Weekly roundup: 3 techniques to teach yourself a foreign language

Learning a foreign language, like getting fit, eating healthy, and learning to play an instrument, is one of those goals that ends up being a common New Year’s Resolution but are rarely actually accomplished.

What’s great about learning a foreign language, though, is that unless you’re aiming to pass an exam or use the language in your job, it’s worthwhile even if you never perfect it. As interpreter and translator Kató Lomb says, languages may be the only thing worth doing badly:

We should learn languages because language is the only thing worth knowing even poorly.

Solely in the world of languages is the amateur of value. Well-intentioned sentences full of mistakes can still build bridges between people. Asking in broken Italian which train we are supposed to board at the Venice railway station is far from useless. Indeed, it is better to do that than to remain uncertain and silent and end up back in Budapest rather than in Milan.

While none of us sets out to learn a language poorly, so many give up after getting only that far. We assume we have to know a language perfectly before it’s of any use to us.

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Scott H. Young, a polyglot, writer, and entrepreneur, says being okay with learning a small amount is a good approach for language acquisition:

Too many people think speaking poorly is something shameful, so they don’t try to speak another language at all.

There are plenty of benefits to come from learning a foreign language, even if you never fully master it. As Young says, “even learning a small amount connects me with cultures that would otherwise be closed off.”

There are plenty of language-learning resources available to us these days, so you can easily pick up an audiobook, language course, or even sign up for lessons with a tutor.

But let’s look at three tips you might not have heard of to help you pick up your target language a little faster.

Learn something else in your target language

Most of us take a traditional route when learning a new language: we spend our time memorizing vocabulary, studying grammar rules, and reading or listening to example dialogs.

While it might not seem intuitive, it can actually be more beneficial to spend your time learning another subject you’re interested in, in your target language. You might read magazine articles about dance in German, for instance, or listen to a business podcast in Russian.

A study of high school students learning French tested this approach by having half the students take normal French classes and half take classes in a different subject taught in French.

The students in the traditional class tested better for reading and writing skills, but the students who took another subject taught in French tested better for listening skills. And, perhaps most importantly, the student who learned another subject in French were more motivated to learn.

Other research has found motivation to learn can improve our proficiency, so anything you can do to increase or maintain your motivation is a good thing.

If you struggle to focus on other subjects while still picking up the basics of your target language, you can try something like Linguistica 360’s slow news series, that offers news reports in your target language at a pace that’s easier for beginners to pick up.

Since both styles of teaching had benefits, you’ll probably want to mix this approach with traditional study of your target language to get all the benefits.

Use body movements to aid your memory

Another thing we commonly do without questioning it when learning a new language is to act like we’re in school: we read books, write notes, listen to audio, and spend most of our learning time sitting still.

But getting up and moving around could be a strategic advantage when it comes to memorizing vocabulary. Research has previously found that acting out movements with the body can help us remember concrete words—especially those related to action. This makes sense. You can imagine that acting out a verb as you say it would help you remember what it meant.

But another study tested this approach on abstract sentences rather than single, concrete words. And the results showed body movements can help us learn even abstract phrases.

The study split participants into two groups and had them learn an entirely fake language over six days. All participants were taught new abstract sentences from the fake language audiovisually, but half the participants were also taught body gestures for each word in every sentence they learned.

Various memory tests each day of the study found that words taught with gestures were better remembered. And when participants were tested on their ability to create new sentences from the vocabulary they’d learned, those words that were taught with gestures were used more often, which indicates they were more easily retrievable from memory.

So, although it might feel silly, if you’re struggling to get a grasp on all the vocabulary in your target language, try making up some body movements to go along with particularly tricky words. Write them down, and practice those movements each time you drill those words. Try testing yourself after doing this for a while and see if the gestures have helped you better memorize their related words.

This approach might not be practical all the time, but it’s worth keeping in mind for those few words you just can’t memorize, no matter how many times you study them.

Create an immersion environment at home

One of the great things about traveling overseas is the opportunity to immerse yourself in a foreign language. Though you can live in a foreign country and not learn the language at all, it’s a lot easier to force yourself into practising your target language if everyone around you is speaking it.

Immersion also means you’ll be running into your target language in context all the time: posters and street signs, restaurant menus, product labels, overhearing conversations on the street or on public transport, local newspapers—it’s hard to escape a foreign language that’s all around you.

But this benefit doesn’t have to be limited to those of us with the time and money to afford a full immersion experience. You can also create an immersion environment at home.

Polyglot Olly Richards from I Will Teach You A Language offers some suggestions for creating a foreign language immersion environment in your daily life:

  • Decorate your house with posters in your target language
  • Set your phone, TV, and computer to your target language
  • Read your daily news on a website in your target language
  • Set your browser’s homepage to an interesting site in your target language
  • Switch a few of the sites or apps you use often, such as Facebook and Twitter, to use your target language

If you’re just starting out, this might sound crazy, but once you’ve learned enough basic vocabulary to not be overwhelmed at the sight of your target language, this is a good way to learn useful words and expose yourself to the language in-between your study sessions.

Here’s Richards:

You need to gather things that you can listen to, watch or read in as many different and flexible formats as possible. The guiding principle is that, as far as possible, it should all be material that you’re interested in. This is important—you’re much more likely to learn from something if it doesn’t bore you to death.

You’ll want to mix this immersion process with structured studying, but it’s a great way to surround yourself with your target language and make it more familiar.

Plus, research has shown that passive studying can be just as beneficial as active studying. One study had half its participants actively practice distinguishing between similar sounds in a foreign language, while the other half alternated between practice and a different activity with the sounds still playing in the background.

Both groups improved in their ability to distinguish the sounds just as much, even though one group was actively studying the entire time.

And in another study, Spanish speakers who were learning to distinguish sounds in the Basque language performed worse when they repeated one of the sounds. A passive listening approach seemed to work better.

So immersion in your target language, along with active studying, could provide the most benefits.


What’s worked best for you in learning a foreign language?

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Belle B. Cooper

Belle is an iOS developer, writer, and co-founder of Melbourne-based software company Hello Code. She writes about productivity, lifehacks, and finding ways to do more meaningful work.