How to Learn a Foreign Language

Do you want to learn a foreign language? I am currently trying to cross the chasm between the C1 and C2 with my English. I will share with you some of the ideas that brought me this far and hopefully will help me achieve my goal. I am however quite confident that those tips will work for any language on any level.

1. Total Immersion

Have you ever wondered why the people living in a foreign country tend to learn a foreign language much faster than those learning it remotely? The reason is simple, they are forced to practice more often. They are immersed in this culture. It helps to hear the language all the time. To be surrounded by a cultural landscape, its symbols, traditions, texts. Those people follow current events, participate, and get affected by what’s happening.

These days you don’t need to move to another country to experience much of its culture. You can simulate this to a large degree.

Change your language settings on all your personal devices, such as phone, tablet, notebook. This way you’ll force yourself to use the language more frequently, and you’ll learn new words. For instance, Google Maps taught me what a roundabout has exits, not just ways out.

Find ways to force yourself to use the language you want to learn. Perhaps you can get into a project at work when you’d work with native speakers of your target language? Maybe you can volunteer somewhere? Include this in your vacation plans?

Subscribe to YouTube channels in that language. Like newspaper pages on Facebook so you’d get free articles to read. Get some books, audiobooks, podcasts.

This is the major concept that all other tips included here are based upon. You are much more likely to succeed if you’ll find a way to make your learning not a separate activity, but part of what you are doing anyway.

Make it easy, make it fun, make it an everyday experience.

2. Read

Read books, newspaper articles, blog posts. Choose your material carefully though. You don’t want to learn English from Eminem. Your coworkers or clients may not appreciate being spoken to this way. For a while, I was trying to learn from the lyrics of many popular songs, but I found this to be problematic. The language of lyrics is not exactly representative, it’s not always grammatically correct, it’s also relatively simple. You will most likely not learn this way words such as pneumonia, affidavit, electorate and so on.

My approach is to synergize. I read lots of books anyway, so whenever it’s possible, I choose the English version. I do the same with most other texts. All my browsers are set to English, so this happens partly automatically.

I’m a manager in IT, so I started reading books on both topics very early. Surprisingly, it was not that hard. Of course, reading your first book in a foreign language is an important milestone, but it could give you a false impression that you’re close to mastering the language. Reading is the easiest language skill as you can do it at your pace, take a break, check something up in a dictionary. Keep in mind that reading is therefore always ahead of writing, hearing and speaking.

Read lots of high-quality articles from good writers. I personally like Atul Gawande’s essays like this one. Long, deep, insightful, well-written, interesting, lots of difficult words.

When you’re ready, read novels. Those are the most complicated texts that are out there. If you can read those, you’re well on track on landing at the C2 level, at least in terms of reading.

3. Listen

In the Internet era, this is very easy. There’s YouTube, podcasts, Internet radio, audiobooks, movies. Choose material proportional to your level. If you’re a beginner, you can try material for children. However, I strongly believe that you should switch to things that you would like to listen to anyway as soon as you can. Without a synergetic effect, it’s hard to focus for long.

One of my recent ideas is to test my listening skills on stand-up comedians. The goal is to understand all jokes on the first attempt. I found comedians from Scotland, Wales, Australia, US, England, and Ireland.

I recommend Milton Jones for his abstract jokes. Check him out on YouTube.

My wife – it’s difficult to say what she does. She sells seashells on the seashore.

Milton Jones

I regularly watch John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight on YouTube, but this one’s easy. Try Kevin Bridges or Frankie Boyle.

It’s good they’re holding the Olympics in the East End of London. Means the athletes will have to use extra skill to work out which gunshot is the starting pistol.

Frankie Boyle

When I’m off to hit the gym, I take my mp3 player with me and listen to audiobooks or podcasts during the workout. Incidentally, this is a perfect synergy. I am running on a treadmill, listening to a work-related book, narrated in a language that I’m learning. This way I am addressing three areas of my life at the same time, health, career, and development. This could be the most productive hour of my whole day.

4. Speak

People trying to learn a foreign language struggle with this a lot. 

There is a couple of competencies to train in terms of speaking. I would emphasize fluent delivery, pronunciation, informal discussions and public speaking.

Fluency requires a substantial active vocabulary, and this can be achieved only with enough practice. There’s no way around it. Practice, practice, practice.

Pronunciation is very important. When you pronounce properly, you immediately make a good impression. You’re easier to understand.

This lovely video brings you the great poem called The Chaos by Gerard Nolst Trenité. This one is very difficult even for a native speaker.

Do you understand all the words used there? Can you pronounce them properly? You can record yourself reciting this poem, and then compare it with this guy’s delivery.

There are apps where you can record yourself pronouncing a word, and you get a mark. For instance, English Pronunciation Android app by Awabe.

A good strategy to start with is to focus your work on words that you mispronounce and are often used. This way you’ll make significant improvement with little effort.

Informal discussions are relatively easy in general, but responding promptly to an unexpected question could be tricky. Public speaking is much more demanding. You will be asked tricky questions, this comes with the territory. You will get challenged publicly. Luckily, you can prepare for that, and this gets easier with every attempt. Again, practice makes perfect.

5. Write

If you keep a TODO list, keep it in English. When you’re making some private notes, make it in English.

Use every opportunity you can to force yourself into writing a lot. I have already given you some tips for that in the latter section, it naturally applies here as well.

When you’re ready, write an article and get it published.

I recommend Grammarly and Hemingway App as the digital editors that can give you valuable feedback on your writing style and grammar.

6. Use mnemonics

There are tricks that make memorizing easier.

One that I use is keeping a list of words and phrases I wanted to learn. Whenever I hear something I like, I add it to the list. Every once in a while I am reviewing the list. You just need to develop two simple habits: writing down words or sentences you liked and reading it, say, weekly.

Another one is learning words in groups. When you are checking up a word you didn’t know, dig deeper. Check all its dictionary context, such as phrasal verbs, synonyms, antonyms and so on. Find connections with the knowledge you already have. Our minds love connections, this is how we remember things. You can remember a word as an antonym or synonym of another word you already know.

There are also other ways like the technique used it this nice commercial. Watch what the guy tried to learn a foreign language. 

7. Get feedback

Feedback is the breakfast of champions.

Any organized activity is incomplete without a feedback loop. Good feedback should tell you precisely what you should improve to properly learn a foreign language.

Let’s summarize some of the ideas that could bring you great feedback:

  1. Read a quality novel. See how often do you need to check something up in the dictionary.
  2. Listen to a stand-up comedy show. How much did you understand on the first attempt?
  3. Record yourself reading The Chaos by Gerard Nolst Trenité. Compare it with the native speaker.
  4. Get an app that rates your pronunciation and iterate through all vowels and consonants.
  5. Write an article and get it published. See how much has the editor changed.

This summarizes some of what I did in order to learn a foreign language. I hope it is helpful to you too. 

By Cezary Cerekwicki

AppSec program manager. A former nerd who reluctantly learned he's not allergic to shirts and talking to people. Currently a people person.