How to learn a new language and have fun doing it

Credit: Scott Adams

Growing up, I always struggled with learning new languages.

I took 6 years of Spanish in middle and high school, but never came close to being fluent. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that I was just not good at it. This was discouraging because foreign languages are one of the top skills that I want to add to my talent stack.

Why language learning? Studies have shown massive cognitive benefits to being fluent in multiple languages, namely increased attention span, memory and (oddly) self-control. If that weren’t enough, there are substantial anti-aging benefits as well. Recently, researchers have found that being multi-lingual can delay dementia by nearly 10 years! As far as return on time investment, these benefits are hard to beat.

Inspired by this research, I decided a month ago to be conversationally fluent in Spanish by the end of the year. As I dove in head first, I found endless options. Through trial and error, I discovered some things that have worked really well for me. I’d like to share those with you guys today.

1. Speak from day one

When most people pick up a new language, they study the ins and outs before they try using it in conversation. This is perfectly understandable, since it can be embarrassing to speak poorly. Reading and listening to a new language is a great way to immerse yourself, but I’ve found that speaking is the most effective path to fluency. Even if you only know a single word in the new language always use that word in conversation! You will probably start off with 99% English and 1% new language, but slowly the percentages will shift and your progress will motivate you to continue.

2. Utilize your English

This is more applicable to Latin based languages, but there is a popular notion I strongly disagree with: learn like a child. This is the tagline for Rosetta Stone, the most popular language learning product on the planet. While it sounds great on paper, it completely contradicts known science on how we learn. If you think of your brain as a tree, each new concept that you learn hangs off of an existing branch. For example, you can’t learn calculus without understanding basic arithmetic. Research shows that we learn best through analogy. That’s why your calculus teacher told you that an integral is the area under a curve. They knew that triggering your geometry knowledge would aid your understanding. Language learning works the same way. For example, there are thousands of words in Spanish that are nearly identical to English. They are called cognates, and if you start with those you can learn a lot of words in a short amount of time.

3. Go to language meet ups

Meetup.com is a great place to find like minded people who are also learning your target language. In Denver, there are Spanish speaking meet ups almost every day. Not only will you meet interesting people, but your mastery of the language will increase exponentially. Almost everyone I’ve met has been extremely friendly and patiently tolerates my “Spanglish”. Struggling through speaking a language in real conversations stimulates your neural pathways, plus it’s really fun!

4. Use language exchange apps

Another great way to practice is to use language exchange apps like HelloTalk and Tandem. These apps work by pairing you with people who want to learn English but are native speakers of your target language. I’ve had conversations with dozens of native Spanish speakers all over the world. There are also built-in translation tools if you get stuck. One of my favorite things about using these apps is learning hilarious country-specific slangs like “esta dando papaya”. Not only do these apps help you with language learning, but give you a rich cultural experience without leaving your country.

5. Jump into the deep end of the pool

When it comes to apps, books and videos there is a huge selection to choose from. Most resources I’ve found baby you quite a bit, and it can take forever to get conversational. The popular app Duolingo is a prime example. Despite the fun gamification aspect, I grew impatient with progressing so slowly. I began to look for alternatives, and in the process found a few resources I really like.

One book series I would highly recommend is the Language Hacking series. They operate on the philosophy of teaching the highest leverage concepts first, so you can start speaking in the new language almost immediately. Compared to other books I’ve read, the density of actionable content is probably 10x to 100x higher. If you’re busy like me, and you want to get the most bang for your time investment, these books are for you.

If you are learning Spanish, the Spanish with Paul series is fantastic. Like Language Hacking, Paul gets you speaking in very complex sentences from the get-go.

There are many ways to learn a new language, and this method may not work for you. But I’ve found a lot of enjoyment in learning this way, and hopefully I can make it a lifelong endeavor. So I hope this was helpful if you’re looking to add a foreign language to your talent stack. Buena Serte, amigos!