Growing up in Arizona, learning Spanish was something that every kid did. We started language classes pretty early on, around 2nd grade, and most of us continued learning Spanish until halfway through high school. On top of that, I went to a Waldorf school kindergarten through 6th grade, and seeing as Waldorf was founded in Germany, we were also taught German.
I remember really loving my language classes. I didn’t think they were hard, and they were fun! Having started learning these languages young, I became more-or-less fluent in them, only to lose it all after my lessons stopped. I was no longer a young child and I didn’t have anywhere to really use these languages (better yet, I didn’t actively seek places to use these languages.)
That’s the problem with language learning, we often don’t recognize that we want to learn a foreign language until we’ve passed our childhood and teenage years. I call total bullshit on anyone who says it’s just as easy to learn languages as an adult compared to a child.
Children are rapidly absorbing language at a speed that adults just don’t. It’s just fact. But allowing yourself to make mistakes is the biggest tool you can provide yourself to learn a foreign language.
It was after I fell in love with languages (more specifically sociolinguistics) that I made the move to Italy to study languages and modern culture. I’ve learned a great deal about the battle that is learning a foreign language. It takes a great deal of personal commitment and the breaking down of walls.
You don’t need to spend a ton of money to successfully learn a language.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve looked into Rosetta Stone and all the new language learning programs you can think of. But what it down to for me, was that I would be using my brain no matter what. All I had to do was figure out with what strategy.
I began thinking of how babies acquire language, and that’s when it hit me! Acquiring language successfully comes through communication, not the studying of rules. This is what I love about Duolingo.com. It’s a free service with tons of languages you can learn. They even have an app! It feels more like a game rather than learning. It gives you a bit of vocabulary and a bit of grammar without giving you the exact rules.
I am a firm believer than this is how you learn a language, as you learn how the grammar is used versus why the grammar is used. On top of that, you can do a little of your own research online, and believe me when I say there are endless resources that are out there to help you.
What I found most effective was using Duolingo as a guide to research the things I truly wasn’t fully understanding on Duolingo. For example, the conjunctive verb tense in Italian is quite confusing, one of the few tenses I think that truly need a grammatical explanation. So to help me better understand, I took the things that were confusing me in the conjunctive lesson and simply googled them. It’s a more organic means to learning a language, and it’s free!
It’s okay to learn the basics before you start actively practicing.
When I first started learning Italian, I had a bit of organic learning by staying with a host family. I was also taking Italian lessons. I’m always very bothered when people say, “Just go out and practice! You’ll do fine even if you don’t speak a single word!” While I do agree that it’s all about making mistakes you can learn from, I strongly disagree you should go out and try to start a conversation without having zero knowledge of the language.
It is beyond discouraging when you reach a standstill and feel like you can’t go on in the conversation. It makes you lose hope. Worse yet, it makes you lose confidence. I believe that a loss of confidence when speaking a language is the biggest roadblock on your way to learning a language.
I’ve been learning Italian for over three years now, and I am still scared shitless when it comes to speaking. Why? Because I did something that I knew all language learners should avoid at all costs; I tried speaking, failed, and took it personally. It proved detrimental to my language acquisition.
I lost confidence in my speaking abilities very early on in my learning, and that has caused me to struggle immensely. What I recommend instead is to learn some basics. Learn the alphabet, learn the key pronunciations, be able to picture the most used 100 words in that language (very easy to find lists for your desired language) and learn the present tense. If you have those four things, you won’t put yourself in a situation that could damage your linguistic confidence.
Get a notebook and dedicate it exclusively to the language you’re learning.
Start out your book with the four things listed above: the alphabet, pronunciations, the most used 100 words, and the present tense. Continue revisiting these things as you continue to learn, as these will serve as the most important. As time goes on, add more verb tenses (past, future, etc.), more vocabulary subjects (kitchen vocabulary, weather, time, etc.), and more miscellaneous subject like conjunctions and adverbs.
The point of writing this down is not to sit there and try to memorize it over and over, but rather to have a resource that fits your needs. Can’t remember how to form an adverb? Look it up and then apply it to what you’re practicing. This will take a huge amount of frustration out of the language learning process. The very frustration that leads so many to quit before they meet their goal.
Once you reach a level of moderate comprehension and speaking ability, try a language exchange.
A language exchange is when you speak with someone who is a mother tongue to the language you’re learning, and you are a mother tongue to the language they are learning. For example, since I am learning Italian I would look for someone whose mother tongue is Italian who is looking for someone whose mother tongue is English.
Luckily for English speakers, you don’t have to look too far to find someone who wants to learn English. While it does not have to be a mother tongue exchange, I highly recommend.
With a language exchange, you can speak to someone for free and gain practice. The most common thing to do is for you to speak in the language you are learning (their mother tongue), and they respond in the language they are learning (your mother tongue.) Not only does this give speaking practice, but the level of vulnerability between the two speakers in equal which gives a sense of safety.
Although you can just google language exchange to find a website you like, I highly recommend iTalki.com. They also offer tutoring if you prefer a more traditional approach of language learning.
Go to the country where the people speak the language you are learning… By yourself.
Not everyone is a fan of solo travel. However if you’re spending the money to go somewhere, you might as well get the most bang for your buck. Going by yourself makes you have no one as your safety net. You can’t go to a bar with your bud and speak English, you have to go to a bar and find someone to speak the language you’re learning or you’re going to be lonely.
If you’re by yourself, you’ll have to think on your feet and use the information you know if someone starts talking to you. Make yourself available to practice the language you came to practice. Better yet, make yourself available to experience the culture of the language you’re learning.
Understand their ways and their way of life. This alone will enhance your language acquisition. Nothing will motivate you more than seeing the culture first hand and getting to experience the way the language is used within their unique culture. It’s beautiful thing, give yourself the opportunity to experience that.
Solo travel requires the vulnerability of putting yourself out there, and when people see you doing that, they innately want to help you. You appear much less approachable when you are with someone, making it much less likely people will come up to you and strike up a conversation with you.
It feels so good to achieve something by yourself, let this be the time you do that. Let yourself be vulnerable in your search of language acquisition. Be afraid, but don’t let that fear stop you. Use that fear to push you and make you stronger.
(P.S. If you just want a short list of words to know to make traveling a bit easier, check out our post here on words you should know before heading abroad!)