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From Foreign to Fluent: Tips for Learning a New Language

You may have seen the viral video of polyglot news anchor Philip Crowther reporting live in six languages: English, Luxembourgish, Spanish, Portuguese, French, and German. Like him, being able to speak foreign languages may increase your job opportunities, make it easier for you to communicate with locals when travelling, and impress thousands of strangers on the internet. And did you also know that speaking a second language can help to delay dementia and Alzheimer’s disease by an average of four years?

How do polyglots master languages so effortlessly? For answers, we checked out books by two polyglot authors for their best tips on how to learn new languages quickly. (You can borrow their books using the links at the end of this article.)

1. Vocabulary First, Grammar Later

As a Singaporean, you may find yourself obsessed with rules. Likewise, when it comes to learning a language, many of us are eager to dive into grammar rules so that we can follow them to the T. However, this may quickly discourage us when we don’t have enough experience using the language to make sense of tenses and syntax.

You have to be conversational in the language before you can think about grammar. This way, when you come across a grammar rule, you don’t just see a dull explanation that you’ll quickly forget. Rather, your brain makes new connections and you go, “So that’s why they say it that way!”

If you really must, adjust your expectations and seek to learn grammar in small chunks to understand the absolute basics. Also, when shopping for courses, try to choose those that are more conversation-focused instead of rule-based.

When we think of languages, we tend to think of grammar. Language experts suggest holding off learning grammar until we’ve built a good bank of words. [Image source: iStock]

2. Use Spaced Learning Repetition to Remember Words

To build your vocabulary in your target language, you will need a good system to help you effectively remember new words. Spaced repetition is a powerful technique which leverages the fact that we learn more effectively when we space out our learning over time.

Put new words that you want to learn on flash cards, then organise them by keeping the difficult words you struggle to remember at the top of your deck and pushing to the bottom words that you remember more easily. This way, you’ll see the harder words more frequently, and the less difficult words less frequently—but still frequent enough before you forget them completely. You can use physical flash cards, or an app like Anki to create digital ones.

To supercharge your flash cards, add images to them as a memory device. For example, the word “gare” means “train station” in French. The closest word that came to one of the authors’ minds was Garfield, the cat from the popular comic strip. To help him remember the word, he imagined Garfield bursting through the doors at the train station holding a suitcase, sweating and panting while looking for his train that was due to depart to Bologna—a city he was headed to for the world lasagna-eating championship.

If the tale sounds absolutely ridiculous, there’s a reason why: The more vivid the imagery, the better you can remember the word being associated with the mental image. You’ll probably still remember the meaning of “gare” the next time you stumble across it in a French text!

Language learning is a time to wake up the creative storyteller in you to help spin stories that will commit words to your memory. [Image source: iStock]

3. Focus on the Sounds of Your Target Language

The world’s languages use 800-plus phonemes (the phonetic sounds that make up a word), and most languages choose 40 of these to form their words. If you focus on mastering the sounds of your target language, you’ll have an easier time remembering words.

You’ll also retrain your tongue to produce those sounds accurately, building your pronunciation skills and competency of the language. For instance, there are at least ten types of t’s that occur in the world’s languages, yet English speakers rarely hear the differences between them. If you’re studying Korean, you’ll discover that there are three consonants that can be mistaken for a t, so you must train your ear to discern the difference.

4. Practice, Practice, Practice

You won’t get anywhere with a new language without practising with native speakers of the language. This means you’ll need to be open and resourceful in connecting with people that you can converse with. For starters, you can explore iTalki or search the Couchsurfing platform to see if there are native speakers of your target language holidaying in Singapore who’d love to connect with a local.

Learning a new language by yourself or in a classroom setting will only get you so far. Find people to practise with so that you can gain fluency faster and perhaps even make new friends. [Image source: iStock]

To make it less daunting, you can learn mini-scripts, which are useful because we tend to have similar conversations whenever we meet new people as beginning language learners. Write out a script that would take around one minute to recite, answering common questions such as:

  • Who are you?
  • Where are you from?
  • What do you do for a living?
  • Why are you learning this language?

To further equip you for conversation, you should also attempt to memorise the following phrases:

  • How are you?
  • What’s your name?
  • I don’t understand.
  • Could you repeat that?
  • What does (word) mean?

We all learn by doing, and by learning from our mistakes. So go out of your comfort zone to get conversational practice. Without it, you won’t progress to fluency.

5. Make It Fun

Lastly, it’s important to enjoy the language learning journey, or you’ll give up early in the game. Just like how fitness enthusiasts find joy in gruelling workouts, you must find ways to motivate yourself and develop your passion to master your chosen language.

Whether it’s challenging yourself to navigate social media sites in the language you’re learning, or watching foreign films for more exposure, there are plenty of fun ways to immerse yourself in a new language.

If all fails, ask yourself why you are learning a new language. Are you doing it for the “wrong” reasons? Can you cast aside the ego-centric reasons and embrace learning the language for the fascination of it and the many doors it will open for you?

We’ll leave you by wishing you good luck in three languages ;)

Bonne chance!
Viel Glück!
행운을 빕니다!

The tips above were gleaned from the following titles, so check them out if you’re serious about picking up a new language (you can also browse the library’s collection of language learning eResources and audiobooks here):

From left to right:

Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language Fast and Never Forget It — Gabriel Wyner | Physical Copy, eBook, Audiobook

Fluent in 3 Months: Tips and Techniques to Help You Learn Any Language— Benny Lewis | Physical Copy, eBook

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