Six Tips for Learning a Foreign Language

May 18, 2015

I came across this post by Benjamin Houy on one of my favorite websites, Kristin Espinasse’s French-Word-a-Day.  “After helping thousands of people learn French at French Together,” says Benjamin,” I can tell you one thing with absolute certainty:  Anyone, at any age, can learn French and reach fluency.” The same is true of other languages—and the same six tips may help you improve your Italian:

  Hello languages blog

by Benjamin Houy

1. Learn sentences, not words.

    When you learn sentences rather than words, you:

    • know how to use the word when you need it.

    • memorize the word more easily, because you can imagine it being used.

    • learn grammar naturally by noticing how the sentence is constructed and the verb conjugated.

2. Use Spaced Repetition Software.

    If you are like most people, you either write the words you discover in a notebook or keep them in your memory and hope you will remember them. This is fine, but there is a much more effective way to memorize vocabulary: Spaced Repetition Software (SRS), which works much like flashcards.

    You enter a word or a sentence on one side, and its translation on the other side. The software then asks you what the answer is, and how easy it was for you to give the answer. If the answer came immediately, you know the word well and you won't have to study it for a few days (or months). If you struggled to give the answer or couldn't answer, you may have to study the word again 10 minutes later or the next day.

    SRS is based on Hermann Ebbignhaus's research on memory and allows you to easily learn lots of vocabulary in only a few minutes per day. Instead of randomly reviewing words, all you have to do is open your SRS app and review words before you forget them. Two great (and free) SRS apps are Anki and Memrise

3. Study regularly.

    It's better to spend 10 minutes every day studying your new language than two hours only once a week. When you study every day, you make learning the language a habit, so you are less likely to give up. Not only that, but regularly reviewing what you learned makes it much easier to memorize in the long term (that's why SRS softwares exist). The main problem is that you don't necessarily feel like studying after a hard day of work. In this case, you can simply do one of the following activities:

    • Watch a movie or a TV series in your new language

    • Read a book in that language

    • Open HelloTalk, Italki, Interpals or Speaky and exchange a few messages with your foreign language pen pal

    • Write about your day in your new language and post what you wrote on Lang-8 to get free corrections from native speakers

    • Listen to a podcast in your new language while you wash dishes or commute to work

4. Speak from Day One.

    There is a French proverb that translates as "forging makes the blacksmith." The same is true for a new language. Speaking is as essential as it is terrifying. If you don't speak your new language as soon as possible (that is, as soon as you can create a sentence), you will make the learning process considerably slower and miss one of the most powerful learning tools available: human interaction.

    So many great things happen when you speak. Your brain recalls the vocabulary you know, you use grammar, you practice pronunciation, you gain confidence, and you get the chance to get feedback. Since you also listen to someone, you improve your listening skills.

    There are several ways to find a conversation partner: If you live in a big city, chances are you can find someone willing to learn your native language and help you with French in exchange. Here are a few places to check out:

    • Couchsurfing meetings


    • HelloTalk's search function

    Can't find anyone who speaks your new language near you? Don't worry! There are plenty of opportunities to practice online at the sites listed above.

5. Don't focus too much on grammar.

    One of the most common mistakes language learners make is to focus too much on grammar. It's great to know how to conjugate verbs, but how useful will it be if you don't know enough to create a sentence? Learn sentences, and then look at specific grammar aspects you don't understand in the sentence. This way, the grammar you learn is adapted to your level and immediately usable. It's also much easier to understand and remember a grammar concept when you see it directly in action.

6. Live your new language.

    Can you guess what all of the most successful language learners have in common? Immersion. And by immersion, I don't mean that you need to live in a foreign country. You can become fluent without ever going abroad. By immersion, I mean that you should do as many of your daily activities in your new language as possible: Read news, read books, watch movies, listen to the radio…and speak. By doing this, you get used to the language, and at some point you will realize you now think in your new tongue.

0e008b29a2ff84a9c4a3348d11cc934aBenjamin Houy is the author of How to Learn French in a Year and founder of French Together.

Dianne Hales is the author of MONA LISA: A Life Discovered and LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language.

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