25 Tips To Learn A Foreign Language


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Trying to learn a new foreign language can be daunting at first. Here are some tips to get you started.

19 minute readCulture and Society
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 lớn a Guatemalan friend… in her native Spanish.

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

I’m not going khổng lồ 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, và none of them worked for me. It took hours of study combined with stumbling through many, many conversations.

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

Conversation, Conversation, Conversation

If there’s a “secret” or “hack” to lớn learning a foreign language, it’s this: hours và hours of awkward & strenuous conversation with people better than 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 & 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 lớn be far more invested & motivated to communicate with a live person in front of you than a book or audio program on your computer.


The second reason is that language is something that needs to lớn 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 lớn 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 và social experiences, memories which have emotions tied to lớn them.

So, for instance, if I look up the verb for “to complain” và use it in a sentence with a new friend, chances are I’m always going to associate that word with that specific interaction and conversation I was having with her. Whereas I can blow by that same word 20 times with flashcards, & even though I may get it right, I haven’t actually practiced implementing it. It means nothing to me, so it is less likely to lớn stick with me.

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 than studying one hour a day for two months. This is one reason why so 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, và a consistent commitment & investment. It’s better khổng lồ allot a particular period of your life, even if it’s only 1-2 weeks, và really go at it 100%, than lớn half-ass it over the course of months or even years.

Classes Suck và Are an Inefficient Use of Time & 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 than others, therefore a class is not going to lớn be able to lớn 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 lớn 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 lớn catch up.

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

Know Your Motivation for Learning a New Language

It’s silly to even have to lớn say this, but knowing why you’re learning a foreign language is key lớn 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 & tricks there are khổng lồ learning a language, but if you don’t know the why behind it all, how it’s going khổng lồ enrich your life, chances are you’re going to chiến bại motivation và the learning will fizzle out like an engine sputtering out of gas.

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

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

And yes, there are bad ones too. If you want khổng lồ learn Russian simply khổng lồ impress that đáng yêu Russian you met at the bar, if you’re thinking of picking up French phrases khổng lồ impress people & look smart, well, I have bad news for you.

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

Set Learning Goals to 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 lớn 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 lớn set clearly defined goals. Start with something like, “By the kết thúc of today, I will know how khổng lồ greet someone and introduce myself. In two days, I will learn how lớn ask someone what they vày for a living và explain to lớn them what I do. By the kết thúc of the week, I will know how lớn procure food and avoid starvation.”

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

Start With the 100 Most Common Words

Not all vocabulary is created equal. Some gives you a better return on investment than 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 và living there.

It turns out, much of the vocabulary he had been studying was for kitchen utensils, family members, clothing và rooms in a house. But if he wanted to lớn ask someone which part of town they lived in, he had no idea what to say.

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

Carry a Pocket Dictionary

This made a much bigger difference than I expected.

I carry an English-Spanish dictionary app on my phone & 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 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 lớn look something up in the middle of conversation. And because you’re using it in conversation, you’re that much more likely to recall it later.

Even something that simple affected my conversations và ability to lớn interact with locals a great deal.

Keep Practicing the New Language in Your Head

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

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

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

For instance, you can envision & practice a conversation about a topic you’re likely lớn have before you actually have it. You can begin khổng lồ 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 khổng lồ answer them.

You’re Going to 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 me horny. Um, yeah… It’s going khổng lồ happen. Trust me.


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” khổng lồ the kết thúc of English words lớn 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” và so on.

In Russian, case endings always rhyme with one another, so if you are talking about a feminine noun (such as “Zhen-shee-na”), then you know that the adjectives & adverbs will usually rhyme with its ending (“krasee-vaya” as opposed to lớn “krasee-vee”).

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

Use Audio and Online Courses for the First 100 Words & Basic Grammar

After that they should only be used for reference và nothing more.

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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 being able khổng lồ speak basic sentences và 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.).

I’ve already mentioned Rosetta Stone which I’m not a tín đồ of (you can get better bang for your buck elsewhere—read on and find out). Other than this, there is no shortage of language apps for you to lớn take your pick: Babbel, Memrise, và 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 complement your learning. If anything, the crowd-sourced sentences Duolingo uses to lớn teach you grammar và vocabulary will provide great entertainment (and often a peek into what goes on in the minds of the people whose language you’re attempting lớn learn).

But remember, the greatest return on investment when learning a foreign language is forcing yourself khổng lồ speak & communicate with others, và when you’re sitting in your bedroom with a book or a software program, you’re not being forced lớn formulate meaning & significance in the new language on the spot.

Instead, you’re encouraged lớn 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 than the other.5

After the First 100 Words, Focus on Becoming Conversational

Studies have shown that the most common 100 words in any language tài khoản for 1/2 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 và in most conversations I never have lớn 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 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 khổng lồ get as comfortable as possible with grammar, idioms, slang & constructing thoughts, jokes, and ideas in the new language on the fly. Once you’re able khổng lồ joke consistently in the new language, that’s a pretty good sign that it’s time khổng lồ expand your vocabulary.

A lot of people attempt khổng lồ expand their vocabulary too quickly & 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.

Aim for the Brain Melt

You know how when you vị a lot of intellectually intensive work for hours và hours on end, 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.


Use the New Language Daily

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

Keep having those mental monologues. Go over those 100 words and conversational phrases you learned so 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 lớn seeing the language in your daily life. Listen khổng lồ podcasts or the radio in your target language on your commute.

Watch YouTube videos in the language you’re trying to 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.

“How vì You Say X?” Is the Most Important Sentence You Can Possibly Learn

Learn it early và use it often.

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 và 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 lớn learn a foreign language that I’ve found.

A mere two hours a day for a few weeks with a tutor in Brazil got me to at least a respectable conversational level—i.e., I could go on a date with a girl who spoke no English và maintain conversation throughout the night without making too much of a fool of myself.

Speaking of which…

Date Someone Who Speaks the Target Language and Not Your Native Language

Talk about investment and motivation. You’ll be fluent in a month. & best of all, if you make them mad or vày something wrong, you can claim that it was lost in translation.

If You Can’t Find Someone xinh tươi Who Will Put Up With You, Find a Language Buddy Online

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

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

Facebook Chat + Google Translate = Winning

Seriously, công nghệ is amazing.

When You Learn a New Word, Try to lớn Use It a Few Times Right Away

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

Language learning studies show that you need khổng lồ 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 lớn use it immediately a few times and then use it again later in the day. Chances are it’ll stick.

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 lớn watch a couple movies each week & read an article on El País each day. It was helpful for keeping me fresh, but I don’t believe it was as helpful as my time spent in conversations.


Most People Are Helpful, Let Them Help

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

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

There Will Be a Lot of Ambiguity & 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 than that. It’s used for particular situations và contexts, whereas in English we use “like” as a blanket verb covering anything we enjoy or care about.

These subtle differences can địa chỉ up, particularly in serious or emotional conversations. Intentions can be easily misconstrued. Nuanced conversations over important matters will likely require double the effort lớn nail down the exact meaning for each person than it would between two native speakers.

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

These Are the Phases You Go Through lớn Learn a Foreign Language

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

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

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

Finally, Find a Way khổng lồ Make It Fun

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

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

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

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