15 fun ways to learn languages better

international harry potter

(Spanish and French editions of Harry Potter)

British people are really, really bad at learning foreign languages, because we can arrogantly rely on English being an international language, and it can be quite an insular culture. People whose native language is spoken by fewer people have to learn another language, unless they want to spend their whole life in their home country only exposed to local things or whatever someone has translated. I don’t think our school system helps at all either. Everything is focused on exams and box-ticking, and learning and regurgitating vocab lists and grammar points gets you better grades than genuine communication. Most of my lessons at school were in English, with endless exercises from the textbooks and little opportunity to have real conversations or make mistakes.

With my own history with languages, I learnt French as a child, and have no formal qualifications in it. My spelling is still appalling, like a dyslexic French person, but I understand pretty much everything, and happily read books in French without a dictionary. I don’t speak it often though through not having many opportunities to do so, so I struggle for words sometimes talking on the fly, and don’t feel like I express myself in the way I’d like to. I know the words, but I can’t quite summon them to mind fast enough these days.

I learnt German the “proper” way, via school lessons and a year at university. I took 6 years of classes at school, resulting in an A-level, and took a C1 level class at university. That was thirteen years ago though, so I’m not sure where to officially put myself on the level system now. I used to visit Germany and Austria a lot for work, and spoke it a lot more then. My A-level classes weren’t that great, and what we were doing in class didn’t reach the level that was expected from the exam, so I had to find ways to study on my own. University was another step up again, we were reading Kafka stories and historical texts, and watching Expressionist films and having debates. Quite a few of the other students hated it, because it strayed outside the safe confines of the school textbook material, but I loved it, and would have continued it throughout my entire degree if that had been an option. I also took a year’s accelerated class in Italian for speakers of French or Spanish, and a year’s course in Modern Greek.

Once I left university, I started teaching EFL. I had a lot of students who had studied English at home under much the same conditions as me at school and who hadn’t really got anywhere, and had come to the UK to try to improve matters. They found it frustrating not being able to communicate with people in real life, and wanted as many tips as they could to help themselves. I also used to teach a lot of teenagers both in the UK and abroad, and the tips worked for them as well. It’s a common New Year’s Resolution to study another language. A lot of people buy a cd set, and play a bit of Duolingo, do some grammar drills, maybe even pack an evening class into their tiring schedule and then give up because they’re not getting anywhere. Here’s some tips to help you get somewhere, and hopefully enjoy the process

(Whenever I write “the language” here obviously I mean the language you’re studying).

1) Don’t be afraid of looking stupid by making mistakes

At school in a lot of countries it’s often better for your grades if you just stick to the material taught and try to replicate it as accurately as possible, and you’re often penalised for trying to say something more ambitious and getting it a bit wrong. Unfortunately in real life you can’t stick to discussing how you played tennis with Jean-Baptiste and Rachida last Wednesday and asking people how many brothers and sisters they have. In real life you’re going to have your own ideas and opinions and things happen to you, and have real conversations with other people who say things that weren’t in the textbook. Try to have proper conversations with people and piece together what you’re trying to say with words you already know and ideas you have about how sentences work. You might not get it 100% correct, but hopefully people will understand. If you don’t know the word, try paraphrasing. If you don’t know the word for coat hanger, try saying “the thing you put clothes on in the wardrobe” and the person you’re talking to will probably provide the word. A lot of people will be thrilled you’re trying to learn their language especially if it’s not one that’s often studied abroad, and will be keen to help you. No one is deducting marks or failing you on some eternal marksheet of life. That time you got the irregular past tense of that verb wrong doesn’t go on your permanent record.

No matter how long you’ve been studying, you’re going to make mistakes, and sometimes they’re very weird or funny mistakes. I once cheerfully told my landlady in Austria that when I’d been for a stroll in the mountains I’d nearly fallen in some open graves full of slurry. She looked at me in horror, until we both realised that I’d got the words for graves (das Grab, plural die Gräber) mixed up with ditches (der Graben, plural die Gräben), and I remembered that the German word for mud Schlamm can also mean slime or slurry. “Ich bin fast in zwei Gräber voll mit Schlamm gefallen” turns out to be quite different to “Ich bin fast in zwei Gräben voll mit Schlamm gefallen”.

2) Use your language

Fear of making mistakes stops people trying. Try going to a language swap or a club for learners of that language if you can find one in your area. You’ll be surrounded by people keen to learn the language. If you drink alcohol, a couple of drinks in a friendly social situation suddenly makes it seem even less daunting. Read websites in the language every day, even if it’s just one news item. If you have anyone who is willing to practice with you, whether in real life or online, practice with them. Try writing things in the language. If you can get someone to check and correct them, so much the better, but even if you can’t, it’s still practice at expressing yourself.

3) Practice thinking in the language

When you’re going about your daily life, try to narrate what you’re doing and name the things around you mentally in the language you’re studying. Your brain will probably creak slowly and not come up with any particularly profound or flowing thoughts, seeing as it’s used to thinking in a mix of your native language and non-verbal images. It’s still all good practice though, and the more you can think in the language rather than constantly mentally translating word for word, the easier using your language actively will become.

4) How does it work? Why does it work like that?

Just learning a load of grammar by rote doesn’t help you understand how to put it together in your own speaking and writing. Grammar isn’t something created to torture you, no matter how it might feel. The fiddly bits of grammar communicate something to native speakers. Things like verb aspect communicate important things about what the sentence is focusing on, and what the relationship is between the different actions. If you understand why these things are used rather than just memorising them, it’s so much easier to use them in your own communication. Here’s two examples in English and French showing you the differences between some basic verb tenses in the two languages.

I read books– I read books as a general habit, any time
I’m reading the book– Right now, I am reading a book. I haven’t finished it yet.
I read the book (last week)- I read the book in the past, once, and it’s finished
I’ve read the book– I read the book at some time in the past. When and how many times is unimportant. The important thing is that now I have the experience of reading that book.
I was reading the book– I was in the process of reading the book, and the important thing is that it isn’t finished.

Je lis le livre– I read the book/ I’m reading the book- there’s no difference in French, the only important thing is that it’s present tense
Je suis en train de lire le livre– Right now I’m reading the book, the process is the most important thing
J’ai lu le livre- I read the book in the past, once, and it’s finished
Je lisais le livre– I read the book in the past as a habit or multiple times
Je lus le livre– I read the book in the past, and it’s finished. I’m writing a novel or telling a story, and would sound totally bizarre if I said this in a normal conversation

5) Practice pronunciation a lot

Pronunciation can really let you down. If you mangle a big worldwide language like English or Spanish, people will probably be able to follow, but if it’s a smaller language where people are only used to hearing native speakers, they’ll look at you in total confusion. Practice speaking along with recordings at home and try to mimic the pronunciation exactly, even if it makes you feel a bit silly. You might also feel like you’re doing a comedy exaggerated accent, but that won’t be how it sounds to someone else. If you dare, try recording yourself. Different languages involve different mouth shapes, and you’re probably not used to them, and default to that of your native language. English tends to lurk somewhere in the middle of the mouth, but French for example all happens much further forward and involves moving the lips more.

Learning the International Phonetic Alphabet, so you can make sense of the pronunciation guides in dictionaries is a real boost. It also helps you see where the sounds differ from your native language. The full Wikipedia article is a bit overwhelming, because it shows every possible sound in every known language, and no language uses all of them. However, if you look for the Phonology article for the language you’re studying, it will only show you the information for that language. Here’s the Turkish one. You can click on each sound, and it has its own article with a sound sample, and explanation and examples of how that sound is used in different languages. There are also a lot of simpler online guides just for certain languages. This poster with British English vowels and illustrations of words using those sounds is in probably every EFL classroom in the UK.

6) Look at connections

Languages belong to families, aside from a few isolates like Basque. For example English belongs to the bigger group of Indo-European languages, which includes a wide range of languages like Hindi, Farsi, Italian, French, Swedish, Armenian, Latvian, Russian, etc. Languages within the same family come from the same source, and the further you go back in time, the more similar they are. Latin and Sanskrit were very similar, but modern Italian and Hindi are much more different. Language families also split off into smaller branches over time. English is in the Germanic branch with German, Dutch and the Scandinavian languages. This means that they are even more similar. English also took on a lot of influences from French and Latin for historical reasons.

So what does this mean in terms of learning a language? Languages in the same family will share a lot of words and structures. Hand is hand in English, Dutch, Swedish and German, hånd in Danish and hönd in Icelandic. Languages are often influenced by other languages from different families for historical and geographical reasons too – for example Muslim countries picked up a lot of Arabic loanwords. This doesn’t always always mean the words look or sound exactly the same, because these things change over time and different languages use different spelling systems, but once you’re used to spotting the pattern of changes, you can identify them. For example caballus was an informal word for horse in Latin, which became cheval in French, cavallo in Italian and caballo in Spanish. So if you know a bit of French, and you’re studying Italian and know what to look out for, you have a headstart. You have to beware of false friends though, words which are the same or very similar in two languages, but actually mean something different. For example sensible means careful and reasonable in English, but sensitive in multiple other european languages.

Of course this is only useful if the language you’re studying is related in some way to another language you know. You can still use connections to help you remember vocab though. If a word reminds you slightly of a word in your language, you can think of a bizarre mental image using the real meaning of the word and the word it reminds you of. For example boldog is happy in Hungarian, so I remembered it by thinking of a very happy and bold bulldog.

7) Use Duolingo wisely

Duolingo can be fun, and is a good way to build up a strong beginner’s vocab, but it can’t replace everything, and has plenty of flaws. I’ve played to the end of both French and German, and after a certain level it just gets frustrating and full of errors. The beginners levels are solid, but things get weird as you progress along, because it relies on machine learning and crowdsourcing, the same as Google Translate. This works fine for basic sentences combining the same words in unambiguous ways, but once you start branching out to more complicated sentences with nuances and multiple ways of saying the same thing it goes a bit wrong, with the system not accepting a valid sentence that people say in real life, or pushing an outright wrong or weirdly phrased one that no-one would ever say, leading to scores of annoyed comments. The comments get acted on eventually, but the whole experience would be better if they had got some real teachers to provide banks of material for the higher modules. I guess that would involve paying someone though. I was hoping the higher levels would have solid practice exercises for fiddly grammar points that catch people out, but the topics I was expecting to find weren’t there, or weren’t covered in much detail.

I’d hoped to use the collective translation exercises as good practice, but again they’re not carefully chosen by a human and matched to levels that people have studied. They’re randomly chosen articles, mostly from Wikipedia or Buzzfeed by the looks of it, and a lot of them are way beyond the right level. You end up with the frustrating experience of you translating an idiom or grammar point correctly, and then someone else barging in and changing the translation to a word for word literal translation that makes no sense, because they’re translating each word in isolation because the text is too hard for them, and no-one has taught them any translation skills but they’re having a good go anyway. Apparently Duolingo was hoping to make money from crowdsourcing these translations at one point, but stopped.

There’s a reason people pay real translators, who have studied to postgrad level and have a lot of cultural as well as linguistic knowledge. Trying to make money via apps by shortcutting paying professionals for their knowledge, skills or time by using crowdsourcing or on-demand scheduling seems to be a major part of the current neoliberal worldview of the technology industry. It might work for Uber (who I refuse to use because they’re undercutting the livelihoods and worker’s rights of regular taxi drivers who have to be vetted, take exams, and have proper insurance, wages, tax accounts and working schedules, and who take all of the off-shored and untaxed profits but none of the responsibility when things go wrong) in the taxi industry, but I’m glad it’s not working for everything.

Political rants aside, my tip for Duolingo is to use it for the beginner stuff, to drill basic vocab and grammar points into your brain. I especially like the tablet version as well, because it speaks each word when you click on it, which helps to reinforce it. The computer speech they use will never teach you the natural flow and music of a sentence in the language, but it will help with the pronunciation. Once you’ve learnt the basics, try switching to pretending you’re a native speaker of the language who’s studying English (or your native language). Most of the answers will have to be typed in the language you’re studying, and it’s very strict about spelling and grammar, which is good practice. The instructions will also be entirely in the language.

8) Read a book you already know.

If you pick a book you’re familiar with, you already know the context and the story, which will give you a major boost in understanding, and you can concentrate on the form of the language and the new vocabulary. Children’s books are ideal- a lot of people choose Harry Potter for this purpose. The language is fairly straightforward, and popular children’s books are likely to be available in the language you want. If there are people who speak the language you’re studying in your local area, or it’s commonly taught in schools, your local library is likely to have a selection. If not the internet, and second hand books are your friend.

When I was doing A-level German I ploughed my way through the Neverending Story (which is originally in German), and it filled in so many gaps in my vocabulary. At school we’d gone from the GCSE level of “where did you go on holiday” straight to “discuss the German health insurance system”. I used to go once a week to visit a German co-worker of my mum’s to practice speaking. She enjoyed helping someone learn, and also hoped it would encourage her son to speak German more often. I felt like I often struggled to talk about anything that wasn’t related to basic hobbies or the fairly dry social studies topics in the A-level textbook. The Neverending Story provided me with all sorts of new and useful every day words that we never once covered at school. I remember clearly when I was reading the first chapter, I learnt the word for cliff (die Felsen– the mountain sort of cliff, the sea type is die Klippe) and it suddenly dawned on me how much more useful the vocab from the book was than the themed lists from the exam board we’d been assigned to memorise each week. (I still have phrases like unbedingt nötig – totally necessary, die Entzündung– inflammation and of course die Antibabypille– the pill drummed into my head from that though). I bought a copy of Emil and the Detectives (a classic German children’s book that’s not well known in the UK) on a school trip to Cologne, but that took me much, much longer even though it’s a drastically shorter book, because I didn’t have the same grasp of the basic story and characters as the Neverending Story, so I was trying to understand the plot and the words and the new vocabulary all at the same time (and Erich Kästner‘s light-hearted 1920s slangy Berlin style too).

I wouldn’t jump straight in with the dictionary though. Read a section first, and see what parts you understand already, and what words you can guess the meaning of from context. You learnt your first language entirely through context, and trying to understand without the dictionary the first time helps you out for future occasions where you won’t be able to check the dictionary. Then look up the new words in the dictionary and write them down in your notebook (with the grammatical gender if that’s relevant to the language). If the language you’re studying has features like irregular plurals or counter words, and the dictionary tells you this information or anything else useful, like special contexts you would use this word, write them down too.

9) Get a good dictionary and use it well

As I’ve already said, always try to work out a word from context before going for the dictionary. With a paper dictionary, get hold of a decent quality one for learners, not a bargain basement one that’s likely to be full of errors or not give you enough information. The range available will obviously depend on what language you’re studying and what your native language is. If you’re Portuguese and studying Ubykh, you might be on your own. Online and app dictionaries vary enormously in quality, so try to find a good one. In German I have two go to sites- dict.leo.org is good and thorough at splitting up phrases and giving you context and dict.cc is really good with idioms and slang. Once you’ve progressed a little, try using the standard monolingual reference dictionary that native speakers of the language use. The words will all be explained in the language then, which will boost your vocabulary and phrasing.

10) Watch tv shows in the language, with local subtitles on

The opposite way round from my recommendation for books, I would pick a show from a country that speaks the language you’re studying (and to begin with, not a country that has a very strong dialect/accent compared to the “standard” accent, if that applies). You can understand the story from the visuals. If you pick one of the American shows that is sold all around the world, some countries will just show it in English with subtitles, which is no good, and some will dub it with new voice actors. Seeing a familiar actor speaking with a different voice can be jarring and ruin your concentration, and the dubbing translators and actors sometimes have to choose weird phrasing or timing to make the new words match the mouth movements.

Find a popular show originally in the language which you will be able to follow even if you don’t get 100% of the words. Something like a standup comedy show won’t be very good for that, whereas a soap opera or drama will be clearer what is going on. If there are subtitles available in the same language for people with hearing problems, watch with them on (don’t watch with subtitles in your own language– your brain will just ignore the audio). It will help you mentally split up the sounds you hear into words you recognise and make links between what you hear and what you’ve already learnt. It also means that if you want to look a word up, you know how it’s written. For languages where the spelling and pronunciation are very different, or where the written and spoken forms are almost separate like Chinese, this is especially useful, as it’s often difficult or nearly impossible to guess the written form of that word you keep hearing.

It’s also useful to immerse yourself in the way people really speak. It used to frustrate my poor English students so much when they came to the UK to study, because all the listening activities that accompany textbooks are acted in this very exaggeratedly slow and clear way that bears no relation to the way people really speak. Even when they had a cover version of Imagine to listen to it was slowed down and over-enunciated! If they came from a country where tv shows and films were dubbed, that might be the only English they regularly heard apart from songs (and a lot of people don’t really pay attention to song lyrics). So when they talked to real people, they felt lost and couldn’t understand.

11) Listen to music in the language, and sing along

English dominates music worldwide, with some countries like France passing laws requiring radio to play a certain percentage of music in the national language to stem the tide. Lots of people around the world are more motivated to learn English, because they want to find out what that song they like is actually about. Find some popular artists in the language in a genre you like, and find the lyrics online (look up the word for lyrics in that language and use it in your google search to help you). As well as expanding your listening abilities and giving you new vocab, it also helps you to become more familiar with the culture of the language you’re studying.

There can also be other unexpected benefits. Listening to Kraftwerk helped me to remember an annoying and fiddly grammar rule in German. Kraftwerk fahr’n auf der Autobahn (dative case), they’re driving along not leaving the motorway and not changing their location. If they were fahr’n auf die Autobahn (accusative case) that would mean they were driving on a different road, and then joined the motorway from outside and changed their location. Grammar is more fun with Kraftwerk. (It’s also more fun to compute with them). When I was studying German, I saw a load of the German editions of Kraftwerk albums for sale second hand and bought them. Now it seems weird to hear them in English.

12) Listen to talk radio in the background

Find an online talk radio station you like in the language- lots of countries have a high-quality national one- and put it on in the background when you’re pottering around at home doing things like washing up. The words will go in somewhere, and the constant exposure can dramatically improve your listening skills and pronunciation because you’re so much more familiar with the sounds and flow of the language.

13) Use the mundane

Instructions and signs are boring. Adverts are annoying. Local news is dull. You hardly look at packaging. You barely read the menu items on your phone or what the buttons on Facebook are labelled. Buzzfeed is full of vapid nonsense that takes about two minutes to read. However all of those things are available in the language you’re studying (with the possible exception of Buzzfeed, but that’s also available in a lot of languages), and are full of everyday useful words and phrases. You’ll also feel a tiny sense of achievement when you manage to decipher any of these everyday items. if you’re not a total beginner, try changing the interface on your phone and Facebook account to the language. Read stupid Buzzfeed articles. A lot of them are translated from English anyway, but some of them are locally produced and will help you pick up cultural references.

14) Label your house

Cover your house in post-it notes with the name of all the objects, if it doesn’t annoy the people you live with too much. You’ll subconsciously absorb the words just by going about your daily life.

15) Have fun

Learning a language isn’t a terrible punishment to torture yourself with, and perfection is unreachable, so you might as well enjoy it. I must admit I spend more time mentally beating myself up for not being a flawless native-sounding wunderkind who never makes silly errors with adjective endings or word order or ever struggles for the particular word I’m looking for than I do thinking speaking my other languages any kind of achievement, mainly because I’m comparing myself to people who have flawless English from being surrounded by English-language media and needing it to get any kind of better paid job. I’m always waiting for someone to trip me up, going “Hah, you’re a massive fraud, that article should have been dem rather than der! Get out!”. That’s never actually happened though. The only negative reaction I’ve ever had is from other British people who don’t speak any other languages, and I’ve come to the conclusion that they can do one.

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