Friday, August 7, 2015

10 Tips to Help You Become Fluent in a Second Language

Let me begin by saying that I am not offering a quick fix here.  Learning a new language is hard, time-consuming work.  It will not happen overnight, regardless of what method you use.  I also need to emphasize that just one of the following suggestions taken in isolation will probably not get you to your goal.  A combined approach is best.  So, now that the disclaimers are out of the way, let's get to the list.

These are not in any particular order.

1. Use a language-learning website or app.  I have used Duolingo and Memrise and found them both to be very effective, though in different ways.  Memrise is generally better for expanding your vocabulary, while Duolingo is great for improving your grammar.  Used in combination, you get the best of both.

2. Read books in your target language.  I've heard a lot of arguments regarding when you should try to do this.  Many people say that you should get a firm grasp of grammar and have at least a modest vocabulary before attempting to read an actual book.  While I understand these arguments, I also feel the need to point out that when I began studying Spanish four years ago, the first thing I did was grab a book and start reading.  What book?  La última cáncion (The Last Song) by Nicholas Sparks.  I admit that it was a grueling process.  In the beginning it took nearly an hour to read one page!  However, the more I read the easier it became until now I can read entire books in Spanish without the need of a dictionary.  I also feel that I have a stronger understanding of the flow of the language because I immersed myself in books from the very beginning.

3. Listen to music in your target language.  People laugh when I suggest this one, but it really does work.  Why?  Think about it.  Have you ever had a song stuck in your head?  When you do, does it make you want to sing the lyrics?  Well, the same thing happens when the song is in another language.  It makes you want to learn the words so you can sing along.  And once you've learned how to pronounce all of them, you find yourself wanting to know what they mean.  So you look them up.  And because you've already memorized the song lyrics, you'll remember what those words mean for a very long time.

4. Watch movies and television shows in your target language.  This can be one of the more discouraging ways to study a language because the people on television just seem to talk way too fast.  I watched telenovelas for years before I got to a point where I could understand what was being said.  My only advice here is to stick with it because you will make progress, even if it's so slow you feel like you're standing still.  This is an opportunity to practice your listening skills, which is one of the hardest things to do when studying a new language.

5. Take a class.  This is the most obvious method, but it can also be one of the more expensive methods.  True confession time here:  I have never taken a Spanish class.  Do I want to?  Absolutely.  I've just never set aside the time or the money to do it.  What I can tell you is that you can learn on your own pretty much everything that you would learn in a class.  The difference is that, without the teacher to guide you, you have to discipline yourself to study.  That discipline can be extremely difficult, especially when you're plugging through pages and pages of verb conjugations that just don't seem to want to stick in your head.  So if you have the time an money, I would recommend taking a class.  Just remember that if a class is not an option for you right now, you can learn in other ways.  Don't give up.

6. Join a conversation group in your area.  This one may not be an option for everyone.  The town you live in may not have enough people who speak your target language to have a group like this.  And even if they do, finding them may be difficult.  The first place I would go to find out would be  You might just find something, and if you do this is a great opportunity to practice what you have learned.

7. Get a good grammar book.  These are everywhere, and should be easy to find.  My main advice here is to be aware of your level.  If you are just starting out, get a book that clearly states that it teaches basic grammar. You don't want to put too many rules into your head all at once because you'll just get confused and won't remember them.

8. Try language-learning software.  Rosetta Stone is the obvious one here, but there are others.  Some are very expensive, some more affordable.  I have used Rosetta Stone and liked it, but it is not the only method I have used for studying Spanish.  Shop around and find out what will work best for you.

9. Incorporate your target language into your daily life.  What most people think of when they hear this one is tacking sticky notes with vocabulary words all over their house.  That is certainly one way to do it, but there are others.  You could talk to your dog in your target language.  You could use your target language for writing out your shopping list.  If you have small children, you could speak to them in your target language. (I say small children because mine were already school age when I began studying Spanish, and they quickly grew tired of me constantly talking to them in a language they did not understand.)

10. Travel to a country where your target language is spoken.  I saved this one for last because, while it is the best way to learn a language, it is not realistic for everyone.  I have been to a Spanish-speaking country once, and that was over three years ago.  I wish I could go again, but that's just not an option right now.  What I want everyone to know is that, if you are using a few of the above suggestions, international travel is not absolutely necessary.  Fun...yes.  Educational...absolutely.  But not necessary.  So if you want to learn Italian but don't think you'll ever make it to Italy, don't despair.  You can still become fluent in that language.  And if you ever do get to take that trip, you'll be more than ready.

If you are struggling to learn a new language, I hope that these suggestions have been helpful.  Remember, have patience. It can take years, but it's so rewarding. That moment when you're watching television and you realize you can understand ninety percent of what is being said is indescribable.  So pick two or three of these, and start today!

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