I have been asked many times, “What is the best way for me to learn a foreign language?” Or sometimes the question is presented in another manner: “Will Rosetta Stone software help me become fluent in Spanish/Mandarin/Tagalog, etc.?” I’ve answered these questions so many times that I will just write my answer here. I am by no means a linguist with expertise in foreign language acquisition. My answer, therefore, is more personal and practical than it is theoretical. I also focus on adult learning in this article because children generally have the wonderful advantage of learning foreign languages by simply growing up in a home in which at least one of the parents speaks the foreign language, growing up abroad where the parents are employed, or attending an international school with classes taught in the foreign language from a very early age. Few children tell themselves “I am going to learn Language X” without parental guidance and actually go through with the necessary steps to achieve fluency.
Note: The manner in which I’ve written this article assumes that your first language is English – only because I’ve written the article in English. If your first language is something other than English, just simply replace the word “English” throughout this article for your first language, and the learning methods described here will apply to you equally.
So what’s my key recommendation for learning a foreign language? Do the best with what you have based on your goal. Simple – right? I address both aspects of this answer (1. Doing the best with what you have, and 2. Orienting your learning toward achieving your particular goal) in the next two sections.
Doing the best with what you have
There is by no means one single way to learn a foreign language, and the method you choose to learn a language is obviously limited to the resources you have. For example, you may not have $300+ for Rosetta Stone software or $20,000+ for a yearlong study abroad or $600+ for a semester of learning at a local college or university. Or maybe you have the money but are married with children that are still living in the home, and moving to another country is out of the question.
But let’s say that you do have sufficient resources. Let’s say you can take a year off from life and participate in a study abroad program recognized by your home university, or you can just move away and teach English in the country where the language you want to learn is spoken. My approach is full immersion.
When I determined almost a decade ago that I was going to learn Spanish I went all out. I was a 22-year old kid, fresh out of the Air Force and on my way to college. I knew I was going to study abroad somewhere in South America, but I was required by my home university to actually attend classes at the local institution before studying abroad. How to begin? I signed up for Spanish classes immediately. I asked around and found a local female salsa instructor; I began lessons right away and attended weekly. (For the record, I can impress non-Hispanics, but Hispanics quickly identify me as “just another gringo.” Dancing is not my thing, and that’s just fine with me).
I also frequented the Mexican restaurants in the area and forced myself to converse in Spanish with everyone. As my university had a large Bolivian student body, I made friends with the Bolivians. And by the way, college parties – when consisting of primarily native speakers of the language you want to learn – are the best way to practice foreign languages when you’re stuck in an English-speaking country. When you drink alcohol, you don’t mind making mistakes. When others drink, they’re even friendlier than they might be otherwise and are more tolerant of your mistakes.
If you get tired of speaking with a particular person or the person gets tired of speaking with you, you can just strike up another conversation with someone else! If you attend parties that are comprised of exclusively native speakers of the foreign language you want to learn and you are unable to converse in the beginning, stick with it! I can’t tell you how many times I stood around looking like a damn fool until I finally got my Spanish up to a working level. When they called me “gringo” I just laughed, stayed friendly and kept speaking (bad) Spanish. As a happily-married man, I don’t do college parties anymore (thank goodness), but having subjected myself to so many situations that were so far outside my element in so many countries since that time, I can do formal business dinners throughout East Asia, or negotiate a deal in the Middle East or attend a funeral in Ethiopia (all real examples), and feel at ease – whether or not I speak any of the local languages. So get out of your comfort zone! Comfort comes from either: 1. keeping yourself closed off from new experiences, or 2. constantly forcing yourself to adapt to new experiences. I find the latter to be so much more rewarding.
Even better still than “party practicing” is obtaining a walking dictionary. My academic advisor in college told me that when he was studying abroad in Paris during the early days of the Vietnam War, a US Army officer who had been granted leave to study in Paris referred to local girlfriends (and native French speakers) as “walking dictionaries.” So I have named this section after that. The best walking dictionaries are native speakers of the language that you want to learn. It is not enough that the person speaks the language fluently. If they are not a native speaker and the dominant common language between the two of you is not the language you want to learn, you will find yourself speaking the dominant common language almost exclusively. For example, let’s say that you want to learn Spanish. If English is your first language and you are dating a Brazilian – a native Portuguese speaker – that happens to also be fluent in Spanish and English, and the dominant common language between the two of you is English, then you both are probably going to find yourself speaking English the majority of the time – not Spanish.
Maybe you can’t control who you fall in love with, but you can at least control who you surround yourself with. So if you surround yourself with native speakers of the language you want to learn, you just might find love within that pool of people and better your foreign language ability simultaneously. Nothing wrong with that!
Foreign language students often have the debate: Which is better for learning? Watching foreign films (spoken in the foreign language) with English subtitles, subtitles of the same foreign language, or no subtitles at all? My answer: They’re all great for different reasons!
Here is what watching movies in each of the following ways does for your learning:
- Spoken in the foreign language and English subtitles – Helps you practice your listening but with a little assistance. This is like starting to ride a bike in the beginning with training wheels. No problem. It’s still great learning!
- Spoken in the foreign language and subtitles in that same foreign language – Helps you practice listening while reinforcing grammar, vocabulary and spelling.
- Spoken in the foreign language and no subtitles at all – Helps you practice your listening. This gives you the most realistic learning environment, since obviously people don’t have subtitles when they speak in real life.
Of course there are other ways to learn foreign languages by watching movies:
- Spoken in one foreign language and subtitles in another foreign language – As an English speaker, watching a Brazilian movies spoken in Portuguese but with Spanish subtitles can also help you learn Spanish. The practice is great, but if you want to focus on learning Portuguese, for example, it can be distracting.
- Spoken in English and subtitles in the foreign language – This is fine! Assuming the subtitles are translated well, this reinforces grammar, vocabulary and spelling. It obviously lacks listening practice but is still good as long as you don’t ignore the subtitles.
Let me be perfectly clear: There is no substitute to living in the country of the language you want to learn; period. Living abroad gives you constant intense practice in all categories of learning. If you can live (or at least travel) abroad, you want to make sure that you do as many different kinds of things as possible. The wider the variety of activities you participate in, the wider variety of vocabulary you will acquire.
If you don’t accept a friend’s invitation to go fishing, necessity is unlikely to force you to learn words and phrases like: to catch a fish, bait, worm, hook, fishing pole, and codfish. Similarly, if you don’t study at a school of some sort, necessity is unlikely to force you to learn words and phrases like: to enroll in a class, to do homework, classmate, chalkboard, and notebook. And if you pass up the opportunity to watch a sports game, necessity is unlikely to force you to learn words and phrases like: to score a goal, stadium, ball, foul, and so on. You get the point. To maximize your experience, do as wide a variety of things as possible. Simply going to the foreign country without engaging in many activities will only limit your learning.
If you have the opportunity to take classes while abroad, know that taking classes helps you learn to speak on an educated level. You are forced to learn grammar rules and verb conjugations, keep up with a classroom pace, do homework and pass exams, etc. Plus a teacher corrects your mistakes. If you live in an English-speaking country and you are taking Russian classes, that’s great. But obviously, taking Russian classes in Russia is unbeatable.
Immersing yourself without living abroad
If you can’t move abroad for a season of your life (or permanently), you can do the next best thing. In addition to frequenting ethnic restaurants, obtaining a walking dictionary, participating in cultural events (like salsa lessons), you can do some of the following:
- Set your Gmail/Yahoo!/Hotmail email and Facebook user interface to the language you want to learn. Each of these online services offers the option to change to all major languages and more.
- Download your internet browsers (Google Chrome, MS Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, etc.) in the language.
- Set your cellphone to the desired foreign language. If the language you wish to learn is not available, consider setting it to a similar language. For example, if Slovak isn’t available, set it to Czech. If Dutch isn’t available, set it to German, and so on.
At this point in my life, I no longer actively study Spanish, but my cellphone bill still arrives every month in Spanish – something that I arranged with my cellphone carrier when I was a college student. When I need to review my bill, I catch myself thinking in Spanish.
The point is to surround yourself with the language as much as possible so that you are forced to think in the language as much as possible. If you don’t force yourself to think in the foreign language by an exhaustive full immersion approach, you will never acquire fluency.
Orienting your learning toward achieving the goal
Obviously not every person has the goal of becoming fluent in a foreign language for a whole host of reasons. Maybe you live in an English-speaking country but travel on business to China from time to time, or maybe you work with Arabic speakers from different countries and just want to learn to be able to converse on a basic level. That’s fine indeed! In this case, moving to another country to study abroad or teach English is far too much effort than what it is worth. Consider some of the other things I suggested: take a class or two at a local university; make friends with international students; get Rosetta Stone; buy a phrasebook and dictionary. You get the point.
Taking formal foreign language classes is important for learning the rules and to speak properly. Attending social parties, dating someone that natively speaks the foreign language, etc. is important for learning the vernacular (spoken language) – including slang. Computer programs like Rosetta Stone compliment all of these.
When I conducted a yearlong study abroad in São Paulo in 2007, all my university classes (since day 1) were taught in Portuguese – for Brazilians, not for gringos like me, so I was forced to study intensely. In addition to university classes I had Portuguese language classes with other American gringos. I had never studied Portuguese before moving to Brazil, but luckily, I had three years of university Spanish classes behind me, which met the requirements for the study abroad program I participated in because of the similarities between the two languages.
But my first semester was less than an ideal learning environment. I lived with a well-educated gentleman that preferred to speak English all the time. As part of my study abroad program I also had many activities with other Americans. Remember what I said earlier about defaulting back to the dominant common language? Not surprisingly, the Americans, including me, spoke almost exclusively English with one another. Since I had moved to Brazil with one primary goal – to acquire fluency in the Portuguese language – before my second semester began I requested to be moved into another home. Luckily, my study abroad organization was able to accommodate me. I quickly moved in with an elderly woman. She couldn’t speak any English; she was an amazing, kind woman, and she could cook so well! So finally I was speaking Portuguese in the home. Secondly, I also determined that when the American students from my first semester had returned to the USA and the new ones came in, I was going to attend the Portuguese classes with them but not allow myself to make friends with them. This was a hard decision! I’m social! I like people! But I didn’t go to Brazil to make friends with Americans as much as I did to learn to acquire fluency in the Portuguese language. I knew if I simply explained to them that we could be friends but would have to only speak Portuguese, I would enjoy their company, accept invitations to hang out, and would be stuck in the same English-speaking trap as I was in my first semester. At the end of the first day of Portuguese class with them I just left. No introduction. I felt like a real asshole. But I wasn’t mean to anyone; I just didn’t socialize. Every day after class for the rest of the semester I did exactly the same thing. I almost exclusively surrounded myself with Brazilians, which is exactly what my mind needed to consistently think in Portuguese. I noted a couple of times that some of my American classmates viewed me as a snob for my behavior. It was tough to not explain myself, but doing so – I believed then and still do now – would have led to normal conversations, to great conversations, to friendship, then English speaking. So I held firm.
After finishing my year abroad I spoke with one of the fellow American study abroad students from my second semester over Facebook. He also stayed one year (and finished one semester after me). I was pleased to learn from him that he did exactly the same thing as I did for his second semester; he avoided the gringos! That’s what it takes to acquire fluency in a foreign language! I’m proud of him!
Another author’s perspective
Tim Ferriss correctly points out in his book The 4-Hour Workweek that it is possible to become conversationally fluent in three months. He suggests first looking at the most commonly spoken words of a foreign language and beginning with that. Tim’s list of the most commonly spoken and written words in the English language has been cached here.
Although I have never approached foreign language learning exactly in this manner per se, his point stands. When living in Japan during my days in the US Air Force, I quickly became able to speak Japanese on an upper-basic or lower-intermediate level by always asking the Japanese nationals that I worked with “How do you say ____ in Japanese.” I didn’t work off of a list of the most commonly spoken or written words and memorize those. Instead, I asked how to say words that I needed to say in order to survive in Japanese society. My goal was never to achieve fluency but rather to be enabled to go anywhere in Japan or do anything I needed to do without having the language barrier as a personal crutch. I did take one elementary-level Japanese class at a university; bought a Katakana workbook, Japanese dictionaries and phrasebook, and surrounded myself with Japanese speakers (including a “walking dictionary”). I could have achieved fluency in the language by doing all of this plus taking more university classes, but that wasn’t my goal. At that time the Air Force was keeping me busy enough.
So to conclude, there’s nothing that says that you have to study a language for the purpose of acquiring fluency. My suggested approach for you is to do as many of these things as you can – based on your particular goal.
Learning foreign languages develops your mind in so many ways. It helps you understand your own language better. And when combined with living abroad it helps you to challenge the world around you in ways that you never would otherwise. Just for the record, each language that you learn makes learning new languages even easier. After a while, you just get good at learning languages.
As for relearning forgotten languages – that’s fairly easy. Just go through your old notes, go back to the country where the language is spoken, and it comes back to you quickly. Case in point, my father never spoke French or any other language but English. His parents, however, used to speak French to each other in his presence when he was a young child. To this day, when I ask him “How do you say ____ in French?,” he replies “I don’t know!” But a couple of minutes later he comes back and says, “I really don’t know why I remember this, but I’m pretty sure you say ____. Why do I know that?!”
If you are young enough in life to enjoy many years of benefits from all the hard work required to learn new languages, I would highly suggest becoming fluent in at least 2-3 languages and beginning as soon as possible. Don’t become one of those nerds that try to impress people by learning dying or dead languages. Old Aramaic and Latin are about as worthless as Elvish and Klingon in my opinion. The modern, spoken break off languages from Aramaic and Latin, by contrast, can be highly useful as long as you put yourself into situations in which you can actually use them. It is no use spending thousands of hours of your life learning a valuable social skill if it never helps you make new friends that you would not otherwise be able to have, travel to new places that you would not otherwise been able to go, or live a life that you would not otherwise be able to live.