When I was in school, I studied 3 different languages to the point where I could hold conversations in 2 of them. I’ll be honest, I just never got French.
When I left school, I had no reason to use those languages. My language skills degraded until I could only remember how to introduce myself, and how to order a beer. This served me well on my travels, for a while.
The turning point came when my rental car broke down in the wild countryside of the Greek Peloponnese. After an age of miming, pointing, and eventually sketching rough maps, I made it back to the hotel.
That night, I used “μια μπύρα παρακαλώ” (a beer please) several times, and amidst the frustration vowed to dust off my linguistic skills.
If you’ve also decided to improve your language skills, you’ll want some advice. Well, look no further!
I’ve gathered together 30 of the best tips from language experts and polyglots to help you learn your next language as quickly and easily as possible.
Why Are Languages So Hard?
We’re always told that learning a language as a kid is much easier than learning as an adult. And while this is mostly true, it doesn’t have to stop you from learning a new language. The major difference between a child’s brain and an adult’s brain is the amount of information we can absorb. Children are sponges. If you have your own children, you’ll probably remember their first curse word. You probably said it once in a moment of frustration, but their spongey little brains sucked it up and spat it back out. That’s just how their brains work. Children’s brains are designed to learn new things, especially languages. The brain goes through periods of reorganization in childhood when new skills become hard-wired in our neural networks. At six months old, for example, the brain stops trying to recognize words that aren’t our native tongue. This helps us filter out background noise and babble. Children go through these reorganization periods up to their late teens. However, the prime window for learning grammar is from preschool up to the age of about 6. Luckily, the vocabulary window never fully closes. As adults, we can’t change the way our brains work. We can’t will our brains into being more absorbent. But we can combat some of the other barriers that stop us from learning a new language.
This is the biggest obstacle to language learning. We all have incredibly busy lives, and language learning can easily get pushed to the side. Sometimes we need a kick in the pants to get us to learn. For me, it was being stranded in rural Greece. For others, it’s a desire to travel or a multilingual partner. If you want to make a success of your language learning, you need to find your motivation. If you don’t have intrinsic motivation, look for ways to give yourself external motivation.
Some languages are fairly similar to one another. Spanish and Italian, for example, share similar sounds and pronunciations. This is because they are from the same linguistic branch. They have a common root language, Latin. If you want to dive a bit deeper into how languages are related, this video is great. It explores how people figured out the relationships between languages. Learning a language that’s similar to your native tongue can make the process a lot easier. In contrast, when you jump to a different linguistic branch, things can get tricky. It’s difficult to wrap your head (and your tongue) around the different pronunciations. You’ll stare at a word, and your instinct will be to form the letters as you always have. In a way, learning a new language is as much about breaking habits as it is about forming them.
Fear is one of the biggest reasons why learning a language as an adult is much harder than learning as a child. Children aren’t afraid to make mistakes. They don’t get hung up on grammatical errors or slips of the tongue. They just use what they know. Learning a new language can be hard if you’re shy. That’s because you’ll need to talk to natives, make mistakes, and learn from them. As a general rule, adults need to be better at trying and failing. Somewhere along the way, we lose some of our resilience. We start to care more about how people perceive us than improving a skill or talent. If you’re serious about learning a language, you’ll need to build up some of that lost resilience. You’ll need to make mistakes and learn from them instead of being knocked back by them.
Sprint or Marathon?
Learning is always going to be a marathon. It doesn’t matter whether you’re learning a language, an instrument, calculus, or history. You need consistent effort to learn things long term. Cramming does work in that it can help you scrape through a test or exam. However, cramming overloads your brain. The information sticks around for a few hours, but that knowledge leaks out of your brain like sand in a sieve. I promised you 30 tips that will help you learn a language quickly and easily. I did not promise an overnight transformation. The tips in this article will help you speed up your learning. However, you need to be consistent with your studies. Little and often is the best way to learn. 15 minutes a day is better than 2 hours once a week. By spacing your learning across the whole week, you’ll get more frequent repetition, which helps learning to stick in your memory.
If you pick up a language book, it may start with phrases like ‘may I have a coffee?’ or ‘where is the train station?’ They choose those phrases because they think they’ll be useful for travelers. (This is how I learned to ask for a beer in dozens of languages.) However, The phrases in your textbook are probably not the most common phrases you’ll use in real life. Think about the things you like to talk about, and what you say most often. Use those as a starting point for your learning. Conversation starters like these are also a good place to begin.
3. Find your motivation.
It’s difficult to do something with no solid goal. Make it easier by giving yourself a reason. Book a flight if you’ve got the money. If not, have a serious think about why you want to learn another language. Ask yourself questions like ‘why do I want to learn Chinese?’ ‘How will learning Spanish improve my life?’ Write down your answers and create a mantra. ‘Learning Spanish will help me talk to my patients,’ or ‘learning Chinese will help me communicate with my colleagues.’ On days when you don’t feel like practicing, repeat your mantra. Stick it above your desk if that helps. If you need some additional motivation, check out this article about the benefits of learning a language.
4. Immerse yourself in the language as soon as possible.
I had a language teacher in school who moved into the Welsh-speaking dorms at university. He didn’t speak Welsh at the time, but within a month he was getting by. By winter break he barely used English anymore. Moving to the Welsh dorms forced him to immerse himself in the language. If he wanted to speak to anyone, he had to use Welsh. Being around the language every day helped him learn. For sure, it was a drastic move. Some people go even further by moving countries. That’s not feasible for everyone, but you can still immerse yourself in another language. Listen to the radio, watch tv, and read in your chosen language. You will struggle at first, but little by little you’ll begin to understand. Listening to the radio or watching TV in the language you’re learning can help your listening skills. This is often the hardest skill to master if you’re a solo learner. For a more comprehensive explanation of immersion and how to create an immersion bubble, check out this video.
5. Make mistakes.
Never let fear stop you from using your language. If you’re holding out for complete mastery before you start speaking the language, you’ll wait a lifetime. No one likes to look foolish. But if you’re talking to a native speaker in their language, they’re generally happy to help. And most people prefer to be spoken to in their native tongue, even if you are butchering a little bit. Be brave, take risks, and trust others to help you learn from any mistakes you make.
6. Get a language buddy.
We are generally better at sticking to promises we make to others than the ones we make to ourselves. Find a friend to learn with, and hold each other accountable. If you have a friend who already speaks the language, ask them if they’d mind having a daily or weekly conversation with you. You could also look for a pen pal or online partner to learn your language. There are lots of services online which help you find pen-pals internationally.
7. Practice daily.
There’s not much point spending 2 or 3 hours studying on a Saturday if you’re not using the language for the rest of the week. You need to practice your skills every day to make them stick. Your brain processes and stores information much better if it gets short sessions frequently. Studies have shown that short and frequent learning is the best way to acquire skills. Modern technology makes this easier. There are plenty of language learning apps available on most platforms that can help you practice a little each day. If you’re not a fan of phones, you could make flashcards, read in another language or think in your new language. Anything that makes you use what you’ve learned and are learning.
8. Make your learning fun.
With the best will in the world, you’re not going to enjoy every aspect of learning a language. I love learning vocabulary, but I hate grammar and sentence structure. So when I sit down to learn, I’ll start with some vocab and then try and put that vocab into the sentence structures I’ve been learning that week. This helps me stay interested in the grammar side of things. A friend of mine loves cooking, so she uses recipes in different languages to help her grow her vocabulary. Another friend is a grammar fanatic and loves to conjugate verbs, so he’ll write out sentences with different conjugations. The point is, you’re learning at your own pace and in your own way. You’re not stuck in school learning with 30 others. You can make it fun for yourself.
9. Change it up.
Building on the previous tip, you need to keep your practice fresh to keep it entertaining. Take it from an ex-teacher, repetitive tasks get you nowhere fast. Hands-on and engaging activities help you learn for life. Try to do a different activity each day. This also helps you master the four different aspects of language; reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Too often, learners focus on just one at the expense of the others. Changing up your activities will help you cover all the bases. Learn some vocab with flashcards one day, the next day write an email or letter to your penpal using that vocab. The following day, try to use it in a conversation. You get the picture.
10. Have a dictionary handy.
Nowadays you don’t need to carry a cumbersome book with you. You have a whole world of languages on the phone in your pocket. Download a dictionary in your language. There are plenty of free options on most app stores. When you’re struggling in a conversation or trying to understand something written down, look it up. You don’t need to feel embarrassed about doing this. Just excuse yourself in the conversation for a moment while you search. Dictionaries have a bad reputation in language learning due to the ways some people use them in schools. I’m sure we all remember that classmate who would spend a whole period looking up every word. Or else, the classmate who used Google translate to copy and paste homework full of inaccuracies. The fact of the matter is that dictionaries are handy for acquiring vocabulary, help with spellings, and understanding usage.
11. Learn a word. Use the word.
The best way to make sure vocabulary sticks in your brain is to use it. When you pick up some new vocabulary, make a conscious effort to use it a few times as soon as possible. You know how sometimes you learn a new word in your native tongue and then you seem to hear it everywhere? It’s called “frequency illusion”. Try to make that happen when you learn a new word in your second language. With frequency illusions, the new word is fresh in your mind so you are more aware of its use around you. Of course, if you’re not living in a place that uses your new language, you’re not going to experience it as much. This can lead to that new information leaking out of your brain if it doesn’t get reconfirmed. So make sure you use it, to create your own frequency illusion.
12. Make SMART targets.
Another tip from teaching. SMART targets are the best way to set sensible targets that you can meet.SMART stands for specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-sensitive. So while your motivation mantra can be big and grand, you need to set yourself smaller SMART targets on the way. Let’s look at an example, shall we? Consider the difference between ‘I will learn 100 words this month.’ vs ‘I want to improve my vocabulary.’ The first example tells you exactly what you want to learn and by when you are going to learn it. Also, ‘100 words’ is very measurable. You can check them off as you learn them. In terms of relevancy, this will depend on your progress. Don’t set a target that doesn’t push your learning. If you need to work on your grammar, don’t set a vocabulary target. Attainable goals mean that you should be able to achieve them. 100 words a month is realistic. 10,000 in a month is probably not attainable. There’s nothing worse for your motivation than failing to reach your targets. Be sensible, be realistic, be successful. There’s more to SMART targets than I can fit in this blog. Check out this video for a deeper look at them.
13. Understand the building blocks of language.
To effectively learn a new language, you need to have a firm grasp of word classes, parts of speech, and grammar patterns in your native tongue. This will mean doing a bit of review before diving into your new language. Trust me, it will be worth it. One of the most difficult things to grasp with a second language is grammar patterns. Different languages put the verbs, adverbs, nouns, and adjectives in different orders in sentences. If you can’t tell a verb from a noun, you will struggle to make sense of the sentence construction.
14. Be kind to yourself.
Everyone has bad days. Days where they’re rushed off their feet. Days where there just aren’t enough waking hours. Don’t beat yourself up if you break your practicing streak. If you miss a day of learning you just need to dust yourself off and pick it up the next day. Berating yourself will just dampen your motivation and make your language learning feel like a chore.
15. Context is key.
Every language has homophones (words that sound the same but have different meanings) and homonyms (words that are spelled the same but have different meanings.) In English, we can distinguish between lead and lead because we can pick up on context clues. We use the rest of the words in the sentence to figure out if we’re talking about metal, a rope, or even a past tense verb. You’ll need to do the same in your second language. Read around the word to make sense of it. If you’re having a conversation, think about the whole sentence the word was used in.
16.Read to the punctuation.
This is a tip I picked up when I was teaching Shakespeare. It works for languages too and leads on from the last tip. Before you dive into the dictionary and start looking up every word, read the full sentence. Stop at the period (or exclamation point, or question mark). This allows you to get the context of the sentence. Also, in many languages, the grammatical order is different from English. This means a word at the end of the sentence can completely change the meaning. It works for listening too. Wait until the sentence is finished before you ask for clarification or look up what you didn’t understand. You might be able to make sense of it on your own.
17.Make your monologue multilingual.
Most of us have an internal monologue. It’s that voice we hear in our heads when we are thinking. Try to think in your new language. It won’t be perfect, but nobody will know that except you! It will help you practice and remember new vocab and sentence structures. Interestingly, some people don’t have an inner voice. These people tend to think in images. If you’re a pictorial thinker, you can try imagining images of words in your new language. See them written in bright bold fonts inside your head.
18.Wrap your tongue around pronunciation as early as possible.
Having poor pronunciation can make you feel less confident and therefore less comfortable speaking a new language. Take time to work out the pronunciation patterns of your second language. If you choose a phonetic language like German or Welsh, you only need to learn the alphabet to know how each letter should be pronounced. Languages like French, Spanish, and English have lots of different phonemes (units of sound distinct from each other.) For example, in English the letter a is pronounced differently depending on what letters surround it. Think about the difference between apple, air, and main. There are rules and formulas that can help you learn and remember these pronunciations in most languages. A great place to start is with children’s phonics books or websites. These usually simplify and illustrate how different letters sound when they are combined.
19.Expect brain melt.
Initially, you will feel overwhelmed by your new language. Especially as you try to listen and read native shows or books. This is ok. It’s also ok to feel like your brain has been through the wringer after simply introducing yourself in a new language. Language is complicated for the brain to construct and process. Don’t get discouraged. Give your brain some credit and work your way through the melt. With practice and active learning, you’ll find it easier each time you use your new language.
20.Identify your strengths and weaknesses.
You need to be honest and realistic about which bits of the language you are good at, and which need a little bit more work. I know, for example, that listening is my weakest skill. I can find it difficult to follow and understand native speakers. Rather than feeling bad about this, I know that this is the area I need to work on. It informs my learning and feeds into those SMART targets I mentioned. Try not to think of ‘weaknesses’ as deficiencies. Look at them as opportunities for growth.
In school, our teachers help us track our progress. They have charts and graphs for everything we do. When we learn independently we need to be on top of our progress and learning. The first thing you need to do is create a learning timetable. Plan out your weekly or monthly sessions. This way you’ll be able to spread yourself across all 4 language skills. It also means you won’t waste time figuring out what to do each day. You should also think about keeping a learning journal. You can record new words, write about your progress, and evaluate your ability. This can then help you create SMART targets. You don’t need to grade yourself if you don’t want to. Choose an evaluation method that is meaningful to you. It could be a confidence scale, a happiness scale, or the number of times you have to stop and look something up. The key thing is that you take stock of your progress.
22.Make learning a habit, not a chore.
There’s a frequently repeated ‘fact’ that circulates the internet stating that it takes 21 days to form a habit. This isn’t quite true but there are ways to make forming a habit easier. Essentially, you need a consistent routine, and that takes willpower. The first few days are key. You should make a concerted effort to maintain your learning schedule for the first week. It should become easier each week after that. Don’t worry if you miss a day. Just get back on the wagon the next day.
Forming good learning habits will help you stay motivated and will get your brain used to learning. Your brain likes patterns and rhythms. If it knows that at 8 pm every night it’s going to be thinking in Hindi, it will begin to anticipate that and switch on the language parts of the brain.
23.Pay close attention to your accent.
Regional accents are wide and varied. When you’re watching or listening to native media, be aware that they may have a different accent to the one you’ve been learning. It’s usually a good idea to stick with one accent. If you speak in a strange hodgepodge accent you won’t sound native and you’ll get a lot of funny looks. For border crossing languages like Spanish, you will need to pick a region. The Spanish used in the Americas sounds quite different from European Spanish. Think about what area you are most likely going to visit or live in. For a whistle-stop tour of some of the different accents used for Spanish around the world, check out this video. That’s not to say that you can’t listen to or watch regional media. You absolutely can. Just remember that they will pronounce things differently.
24.If you can afford it, hire a tutor.
Tutors tend to work on a 1-1 basis. This kind of professional attention is really valuable. Tutors can focus on you in a way that class teachers can’t. A tutor will work with you on all aspects of the language. They will be able to explain and guide you through trickier aspects of the language like sentence patterns and pronunciation. Tutors can be fairly expensive and not realistic for some people. They’re not necessary for learning a new language but they can make the process easier. Look out for tutors offering discounts or limited sessions. You can use these to boost your learning rather than having ongoing tuition.
You learn best when you’re enjoying yourself. Excitement goes a long way in language learning. Book yourself a holiday to France, China, or Mexico. Use your departure date as a deadline and your holiday excitement as a motivator. If you can’t book a holiday right now, use your hobbies and interests to create excitement. Read about your favorite sports team in your second language. If you love watching the game, change the language to Spanish. You’ll have to use your language to follow the commentary. Use the culture of the country to get excited. Book yourself samba classes or cooking classes. You’ll feel more connected to the culture and more excited to learn the language.
26. Translate both ways.
Translation exercises might seem a bit old-fashioned, but they are a great way to work your brain and use the vocab you’ve acquired. Translation is also handy for getting to grips with grammar patterns. Make sure you translate in and out of your new language. This helps you kind of learn the process from two different perspectives. Don’t be afraid to reach for the dictionary when translating. It’s better to be slow but correct than rush and make a hash of it. If you want to translate spoken language, it’s best to use a recording. This way you can rewind to catch any parts you missed.
27.Speak slowly at first.
When we speak in our native languages we tend to speak fast. This is because we don’t need to think about it, and our mouths and tongues are used to producing the sounds. In a new language, it’s necessary to slow down at first. This gives your brain time to think about what it wants to say. It also allows you to get your mouth around all those new sounds and shapes. Try not to worry about sounding slow or dumb. As I’ve said before, most people are understanding. They generally appreciate the effort you’ve put in to speak in their native language. Your speaking speed will increase naturally. As you become more familiar with the language and sounds, your brain will need less time to think. That being said, think before you speak is good advice in every language!
28.Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
One of the first phrases you should learn is ‘how do you say…?’ This will serve you very well indeed. There’s no shame in asking for help. In fact, asking native speakers for advice and help will make you more fluent.
The thing about learning from books and resources is that they often teach formal and grammatically perfect language. This is great, but it’s not how people speak day to day.
When you ask a native speaker how to say something, they’ll often give you an idiomatic or colloquial response. Colloquial language is informal language. It’s the slang words and phrases that we use when we talk to our friends and families. It’s more natural and free-flowing than formal textbook language. When you pick up a language book or course, some of the earliest phrases covered are things like ‘good evening. My name is …what’s yours?’ Polite as this might be, it’s not how people tend to talk most of the time. Idioms are wonderful bits of language. They are phrases that tend to be more creative and figurative. You can’t always work out what they mean from the words alone. For example, in English, we use the phrase ‘over the moon’ to mean happy or ecstatic. You wouldn’t be able to guess what that means just by reading or hearing it. Context would give you a good idea, but asking about it is best. Other idioms are more self-explanatory but you won’t pick them up unless you talk to native speakers and ask for advice. In Welsh, there is a beautifully sarcastic idiom. It goes like this fel rhech mewn pot jam. The literal translation is like a fart in a jam jar. You can probably guess that it means useless, but you might want to ask for clarification!
29. Watch others talk as well as listening.
Humans are capable of pronouncing any language. You just need to train your mouth, lips, and vocal cords. Watching how others move their mouth and tongue can help you with this. In some languages, some sounds are completely different from English sounds. I’m thinking about the rolling ‘r’ sound in Spanish, the ll sound found in Welsh, Icelandic, Swedish, and Finnish, and the tonal sounds in Mandarin. Look out for the shape of the mouth and the way the tongue is used. Don’t be creepy about it, just make a mental note. Again, recorded media is your best friend here. Rewind and watch actors or presenters speak. If you can, slow the video down. For Khoisan and Bantu languages, two families of African languages that use clicking sounds, watching how native speakers talk is invaluable. The sounds are made with different tongue and mouth positions. Watching how they are made can help you form the sounds and avoid miscommunication.
30. Don’t put it off!
Procrastination will kill your language learning before you even start. Abraham Lincoln once said ‘give me six hours to chop a tree and I’ll spend the first four sharpening the axe. Like most human beings, he was a procrastinator. It’s a strange part of the human condition. As a general rule, we prefer to put things off. Sometimes we even put off things that we like doing. When we procrastinate, we tend to blame our lack of time. ‘I would do some Spanish but I’ve got to do the dishes before tomorrow.’ ‘I haven’t got time to do my Russian. I’ve got to organize the freezer.’ However, procrastination has nothing to do with time management. It’s an emotional tactic. We procrastinate because we have negative associations with the task at hand. For some people, the fear of failing at a new language makes them scurry off to the sock drawer and start pairing socks. Others can’t bear to be bored or frustrated so they’ll go scrub out the pantry. Essentially, what happens is that we become focused on the negative mood and try to deal with that before doing anything else. Of course, this stops us from actually starting the main task. It’s not hopeless though. The best way to break your procrastination habit is to be kind to yourself. Beating yourself up about it just causes you more stress and creates more negative associations. Next time you find yourself alphabetizing your CDs instead of learning Spanish, forgive yourself and move on. Another good way to beat fear is to make positive associations. Instead of focusing on the fear of failing, focus on what you’ll get out of learning a new language. Lastly, breaking things up into small, bite-size tasks makes it easier to get started.
There you have it! 30 expert tips to help you learn any language quickly and easily. I hope that you find these tips helpful in your language learning. The keys are to be consistent, be brave, have fun, and, above all else, use your language. Buena suerte, pob luc, semoga berhasil, удачи, viel glück, bonne chance, okuhle kodwa, or good luck, whichever you prefer!
Ben has been practicing as a physician assistant, or PA (similar to a doctor) in emergency medicine, family practice and urgent care since 2014. He became fluent in Spanish while living in Guatemala for 2 years, and now tries to help other healthcare professionals learn medical Spanish so they can care for their patients more effectively.