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3 Strategies to Learn a Foreign Language

Let's face it - learning a foreign language can be tedious... and sometimes boring - when you run out of ideas! Most people enjoy novelty when learning as the brain easily gets wired into specific ways of thinking. This often leads to stagnation in the learning process - as well as a decline in motivation. So I figured I'd share the ideas I've come up with during several years spent learning four foreign languages (English, Turkish, German and Italian).

Running Out of Ideas...

I've structured these ideas into "strategies" which I have associated with an "archetype". Each of these strategies has its own goal as well as personality type - therefore its own methods and needs. This way, you can decide which one(s) is/are best for you.

The Way of the Traveler

The Way of the Traveler

When it comes to language learning, the most pleasant idea that comes to mind is that of traveling and learning a language on the road. While this might not be accessible to all (most people have jobs... let alone kids!), this may be one of the more powerful ways to absorb a foreign language.

Learning Through First-Hand Experience

Learning Through First-Hand Experience

Learning experientially might be the way some people prefer to learn. It is also one of the most difficult ways to do so. The real world doesn't have the security of a classroom and is surely not always "language-learner friendly".

This is the way I chose to improve my Turkish in 2015. During the three months I spent in the magnicient city of Istanbul, I avoided the use of English to communicate with locals while always striving to be understood in Turkish.

In complete immersion, there is no better advice than to practice the language with locals. However, there are some requirements that are not always obvious.

  • Know (at least) the basics of the language. Unless you're exceptionally brilliant, learning a language experientially is extremely hard without prior knowledge. I personally went to Istanbul with a low-intermediate level (barely B1).
  • Always stay in a learning environment. That doesn't mean you need to change places all the time but that an environment with diverse learning opportunities (various people, tasks, contexts, etc.) is always better.

Learning On the Road

Learning On the Road

Learning on the road - for example spending days or a couple of weeks in a city - is an excellent way to meet the previous requirement. Changing environments allows you to experience a wide array of situations which benefits the diversity of your learning. Plus, you have to go through all the social steps to getting to know new people!

Obviously, constantly staying with friends who speak your native language is a red flag. Again, I would not recommend you that you hit the road without miminum knowledge of the language.

The Way of the Socialite

Learning Through Social Interactions

Learning Through Social Interactions

During my stay in Istanbul, I had the opportunity to learn Turkish through social interactions. Peer-to-peer relationships are a great way to develop skills in a new language as they are most often entertained in an informal environment - which provides more comfort.

I've written about language exchanges in this previous Speechling article on how to learn French for free. While language exchanges are only a tiny part of social interactions, they are a good way to start if you're new to a foreign city and/or don't know anyone who speaks your target language. Plus, it's a great way to make new friends!

You can also benefit from social environments such as bars, pubs and hostels if you are in the target country. If that's not the case, you might want to check out the above-mentioned article in which I wrote about language exchange events.

My advice on learning a language through social interactions is similar to one I gave for travelling - that is, you should know at least know the bare minimum to hold a basic conversation. Otherwise, nobody will spend their time helping you. The good news is, once you've mastered the basics, you can make progress very fast by applying what you know in social interactions (and have fun doing it!).

Learning Through Online Interactions

Learning Through Online Interactions

Although I will not say much on learning a language online (a bunch of articles are already available on Speechling), this can be an important part of your learning. The world of Internet has made it easier on language learners in that they can find language partners anywhere for free on apps like HelloTalk.

One thing about learning online is that you get to stay in your comfort zone (unless speaking live). Plus, you don't even have to know the basics! You can learn and interact simultaneously with the magic of delayed interactions (i.e. chats)!

The Way of the Geek

The Way of the Geek

The last learning strategy of this article appeals to the more introverted learners. I may have misused the word "geek" - my intention is to refer to people learning in a more "intellectually stimulating" way.

Absorbing Languages Through Books

I think we all agree that books are not exclusively read by so-called "geeks". However, it is fair to say that learning through reading is a more introverted way of absorbing a new language.

In my humble opinion, I would claim that reading is the most powerful way to absorb both a language's grammar and vocabulary in depth. While having meaningful conversations might help you strengthen your foundation, I would say that reading really takes your skills to the next level.

My advice for learning through books is to either:

  1. Read content you're already familiar with (in the target language) or

  2. Read bilingual content.

In either case, the content must be interesting to you. Otherwise, will not learn effectively.

Leveling Up With Video Games

Leveling Up With Video Games

Video games are a wonderful means to learn a language. This Speechling article by Steffani covers the ways that they can be used to learn effectively.

My personal opinion on video games is that they are great as they have you learn in a flow state - which enables you to assimilate even more of the language. Games with great story lines and dialogues (often subtitled) are preferable for intermediate and advanced learners, whereas strategy games are better for beginners as you can stop and go at your own pace.

The pitfall when it comes to video games, however, is to get absorbed too much into the game itself and to forget your original language goal. Your brain will especially trick you if it senses that the content you're trying to assimilate is too difficult for you.

Getting the Most Out of the Strategies

Getting the Most Out of the Strategies

Nobody is 100% a traveler, a socialite or a geek. Keep in mind that those are just archetypes used for simplicity. I would recommend that you combine the three strategies for optimal results. You probably know what "dosage" is best for you.

While going over all these strategies, you may have noticed that applying any of these ideas require basic knowledge of your target language. Whether you are learning on your own or following some kind of language learning program, it is sometimes difficult to get feedback - which is critical if you want progress - it's a guarantee that you're headed in the right direction.

Speechling provides specifically the kind of feedback you need. Native speakers of English, French, Spanish, Chinese German and Russian are at your disposal so you can improve your language skills. All you have to do is record yourself reading sentences in the target language (in private) and our professional coaches will provide objective feedback on these recordings until you get it right!

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Mica Ménard

Mica Ménard

Dedicated language learner, I've taught myself English, Turkish, German and Italian and am still learning more! Also a native speaker of French. Making language learning fun and easy is my mission.

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