10 Essential Tips for Learning a Foreign Language


Learning a foreign language is a noble and daunting task. Here are some tips I wish I’d had when I began learning Italian many years ago.

  1. 1 | Good things take time.

Before I plunged into the adventure of learning Italian, I had always had success with my tried-and-true method of approaching learning: I simply did more, read more, spent more time, and was more dedicated. This method had always helped me learn faster, but it didn’t produce the same results when learning a foreign language, which is a profoundly cumulative experience.

When learning a new language, especially when you immerse yourself in a place where the foreign language is spoken, it’s like training for a marathon: it’s a day-by-day process that brings gradual but constant improvement. The training process simply can’t be rushed, so give yourself a break and celebrate the small, incremental successes along the way.

2 | Nobody’s perfect.

Some of the most skilled language learners I know are people who don’t take themselves too seriously. They aren’t perfectionists. They get out there and use the few words or phrases they know, to the best of their ability, without worrying about how others will see them or what native speakers will think. In short, they aren’t afraid to make mistakes.

Learning a language actually requires that you make mistakes—lots of mistakes—as an integral part of the learning process. So, embrace your imperfections and jump in with what you know. It’s the only way to learn what you don’t know and improve along the way.

3 | When you can’t speak, listen.

We’re so used to speaking our native language that often during a conversation, we’re already formulating responses in our mind before the other person finishes speaking. This habit gets turned on its head when learning a foreign language. We’re required to listen intensely just to try and grasp the words being spoken, then process them and decipher their meaning, all before any sort of response can even be formulated in our minds.

Learning a new language is a unique opportunity to practice being a better listener. Don’t feel pressure to produce language all the time. Find the balance between listening and speaking.

4 | Appreciate the benefits of not knowing what people are saying.

When you don’t understand a language, you’re forced to draw on other skills and resources in your toolbox. You might need to use body language, writing, asking other people for help, or any number of other creative ideas you might come up with on the spot in the moment.

Enjoy the unique situation this puts you in—it’s the epitome of what people call “being out of your comfort zone.” The reason going outside of your comfort zone gets such good press is because it draws on strengths that you may not have learned you had. It stretches you in ways you aren’t able to stretch and grow otherwise. Take advantage of this seeming disadvantage.

5 | Admit that you’re not infallible and let others see your vulnerability.

In our Western culture, especially in our career and professional training, we’re often taught that we shouldn’t show what is typically viewed as “weakness,” our vulnerability. Specifically for women, we’re told to be “less emotional” or “toughen up.” This sort of advice conditions us to think that if we let down our guard and expose the fact that we don’t know everything, we’ll be penalized or seen as not good enough.

In language learning, paradoxically, the opposite seems to be true. The more we try to appear stoic or in-the-know when we really aren’t, the less we learn. Yet, the more we open up and admit our flaws and weak spots in terms of what we don’t know, the more we learn. Be willing to show that you need help and ask for it. People love being experts. Let native speakers be your resident experts, because they are.

6 | Go where they speak the language.

As valuable as it is to learn language in a classroom from your home country, the only true way to become fluent is to immerse yourself in the foreign language, 24/7. This forces you to communicate in whichever way you can while you’re learning. Although it will feel “sink or swim” in the beginning, the long-term benefits far outweigh the initial challenges.

Don’t shy away from home-stays or study vacations just because you aren’t traditional school age anymore. You can design your own study vacation in a place where the language you’re learning is spoken. The most immersive way to do it is to travel alone, so that you aren’t around anyone who speaks your native language, and enroll in an intensive (four hours a day) language class for at least a month once you arrive.

If you can’t spend an entire month, because of work or other commitments, spend as much time as you can. Any amount of time immersed is better than none. I learned more during my first two weeks in Rome doing an intensive language class than I did in the entire first year I studied Italian in the States.

7 | Apps are your friend.

Back when I was learning Italian, the Internet was still in its relative infancy and apps were a long ways off. Nowadays, however, there are plenty of great language learning resources just a touch screen away. Try Duolingo, Anki (flashcards), Busuu, Babbel, and/or Memrise, just to name a few.

  1. 8 | Conversation exchanges are low-cost and high-return.

Find a language partner. There are so many people who want to learn and practice their English. Find one of them and offer to do a conversation exchange via Skype (or in person if there’s a local community that speaks the language you’re trying to learn). If you don’t know where to start, check out Italki, Speaky, or Tandem Exchange.

9 | Be a kid again.

Find children’s books written in the foreign language of simple stories that you already know in your native language. Same goes for foreign-language children’s movies that you’ve already seen in your native language. You might not catch much, but since you already know the story and the context, you have a head start on learning new words and phrases both reading and listening.

10 | Be consistent and don’t give up.

Just like physical training, language training is a practice that must be consistent and regular in order to produce results. Implement a routine and stick to it as much as possible. Don’t give up if you have small setbacks. Just keep going and remember to keep track of your successes and progress to keep you motivated!

Categories: Life & Love, Life Advice, Travel


Shelley Ruelle
Shelley Ruelle is an American who has been living in Rome since 2001. She is an expert on travel to Italy, and has professional experience in everything from running a study abroad center for American university students to starting her own business accommodating tourists in 17th-century apartments in the historic Trastevere neighborhood. She is a writer, licensed as a journalist in Italy with the regional journalism association Ordine dei Giornalisti del Lazio, and she translates Italian news into English for Italy's leading wire service, ANSA. Her ability to see the humor in everything is what makes her badass.

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