7 Strategies for Learning a New Language
Ever wish you could understand a foreign language film on Netflix without reading subtitles? Or are you planning to travel to Rio de Janeiro and want to speak Portuguese with the locals? Interested in learning the language your ancestors spoke?
As an American I feel fortunate that English is such a universal language, but I also feel that it can be a crutch because we Americans don’t usually learn to speak other languages fluently, as many others in the world do, unless we happen to take foreign language classes in school.
My language journey
Languages have always fascinated me. The first time I remember being aware of another language was when a neighbor girl two years older than me was learning German, a part of the fifth-grade curriculum at my elementary school. Kelly taught me how to count from one to 10, which I can still do today, and I looked forward to learning more German. Well, my family moved out of state at the end of that year, and I didn’t think again about learning a foreign language again until high school.
That’s when I decided to try a French class. Memorizing new vocabulary, conjugating verbs, and practicing my French accent was so fun – although my family may not have been so keen on me constantly trying out my new vernacular on them!
I studied French for two years in high school and then again for two years in college when I needed to fulfill some general studies credits.
It was about 15 year later when I had the chance to try out my French speaking skills during a tour in France. One of my favorite memories was being able to converse with an older French couple on the train from Avignon to Nice – although I’m sure they were very polite about my mistakes and limited vocabulary. I am still proud of myself for holding an actual conversation in French!
A few years later my niece Erin asked if I wanted to accompany her and her high school French class on a tour to France. Oui (Yes), I enthusiastically agreed! Then I learned the itinerary would also include time in Italy. Hmmm, less time to practice my French, I thought, but at least it would be cool to see a new country.
Little did I know, but my whole language-loving life changed on that trip! Our tour guide Enda – an Irish native who spoke fluent French and Italian – really brought Italy to life with his wonderful storytelling, knowledge of the history, and love of calcio (soccer/football) – that last one connecting with me since my young son was going to start playing soccer that fall.
So, I bought my kids knock-off soccer jerseys for A.S. Roma (the same pro team Enda supported) and started talking soccer with him. That led to me watching A.S. Roma matches during that year’s soccer season – and I’m still a tifosa (fan). But I struggled to understand the Italian match commentators or to read about the team in the Italian press.
That’s when I decided I needed to learn Italian. It’s a romance language like French and I had some experience studying a foreign language before, so how hard could it be?
As a full-time working mom and wife, it was more challenging to find the time and resources to learn a new language. But I was determined to add being fluent in Italian to my bucket list.
Strategies for learning a new language
Over the last few years, I have figured out several strategies to continue to build my Italian-speaking skills. Let me share them with you, so you can discover how easy it can be to start picking up a few words and phrases at first and then progress to reading books and articles, watching films and TV shows without subtitles (or at least not having to read them so closely), and conversing confidently with other speakers.
1. Identify easy ways to add language learning to your daily routine.
Buy a calendar in your target language with a new word or phrase to learn each day.
Start a playlist with songs in your target language – even if you have no idea what the song is about. You can often find the lyrics online (and the English translation). Here are playlist links for two of my favorite Italian singers: Laura Pausini and Eros Romazzotti.
Practice conjugating verbs, pronouncing difficult words, counting, or having imaginary conversations while in the shower or when you’re blow drying your hair.
Attach post-it notes with new words on your bathroom mirror to test your recall of their meanings or to use them in a sentence.
Label items in your home with their names in your new language.
2. Create a language journal.
These journals – sometimes called bullet journals – are a great way to document your learning goals, a plan for studying, and pages to add the alphabet for your new language, vocabulary, grammar rules, and interesting and useful phrases. Being able to track your progress and hold yourself accountable can be super motivating.
3. Get competitive in language apps.
Learning a new language can be as easy as picking up your cell phone and/or laptop. There are so many apps to help you. According to Shelby Brown, an editor for CNET, here are the best language learning apps for 2022:
Babbel – Best for online school-type experience
Mondly – Best for helping you remember specific phrases
Duolingo – Best for learning multiple languages
Memrise – Best for learning to speak casually in a new language
Busuu – Best for goal-oriented users
Lirica – Best for learning language musically
Drops – Best for visual learners
Language Learning with Netflix – Best for breaking down how a language works
Pimsleur – Best for learning on the go
Rosetta Stone – Best for auditory learners
I have been using Duolingo on and off for several years. Last year I finally opted for the Duolingo Plus membership, so I could take advantage of more features, including the competitions. I also like that I can follow my friends who are also using the app – including Heather, who is building her French language skills and has a daily streak of 1,100+ days!
Download one or more apps and try out a few lessons to see which one you like best.
4. Check out YouTube videos, TV shows, films, and Pinterest.
YouTube offers videos to learn new vocabulary or grammar. Also, you can hear conversations and pronunciations. Some channels also offer additional membership subscriptions with extra videos and podcasts, exercises, and live online sessions. One of my favorite Italian language YouTube channels is Easy Italian with Matteo (a native Italian speaker) and Katie (a native English speaker who also speaks Italian).
Streaming services carry a variety of TV shows and films in foreign languages with subtitle options. It’s fun to see how many words and phrases you can recognize.
Pinterest contains a plethora of pin entries to help you with vocabulary and grammar.
5. Assign yourself some homework.
Sometimes nothing is more effective than working through some exercises to solidify your understanding of grammatical points. You can find language exercises and workbooks online or at bookstores.
Also search for books written in your target language. Start with children’s books, move up to easy short stories, and then progress to more complex short stories, novels, or newspaper and magazine articles.
6. Take courses.
When learning a new language, you may want the structure offered by a course, instead of figuring out a study path on your own.
Whether it’s a live classroom, virtual course or an online course, here are some options for finding a language course:
Check out community college or university courses.
Search Pinterest for courses offered through companies or freelance instructors.
Look online for courses offered through YouTube patreon subscriptions.
7. Work with a tutor.
Studying on your own is great as you get started and if you can easily grasp new grammatical rules, but what happens when you don’t understand something about your target language? Or how do you know if you could really hold your own in a conversation using what you’ve learned so far?
Working with a tutor is a great way to accelerate your learning and even provide new motivation and/or accountability. Your tutor and you can tailor your sessions to your goals with recommendations from someone who is accustomed to helping people learn your target language.
About four years ago, I decided to try an online tutor after no luck finding a local tutor. I felt the next step I needed was to practice my conversation skills. I selected a tutor in my time zone from Preply, an online tutor matching site.
I really enjoyed my weekly sessions with Giulia, a native speaker living in the US. Unfortunately, our tutoring arrangement ended because Giulia landed a full-time job. Luckily, she recommended her friend Marzia – also a native speaker. Marzia and I hit it off right away, and we are still working together, even after she moved back to Italy. We use Skype or Whatsapp calls to connect each week, and my learning progress has improved significantly.
Ready to start or restart your language-learning journey?
I continue to be excited every day to pick up new vocabulary or master more grammar rules. I hope my journey and/or these strategies are motivating you to get started or to add some new energy into your own language-learning journey. If so, I’d love to hear how it’s going for you. Feel free to share your language-learning experiences and/or respond to any of the following questions in the Comments section.
What is motivating you to study a new language?
What is your favorite strategy for learning your new language?
What’s the funniest thing that has happened when you tried to use your new language?