better in situations in which you are by yourself. Train your brain to think in the language you’re trying to learn. A few weeks in you might even start dreaming in that language.
“γἰναμε μαλλιἀ κουβἀρια.” Greek; “get into a fight”. Literally: “become yarn balls”.
Cram it like it’s high school.
In school, I was a straight A girl, and if you’re anything like me, you can use those cramming skills to your benefit even if you’re long out of high school. If you’re learning a language independently, text books meant for teacher-lead studying are still great resources to get you started. It can be difficult planning lessons for yourself, so the clear structure of text books and how they present their content gives you an idea on what to learn. You could buy your own books, but as they tend to be expensive, pop down the language section at your local library and borrow one. (Be a decent human being though and don’t write on a borrowed book! I’m looking at you, guy who doodled the right answers all over my library Portuguese book.)
Make vocabulary lists and write down words you don’t know. Make little pop quizzes for yourself. You can also search the internet for learning materials since there should be plenty of free exercises that you can do.
“Słoń nastąpił ci na ucho?” Polish; “You have no ear for music.” Literally: “Did an elephant stomp on your ear?”

Be all ears

– music, tv shows and movies
It is essential that you don’t only cram the grammar but also grasp the way the language is spoken. Often learners of a language think that pronouncing the words correctly is the most significant part of learning to speak a foreign language, but things like speech patterns, intonation, and rhythm of speech also have a huge effect even to the point where you might not be understood if you stress the wrong syllables.
If you’re interested in knowing how a word or a name is pronounced, it’s worth checking out Forvo. It is an online database of, well, as their tagline says: “All the words in the world. Pronounced.” You can search by word and listen how native speakers around the world pronounce it. For a more fluent understanding of speech patterns and such, watching movies and TV shows in your new language can help a lot.
 At first it might be easier to re-watch your favourite show in the language you’re learning or even watch something with the original audio but with translated subtitles, just because you know the plot already and it’s easier to get a grasp of the language if you don’t have to focus all your energy on what’s going on. I’ve seen How I Met Your Mother in like three languages; The Simpsons, as well, has been dubbed into ridiculously many languages.
Take to Youtube. There’s so much quality content there for language learners. You can find anything from educational videos starting from the basics of the language and going all the way into the more advanced level, as well as clips of local TV shows, vlogs, and conversations which help you understand the spoken language.
Personally, my favourite idiom in English is “get your goat”… meaning that something gets on your nerves.
1. Read and write. 2. ?? 3. Profit
Just as you pick up speech patterns and accents watching television shows, you can easily learn grammar and vocabulary while you’re reading. Start simple; pick up a children’s or a young adult’s book that you know won’t be linguistically very difficult. Or find a magazine that interests you as well as browsing through blogs written in the language you’re trying to learn.
Don’t rely on other people’s writing to keep up your skills, though. Take notes in order to memorise what you’ve learned. Write down questions for yourself and find answers for them or ask somebody who knows. Get a pen pal… Or whatever those are called these days. Messenger mate? Snapchat sis? Do people even use email anymore? I feel old.
“Det är ingen fara på taket.” Swedish; “No need to worry about it.” Literally: “There’s no danger on the roof.”
Twist that tongue.
Speech practice in the language you’re learning is important – you don’t want the first time you’re ever using a language to be the real deal. Read out loud to practice pronunciation. Have conversations with yourself or with your cat to get more comfortable in your language. Of course practicing with other people would be most ideal, so try to find someone who is also studying the language and who will help cheer you on or even gather together a study group of lovable misfits who are, in fact, completely insane (I really miss Community). Native language partners are also great to have – it is possible to find language exchange partners, in which case you both will get something out of it. Taking lessons is obviously a great way to get to practice with other like-minded people, and you don’t have to be enrolled in a school or university to attend lessons: there are plenty of cultural and language centres that offer language courses on all levels. Well, unless you live in a tiny town somewhere, in which case you could seek online classes or a Skype tutor.
“Das ist mir Wurst.” German; “I don’t care.” Literally: “It’s all sausage to me.”
” दाल में कुछ काला होना” Hindi; “There’s something fishy.” Literally: “There’s something black in the lentil soup.”
Set goals
Now, it is very important to have self-discipline. If you’re anything like me, you’d probably rather be eating cheesecake and watching BoJack Horseman than studying on your free time, but you’ll have to make learning a fun activity. Picturing yourself fluently communicating with locals in the country you’re about to travel to can be a great incentive, or if you’d rather frighten yourself to learn, just think about how much trouble you’ll be in when your phone gets robbed off you in a remote village on the mountains where no one even knows what English is. Make it a routine to set aside fifteen minutes a day to study. Tell all your friends and family, and ask them to ask you about your progress when you talk – peer pressure can be very effective. Write down your goals and stick them to your refrigerator. You can do this.
You also need to clarify it to yourself what you’re learning the language for. Is it just for a week-long trip to the Spanish coast and you want to be able to read the menus? Do you want to be able to communicate with your boyfriend’s older relatives? Are you aiming to be completely fluent to the point where you confuse people when you tell them where you’re really from? When you learn a foreign language, you need to be kind to yourself. You don’t possibly need to know the language perfectly. Don’t feel too much pressure about becoming fluent in a language you want to be able to use to just get by. Another thing to consider is how much time and effort you’re willing to put into studying on your free time.
“Puust ja punaseks ette tegema.” Estonian; “to make something really clear”. Literally: “to make something out of wood and paint it red”.
“Te tira los tejos.” Spanish; “He/She is flirting with you.” Literally: “He/She is throwing the disks at you.”

Learning a new language is an exhausting task. While our native language usually comes to us as easily as breathing, with foreign languages we really need to strain our brain to dig out the grammatical rules and weird words that we need in forming coherent sentences. Your brain will work on overdrive and often make you physically fatigued. However, the more you learn, the easier it gets. At some point you won’t be translating everything in your head but you process the information you get directly in the language that you received it. So keep at it; it’s worth it.

paris (152)
“Les carottes sont cuites!” French; “There’s no use crying over spilt milk.” Literally: “The carrots are cooked.”



Do you have any tips of your own for learning a new language?

2 thoughts on “How to learn a foreign language

  1. These are some helpful tips. Thanks! I definitely agree that immersion is one of the fastest and most efficient ways to learn a new language. But if that isn’t possible, cramming it or setting goals – like you mentioned – are great ideas.

    By the way, I think I recognize that yellow, half-timbered house. That wouldn’t be Malmö, Sweden, would it? 😉

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