Three tips for learning a foreign language

For most of my life I was woefully monolingual. I struggled through trips to Europe with a lot of pointing and “Parlez-vous Anglais?” My German was inept but earnest, like a kindergartner’s finger-painting stuck to the family fridge.

My knowledge of German. Credit /prayingmother

My knowledge of German. Credit /prayingmother

How things have now changed! Around 2013 I learnt about Duolingo and from October of that year I have been practising fastidiously. I finished Italian a while back and am soon to finish French and while I am certainly not fluent I now can hold my head, if not high, at least level with the horizon.

There are those who’ve learned many languages much better than I have but I hope my little experience may be illuminating if only for the fact that I’ve picked up these languages as an autodidact, and without having spent much time in either Italy or France. Thus I share for you, in the spirit of multilingualism and in the hope of having more friends on Duolingo: three dos for teaching yourself a foreign language.

Do: make a habit of practising.

Learning a language requires frequent practice. Let’s say daily, for convenience. If you think about how children learn a language, they interact with it daily as part of their lives. So at the very least, be getting in some practice every day.

But don’t just practise daily – make it a habit. By this I mean, create a routine around your habit so that practice isn’t a chore you have to will yourself to do. It should happen automatically, the same way you brush your teeth before bed, or put socks on before shoes.

According to Charles Duhigg in “The Power of Habit”, habits are created by three parts: a trigger, an act, and a reward. The act you want to inculcate is language practice. For me, the trigger was finishing my morning shower – hopping on Duolingo was my next automatic step. The reward was breakfast. If you set up this habit and then internalise it with daily vigilance, it will soon be happening with little effort. Also, you are less likely to miss out because of a busy or unpredictable day.

This worked for me – my longest streak of Italian practice was over 570 days (ironically broken while I was actually in Italy.) I’m now back on the wagon, practising French every morning, and my streak is back around 70 days.

Do: put yourself out there.

I think I have a good personality for practising a new language, because I’m very able to put myself out there and risk making a fool of myself. As soon as I had basic Italian vocabulary, I’d precociously and incomprehensibly try to speak with Italianophones. I’d also, much to the frustration of family members and others, speak in Italian to non-Italianophones. It wasn’t pretentiousness, I swear – just an eagerness to learn.

Again, I think this is true of how children acquire language. Children needn’t worry about whether they have their conjugations down or fully understand noun-verb agreement. Instead, they just start expressing themselves as best as they are able. The aim isn’t to speak perfectly, but to practise using the language and to give yourself a chance to see your weaknesses and to be corrected.

I know many people better at French than I am who are much less willing to throw their French around. This isn’t just coyness – it’s also because they are good enough not to need to practise as much as I do! But it strikes me that there is a reluctance by these people, or other beginners, to speak. I think this is the main barrier for getting comfortable in a new language. Some people don’t want to start using a language until they are confident, but you can’t become confident until you start throwing around “sono” and “sei” like a derivative television chef.

Do: immerse yourself.

The third ‘do’ is something I’ve failed to do and paid the price for. When I went to Italy a little back I felt very comfortable reading and writing and I was able to speak and express myself. But I was woeful at understanding spoken Italian. This was awkward because my speech was good enough that people presumed a certain comprehension ability, only to be disappointed. I think my mismatch of competencies is also uncommon because most non-native Italian speakers would learn Italian from exposure while living in Italy, so their aural comprehension would tend to be better than their grammar. Ah how confused I, and others, were.

My mistake was that I didn’t immerse myself in enough of the language. A friend of mine who learnt French very rapidly did both the above steps but she also surrounded herself with the language. She listened to French radio and music, read French news, changed the language in her email. Even if she wasn’t consciously understanding the latest developments in French geopolitics, the exposure was helping her brain to understand the sounds and get better at reading the meaning imbued in them.

So this is a key thing to get to the level of “Oh what French yeah I savvy that cat like it’s a pentatonic scale and I’m Charlie Parker.” It can’t be just this thing you do for twenty minutes in the morning – you gotta get on that horse and ride. While I didn’t do this as much as I could have, I did at least have the (slightly odd?) habit of saying things in English and then re-saying them in my head in another language, or translating things said to me. Constantly turning my mind to the language I wanted to learn would have helped in my case, but wasn’t enough.


So those are three steps to becoming intermediate-but-not-necessarily-fluent from someone who has fairly recently become intermediate-but-not-fluent in Italian and French. It really has been a wonderfully enjoyable journey and while I haven’t had as many epiphanies about the human condition as I would have hoped, there was this one time in Pavia where I paid 2 euro for a 1 euro brioche and didn’t get change and I busted out some Italian like a penny-pinching polyglot and, lo and behold, I got my 1 euro (“Ti ho detto due euro.”) . So if there’s one take home message, it’s that all the days of practise, the hours of revision, and the awkward party conversations (“Do you speak Italian? No? Ah, ok, um, gotta go.”) have paid off.


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