“One language sets you in a corridor for life. Two languages open every door along the way.”
Note: I have developed these tips for learning a foreign language after studying ten languages and becoming conversant in Spanish, French, Russian, and Italian.
7 Tips for Learning a Foreign Language
Expats and long-term travelers who will spend a while in a part of the world where one language (other than English) dominates should learn a little bit of the local language.
You will enjoy yourself a lot more if you can talk to locals. Plus, you will show people that you have an interest in their lives. In addition, learning languages at small schools abroad and homestays add spice to the Fifty-Plus Nomad adventure.
Most of the time, travelers assume that learning a foreign language is challenging; however, learning a foreign language can be fun while it does take work. Here are my seven tips for learning a foreign language successfully for expat retirees and long-term travelers over 50:
- Look at learning as if it is a game. For example, rather than being exasperated by learning the Russian alphabet, I looked at it as if it were an anagram. Some letters were the same as English; others looked like the letters but had a different sound in Russia (for example, our letter “p” = letter “r” in Russian) and still others looked like familiar English letters written backwards (for example a backward English letter N in Russian acts like our double e like in see). Only six letters have no resemblance to English. By treating the Russian alphabet like an anagram, I could look at a basic list of Russian cognates (words that are like English) and read them quickly.
- If you are trying to learn a Romance language (like Spanish, French, or Italian) brush up on your English vocabulary. Many obscure “college level” English words are like familiar words in Romance languages. For example, the word for kind in Spanish is amable, which is similar to the English word amiable (which also means kind).
- Try to find ways to associate new words with something in English. For example, I immediately learned the Russian word for work: rabotat. I pictured robots tatting away on a machine. To my surprise, I later learned that the English word robot comes from the Czech word (which is closely related to Russian) for worker.
- Focus on why you want to learn the language. If you need to study it to read journals, you will need a different approach than if you will just be traveling around a country (or region) for a couple of months.
- Don’t emphasize learning grammar at first unless you have a special skill or passion for grammar. Schools emphasize grammar too quickly. You are best to start trying to learn vocabulary and pronunciation. Grammar is frustrating and vocabulary is fun. When you have learned some vocabulary and phrases and begun to feel the pronunciation, move on to grammar.
- Find native speakers to talk to on a regular basis. Many experts recommend starting this practice from the beginning, I find, for myself and my students it works best after around 50-100 hours of classroom time.
- You will be surprised how much you can communicate without good grammar if you have a decent vocabulary and pronunciation. When I went to Guadalajara to study Spanish after two years of High School Spanish (and summer as an exchange student in Tepic, Nayarit, Mexico), I met an older Spanish teacher from Ohio. A couple of times, we visited places around Guadalajara together. She would try to speak to locals and draw a strange stare. I would talk, and the natives always seemed to understand. I could tell that she spoke more proper Spanish than me, but I had better pronunciation and knew more everyday Spanish expressions than she did!
- Try several diverse ways to learn the language including:
- A couple of conversational courses. I recommend Pimsleur. I like their emphasis at the beginning level on building languages a step at a time; however, after the beginning level, I grow tired of their approach and want more grammatical explanations and yearn for a written text. I have not tried Duolingo but would welcome your comments.
- For me, the best way to learn is through YouTube videos and online practice quizzes. Try out videos and exercises from several different YouTube teachers and internet sources. Some will be waste of time for you (either too hard, too difficult, or sometimes their style is plain annoying), others will be perfect for one thing like vocabulary and bad at something else. (Finding good pronunciation can be difficult). I have never found a perfect source but have found that mixing videos with internet exercises from different teachers works best both for me and my students.
- A local newspaper or magazine from a country that speaks the language you are learning. Keep a dictionary close and select articles that seem to be written for ordinary people (local travel stories are great!). Be patient—it takes a while to read. (Plan on spending at least 30 minutes per article for a Western language.) If you read a few articles, the subsequent ones will be easier to read as you become accustomed to the publication’s tone and vocabulary. I would not recommend learning a complex language, like Russian, this way. As a whole, you cannot get the gist of difficult languages easily through translation, and the languages are too arcane. It took me almost four hours to read one article in Russian even after I had studied the language for several weeks.
4 Tips for Learning a Foreign Language for Intermediate and Advanced Students
Keep in mind that it takes about 200 hours of intensive language instruction or study to get to the point that you will converse in most situations. And, sadly, that is not the end of work by a long shot. True fluency takes years, but fluency is possible. Do not give up! Here are a few tips for learning a foreign language once you can converse well:
- Try to get hooked to a local soap opera. Ask locals about the storyline and then try to watch the serial every day. You will learn a lot of new vocabulary and find out a lot about the culture at the same time.
- Watch your favorite shows from the US in English with subtitles. (Most satellite dishes carry some English language stations.) US shows (like ER) tend to use words that you would not encounter in daily life repeatedly. After a while, you will start to take notice of these words. While watching these shows in Mexico, I learned a lot of words in Spanish concerning the justice system (from shows like NCIS and CSI) and parts of the body (ER and other medical shows).
- Learn songs in the language. On YouTube, you will almost always find videos of the same song without subtitles, with target language subtitles, and with the words both in the target language and English. Play around with these videos. Listen to them until you get a hang for the words and can understand the words without subtitles. I have found working with English and Spanish students that everyone learns the songs at different speeds and using different mixtures of videos.
- If you can, try to take a language class in a country that speaks your target language. If it is at all possible, you will learn faster either by yourself or with just one other person in the class. (Most classes have 3-5 students in Latin America, Asia, or Eastern Europe and 15-20 students in Western Europe.) Don’t be afraid to ask the teacher to help you fill any gaps in your learning. I asked one of my Spanish teachers in Mexico to teach me more slang and idiomatic expressions. I learned many interesting things about Spanish and increased my fluency markedly.
As I get more advanced in the language, I get frustrated when people attempt to speak to me in English, mainly when I speak their language better than they speak English. I must admit my first reaction to someone speaking English to me is to be insulted.
However, over time, I have realized that some people want to practice their English. In that case, I will usually allow them to speak to me in English and respond to them in their language. That way, we both get to practice the language, and if I do not understand what they are saying to me in English, I can ask them questions in the language to make sure that I know what they were trying to tell me in English.
Tips for Learning a Foreign Language for the Perplexed
Many people maintain that they cannot learn another language, but I have found that most of these people can learn with individual, local tutors. However, some people will not engage in these services because they do not have the patience or confidence to learn a language or had a tough time learning a language in the past.
I would recommend that if you are one of these people that you learn some communication shortcuts. I have seen it used well to mix the words you know and use English for words you do not understand. The result will sound funny, but most people (particularly if they have a little English under their belt) will understand you.
Another shortcut I have seen used successfully is to forget about grammar altogether when you talk. You can do this by failing about conjugating verbs and ignoring the gender of nouns in your new language. For example, if you wanted to speak Spanish, most people would understand the following sentence: Ayer (yesterday) yo (I) or ir (to go) a tienda (to store), instead of the more correct: Ayer fui a la tienda (Yesterday I went to the store). If you construct sentences in this form, you must learn vocabulary, which is much easier than learning grammar for most people.
While I feel strange talking to people in this manner, it never amazes how much locals appreciate the effort. Sometimes, the locals think that people who speak this “baby talk” language are cute and endearing. In addition, Fifty-Plus Nomads often find that locals will be less afraid to try to use English with you when they see you struggling with their language.
In addition, if you are perplexed and want to learn Spanish in Mexico, take one of my classes.
Want More Tips for Learning a Foreign Language?
I had the pleasure of meeting Benny Lewis, the author of Fluent in 3 Months, at a Nomadic Matt conference in 2019. He is an engaging person, and his book is full of valuable tips.
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