TCK Diaries #3: 3 Tips to Quickly Improve Your Skills in a New Language

Check out the latest installments of the TCK series by MaryCate Sperrazza:
"7 Signs that You’re a Third Culture Kid"
"TCK Diaries #1: Home is a Feeling"
"TCK Diaries #2: Studying from Abroad to Studying Abroad — During a Pandemic"

Learning a new language is hard. Even when you think that you have finally mastered it and your grades say that you are killing the learning, it can still be difficult. I have taken four semesters of French in college and was the star of every class, even with a new Professor almost every semester and increased difficulty. Somehow I always ended the semester with an A+ and yet another Professor as my ally and reference going forward. But, in reality, my knowledge was more superficial than I was ready to admit.

I have had the privilege of traveling throughout many Francophone countries allowing me to practice my skills and prove that I really learned French. When it comes to the menial tasks of ordering food, being polite, negotiating a taxi or any other simple everyday task, I have got it down, no questions asked. But, I do not want to stop with these tasks and phrases. So, here are some tried and tested ways to take your language skills beyond the menial tasks to the next level, of true success and prosperity.

  1. 1. Immerse Yourself

    Once my semester abroad in Senegal commenced in February of this year, I was suddenly listening in on panels in French and having to have social conversations entirely in French, causing my ego to quickly plummet. The panels were typically translated into English meaning that I only had to understand for my benefit and language skills, not for overall understanding, which is a comfortable way to learn the language. However, the social conversations were an indescribable challenge, but one that brought immense growth. By spending time with people who do not speak English, I was forced to speak and think in French. This helped me immensely in improving my confidence in not only speaking but also comprehension. Although I spent a lot of time tripping over my words and struggling to recall the words to say what I wanted to say, I would always eventually get my point across, which I believe to be a massive success.

    Immersion does not only have to come in the form of traveling within a country that speaks the language that you are trying to learn, for this has many hurdles for many people. Other ways to immerse yourself in the language that you want to learn is by watching TV in the language, Netflix has a lot of shows in a variety of languages, listening to podcasts in the language, or finding an online study partner that is a native speaker that you can speak with. 

  2. 2. Use the Language Daily

    In-person conversations with a native speaker, or at least one-on-one conversation online, is an efficient way to advance your language skills. From random words that you might not otherwise know about to expressing emotions, speaking to someone who has lived and breathed that language for most of their life is an incredible way to improve your skills in the language. Even if it is just a short conversation with the worker of your corner store or local bakery, everything counts.

    If you can have in-person conversations with a native speaker on the daily, seize the moment! If you are unable to do so, then watch TV, read the news, listen to a podcast, listen to the radio or just breathe in the language that you want to learn whenever possible. If you want to disconnect from the internet for some time but still want to immerse yourself, and you are not fortunate enough to have your in-person conversations with a native speaker, try labeling random things around your house in the language that you are trying to learn. You will be surprised at how many words that may have slipped your interest suddenly come up and become a part of your vocabulary. You can also write in a journal to practice your skills while reflecting and acquiring new vocabulary. Plus you will then have a tangible record of your journey through the language and you can look back on your growth in the future.

  3. 3. Push Hard & Fast

    Language learning is not always something that comes naturally and with time. To effectively learn a language, it is important to learn as much as you can as quickly as possible. Doing an intensive language learning session is effective, be it a week or a month, harder and faster will reap better results in the end. If your intensive time learning the language leaves your body noticeably tired and your mind mushy, then you are doing it right. 

    Once you have learned a few more words and can string together some sentences, thinking in the language is the next best step. Whether you are thinking to yourself in the language while you brush your teeth or cook, you will gain new skills and learn new words merely as a result of your curiosity. Eventually this ability to think naturally in the language will come in handy too as your conversations increase in difficulty and quality, thinking in the language that you are learning will be an essential part of the seamless flow of conversation.

If you have learned a new language, what are your biggest tips? It is a lifelong process, but getting over that initial hurdle of starting and reaching the point that you can hold down friends in that language is the real challenge. One day I will be fluent in French and you will also become fluent in your next language. Jusque-là bonne chance avec vos études !