Leaning a foreign language is a long and consuming process. It can take years to become fluent, but when you finally are it’s so rewarding! I remember this great feeling when I was able to speak German with a native speaker for the first time, and he even thought I was German at first! Of course, he realized I wasn’t after two minutes of conversation, but being able to communicate with him effortlessly was amazing. If you want to reach fluency in a language, you need to focus on your goal and carefully plan your journey, taking small steps every day.
Becoming fluent isn’t just about the amount of time you’ve studied a language. It’s about how you study it and why. It took me just two years to go from Beginner to Advanced level in German, and it happened only because I was focused on my goal: a semester abroad in Dresden. On the other hand, I have been studying Italian since 2010 and I still haven’t become as fluent. Why? I’ve never had a clear goal for really using it.
So here are my tips on how to learn languages effectively so that you can become a fluent speaker!
1. Make a commitment to learn!
On average, it takes around 400 hours of language practice to complete one level in a language (there are 8 levels in total, going from Beginner to Advanced – that’s over 3,000 hours in total!!). To truly become a fluent speaker you have to put in the time and commitment. But remember, you don’t have to study 400 hours in a classroom or pouring over a book, language is about interaction! So of course talking to native speakers counts, but you can also watch cartoons, read magazines, and listen to music in the language of your choice! With the Internet it’s easier than ever to find fun and engaging things to do in any language.
By the way, don’t buy any textbooks yet, especially if you’re just starting out. I know the feeling when you think that books are all you need to start. But here’s a secret…90% of the time you won’t use them. Only buy books once you figure out that you cannot continue without them. Save forest! When you feel that you are ready to get a book, make sure it’s a grammar book, not a phrase book. You won’t make a lot of progress memorizing phrases!
2. Download language-learning apps on your phone.
Once you commit to learning, start finding ways to incorporate your new language into your every day life. I know you always have your phone with you, so apps are the perfect way to take a 10minute study break throughout the day. Next time you’re stuck in traffic or are waiting in line, pull out your phone and skip Facebook…instead launch your language app.
Duolingo is the first one you should get, it supports the majority of languages and is very easy to use. I also recommend Memrise and Busuu. Just figure out which ones work best for you next time you’re waiting for your doctor appointment.
3. Plan your first interaction with a native speaker.
Really speaking a language is all about being put on a spot. If you’re trying to communicate with someone and you have no idea what they’re saying you’re going to try a lot harder than if you’re goofing off by yourself. That’s why I recommend arranging conversations with native speakers. There are lots of ways to do this. Here are some ways:
1 – Is there a native speaker of your language who’s a friend of the family?
2 – Are there any programs through your school that offer native-language speaker connections?
3 – Is there anyone at your Boys & Girls Club who speaks your language?
4 – What Internet resources could be effective.
I love using Fiverr.com for that (a platform where you can buy any gig for $5). Normally you get 30-minute Skype videochat with a native speaker, who is not a professional teacher, but who tolerates your mistakes and accent, because you have paid for it! I recommend planning this practice within the first three months of learning a language. Remember, you’re learning a foreign language to be able to speak it, not to successfully pass tests and make exercises! Remember to ask a parent or teacher for help booking anything online…there are a lot of weirdos out there and you want to make sure you connect with someone who’s really going to help you learn!
4. Switch the language on your phone to the one you’re learning.
This is something so simple but so powerful – change the settings on your phone to display everything in your new language. You might feel you’re not learning a lot from it, but seeing a couple of new words on a daily basis will help them stick in your mind. You’ll be surprised how they might pop up of your head exactly when you need them! Honestly, I‘ve learn around 200 important German words by switching my phone to German and it takes 5,000 words to be pretty fluent in a foreign language. I also switched Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to German. You’ll be surprised how quickly you learn words from context when you have to!
5. Stop doing things for fun in your native language.
When you’re close to being Intermediate (you know the basic words and can understand most things you read in your new language), stop reading books and watching films in your native language!. Switch to books and films in the language you’re learning. Try books written for a younger audience at first – you’re more likely to be able to follow along with the action and you’ll know most of the vocabulary (and what you don’t know is probably important to learn). My first books in German were books aimed at 9-10 year old children (I was 15), they didn’t have the most exciting plots ever, but the level was just for me to follow the story. These books also gave me a lot of insight on how German kids live and what they like. It helped me to communicate with Germans and understand their culture more deeply.
The most important thing to consider when you read a book or watch a film in a foreign language is not to use the dictionary too often. Ideally, you guess the meaning of words from context – and then try to remember them! Otherwise, try to look up two words per page/per scene at most. Otherwise, constant pausing will ruin the whole experience. I also recommend shying away from fantasy stories in the beginning. These are stories where a lot of the words are going to be made up or obscure in any language (think about how hard it would be to read Harry Potter in a different language with words like Muggle, Basilisk and wizard).
6. Don’t just watch or read - participate!
You’re not going to get anywhere if you’re just a passive observer, reading words or watching the screen. You have to start diving into the language and get a feel for it on your tongue. Here are some great ways to start:
Try reading out loud! This will help your mouth train to produce sounds. If you’re self-conscious, make sure no one is around when you first practice.
Sing a song! This is my absolute favorite - find a song that you really like, translate it, and sing along with the singer!
If books and films are too overwhelming, they have this crazy thing called YouTube, where you can watch videos in all languages. Try topics that interest you the most: like make-up, relationships, getting your license – anything that you like. You can just turn videos on and do what you’re doing, hearing the language in the background will allow you to memorize phrases and useful words.
Use every opportunity to speak a language! Become friends with foreigners, don’t be afraid of your mistakes and accent (you are a foreigner, you are supposed to have accent…and think how cool other accents sound in English!) The more you speak, the more you improve!
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