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Travel Tips

Top tips for learning a foreign language

When I landed at Roma Fiumicino Airport in January 2015 I was too scared to even say ‘buon giorno‘ to the Immigration Officer in case I pronounced it wrong. Fast forward 11 months and I’m deep in a group discussion in Italian with a bunch of Italian girls I’d just met that morning. I briefly switch into speaking English to do an impression and one of the girls compliments me on my perfect English accent. I replied saying thanks it’s because I’m English: she was in shock and told me thought she had been conversing with an Italian all morning.

I’d say it took about 9 months of me living in Italy before I became more or less conversationally fluent in Italian. Some people found this rather impressive, especially as us native English speakers aren’t known for our multi-lingual skills. Others would just brush it off and say I just had a “gift” for learning languages, seeing as I had already picked up a decent level of Spanish purely through listening to Puerto Rican and Cuban music since I was a teenager and staying in our family villa in Spain every summer, or simply because I travelled a lot and so I picked up a lot of things along the way.

But the truth of the matter is, to become fluent in Italian I worked my butt off. I just kept practicing.

Many native English speakers believe they are incapable of learning another language, but I want to show you that with a little determination it IS possible to become fluent in another language! Over the months I learnt Italian, I came up with many tips and I want to share them here with you in the hope it will give you the motivation and self-belief you need to pursue learning another language!

learning a language

First things first I will give you a brief outline of the different methods I used to learn another language:

  • live in the country
  • live with native speakers
  • language exchange meetups
  • make friends or get a partner who is from that country
  • watch movies in that language
  • have a good grammar book and vocab book
  • private lessons

The 7 ways I learnt Italian:

Live in the country:

Living in the country where the language is spoken is always going to be the fastest and most effective way to learn a language as you are exposed to it all the time, whether you like it or not. Your language skills are constantly growing even if you don’t realise it, and even for a simple task like going out to buy the groceries you are utilising your language skills. The language learning is a lot more intense than learning in a classroom and so it will stick in your head a lot more. Honestly by the end of my year living in Italy I was starting to dream in Italian, that’s how much I immersed myself in the language.

Live with native speakers:

Whether you choose to live with a family or with a group of flatmates, living with native speakers does wonders for your language skills. The whole time I lived in Italy I lived with an Italian family. This was the easiest way for me to get to grips with Italian especially at the beginning. When you live with a local family you hear the parents say the same phrases over and over again to the children (come on/stop it/ I said no, etc etc – you get the picture). Every time I would hear them say a phrase I hadn’t heard before, I would remember it, write it down and look it up later, which made it a lot easier for me to learn and remember in the future. It also really helps that young children often speak a lot slower than adults, making it easier to understand what they are saying.

The most popular way to live with a local family is to become a live-in nanny or an au-pair; where you look after the children for a few hours each day and speak to them in English. This means you act more like a big sister to the children than a teacher as you are teaching the children English passively through games and conversation, making it easier and more fun for the children to learn English. Being a live-in nanny provided me with some of my greatest memories in Italy and I grew so attached to the family that even now I still miss them and go visit them when I can. If you are interested to become an au-pair or live in nanny, the website I used to find my host family was Au Pair World. It is free to use and the whole process is so smooth and easy to organise, I honestly cannot rate this website enough.

The father of the family I lived with spoke no English, so as you can imagine, when I first moved in with them it sure made conversation over the dinner table awkward at first! But it just made me determined to improve my language skills quickly, and as the months went on and my Italian got better, I would go out for a day with the father and speak the whole time in Italian, and it was such a great sense of achievement. Living with somebody who speaks no English at all can be a bit overwhelming and frustrating at first when you cannot express yourself very well in the language, but it is great as you resist the temptation to switch into English and you learn pretty fast how to find a way to say what you want as you are thrown in at the deep end!

Language exchange meetups:

When I first moved to Italy I went to some group conversation classes but soon realised I had absolutely no clue what was going on and that I had no confidence to speak Italian. So I joined a language exchange/tandem group in the local area that I found on Facebook, where I would meet up one-on-one with Italian University students keen to practice their English and we would talk half the time in English and half the time in Italian.

Trust me when I say conversation is key to improving your language skills. For me, language meetups were a really great way to practice my Italian and really helped give me confidence as you weren’t afraid to make mistakes as you knew the other person would correct you, plus you were both there to improve and help each other, so didn’t get frustrated with each other. Even though it may seem scary at first, you will get so much out of these sessions and having someone correct your mistakes and building on your progress each week: well it’s like having a private tutor but for free! Not only this but through these language exchange sessions you’ll make friends with these native people, which brings me on to my next point.

Make friends or get a partner from that country

At the beginning, when your language skills suck, this will be hard. You need to put yourself out there, even when you may not feel like it. If someone invites you somewhere, just go! You’ll improve your language skills and make friends. The minute I got a boyfriend in Sicily (who I actually met through the language exchange meetup) my Italian improved drastically and every day I was learning so much. My confidence also grew as I wasn’t afraid to make mistakes infront of him. I asked him to correct me if ever I said something incorrect, which was very important to ensure bad habits didn’t stick.

Nevertheless, it’s still so important to make friends with people who also share your mother tongue as at first, living in a foreign country can seem quite lonely if you are still a beginner in the language: it is hard to make friends with someone when you can’t communicate easily in their language. I made friends with other native English speaking girls living in the area who were also learning Italian. This was great because it meant I never felt lonely or frustrated as these girls were in the exact same boat as me – they were away from home, they were learning the language, and often if one of us didn’t understand a part of the grammar or something, having one of your friends explain it made it way easier. But do make sure these aren’t the only friends you have there and you don’t spend too much time speaking in English, otherwise your language skills will improve at a much slower rate.

Watch movies in that language:

Our TV had no English channels so I would watch many movies and TV shows in Italian. To start off with, it is a good idea to watch movies that you already know, that have been translated into the language, so you know the storyline and don’t feel out of your depth. Then watch movies that were filmed in your target language. I would watch them with subtitles (in English then Italian subtitles) then without them, rewind a scene, Google the odd phrase – everything I could so that I understood every word they said. Whilst this is still a good way to learn, it does not replace conversation practice, which I believe is the best way to help you get confidence and fluent in a language.

Have a good grammar book and vocab book:

For the first couple of weeks when learning Italian I used the app Duolingo and the audio course Pimsleur to learn basic grammar and vocabulary and learnt common words and phrases from a vocab book that I knew would come up in everyday conversation. I also bought a fat-ass grammar book that I slowly worked my way through during the year and suffered endless nights with my head in that grammar book.

As I mentioned before, whenever you hear a word or phrase you don’t remember, where possible try and memorise it and write it down when you can (even if you’re not sure of the spelling just write it how it sounds) and then find out later what it means, either by asking someone or looking in your book or online.

Nowadays you don’t need to walk around with a vocab book or a dictionary, you can just use Google translate on your phone (you can download it before so you can use it offline even if you don’t have any data) and refer to it quickly and easily during a conversation. Also type in the notes in your phone any phrases or colloquialisms that you want to remember and refer back to these lists often to refresh your memory. Many times I would just be sat on the bus and would read through some lists on my phone I had made of words I was struggling to remember and it definitely helped.

Private lessons:

I find private lessons much more beneficial and a more efficient use of your time and money than group lessons. Yes private lessons are more expensive but the tutor focus on your specific areas of improvement and you will be able to move at your pace – you won’t have to wait for others to catch up like you do in a group class. Private lessons will also help you with your confidence as you will be practicing speaking the language a lot more than you will in a group setting.

 

The key to succeeding in learning a language:

CONVERSATION, CONFIDENCE and MOTIVATION are key in helping you to succeed in learning a language:

CONVERSATION

It may seem painful and daunting at first but forcing yourself to speak in your target language really is the best way to improve your fluency skills. I spent hours having tedious conversations in Italian until I was able to converse properly but this is really a very productive way to improve in a language. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a native speaker, but just speaking with someone in the language who is better than you at it is really going to help you and an hour of conversation is worth far more than even 5 hours of your head stuck in a grammar book.

You will remember things much quicker when you are implementing them into a conversation and you will get a lot more out of having conversations than just reading something in a grammar book as you are being forced to utilise your knowledge and think on the spot.

Even if you only know how to speak in the present tense at first and your vocabulary is limited, just get used to having conversations: do not think you are going to learn all the grammar and tenses first and then you’ll start having conversations – it doesn’t work like this and everything will get mixed up in your head! The sooner you get over that hurdle and just start having conversations, the easier it is going to be to keep learning more grammar. Resist the temptation to focus on learning a ton of words first and being scared of the grammar, because then you’ll have no idea how to put the words together to form sentences! Just really try and focus on having conversations with people – you need to get comfortable at having basic conversations. And I promise you, not knowing the odd word when you are speaking in conversation is far better than not being able to hold a conversation properly because you don’t know how to conjugate and form sentences!

CONFIDENCE

For me, the hardest part about learning another language, and that held me back at the start was CONFIDENCE, or more precisely, my lack of it. Learning a language can be a vicious cycle: you know you need to practice speaking the language but you are self-conscious and afraid to make mistakes and for people to think you are stupid. Think back to any time you have had a painful conversation with a foreigner and you weren’t understanding what they were saying, you were just desperate to exit the conversation as their English sucked; well now this “stupid” person is going to be you.

This was really hard for me to overcome. However, you need to get over the fact that you’re going to sound and feel a bit silly at first. Think to when you are speaking to a foreigner in English; they often use the wrong tense (eg “did you went?” instead of “did you go?”) but you will understand what they are trying to say. The same will happen when you start speaking in another language, I promise you. Just keep speaking even if you know you are making some mistakes: it is important to just keep the conversation flowing.

Learning a new language IS hard, and you’ll go from having days when you feel confident and can hold conversations, to going to days where you struggle to even form a sentence. It takes time, and when you are feeling down, just remember how far you’ve come.

MOTIVATION

You need to keep yourself motivated. Like I said earlier, it took me around 9 months until I became pretty much fluent in Italian. I’m not going to lie and say it was easy; at times it was downright hard and frustrating. Despite what online courses may tell you, there is no shortcut to learning a language. It takes practice, determination and a lot of time. Just because someone took a few months to learn a language, it doesn’t matter. It may feel like it is taking you forever to become fluent, but each of us learns at our own pace. Do not compare your journey to those of others.

Learning a language requires a consistent commitment. I believe it is better to invest a particular period of your life: a few weeks or months for example, and really give it all your time and energy, rather than to half-heartedly do it over a few months or even years. Take this example: I learnt French for an hour a week in the classroom for 12 years and still can’t hold a conversation in French, whereas after living in Italy for just one year I became fluent in Italian because I was exposed to it and practicing it every day and so things stuck much quicker. Learning a language requires a lot of repetition and if you are not practicing it every day your rate of improvement will be slower and retention will be less.

 

learning a languagetop tips for learning a language

Learning a foreign language as an adult:

One of the main reasons I moved to Italy was to learn Italian. I was really determined to learn the language. Living in London, I was surrounded by foreign friends and I always admired how they were able to move abroad and pick up another language. One day, instead of looking up to them and longing to be like them, I decided I WAS capable of achieving it too! So I packed up my bags and moved to Italy in the hope of being able to say more than “ciao bella”.

Learning a foreign language as an adult was hard. These days, many children grow up bi-lingual or even tri-lingual. I firmly believe, and research has proven it, that learning a language as a child is far easier than learning it as an adult. Children’s brains are literally sponges: they don’t question the grammar and it’s rules or it’s exceptions, they just listen, copy and remember. And it stays much quicker. I remember countless times I would forget a word and need reminding of it time and time again, whereas the children I looked after would hear a word once or twice and it just stuck in their heads. Learning a language as an adult is much harder and requires a lot of time and patience. So don’t be too hard on yourself.

 

Also, one important point. As a native English speaker, foreigners are naturally going to want to speak to you in English to practice and improve their English. When I moved to Italy, I was actually living in Rome for a few weeks before I moved down to Sicily. One of the reasons I left Rome was because I was getting sick and tired of trying to speak in Italian but everyone was replying to me in English. It made me think: “is my Italian really this bad?” and my self-confidence was quite low and I became self-conscious to speak Italian.

I would continue to speak in Italian and people would continue to reply in English or even say “it’s ok we can speak in English!”. I moved to Italy to learn Italian, not to help others practice their English! I knew in Sicily barely anyone spoke English (the Sicilians will even tell you they are too lazy to learn English, which I love about them as they are so passionate about their language and dialect) so moving there seemed like a good move, and boy was it. My Italian started to improve so quickly and therefore my confidence grew a lot. So be persistent and keep speaking the language, and maybe bear that in mind if you are deciding where to move: obviously the more touristy a city is, the more English people will speak.

 

You will go through phases when you’re learning a language and often you’ll feel like you’ve hit a wall and aren’t progressing. First you’ll learn a few words but not understand someone when they speak to you. Then slowly you’ll start to understand a lot more than you can speak. Then you start to become competent in having conversations, even though it is mentally very tiring at first. After a while things will feel easier and it will take a lot less effort to understand and speak and you’ll notice you’ve stopped translating in your head and you’re starting to think in your target language. This is such an achievement and something you should be proud of.

I hope this article will help you to get to this stage, and if it has motivated you to learn a language, don’t forget to write in the comments below, I would love to hear from you! With English being the international language of communication, it is no longer a necessity for foreign languages to be learnt by native English speakers, however learning a foreign language is a beautiful thing and opens up many doors to you. It honestly gives me so much joy the odd time I still have a conversation in Italian, and one day I would love to live in another foreign land and learn a new language again. Until then, happy learning!

 

 

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tips for learning a foreign language

TIPS for native english speakers when learning a language

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