People often list learning a new language is a personal goal, but follow that up with an excuse. They’ll say they’re too old, it takes too much time, or it costs too much money. Ignore these – there are free and fast ways for a person of any age to learn a new language.
Stick to a few basic principles.
It’s tempting to start with the best software or flash cards, but before getting to the tools you should focus on the process.
- Set reasonable goals. Learning a language can be intimidating, but you should remember that there are a lot of English words you don’t know. Set a realistic goal of learning enough to communicate and be happy with that as a starting point.
- Actively practice. Focused practice, where your full attention is on the material, is what counts. Benny Lewis, a well-known polyglot, points out that five years of taking part-time classes might be equivalent to just fifteen full days of active, mindful, study. Build on your developing skills by actively practicing every day.
- Start simple. Learn common words and phrases before moving on. Find a list of high-frequency words in your target language, such as this list of the 1,000 most common Spanish words based on subtitles from movies and TV shows. There are lists of common phrases in foreign languages on Omniglot.
- Make mistakes. Don’t worry, speaking a new language is embarrassing for everyone at first. Practice reading and speaking out loud, even if no one is listening. Expect to make mistakes and learn to laugh through them.
- Use the tools and tips below to listen to your target language as much as you can.
- Bonus: don’t learn alone. Learning a language can be difficult and having a partner that’s going through the process at the same time can be a great help. Try to recruit a friend, relative, or partner that has an interest in learning the same language as you.
Immerse yourself in the language.
You need to immersion yourself in the language. You’ll hear this over and over again, but living in a foreign country for weeks or months is rarely an option for people. It may not be the full experience; there are opportunities to get “immersed” without traveling.
An expat in Taiwan, Andrew Bliss sells packages of adventure books. He says, “learning another language is an excellent excuse to watch bad TV.” He recommends a very active approach. Turn on the subtitles, find phrases you want to learn, then replay the scene with subtitles in the foreign language and write down (and practice) the phrases.
It’s can also be easy to find native speakers of many foreign languages if you live in a city. Practice at restaurants, cultural centers, supermarkets, or more formal social gatherings like a Meetup group.
Use the right tools for the job.
Once you understand what the process will be, it’s time to get started. Along with the many paid tools – some costing hundreds of dollars – there are free options to help you along.
- Many people use flashcards to memorize new words, but not all flash cards are created equal. The paper variant can work, but programs that incorporate spaced repetition can help you learn much quicker. Consider online or mobile apps from Cerego, Memrise, Anki, or Brainscape.
- Practice with native speakers. One of the most important steps you can take is to connect with native speakers of the language you’re learning. As an English speaker, there are many opportunities to join a language exchange group or program and connect with people around the world to practice speaking. There are also some sites, such as Lang-8.com, where you can submit written text and have it corrected by a native speaker for free.
- You’ll need to listen to the language This can help your pronunciation, vocabulary, and teach you the cadence (the rhythm and flow) of a language. You can find podcasts or music from foreign countries by switching your language in iTunes. Some countries also have news radio, TV shows, or movies available for streaming online
- Andrew Ostrander is the former Director of the Southwestern U.S. at Youth for Understanding, a cultural immersion exchange program. He strongly suggests watching cartoons in a target language. “They’re often at a third to sixth-grade level, and it’s one of the fastest ways to get people going,” says Ostrander. Plus, you can also learn about the culture from the cartoons. Many videos are available for free on YouTube.
It’s much easier to learn a language if you have a particular goal in mind. Are you planning a trip to a foreign country or do you want to communicate with your grandparents that don’t speak English? Whatever the reason, starting is the most significant step.