13 Tricks for Learning a Language

Okay, so let me start by saying that I am HORRIBLE at languages. Like, beyond horrible. I know English (and I think I’m pretty damn good at it), but being able to add a second language to my skill-set proved elusive to me for many years. I spent 9 years (yes, that’s not a typo, 9 loooong years) ‘learning’ Spanish in school, but by the end of it I had basically nothing to show for it.

Back in the States, they started us learning colors, days of the week, months, and basic phrases such as Me llamo Jessica and ¿Cómo estás?. When I graduated from middle school, that is pretty much all I knew. In my high school, it was required that we take 3 years of a language and I decided to take Spanish. Not to diss my Spanish teachers here, but I didn’t learn much there either. Sure, now I knew how to conjugate basic verbs and differentiate between the past and the future, but if someone spoke to me in Spanish I’d just stare at them blankly.

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My last year in high school I had completed the requirement, so I didn’t take Spanish. However, I did pick up a job at a small local Mexican restaurant, and I was the only gringa. While I didn’t become anywhere near fluent, I definitely picked up a bunch of phrases and could speak to the cooks in Spanglish. To this day, some of the phrases I learned there are ingrained in my mind because I used them so much.

Years later, I arrived to Barcelona with my rusty Spanish and a dream. I was determined to learn Spanish once and for all. It was a difficult journey, but after many experiments and embarrassing exchanges, I can now say that I speak Spanish pretty well (definitely room for improvement, but hey, I’ll take it!). And not only that, but I also have a decent knowledge of Catalan (the local language in Barcelona) and I’m working on learning French! In less than 4 years, I’ve gone from a stereotypical American girl who only knows English to a multilingual / polyglot!

Below, I’ve gathered some of the methods that were most effective for me when learning a language. Tried and failed to learn before? Try some of these out, let me know what you think! By no means will you learn a language overnight, it is definitely a slow process, but if you keep with it, it’s impossible that you won’t learn!

13 Tips for Learning a New Language

1. Set a schedule and routine for yourself.

Sure, you want to learn, and perhaps you start off well… but like many other goals we make in life, we forget, or we do it less and less over time, until finally we don’t even do it at all (I’m looking at you, gym). So decide how often and exactly when you can set aside time to practice so that there are no excuses. Put it in your google calendar, set reminders on your phone – do what you gotta do. Every day I know exactly when I will be studying/practicing, and it never changes. I’ve stuck with it for years, and it works.

2. Find what motivates you, and make a realistic goal.

So, you’ve decided you’re going to learn a language. But why? What are you hoping to achieve? Take a minute to think about this, and truly evaluate your motivations. What will you gain by learning the language? Why is it important to you? Then set reasonable, achievable goals for yourself. But be realistic – you won’t be fluent in a language within a year. But perhaps you can read a book in your target language, or have a successful conversation with someone. Or, one of the best motivators of all – plan a trip to a place that speaks your target language, and you’ll stay motivated to learn so that you go prepared! See #13.

3. Practice in small bits every day – don’t overdo it.

It is very common for people to get excited and motivated about something, do it for hours, then get burnt out and eventually not do it at all. Find a small amount of time (I recommend minimum 10 minutes, max 45) that you can dedicate every day to practicing, and this will help concrete in your mind the new vocabulary and phrases without overwhelming your brain. Don’t have time, you say? Take it out of your social media/TV time! We’re all guilty of spending way too much time scrolling aimlessly – use this time in a productive way instead! Not guilty of social media binging? Then try listening to podcasts while you go about your normal routine (see below)! Now what’s your excuse?

4. Listen to language podcasts.

Podcasts are a fantastic way for busy people to take advantage of normally wasted time to do productive things. I originally started listening to podcasts my first year living in Barcelona because I had to walk so much from one place to another, and music all the time just wasn’t keeping me entertained enough. I started with an English podcast, and was satisfied that I was learning something/being productive during the moments that were normally wasted during the day. Eventually it occurred to me that I could probably find a podcast to help me improve my listening skills in Spanish, and one of the first ones I found was SpanishPodcast.Net.

I must say, even the first episode intrigued me. It is all in Spanish (well, duh…) so I would recommend knowing a bit of Spanish before starting it. The first episode outlines ways to learn a language, and it mentioned that the traditional methods of teaching a language that include drilling grammatical rules and having hundreds of lists of vocabulary (aka the way I had been taught all my life) isn’t all that effective. It results in people being able to read and write their new language decently, but when it comes to speaking they become a babbling mess (aka me, before). This podcast is based upon a new method of learning, going back to the way we originally learned our native language as babies. By listening. And repeating. And then repeating some more. Practice, practice, practice.

More than 3 years later, I’m still listening to  SpanishPodcast.Net on my commute to work, and I’ve also added a French podcast (Coffee Break French) to my daily routine. I can’t say that I’ve become fluent only by listening to podcasts, but it has definitely helped me take advantage of my time, learn new vocabulary and expressions, and understand native speakers better. It is definitely one of my preferred methods of learning!

There are many ways to download podcasts, but if you’re new to it, I recommend the app Podcast Addict. You can search for, subscribe and download podcasts easily. I’ve used it from the very beginning, and have no complaints!

5. Do a language exchange.

The best way to learn a language is to use that language as much as possible. Once you’ve gotten down some of the basics (present tense, common vocabulary, questions, etc) try to meet up with people in your community who you can practice with. If you’re close to a city, there’s surely many different public events that are designed specifically for people to meet up and practice their languages. It is a safe space because you know the other people attending are there for the same purpose as you – to learn. It’s expected and encouraged to make mistakes! One site that my friends and I have used successfully in the past to find these exchanges is MeetUp.Com.

If you want something a bit more personal, there are various sites (just search for a conversation or language exchange on google) where you can find people in your area. The idea is to find a person who speaks the language you’re trying to learn, and who wants to improve their level of English. You meet up for, say, 1-2 hours with this person in a cafe (or over Skype, for example) and spend half of the time speaking in English, and the other half of the time in your target language. This way, both of you get to learn and you’re both benefiting from the experience. Win win!

6. Find a language app that works for you.

We’re all guilty of playing on our phones when we’re bored, doing useless, time-filling activities. Why not use some of that time to learn? There are tons of apps at your fingertips!

The most common language learning app I’ve seen is Duolingo. You can use this on a computer or on your phone. It’s great for beginners, and is a dynamic platform to learn and drill vocabulary and grammar. It can be a bit repetitive, but sometimes it is necessary. And even if you only do it 10 minutes a day, it’ll help! My biggest problem with Duolingo is that sometimes the voices are super robotic.

One app I’ve come to enjoy a lot is a lesser-known app called Memrise. I actually starting learning French this way, and I liked the app so much that I paid for the full version (a rarity for me). They record small bits of native speakers saying the phrases and vocabulary you’re learning, so you can hear what people actually sound like and imitate it. They also have some other fun, innovative additions, like a grammar bot that tests your conversational ability and a pronunciation test. I highly recommend it!

7. Watch TV & Movies in your target language.

Learning a language doesn’t have to be boring and tiresome! Watching TV and movies is actually an extremely effective way of learning, and helps you learn colloquial phrases and come to understand native speakers better in their natural rhythm. There are various ways you can use this method to learn, but I recommend the following two (depending on your level, one may be more effective than the other):

  1. Find a TV show or movie that you already know super well (as in, you basically have it memorized already). Put the audio and subtitles into your target language. Since you already know what’s happening, you don’t have to stress about missing something important, and you’ll be learning the phrases as you watch.
  2. Find entertaining shows and movies in your target language. You could also watch an English movie and put the audio into your target language, but I personally much prefer hearing the actually actors speak (sometimes the dubbed voices can be really annoying). If you have a lower level, leave the subtitles in English but try to focus on what the actors are saying in your target language. For intermediate and above learners, put the subtitles directly into your target language. You might not understand everything, but that’s ok! You’ll pick up on new vocabulary as you go, and you will understand the important parts based on the context. That’s part of the fun! Whatever you do, don’t get hung up or frustrated on words you don’t understand – it will come with time!

8. Listen to music in your target language.

Music is another fantastic and entertaining way to learn a language. Songs generally contain slang and colloquial language, so it’s a great way to learn informal, conversational expressions. I did this my first year in Barcelona, and it helped me quite a bit. Here is how I recommend to do it to get the most benefit:

  1. Find a song you like in your target language, one with good rhythm that’s catchy (and that you won’t get tired of easily).
  2. Listen to it a few times and try to see if you understand any of the words.
  3. Then, look up the lyrics and write them down, leaving space between each line.
  4. Listen to the song again and sing with the lyrics, trying to imitate the pronunciation.
  5. Try to translate any words or phrases that you already know below each line (the space you left before in step #3).
  6. If necessary, use a dictionary/translator to fill in the rest.
  7. Listen again, singing along, now understanding everything.
  8. Add it to a playlist that you listen to occasionally, and it’ll help you memorize the vocabulary and expressions!
  9. Repeat with other songs, and make your own enjoyable, learning playlist!

For translations, I highly recommend the site Word Reference. I use Google Translate occasionally as well for full sentences, but for single words Word Reference is definitely better. It gives you all of the possible meanings of a word based on context, and also example sentences so that you understand fully how to use the word. It also shows you various expressions that use the word you’re looking for. I recommend Word Reference to all of my students!

9. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.

When we learn our first language as children, we make tons of mistakes – it is expected of us. However, that changes as we become older. We become afraid of looking like a fool, and this is the biggest hindrance when learning a new language. I was (and still am) guilty of this, and my first year in Barcelona I was so nervous of looking like an idiot that I rarely ever practiced Spanish with the people around me. I still get nervous sometimes, especially if I’m not 100% sure about how to say something, but I’ve slowly learned that it is much more valuable to make a mistake and learn from it than to never try. And generally, people are super respectful and appreciate the fact that you’re trying to learn the language rather than just expecting everyone to speak English.

To start, especially if you’re shy, I definitely recommend going to a language exchange (see #5) because everyone around you will be making mistakes as well, so it feels like a safe space to start practicing. But you need to accept the fact that you WILL have embarrassing moments, but that’s okay – it can even be quite fun to look back on! During my first few months working at a school in Barcelona, I was a bit sick. One of the teachers came up to me and asked “Estas constipada?” and I looked at her in horror, thinking that she was asking if I was constipated. Turns out constipada actually means to have a cold, and she was just trying to show concern for my well-being. See #10 for more. 

10. Learn all of the “False Friends” in your target language (if applicable).

The more you learn languages, the more you realize how many similarities there are to English, especially with the Latin languages. Some words are kept the same across many languages, or just have small variations, so it’s easy to remember. As you learn, you also start noticing patterns, and sometimes you can guess what a word may be based on what you already know. While this is super helpful, you also need to be wary of “False Friends,” or words that appear similar between languages but actually mean very different things. Here are a couple examples from Spanish:

Embarazada (Pregnant) & Embarrassed

Preservativo (Condom) & Preservatives

Constipado (sick with a cold) & Constipated

These are some of the more embarrassing false friends that I have personal experience making mistakes with, which could’ve been avoided if I had learned and studied them beforehand. Save yourself some embarrassment and do your research about false friends in your target language!

11. Find a friend with about the same language level and keep each other motivated.

This is true of all goals in life! Having a friend to keep you accountable helps a lot, and it also encourages some healthy competition. You can start talking and practicing with each other in your target language, and teach each other some new vocabulary or phrases that you learn from independent study. If you start slacking on your practice, your friend will notice and can try to motivate you to keep going, and vice versa.

12. Use your new vocabulary and phrases whenever possible.

Sure, you might not be able to speak your target language with everyone around you, but perhaps you can talk to yourself in the language (bear with me – it makes sense, I promise). You know those inner monologues you have in your head when you’re getting ready, or bored? Try to use your new knowledge to take advantage of these dead moments, and it will help concrete the vocabulary and idioms in your head. If you don’t know what to say, just start mentally naming or describing the things you see around you. Using the language in context will help your brain memorize the vocabulary effectively. It will also help you start thinking in your target language, which is one of the most difficult and sought-after elements of language learning.

13. Visit (or better yet, live) in a country that speaks your target language.

This isn’t possible for everyone, but it is definitely one of the most effective ways of learning. You’re forced to hear and use the language constantly in order to move around the city or ask for anything. Many people speak English abroad, and perhaps will notice your accent and start speaking to you in English, but you can politely say that you’d like to practice. People generally appreciate the attempt at speaking and learning their language, and your experiences will be much more rewarding!

Hearing the language and learning based on what you experience day to day is the way children learn, which is why they are so good at learning languages. When I moved to Barcelona, I was hoping to learn Spanish, but what I didn’t realize is that the majority of natives speak Catalan between each other. Sure, they also speak Spanish, but between friends and family, it is all in Catalan.

Without really knowing it, I have been slowly learning the Catalan language through this mode of learning – purely through listening. I am surrounded by Catalan; at school, on the streets, and at home with host families pretty much everything I hear is Catalan. Sure, I can’t speak it super well (mainly my fault for choosing to practice my Spanish more than my Catalan) but I understand almost everything of what is being said. I learn something new all the time without even trying.

If you’re given the opportunity to visit or live in another country, definitely jump at it! Your experiences will be unforgettable, and you’ll be amazed at how quickly you pick up the language.

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Have you tried learning a language through any of these methods? If so, have they proven effective? Anything I haven’t mentioned that has worked for you? I’d love to hear about your experiences!

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[…] (spoken in nearby Catalonia). If you’re looking to improve your language skills, check out my 13 Tricks for Learning a Language. If you don’t know Spanish, it is still quite easy to get around using English because there is a […]