The most effective ways to learn a language

4954719152_7604bbb0aa_oIf you are anything like me, you always used to hear the phrase “practice makes perfect” or something similar growing up. When you picked up your violin for the first time, determined to play like a pro (only to sound like a cat being strangled) – it is disheartening. Your ever-supportive parents tell you: “practice makes perfect, kiddo” and you want to scream.

Unfortunately, as with many things in life, your parents were right: learning a language is just like playing an instrument, mastering one takes time and perseverance.

There are so many ways to learn a language nowadays, there are apps, books, thousands upon thousands of language books, so where do you begin?

First, ask yourself, why do you want to learn?

This is the first thing you should figure out: why exactly do you want to learn a language? Is it to advance your career prospects, to feel more integrated in society, or simply, you have always wanted to do it but never found the time? Whatever your motivation, let it motivate you.

Redefine the rules

Your experience of language learning may well be associated with how it was taught at your school: incredibly dated textbooks (featuring people with questionable fashion sense), grammar tables and vocab books. But guess what, learning a language does not have to be like this!

You are the learner, you therefore can decide what you want to learn. Who says you have to learn in stages dictated by your textbook? Take to the driving seat and direct your language learning in the way you want it to head – from this moment onwards, learning what you want to will make the process so much easier!

Once you have decided why you want to learn a language, you’ll figure out for what your goals should be. Having realistic goals is so important in language learning – it means you have challenged yourself and you can enjoy the rewarding feeling when you have met them.

It doesn’t have to be boring!

4042640485_6915ee54cd_zOne of the best things about learning a language, especially as an expat is the fact that proactive learning, i.e. learning while doing, is not only fun and engaging but you also have the opportunity to explore your new country at the same time.

“Fun, pleasure and flexibility are so important in language learning, so you don’t give up halfway through”. Focussed learning needn’t be boring or intense, “the social aspect of language learning should never be overlooked”.

So make your language learning relevant and useful for you: “whether you are training to be a hairdresser, have a love of cooking, art or photography, learning specific vocabulary associated with your chosen theme/hobby is an excellent way to keep your language learning relevant.”

Support from a native speaker

Whether you have moved to Argentina to learn Spanish or France to improve your French, you are surrounded by native speakers – you would be mad not to take advantage of this support!

“Most people are terrified of making a mistake” – this is true for everyone, and it is easier said than done to get over this fear. “One way to ease [this fear] is to have a native speaker by your side to whisper how to say things in your ear.” This means that you are less likely to make a mistake and boost your confidence.

How do you learn?

There is not “one size fits all” method for learning a language; but being able to pinpoint exactly how you learn, is not so easy either.

16846023595_553a9370b5_oThe best way to find out is by trying different methods: I noticed that for me that I learned certain phrases by hearing them over and over again in the street, on the metro etc. I knew that particular phrases were used in different contexts before actually knowing what they meant. So I was able to figure out that I am an audio learner but I must hear something repeated a number of times before it sticks in my memory.

I’d say that also reading books in a foreign language also really helps. The human brain tends to remove automatically the pieces of information – in this case, words – that it does not consider important, so reading also requires a great deal of practice to be effective. Doing both will widen your vocabulary – what in German is called Wortschatz, literally “word treasure” – and will give you results on a daily basis, boosting your confidence but also making you more determined to learn!

As an expat, it is almost impossible to ignore the native language, so take advantage of this: read signs, listen to conversations and watch television programmes with the subtitles written below in your target language; immerse yourself in the language.

In theory, practice makes perfect

One of the hardest things for language learners is getting over the fear of speaking. You may have memorised all the vocabulary from your textbook, but what use is this knowledge without putting it into practice, in real life situations?

This is where a lack of confidence can be very damaging in a language learner’s progress. Let’s say for example, you pluck up the courage to ask for a coffee in your beginner’s Dutch, only to receive an answer in English; unbeknownst to the bartender (who is only trying to help and/or practice his English), he has knocked your confidence: “People notice that you are a foreigner and they want to help you”, this is your opportunity to explain that you are trying to learn the language, in most cases people are eager to help you learn their native language.

Learn the magic little phrases

One of the best tricks in language learning is to learn the magic little phrases, those eternally useful phrases that can be used in almost every situation: “A student of mine excitedly told me about how he had sparked a conversation in Dutch in the lift, simply by saying “Goedemorgen”. Next I taught him how to say “indeed”, a magic phrase in the Netherlands to hide the fact that you don’t understand anything.”

In the early stages, the smile and nod method will get you so far, but it’s great to be able to conversation by inserting those magic little phrases into conversations. How do you make a list of magic little phrases? You ask, or at least listen to, the natives.

I moved to Madrid over 2 years ago and I am no stranger to the difficulties of adjusting to a new culture and desperately trying to master the language. You will make mistakes, you will make a fool of yourself a number of times (like confusing the word “lenses” for “lentils” in an opticians) and no matter how hard you try, you will always look and sound a little bit foreign; but this is no bad thing, after all, everyone loves an accent!


Quotes taken from an interview with Anja Vreeburg, a language learning expert with over 15 years experience teaching Dutch. She recently founded InDutch, an innovative and modern platform aiming to close the gap between theory and practice by pairing learners with a tutor to help them learn Dutch in real life scenarios.

[Images by gwaarMarkus Koljonen, GotCredit]

You may also like...