Here are some tips that have made a huge difference to the speed at which I learn languages:
Absolutely the fastest way to improve your language skills is to use the language as soon as possible. When I learnt German I started with: ” My name is Robert and I come from England”. In German of course. That’s all I could say, but I started talking to everyone I could! Here are some tips on how to do that:
- Find a tandem partner. This is someone you can practice speaking with. You speak together for, say, 30 minutes in your language and then 30 minutes in their language. You both learn from each other and help each other. If you can’t find someone to go for coffee or a drink with, then use Skype! See my previous post on how to find a Skype partner: Sites for Skype language exchange
- Find or start a language cafe. A language cafe is simply a group of people who meet to socialize in the target language. Most big cities around the world will already have several language cafes set up in a different languages. Check sites like Facebook, couchsurfing, meetup.com and InterNations. For example, if you live here in Vienna, InterNations has an English language cafe which you can find here: InterNations English Language Cafe
- Socialize in your target language. If your target language is English this is incredibly easy these days. Every major city and many smaller ones around the world have huge groups of expats who hang out and speak in English. You really have no excuse. Again, check out websites like: Facebook, couchsurfing, meetup.com and InterNations. There is something for all tastes! After work drinks, dining, hiking, groups for mothers and kids, women’s groups, reading groups, cocktails, dancing, discussion groups. Go find something for you and do it in your target language!
- When you go shopping in big cities like Vienna or go out for lunch and dinner most people who work in the shops and the restaurants speak English. And they don’t know you speak their native language. So speak to them in English! Pretend you’re from some random other country :-)
Listening is also a vital skill of course. So you will need to work on getting better. All those listening activities you do on a language course are all very well, but what you really need to do is listen to the language just like a native speaker. So that means: radio, TV and movies.
- These days everyone with a smartphone can listen to radio from all over the world. Download an app called Tune In and find radio stations from the UK and the USA.
- Most people these days also have cable or satellite TV. There you can find BBC World News, Aljazeera, CNN and Bloomberg. Watching the news for just 15 minutes a day will make a huge difference to your listening skills. The news is an excellent resource because the visuals will help you understand and the news presenters are professionals who speak directly to the camera, so you can also see their lips move, which helps a lot!! It will also help if you follow the same news stories in your own language, then you will find it easier to understand them in the target language.
- Most of us enjoy watching TV. TV series such as crime series, hospital dramas, thrillers, soap operas, sitcoms, etc are great for language learning – much better than movies in fact! The best thing to do is to pick one you like, and watch it in your target language from episode one of the first season all the way through to the last episode of the final season. If you don’t like hospital dramas, don’t watch them! You’ll get bored and demotivated. Watch something you would normally watch in your own language. For the first few episodes you’ll probably find it very difficult but over time it’ll get easier because you’ll get used to how the individual characters speak and the typical words and phrases that they repeatedly use. And of course, a TV series lasts a LOT longer than a film, so you have much more time to get used to the characters and how they speak :-)
- These days you can even watch British or American TV via your computer by using something called VPN. Check here VPN to see how this works.
Reading is also vital for your learning.
- Change the language on your smartphone.
- Change the language on your computer and on all the programs you use like Facebook, Google, Hotmail etc. Everything is in the same place, regardless of the language, so mostly this is super simple but will still help!
- Get a Kindle or a Kindle app and read everywhere! Use the in-built dictionary to look up words. Also works offline!
- You must read. Just like with TV, read what you like, what you would normally read in your own language. Newspapers, magazines, books. You can find an immense amount of material available freely online, especially if your target language is English. Try The Guardian, get The Economist app (lead article plus four other articles for free), see what else is available – you DON’T need to spend money.
- Pick a story and follow it. Some news stories are over and done in a day, but most last several days and some last months and months (think Ukraine) or even years (think Israel-Palestine). This means that there is some new item of news about the story in the newspapers (and on TV) every day for days or weeks or months at a time. So pick one of these stories and follow it every day. Every day there will be a summary of the story so far. On the first day you will have to look up many new words but as the story runs and runs and these words are constantly repeated as they summarize again and again you will naturally remember the new vocabulary. Ta da! Easy learning!
- If do have a little money to spend, and if you prefer having a hard copy (i.e. a printed magazine) maybe try Spotlight (or one of their sister publications for German, French, Italian, Spanish) There’s a Business English version as well. When I first started learning German I signed up for a one-year subscription to the German version and read every issue cover to cover and found it a big help. Total cost? Only 60EUR.
- Use a dictionary. You don’t need to buy one, use PONS or Dict or Leo or see what else you can find. You must look words up, but don’t look up everything. At the beginning, focus on nouns and verbs. These are the most important words for understanding overall meaning.
Writing skills will be more or less important depending on what you think you will do with the language in the future. For example, as I’m a professional English trainer I know that I will only ever rarely need to write in German or Spanish. And even then it’s mostly just a short email or a text message. So think about your needs and focus on those.
- Add your target language to your smartphone and your computer keyboards so that you can easily toggle between languages. I have Spanish, German and Bulgarian on mine, as well as English! Now you can write SMS messages and emails to your friends and colleagues in the target language and the spell checker will help you!
- If, like me, you use a to-do list, write it in your target language.
- Keep a list of handy phrases that you know you will use over and over again to hand. Then you can just do copy-paste when you need them.
- Learn the typical phrases that native speakers use in typical situations and just do copy-paste. No-one says writing has to be complicated!
- Just like when you learnt your native language as a child, your target language writing skills will improve the more you READ!! Your brain has a natural internal photocopier function that works in the background like a sponge without you even being aware of it. So read, read and read!
One final but very important tip: learn how to memorise and use your dead time:
I can memorise huge long lists of verbs and other vocab and how to conjugate verbs and how to talk about topics like time by using the simple act of repetition and visualising lists, diagrams, charts and characters like Snow White and Captain Hook interacting with new vocabulary. I use my dead time to do this. Dead time is all those moments you have during the day when you are not actively engaged in something that requires your attention. For example: on the toilet, in the shower, walking anywhere, waiting anywhere for anything, using public transport. Many people say they don’t have time to study. But that’s because those people think studying means sitting at a desk with a book. But you can study all day long just in your head (although it works better when you say things out loud). And in fact, that’s what super high achievers do and that’s one thing that marks the difference between people who succeed academically and people who don’t. Try some of the techniques you can find with this simple google search: how to memorise and/or become a master of memory by learning the techniques you can find here: master of memory especially the peg system and the Dominic System, both of which I use all the time, every day. And yes, EVERYONE can get better at memorising, even you!