5 Tips for Learning a Foreign Language

The following piece was written by Tiffany Sorensen. Tiffany is a professional Spanish and SAT tutor for Varsity Tutors. She holds a Bachelor's degree in Spanish Language & Literature from Stony Brook University.

Contrary to popular opinion, there is no simple solution to quickly learning a foreign language. As with other academic subjects, the degree to which you understand and improve is proportionate to the amount of time and effort you expend. When it comes to learning another language, attitude plays a key role in how easily your brain absorbs information. Consider the below suggestions as approaches, not shortcuts. Keep these five points in mind as you begin or continue on your foreign language journey.

1. If you believe mastering another language will prove to be an effortless undertaking, you’re in for a large shock. Beware of advertisements with taglines such as, “Learn Italian in 48 hours!” You can be certain that these claims are false. Unfortunately, there’s just no way around the truth – truly understanding a foreign language is a long, tedious process that may take several years. But don’t be discouraged. The ability to converse in more than one language brings with it an incredible sense of accomplishment. In other words, it’s worth the struggle!

2. One of the most common errors that foreign language learners make is remaining silent so as to avoid mistakes. The sooner you realize that you’re going to make errors – and lots of them – the better off you’ll be. It’s okay to be incorrect. If you ask any foreign language teacher, he/she will tell you that it is exponentially better to say something incorrectly than to say nothing at all. Imagine how painful French class would be if no one dared to participate. The fact of the matter is that we learn best when making mistakes. Corrections may be uncomfortable, but you’ll likely never commit that same error again. What’s worse is to continue believing you know the right way to phrase something when you really don’t. 

3. Study after study has proven that the ideal way to learn another language is via total immersion – that is, spending extensive periods of time in a country where the language is spoken. You can achieve this in a variety of ways: taking classes overseas through your college, working or volunteering abroad, or merely traveling for pleasure. While formal foreign language classes are useful for literacy purposes, only real-life interactions will prompt you to put what you’ve learned into practice. Until you converse with native speakers of another language, everything you’ve studied is purely theoretical. Also, reaching an advanced level of oral fluency in another language can only be achieved by consistently using it. Think of foreign language as a muscle; the more it is exercised, the stronger it becomes.

4. Don’t limit yourself to just one variety of a foreign language. For instance, if you choose to learn Spanish, you should possess, at minimum, a general understanding of several dialects of Spanish. Language varies greatly from one geographical region to another. For example, consider how British and American English have wildly different sounds and expressions. The Spanish of Spain is drastically different from that of Mexico, and the same can be said of Chilean Spanish when compared to the Spanish of the Caribbean. These differences include variations in pronunciation, vocabulary, sentence structure, and slang. To focus entirely on any one dialect is impractical, as it limits the number of people with whom you can effectively communicate. 

5. The English language has a reputation for readily assimilating foreign words into its vocabulary. This is beneficial to English speakers when learning other languages, especially the Romance languages, because there are many words that look alike and have similar meanings. Cognates, such as “intelligent” in English and inteligente in Spanish, are words derived from the same roots. Occasionally, it is obvious when two words are related, while at other times, it requires deeper analysis. At first sight, it may seem that the Spanish word for hand – mano – has no connection whatsoever with the English word, “hand.” However, consider the adjective “manual,” as in “manual labor” (labor performed with the hands). Noticing links between words will greatly help you to remember vocabulary. Nonetheless, there are several false cognates. These are words that look alike but actually signify entirely different things. For example, decepción in Spanish actually means “disappointment.” So be certain to proceed with caution!

Happy language learning!