5 Techniques on how to learn a new language and expand your limits
Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” Here’s a look at 5 great language learning techniques, plus tips to help you tap into your inner polyglot. They will help you either embark on a new language learning journey or improve your itinerary for the journey you have already begun.
How To Learn A New Language – Overview
Wittgenstein saw language not just as a code but also as a social practice. The language of a people group can give insight into that group’s way of life once you can decode it. This insight can be invaluable in business, political, social, and educational interactions.
Additionally, understanding social nature through language gives us access to new information and perspectives in a never-ending journey of lifelong learning.
The 5 core strategies for learning a new language are:
Immersion, Repetition, Vocabulary, Grammar and Speaking Practice.
The biggest hurdle to learning a new language
Learning a new language is fun but can also be daunting. The last of these – speaking practice – may be the biggest hurdle, as people fear being misunderstood or sounding stupid. Indeed, saying the wrong thing can be embarrassing at the very least or, at worst, it could cause much confusion, and sometimes it could even mean getting into trouble.
The best approach is to set your mind to speaking mode and think of it as an essential but also a fun part of learning a new language. You won’t crawl forever. Soon you will get up and walk and even run if you commit to your goals in mind. You will start to breathe, think, and feel in your new language.
5 Techniques on How to Learn a New Language
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This is like being thrown into the deep end of the pool. You must, at the very least, figure out how to tread water, or you may drown.
Immersion in language learning is basically an attempt to affect the same conditions you had when you learned your first language as a baby. The main method for learning in that context was that you were surrounded by that language primarily and you learned by watching, listening, and using what you know.
Well, you had to, otherwise, you would not be able to communicate even to get your basic needs met. Hence, the most effective way, then, to immerse yourself in a new language is to plant yourself in a place where that language is the dominant mode of communication.
Take a Language Immersion Trip
A great way to do this is to go on an immersion trip. There are, of course, prepackaged immersion experiences. These tend to be rather expensive and the hand-holding defeats the purpose, in a sense. A better approach, if you are so intrepid, is to plan your own trip. You will get some tips below for how to do this.
Sometimes, this opportunity comes to you in the form of a move for work or education to a new locale where another language predominates. If your job is relocating you to Nairobi, then you have a great opportunity to get a Swahili immersion experience!
Maximize Learning through Immersion
Whatever the impetus behind the travel, you will likely spend time studying the language before you arrive, so you should have at least the basics to help you get through your first days there. Whether you are the one who plans the travel or not, the most important thing you can do when you arrive is to speak to locals as much as possible.
It is said that a habit is formed after it is repeated 21 times. Language learning is part intellect building and part habit forming. Repetition in context can be done by consuming the same content over and over. In fact, as I taught my own children French, this technique helped us all. Playing the same French cartoons repeatedly helped in these ways:
1. Phrases – On repeated playbacks, we picked up words and phrases that we missed on the first play. Remember watching Seinfeld reruns and discovering a new joke that you never noticed the first few times you watched the Soup Nazi episode?
2. Pronunciation – We sometimes watched a video so many times that we could recite the soundtrack along with the characters. This helped us perfect our pronunciation and intonation. Just beware of what accent you are going to pick up subliminally.
Watch videos and series multiple times
So play that Tamil-language “How to Make a Perfect Samosa” video over and over until you can both recite the video verbatim and delight your friends with truly perfect samosas! You can apply this technique, of course, to all media content. A great alternative is to watch videos with subtitles enabled. Read and listen at the same time.
The Goal: To Think in Your New Language
Repetition is especially important early in your language journey when you need to learn the core words and phrases, conjugation, etc. The goal is to get you to the point where you think in the new language, rather than translating in your mind every time you have a conversation.
This latter tactic, called filtering, will be necessary at first. Over time, you will phase this slower method out as you gain fluency in your new tongue.
As much as we would like language learning to have evolved past just learning words, it is the words that make a language – speakable! Indeed, vocabulary learning is an unavoidable part of learning a new language. It is not sophisticated to eschew vocabulary learning. Embrace this part of the process. It is critical.
Learn important keywords and phrases
When you are beginning to learn a new language for the first time, learning the “right words and phrases” needs to be a priority. This is how you lay the foundation on which you will build to higher levels of proficiency. Different languages and language groups will have a core group of words that are used more frequently than any other words in the language.
Lock down the “right words” first. In the English language, for example, there is a core of 3-500 words that are used far more frequently than any of the thousands of words the language contains. Certainly, it would behoove someone learning English to get these words under their belt as early in the game as possible!
Old School Ways Still Work
For learning vocabulary, rote memorization is the best method. It may seem old fashioned, but the fact is you need to lock the core vocabulary into your memory to call upon. These words and phrases will serve you both for further learning and for usage in public speaking, speed reading and writing in a variety of contexts.
Flashcards are a great way to train yourself. They are recommended across the board for vocabulary learning. You can make your own. The process of making them will help you get started with the learning. If you prefer, there are printed decks in many languages that you can buy and digital flashcards you can use on your mobile device.
Now that you are committed to bumping up your word game, take your vocabulary learning deeper as you learn the structure of the language and the rules speakers must follow.
Verbs & nouns – For verbs, learn how they are conjugated and how they change for tense. For nouns, learn singular and plural versions of them and any other variations that the language imposes on them. For example, in the romance languages, there is a masculine/feminine distinction in the use of some nouns.
Honorifics – Make sure also to learn honorifics, so you can properly address people in various contexts. Japanese, for example, has rules about the correct word to use to address elders differently from children.
Some language courses on the market minimize or completely eschew this necessary step, but it will be extremely helpful to lock down the grammatical rules of key vocabulary that you are learning early on. The sooner you get your head wrapped around the general grammatical structure of the language, the better you will get at speaking it as you progress.
5. Speaking Practice
The whole point of learning a language is to unlock the opportunity to speak with people with who you would not otherwise have been able to communicate. This is when you begin to own your new language truly. One of the keys to the speaking practice is to allow yourself to interact with a native speaker to follow their example as far as accent and intonation.
There are three general approaches you can take to doing this.
1. Listen and repeat. Back in the days of cassette tapes, this is what we did. We played the tape, stopped it, repeated what was said, then pressed play again. Luckily technology evolves. There are language learning apps that can help you do this in a 21st century way.
2. Practice with a tutor. Some language programs are based on one-on-one connections with native speaking tutors who can give you valuable speaking practice. They will be able to help you smooth out any rough patches.
3. Speak to people! Living in New York City, it was fairly easy to find French speakers. The French were once notorious for being intimidating, ridiculing non-natives who tried to communicate with them and fumbled. Nonetheless, I spoke – to the French waiters and coworkers in the hotel where I was a restaurant hostess, to tourists on the subway – anyone! I ignored the increase in my heart rate and just said some words that I knew that I thought might be relevant.
Yes, I did suffer a bit of ridicule. I once told a French girl on my job that her horses were very pretty. She enjoyed that. I was trying to compliment her hair. The outcome of that interaction is that I will always remember the difference in pronunciation between the words for horses and hair. One can learn from one’s mistakes!
How To Learn A New Language – Additional Tips
1. Top Tip: Adjust Your Mindset
Everything starts in the mind. The decision to learn a new language should be deliberate. There is a difference between saying “oh, how nice it would be to speak ______” and “I am going to learn how to speak ______”. In the second statement, you must commit. The best way to really mentally commit to language learning is to set attainable goals and deadlines.
Here are some examples of goals you can set:
Goal 1 – I will learn 60 new Farsi words in the next 30 days. With a goal like this, you can break your learning goal down to a micro goal – 2 words per day.
Goal 2 – Three months from today, I will be able to hold a simple conversation in Hindi with the owner of the grocery store close to where I live. Now, you will need to take steps to get closer to this goal.
Goal 3 – One year from now, I'll be fluent enough in Portuguese to get that job! Such a goal could be a great source of motivation to keep you going through the months of learning.
2. Immersion Trip Tips
In general, immersing yourself in a language literally means living in a place where only that language is spoken. Here are 6 tips on creating an effective and affordable immersion trip.
Plan your itinerary with the focus on learning the language in every activity out in the community you will stay in. Of course, leave room for spontaneous activities.
Plan daily vocabulary and grammar. Commit to a 15-20 minute review before you head out each day. You may want to set the number of words to learn each day.
Fly when the flights are least expensive. This serves the dual purpose of potentially minimizing the number of tourists you will encounter and keeping your costs down.
Pick an unpopular destination within the country. For example, I understand everyone speaks English in Bangkok. Nevertheless, I visited the small town of Sungai Kolok. It is near the border of Malaysia in southern Thailand. English speakers were very hard to find there!
Consider a home stay with a family or rent an apartment. Apart from having lower travel costs, staying with a family or renting an apartment allows you to become a bit of a local during your stay as you will have to shop for groceries and live around natives.
Speak. As always, even if you struggle, speak and speak some more.
3. Immersion: The Quarantine Edition
Not contemplating a move to Russia this year, and a trip is not in the cards? Don't worry. You can use other immersion-like tactics that will help you soak in the language right where you live. Here are some ways to immerse yourself in a language without leaving home.
Consume familiar content in your new language. When I had my first child, I spent time in the public library looking through the children’s media section. I found my good old friend Winnie the Pooh, The Incredibles and a few other shows and movies I had already seen numerous times in English. The criterion for my media selection was that they needed to allow me to switch them over to French soundtracks.
They would be new for my child, so watching them in French would be a true immersion for her. For me, I could follow along with the French I already understood combined with my understanding of what was going on from having already seen these in my native language. We watched them over and over. This later became much simpler with YouTube.
You can do this with children's books, also. I found French versions of Dr. Seuss classics, Harold and the Purple Crayon, and numerous other books to read to my children over the years. Find music and popular television shows that you have heard and seen a million times already in your first language. This has helped me immensely improve in French!
Learn a subject in the new language. In addition to taking a Spanish class, why not study a subject you are interested in, but find a class that is taught in Spanish for Spanish-speaking people? This could help intermediate and advanced learners sharpen skills in the area that matters to them most.
Interested in taking your studies in nutrition deeper by earning another micro-credential? Find yourself a nutrición class. Not only will you strengthen your language skills, but you will begin to open up a whole new market for yourself professionally.
Teach to learn. The more I searched and found resources for my children to learn French, the more my own French speaking improved. For example, we used a website called Genikids for a few years. A paid subscription gave my kids access to hundreds of learning games that were designed to teach French-speaking children mathematics, science, grammar and numerous other topics at various age levels.
I had to monitor them, help them navigate the site, how to use the trackpad, etc. Doing that, and playing along with them, added more still to my proficiency in the French language.
Change the language setting on one (or all) of your devices. As soon as I get a new phone, I automatically switch the language setting over to French. So, in essence, as far as my phone is concerned, I live and think in French. In fact, there are a small handful of tech terms I ONLY know in French and would not be sure how to translate into English. It’s always fun when someone borrows my phone and discovers that they are no longer in Kansas!
4. Spaced Repetition for Locking in Language Basics
The spaced repetition method is a great way to lock information into your brain. As the name suggests, it takes repetition to another level by inserting space between your study sessions. Studies have shown that the strength of this technique is how you establish the intervals.
The intervals should be short at first – like, several times in one day – then they elongate over time. The next interval could be a day or two. Then another interval would be a few days longer or perhaps an entire week.
What is effectively happening is that you are going to begin to forget the word or phrase. Just before you completely lose it, you revive it in an “Oh, Yeah!” moment. At some point, the information shifts from your short-term memory into your long-term memory.
Bear in mind that you will be studying multiple bits of information and start on different days, so while you are committed to your language learning, you should be repeating something almost every day.
How To Learn a New Language Fast – Summary
Sometimes, people ask me how to say things in French. I answer them and, if they want, I help them with pronunciation. On their last attempt, I respond “oui” instead of “yes”. The first time I did that, I realized that I was finally thinking in French. The commitment I made around age 12 to becoming fluent has stayed with me throughout my life.
I watched the French news every night for immersion during my teens and took the study of vocabulary and grammar in my high school classes seriously. Speaking despite the fear on every possible occasion made it all come together.
The rewards of my commitment to becoming a francophone have been many. I enjoyed conversations with non-English speaking friends from Senegal, Martinique and France.
Being proficient in French, even at a lower level of fluency than I have now, has given me access to job opportunities. It also helped immensely when I was studying with the Wine and Spirit Education Trust, earning certifications.
Learn a new language during your life, at least one. Indeed, this one thing you do for yourself will expand the limits of your world more than you know!
How To Learn A New Language – 5 Techniques
- Immersion – Take a language immersion trip.
- Repetition – Consume specific content over and over.
- Vocabulary – Learn important keywords and phrases.
- Grammar – Learn the core structure of the language.
- Speaking – Talk to people. Enjoy conversations.
How to learn a new language fast? What are your top techniques and tips to learn a language for travel, job, career, education, pleasure, and fun? Let us know in the comments below.