I usually hold off as long as possible on telling people that I speak more than five languages. I’d like to say that it’s because I’m modest and don’t want the extra attention, and that’s definitely a big factor. But really, telling the same stories over and over again gets really boring.
The most common questions I get are: Which languages do you speak? How did you learn them? What language is your favorite? What language is your strongest? How hard is it to learn a language? The questions never change, and neither do my answers.
Ironically enough, I never really asked myself these questions. The answers I’ve given where not given much thought. My polyglot pal, Diana from Rome, whom I met at a French language school in Brussels, is my favorite person with whom to talk about languages. We both speak French, Italian, and English, usually all at once in the same conversation. She speaks Russian at an advanced level and my knowledge is very limited. Either way, she shares my interests in linguistics and language learning.
I visited her in Rome last month and she asked me how I learn languages? That was strange. She wasn’t asking for her short-term curiosity. She was genuinely interested. Diana wanted to compare my language-learning tactic with hers. So I told her exactly and elaborately how I learn languages. Now, I’ll lay it out for you.
This is the best advice I can give. You will never learn faster than being fully immersed in another country. I always recommend knowing the basics. Study, not only common phrases and greetings but also local customs. I wish I had learned not to look French men in the eye before I studied in Nice for the first time. But luckily, I knew not to wear shorts in Egypt. That seemingly simple tip from a trusted friend probably saved me from a whole lot of hurt.
I’ve studied at eight different language schools across Europe and the Middle East and learned faster than I could’ve ever hoped on my own. My favorite language schools are Apple Languages and International House.
Books and Apps
This is one of my favorite ways to study a language, but it’s not a great way to learn a language. Buying books like Italian for Dummies, Russian Phrasebook by Lonely Planet, and Salaam: Introduction to Arabic is still a great way to both learn the basics of a language and to fortify your knowledge. They’re not great for the stuff in between, like advanced grammar.
Whether it be a five-minute lesson on Duolingo, reading a chapter in a foreign children’s book, reviewing your flashcards, or watching a LanguagePod101 video on YouTube, studying a language every day is crucial in your language-learning process. It’s important to study it every day to keep it fresh in your mind. I find that, even if I study my Portuguese once a week for an hour, I will not retain it as much as if I took fifteen minutes out of my day to practice.
Find A Language Buddy
I have a few friends who love to learn languages. Whether they be a Spanish major at UCSD, a native Italian, or just a day-to-day language learner, they are always great to practice with. It’s fun to try speaking Spanish, even though your accent is terrible and your grammar is virtually non-existent. But there’s something so fully fun and engaging about learning a language with a friend that can make learning Spanish or Russian an exciting adventure.
Find out what the most popular TV shows, or even movies, are in the countries where your new language is spoken, and binge-watch the heck out of it. Not only will your comprehension improve, but your vocabulary will increase, and you will get an interesting look into another culture.
Find What Works For You
Everyone learns their own way. I have friends who will leave sticky notes around their house that show how to say things like “dishwasher” or “coat rack” in Italian. I have others who want to spend their Saturdays studying with a tutor or those who want to listen to podcasts or news shows in another language. It’s all about finding what works for you. So experiment with it. Try a little of this and a little of that. You could find that reading a children’s book teaches you more than a textbook.
At the end of the day, the best way to learn a language is to try. Make the decision to learn a language and stick to it. If you’re really passionate about it, you could find yourself holding a conversation with a native in as little as a month.