5 Tips for Learning a New Language

posted by Chris Valentine

Imagine yourself sweeping into a hotel bar. Every eye turns to see you enter in your evening finery. You order a drink in one language, compliment the bartender in a second, and then answer the phone in a third.

You don’t need to be an international mover and shaker to get a thrill from, or use out of, a second language. Even for older adults, there’s still a lot to gain from the pursuit. It’s not easy, but with these tips for learning a new language, the power is there.

Past research shows that learning a second language offers only a 2% increase in annual earnings. However, the global market offers far more job opportunities when you’re bilingual. That doesn’t even factor in the strong evidence that learning a language delays the onset of dementia and other brain disorders.

Ready to work your verbal muscles and learn something new? Read on!

Tips for Learning a New Language

Note that this is a list of tips for learning a language. They are not hacks or tricks or some kind of workaround.

Becoming even passable in a new language takes time and dedication. However, any new skill can be acquired more easily by giving yourself the motivation to do so and removing obvious roadblocks.

1. Put Yourself on the Line

You are far less likely to learn and retain when you have no pressure to do so. Even the most diligent self-starter benefits from a bit of a stick.

Studying a new language all morning and then going to work in the afternoon to be surrounded by English speakers offers no growth potential.

One reason that people often move to a country when going full-tilt with learning a language is that immersion matters. It isn’t just that they are constantly surrounded by the language, it is the sense of sink or swim that counts.

You don’t have to move to encounter a language. Even in the smallest cities, it’s easy to access communities of speakers that will interact with you over any number of subjects of interest.

Consider combining your new interest in a hobby with your language studies. Soon you will know all the words for that hobby in German more easily than you do English.

2. Get Fluent Over Accurate

Children don’t spend a lot of time worrying if they used the right noun/verb confirmation in a sentence. New speakers rarely care if past or passed is the exact right past participle in a sentence.

Hell, captains of industry and government officers are far more keen to boldly go than to remember there’s a rule against it.

The key is to pick up enough words to get going and to be understood. If nothing else, you can’t grasp a native or fluent speaker correcting you if you don’t know enough to understand what you could have gotten wrong.

Fluency also gives you a better ear for hearing the distinctions in use.

For example, in Spanish, you start with verbs and the common tenses from this guide. Use the wrong tense in conversation a few times and someone will correct you. Why memorize every exception out of the gate when you can rely on others to nudge you over time?

3. Think and Do, Don’t Translate

When you were learning English, you didn’t spend a lot of time looking at an object and then trying to think of the word for it. By the time you can speak, you know what things are. In the same way, when learning a second language, learn the words that fit the object.

Don’t see a tree and think tree means dentro in Greek. Teach yourself that a dentro is a dentro and you stop forcing yourself to take that extra step.

This one tip saves you lots of time and brain space. If you’ve ever changed jobs or even visited different portions of the US, you learn to do this.

A soda, a Coke, and pop are all the same thing, as you well know. It only matters where you are when you say which.

4. Hear the Language

Reading words is effective for learning. Hearing words while you see them works even better. If for no other reason than it stops you from pronouncing brazier like brassiere.

The problem with hearing words one at a time in a program is that they often lack the inflection that would be used in a sentence. Hearing words in a sentence becomes a flurry of sounds that taxes you to identify the words you know.

The solution? Go back and forth on hearing individual words and sentences. This strengthens your linguistic ear faster than either one in isolation. Consider 15 minutes of each in cycles.

5. Reciprocal Learning Rocks

Don’t go learning a new language by yourself. Whenever possible, find someone that knows the language you are learning and is learning English.

As you teach them to think in English, you have to pick up certain ideas and words to help them learn. In turn, they have to pick up certain ways of teaching you.

It sounds like a simple thing, but when you start asking yourself tough questions about why something is the way it is in English, you start seeing why things are the way they are in other languages.

A learning partner also gives you a chance to practice all four of the previous tips in real-time for no cost.

Embrace the Offbeat

With the right mindset, a few hundred hours of embarrassment, and some grit, you will soon sprekken and habla with the best. Remember to use these tips for learning a new language as a guide and throughline, not a crutch. The only true path to mastering a skill is to put in the work.

There’s a lot of learning to do in the wide world out there. Not all of it is on the beaten path. For more offbeat insights and things to consider, keep coming back here.

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