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10 Things You Need to Do if You Want to Master a Foreign Language

Tips to help you get started - and keep improving

A few years ago I found myself scratching my head in disbelief when I read about Ben, an Australian guy that woke up from a coma unable to speak English, but with a sudden knowledge of Mandarin Chinese, language he'd studied at school - although he wasn't fluent at all until the accident. It left me thinking about the incredible things the brain is capable of, things we mostly ignore. And that includes language.

I have heard people saying that learning a language "well" can take nearly a life time. They usually give up without even trying because they don’t really believe they will ever become fluent or be proficient in a second language. It seems to be a long painful process, and they generally don’t know where to start, or start in the wrong direction. It’s easy to get frustrated that way.

How can you grasp the basics of a language easily so you can make a fast progress?

How long will it actually take to fully comprehend any language?

You might have read about Neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to change throughout life. This factor helps us understand why we can learn more than one language in adulthood. It is not rare to find many polyglots out there, like Benny Lewis who now speaks 7 languages. He says before that turning point he tried to learn for years without favourable results.

The truth is that you don't need to begin when you are 5 years old. Any time is a good time to start learning. Our brain has the capacity to change and adapt when we learn something new, like a foreign language. If you aim to be fluent in any language, you first need to understand we - as human beings- are all different, so we learn differently. This is the most important point to remember. Secondly, if you are a first time learner, with intentions of completely master that language, congratulations! Making that decision is a big step.

I want to share this sort of a guide I have come up with, after a relatively average English learning journey that started when I was around 11 until I was 17, plus a brief 2 month Portuguese course, and my current German language venture that started 2 weeks ago and I intend to take seriously. The 10 things you need to know if you really want to master a foreign language.

1. Define your purpose and set goals

This is essential. You need the ask yourself about the purpose of learning this new language, and it has to be clear enough to get you going. A strong reason will keep you motivated in spite of the difficulties. Why is it important for you to master x language? The reason can be anything from moving abroad to getting a job promotion. It can be related to a personal challenge. Or because you simply love it. Your progress will mostly depend on how much you want this to happen. Get the right mindset to accomplish more in your new language journey.

The summer I took a 2 months Portuguese course I knew from the start that my goal was to be able to read "O legado de Arn", the sequel of a trilogy I loved - which I couldn't find in Spanish. When the course ended, I easily read the book as I had understood the main differences between Spanish and Portuguese. However, last December when I visited Brazil for the first time, I found it almost impossible to speak Portuguese, although I could understand most of it. I had to communicate in Spanish all the time. It was clear to me then that when I had Portuguese lessons my main interest was not speaking, but reading!

Some travelers on a year trip to New Zealand go from zero to a very good English after 3 months, while others can't learn much the whole year. Motivation makes a difference here. Different circumstances lead to different results because they determine whether there's an urgent need or incentive to quickly gain an understanding of the new language.

For example, making new international friends on the trip. If you only hang out with people that speak your native tongue, and you have no interest or need to change that, then expect to learn little to nothing during your stay in the country. In contrast to this situation, moving to a place where there is actually no one that speaks your language makes learning a survival thing. You need to communicate in order to live your every day life, go to work, go shopping, socialise. There's no better motivation than that.

Now my goal is to be able to hold a conversation in German and understand most of what I read, in less than 6 months. I studied it long ago when I was at school, but honestly, I was not serious about it. I forgot everything. Years later I would pick it up sporadically although I was not committed to it. This time I have goals I want to achieve and I am willing to do whatever I need to do in order to accomplish this. I am travelling to Germany later this year after all.

2. Start small, don't overwhelm yourself

All the responsibilities of a busy life often make it hard to find the right time to dedicate to study and practice. So don't stress over it when you are just starting. Try to organise your timetable first and take small steps each day until you are confident enough to fully immerse.

Pay special attention to what interests you the most. Put emphasis on that while you are learning by yourself or in a class. I personally find it quite practical to start learning a few sentences that can be used in everyday situations straight away. Easy, simple ones like the equivalent for "What's your name?"," Where are you from?", "Excuse me", "Thanks". You can write them down, memorise them, say them out loud, familiarise with them and once all that is done, you will be excited to learn more.

3. Find the right tutor

It can also be an online or traditional class or course, or the right resources if you are a self-taught person. Whatever suits you best at the beginning. But I highly recommend getting a tutor (private language lessons) if you have the chance, as it will help you build a strong foundation, which is very important to gain confidence, at least at the start. You will get where you want faster. Do all the research you need to do and go for the best option. Always plan your lessons around your learning goals.

My first English class as a kid was not very successful. I didn't like it, so my mum decided to send me to private lessons with 2 other kids at a school teacher's house. A personalised approach was what really worked for me at that time. I continued attending for another 2 or 3 years, and I think it was great in order to have an in depth understanding of the English language basics.

4. Identify what works for you and what doesn't. Create your own method.

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What do you need to learn first? How do you prefer to be taught? Which resources are the right for you? Maybe you are more into writing than speaking, or you like following a course book. As Steve Kaufmann - another popular polyglot - says in his youtube video , don’t waste time learning with methods that simply don’t work for you.

It goes beyond what is commonly explained about "different type of learners", like visual or kinetic ones. In reality, everyone has different interests. We can all learn by using each of our senses, but there is something that can make our learning improve significantly. Kaufmann suggests we find out what are the tools we should be using according to our personal preferences and test what give us the best results. Choose the right method.

There are "music people", "grammar people" and those with a main interest in culture, for example. Some love reading, others hate it. We like different things in life and we should take advantage of it.

I know what hasn't worked for me in the past. I have tried mobile learning apps in general and they didn't do much for me. At school, excessive grammar exercises were obviously not fun and made me think of language learning as a tedious and heavy business that made no sense. On the contrary, learning through creative activities was what I enjoyed the most and helped me remember many concepts.

Reading is also one of my favourite things to do. If you are the same, consider reading a lot in the language you are learning. Start with short stories, articles of your interest, or magazines. I have recently got a fantasy eBook in German and English. The authors have interspersed German chapters with English chapters in order to encourage learners to enhance reading comprehension and improve vocabulary and grammar. It's a unique and challenging way to learn a language. There is an audio-book version as well. I am looking forward to start with the first chapter!

5. Dedicate time to learn everyday

It's not just about going to one or 5 classes a week. Learn everyday, and treat it as one of your priorities. Take at least 30 minutes, and you will see how much easier it gradually gets. When you make it a habit, you include learning as part of your every day life and so the language.

Spend time reviewing what you have previously learned. You can do this while having a cup of tea or coffee, you can even get a mobile app if that works for you. Schedule your language lessons well and make sure you make the best out of them. There's no point in having a 2 hours lesson if you are tired and can only pay attention the first 60 minutes.

Incorporate learning in your daily routine. This can be done in many different ways, like listening to an audio while you do housework or reading during your lunch break. Consistency is what at the end always pays off.

6. Immerse in the language as much as you can

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Before travelling to New Zealand for the first time I didn't practice a lot of English. Except for the fact that I truly enjoyed reading and sometimes writing in English and connecting with people in other parts of the world, thanks to the internet. That was what kept my interest in the language, the chance to discover new places and communicate with the world.

Immersion means using the language all the time. Thinking in the language too. When you travel and live in a foreign country you experience that. But there are other options to consider that don't necessary include living abroad.

Language exchange in your city

I discovered Mundo Lingo in Wellington (NZ), a popular, free weekly meeting where people from different countries get together to practice languages. Each participant stick on their chest a flag-sticker to represent the languages they speak. It’s a wonderful way to practice while talking to locals as well as tourists.

You can find it in many other cities, this is the website if you want to check it out!

Couchsurfing is another great option to meet travellers and get a chance to do a language exchange. Have a look here for more information.

There are also Facebook groups and forums related to language learning where you can help each other. It's good to be part of a community of language learners.

Surround yourself with people that can help you learn, people that encourage you to improve every day. A study group is not a bad idea. You will see you are not alone in this journey, you will be able to share your doubts and tips for a better learning experience.

Experiment

There many alternatives worth trying such as YouTube videos to improve pronunciation and get a better understanding of the language and culture. You can watch your favourite TV series or movies with subtitles as well. Don't forget to cover listening, speaking, writing and reading skills equally, so you can learn the language without any gaps.

7. Apply what you are learning to different situations. Don't be scared!

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Talk with native speakers whenever you get a chance. I used to work in a travel agency in Argentina long ago, so I was always looking for an opportunity to talk to tourists and practice my spoken English, even if it wasn't perfect.

Once you have the basics, you can start reading your preferred texts, with a dictionary if you want. Learn the words in their context and take examples on how to use them properly.

Practice, practice, practice. The more you use new words, sentences, structures, the more you learn. Get comfortable using what you already know. Familiarise yourself with the new language.

8. Be curious. make mistakes.

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You have probably heard this before but it's good to repeat it. Allow yourself to ask questions to your tutor or teacher, or anyone that knows better and wants to help you. Ask as many times as necessary, don't keep any doubt in your mind. Do it until you get it.

Don't feel discouraged if you think that you know nothing because you are making all the possible mistakes. Mistakes help you grow, they make you see the areas you need to work on.

Even I might have made a few mistakes while writing this, but I am willing to make them by putting myself out there so I can learn and write something better next time.

9. Enjoy the process. Be happy about your first language achievements.

“Happy person celebrates their accomplishments with colorful confetti” by Ambreen Hasan on Unsplash

Celebrate every time you read something and, to your surprise, you can totally understand a whole paragraph. Every time you get a high score on an online test or when you finally watch that movie without the subtitles. Be happy about your improvement every time a native speaker says you pronounced that hard word perfectly.

Do what feels natural to you, don't force yourself to memorise 30 or 300 new words in one day. Relax and honour each of your small achievements.

10. Never stop learning

“A yellow “Go up and never stop” neon with a long arrow against a black background” by Fab Lentz on Unsplash

It's all about constant practice. Broaden your skills and experience new language situations, continue enriching your vocabulary. There are new things to learn because we are not perfect machines, and this is what makes life exciting.

You will never get bored of your second or third language. As for me, I am currently trying to focus on my English writing skills and have found this great article by Nicole Bianchi on writing in a foreign language. This and other posts have encouraged me to write in my second language more often and improve it.


“Believe in your infinite potential. Your only limitations are those you set upon yourself”- Rot T. Bennett

Feel free to add more tips to learn a foreign language in the comments below and any experiences you had that might be useful for others :)

Thanks for reading!