Five Quick Tips for Learning a Language 

The best thing I have ever done in life was to learn Spanish. As I travel, I love meeting new people, and throughout my travels, it has been incredibly helpful to have Spanish as another communication channel when English doesn’t suffice. Being able to speak Spanish has opened up my world exponentially and it continually allows me to make connections that otherwise may not be possible.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to move down to Costa Rica for work. At that time, I didn’t know more than “hola”, “gracias” and a few colors and numbers, but I had faith that I could learn the language. My first three months were so confusing. I had no idea what was going on around me, but I persevered, determined to ultimately learn the language.

Signs in Costa Rica

Many people talk about wanting to learn a language, but saying and doing are two different things. Learning a language takes time, effort and persistence, and in all honesty, you need to be a little bit shameless.

If you are really going to try and learn another language you have to be willing to practice, even if you might sound goofy in the process, and you have to seek out opportunities to speak with people who can help teach you the language you are trying to learn.

Now, the best way to really learn a language is to move to a country which speaks the language you are aiming to master. Immerse yourself.  But, if that’s not in the cards, or if you’re hoping to try and learn a language before visiting a place, try these quick tricks that really helped me to prepare for Costa Rica, and to pick up on Spanish fast.

1. Label your life.

Post sticky notes all over everything – your home, your office, your car- and identify the items in the language you are trying to learn. I even added phrases like, “Close the door,” or “Turn off the lights,” to my sticky notes which were by the door and the light switch. As I did these actions, I would force myself to speak these phrases, which began to integrate them into my mind and my life.

2. Download an app like DuoLingo and start practicing.

DuoLingo is a fantastic app which helps you learn a foreign language through reading, writing, and speaking. While you are using it, you feel like you are playing a game. You earn points and can even track your progress and compete with other people who are trying to learn a language. If you have ever tried Rosetta Stone, it is very similar, but it’s available on your smartphone and it’s free.

3. Listen to music videos with lyrics.

A great way to make a connection between reading, speaking, and listening is through the use of music videos with lyrics, readily available on YouTube. Find some songs you like, and sing along to them. It will get you practicing the words, and it will help you to understand how the words actually sound when people say them. By reading the lyrics you will also become familiarized with spelling.

4. Learn how to say a few key phrases about your interests and how to ask basic questions.

Use Google Translate, or an app like itranslate on your phone, and start translating things that you would like to tell people about yourself in the process of getting to know someone. When I first moved to Costa Rica, I quickly learned how to tell people that I liked nature and hiking, because I wanted to do those things. I also taught myself how to ask simple questions like, “How was your weekend?” and then I would look up how to say what I had done the past weekend, so I could continue the conversation.

5. Watch TV or videos with subtitles.

Sometimes it is helpful to hear dialogue in your native language and to simultaneously read along in the language you are trying to learn. By reading along, you are introduced to new words, and it also helps you understand how you would say the phrases which are common in your native language.

6. Watch your favorite movie, but dubbed in a foreign language.

This advice was given to me by a French professor years ago. He asked me what my favorite movie was, and then he told me to go and watch it in the language which I wanted to learn. The reasoning behind this is that you already know all the lines to your favorite movie, so when you hear it spoken in another language you will be able to make the connection. I completely forgot about the advice, until it just happened organically. I was in Costa Rica, and one of my favorite movies came on tv, but completely dubbed in Spanish, and without English subtitles. I decided to watch it anyway, and lo-and-behold, the French professor was right! I understood everything.

7. Find a teacher.

If you are financially able, a professor is a great investment because they will teach you the official rules of the language. However, if you can’t afford a professor, find a teacher in a different way. Maybe you can see if there are any local gatherings of people in your area who speak the language you are trying to learn, or maybe you can reach out via the internet and find a new friend to practice with. If you are already living the country, practice speaking the language with people at local markets and stores.

8. Read a book!

As you progress with your language development, branch out into the realm of children’s books, and see what you can learn. The Little Prince is a beautifully written book for young adults which has been translated into hundreds of languages, and it is a great book to start with.

As you can see, there are many ways to bring a new language into your life. When you’re learning another language, it automatically opens you up to another world. It helps break down possible barriers, and allows you to go beyond what you know in order to connect with something new.

As you get started, allow yourself to enter a child-like state; be open to everything; soak it in like a sponge. Remember: Don’t get overly frustrated with yourself- it doesn’t happen overnight.

Learning a language is a fun and challenging process, and when you’re finally able to speak with someone in a language that’s not your own, you will feel a deep sense of satisfaction that lets you know it was all worthwhile.


2 thoughts on “Five Quick Tips for Learning a Language ”

  1. Thanks Holly! I am on Duolingo right now trying to learn some Gaelic for my upcoming trip to Ireland. I am glad they speak English there as Gaelic is so much harder to learn than Spanish was for me. I keep trying though!

    1. Haha if only you could use DuoLingo to learn Irish-English! :) the best word I know from Ireland is “craic” pronounced like “crack”. They use it for everything: “What’s the craic?” or “He’s good craic!” … Give it a try…you might impress someone!

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