How I Learn Foreign Languages

They say that if you love what you do you never work a day in your life. As much as I love this sentiment and believe it’s true to an extent, no matter how much you love something it can still be hard. I’ve been studying foreign languages for most of my life. I’ve studied French, Arabic, American Sign Language (ASL) and Chinese, all with varying levels of success. Learning a foreign language is an amazing goal that people pursue for lots of reasons, but as a Chinese major I know that no matter how much it means to you there are days that make you feel like giving up. Everyone knows the best way to learn a language is through immersion, but in the era of COVID-19 when travel is not an option, there are still simple things you can do from home. Here are some of the things I do to keep myself strong and my motivation up.

Practice a little bit every day

It’s definitely super important to take breaks, especially with something mentally draining like learning a foreign language. This being said, taking the time to practice a tiny bit every day can help you progress further faster. For example, I often try to narrate the things I’m doing around the house in Chinese. This exercise might sound a little silly, but you’re actually practicing a lot of valuable skills like speaking in narrative form or just calling up names of household items you might forget if you only ever practice in the classroom. Additionally, I’ll often realize I’ve never learned simple words like soap, which I can look up later and try to remember for next time. Another fun way to practice is by finding comedy in your target language on YouTube. This is particularly fun because it’s low pressure practice, but it has the added benefit of helping you understand the sense of humor of the target culture a little better.

Figure out your study method

This is good advice in general, but it’s especially important when learning a foreign language. Everyone is going to give different advice, and it might not always work for you. Many people write flashcards, but I’ve never found those to be very helpful for me even though some people swear by them. For me, I prefer Quizlet for its quizzing features. Other people have recommended study groups, but for me I find studying with other people distracting. Don’t be afraid to experiment with study methods as you lear, but finding what works best for you is a huge step. I use combinations of Quizlet and repetition to help me memorize new words and grammar patterns, as well as a bit of trial and error. Again, everyone is different, but in the modern age there are so many apps that can help you out.

If you get a chance to practice with a native speaker, take it

Once I was at the pharmacy when I noticed that a man was getting quite upset with one of the pharmacists, and then I noticed that he was speaking Mandarin and seemed confused. Even though I was just in intermediate classes at the time, I decided that if there was a chance that I could help, I should try. I walked up and said to the staff that I speak Mandarin and asked if I could help. I explained to the man that his insurance co-pay had gone up and that he had to pay for his prescription now, which was no small feat for me at the time. Unfortunately, the man had no money with him, but even though I couldn’t fix his problems at least he left the pharmacy understanding what was going on. Not only was this experience go practice for me, it was so rewarding to feel like I had used my skill for good. Even if this sounds daunting or you’re just starting out, next time you notice someone speaking your target language say hello or tell them to have a nice day. People are always so happy and usually impressed when you engage with them in your second language, it’s a huge confidence boost along with really good practice and will remind you what you’re looking for.

Accept criticism and that you will make mistakes

In many ways, this is the hardest part of learning a foreign language, the fear of sounding ridiculous or making a mistake. I have so many stories of saying terribly uncomfortable things in Chinese these past few years. I’ve said ‘eggplant’ when I meant to say ‘wife’, ‘emperor’ when I meant to say ‘God’, and ‘f***’ when I meant to say ‘grass’. Looking back, all of these stories make me laugh now, plus I haven’t gotten these words wrong since. Embarrassing moments and disappointing feedback are the best ways to learn, they reinforce things that you might otherwise forget, and being afraid of them will only hold you back. It’s a hard leap to make but holding yourself to too high of a standard is why so many people give up on their foreign languages.  Besides, they make for hilarious stories to tell your friends later that day.

Don’t let yourself lose sight for your motivating factor

If you’re seriously pursuing learning a foreign language, there’s always a reason, and on hard days it’s super important to remember that. For me, I’m motivated by passion and stubbornness. I’ve dedicated so many years and hours to learning Chinese, and the amount of time I put in already motivates me to put in more now to reach my goal as I hate the idea of wasting precious time. Some people are motivated by career goals, motivated to speak with family members they’ve never talked to properly, or motivated to understand the cultures of their romantic partners. Whatever your reason is, hold on to it and let it push you further.

Learning a foreign language is never easy, no matter how much we want it, but it’s possible for anyone. So many people say that you have to be smart to learn a foreign language or that they “just can’t”, but everyone feels that way no matter the situation. The only thing you really need to learn a foreign language is the drive to succeed.

To those of you trying to learn a foreign language now, know that you’re progressing every single day, even if it doesn’t feel like it.