How to Study a Foreign Language

15 April 2013

Whenever I tell someone my majors they always look so surprised.

"You study three foreign languages? Wow, that's amazing! I could never do that- I'm so bad at languages."

In all honesty, I'm kind of embarrassed to admit my major. To me, studying French, Japanese, and Chinese feels like a cop out because personally, it's so easy. College is supposed to be hard, grueling, and hours of studying yet I found myself gliding through my four years of undergraduate studies with barely any all-nighters.

And while I chose my studies because I'm passionate about learning foreign languages, many students are forced into attempting this task merely to fulfill graduation requirements. These courses demand lots of work outside of class and are often looked at as needless stress. For those of you who struggle to comprehend foreign languages, I hope I can give some insight.

Also, I don't claim to know everything about studying a foreign language. I've never really studied linguistics, I don't know the mental processes of comprehending language, and I don't know which part of the brain controls language abilities. I will, however, say that over the past 10 years of my life I've studied four languages and have almost always received A's. Here are my personal tips for how to succeed at learning a foreign language.

Stop telling yourself that you can't learn a language
People think I was born with a natural talent for learning languages but that's not true. When I first started learning French in middle school I hated it. I thought it was stupid, pointless, and in general it just didn't make any sense. I couldn't conjugate a verb to save my life. Whenever we had tests, I would write all the vocabulary words on my hand because I wasn't able to memorize them. Nothing I learned stayed in my head.

When high school came around and I had to fulfill my language requirement I decided to give French another go. At least I had a little bit of experience with the language, right?

But something was different this time. I knew that failing this course wasn't an option if I wanted to graduate so I said to myself, "Yeah, I can do this." And then I did. That simple attitude change of believing that I could learn a foreign language, instead of closing myself off to the possibility, is all it took to increasing my language comprehension skills. Suddenly I could retain vocab words and apply grammar just because I studied with confidence.

Stop thinking of it as a foreign language
By looking at language as something alien and weird you're preventing your mind from comprehending it. Instead, think of it as something more relatable. Language is actually closely related to math so why not think of a sentence in Spanish as a math problem instead of a foreign language? The same logic used in W+X+Y= Z can be applied to Subject +Verb +Object = Comprehensible Sentence. Basically if you can do any other study that requires logic and reasoning, then you can study a foreign language!

I  personally am very bad at math so instead I think of foreign languages as word puzzles. Fill in the blanks to solve the puzzle, if you will. Thinking of language as a game not only makes learning easier but also fun.

Live the language
Ideally this would mean going to a nation where the language is spoken, if possible. I cannot stress how much more quickly you will learn a foreign language in real life situations rather than sitting in a class room. Those simulated conversations that you practice are nothing like the real world. If you can study abroad or even just spend a summer as an au pair, do it!

If that's not an option, do what ever you can to expose yourself to the language. My good friend in France had amazing English; she understood slang and her pronunciation was spot on. When I asked her how she learned English she said she just watched Friends.

To improve your own language skills, do as much as you can to surround yourself with the atmosphere of that language. With the internet there are thousands of places to watch foreign tv shows and listen to foreign music. Universities also offer lots of options from clubs to social events where diversity is celebrated. The chance is high that you will meet a native speaker to practice with.

Pretend you're a teacher
This exercise requires a little bit of role playing but the results are two-fold. Firstly, it gets you to speak out loud. This is pivotal to understanding a language and being able to recall things later. If you only ever read something, you'll never recognize it when it's said out loud. Talk to yourself and pretend you're leading a class. Creating that audio memory will help you recognize spoken language and make it easier to recall things when being tested on paper.

Secondly, this will help you recognize your weaknesses and what you need to practice. Do you truly understand a grammar point? If so, then you should be able to explain it to someone else. If you find yourself stumbling to "teach" something then you don't really know it. Study these points until you're able to thoroughly "teach" them.

Don't stress over being precise
Native speakers don't speak perfectly. They slur words, use slang, and omit entire fragments of sentences so there's no reason that you should feel bad about your abilities to use a language. Be confident in knowing that  you probably know enough to get by just fine in a foreign country, even if your grades might not reflect it.

When I was in China I had only studied Chinese for a couple months but even so I got around alright. If I wanted someone to take a picture of me, I'd simply say "Qing wen, ni keyi..."/"Excuse me, can you..." and then point at my camera. Sure, I didn't know how to say "take a picture" but it was never an issue.

Learn some culture
Language makes more sense when you understand the point of view of a native speaker. If you're studying a foreign language you should try to learn something about the history of the people, their foods, their literature, their politics, even their body language. All of this will enrich your understanding of the language and help you better convey your ideas.

Make your own sentences
Sure, you could just memorize the sentences in your text book. That will get you through the tests at least. But if you genuinely want to learn a language, this will not be enough. The true way to understand a language is to apply grammar ideas to your own unique sentences.

So your book teaches you the sentence "I study Chinese 3 times a week." Take that sentence and look at the form. Now apply it to a new sentence. Can you accurately say "She cooks food twice a month". If you've correctly identified the pattern then you should be able to make that sentence. Finding patterns and using logic to form new ideas is essential to being able to comprehend a language and hold a conversation.

Do you have any tips for studying a foreign language?

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  1. Wow- you are awesome! I took Spanish in college and it wasn't too bad (only for requirements, I was actually a linguistics major). But my husband knows 4 languages, my dad knows 3... people who can learn more than two just amaze me! These are great tips.

  2. My tip goes under your "Live the language" header. Even if you can't be where the language is spoken, you can still live in it! I suggest downloading podcasts in the language or a tv show. It really helps. My Dutch improved miles just by watching Holland's NExt Top Model with English subtitles. Seems a bit silly, but it really works!

    1. Exactly! I often watch my favorite shows and movies in French since I already have them memorized in English!

  3. Aryn, great tips here. I definitely agree with each of your points and I have even described similar things to others in my blog. I think that one of the most ridiculous things is how people think they 'can't' learn another language. As you say, it is an attitude that needs to go.

    Glad to connect with you! I look forward to reading your material in the future.


    1. Thanks for reading! I was just discussing this with one of my classmates the other day. He was insisting that he could never learn Chinese and I told him the exact same thing I said above. It's all in the attitude!

  4. I am exactly the same:) I know 5 languages: Slovak (my native), Czech (which is almost like Slovak), English, French and Russian. People often ask me how I can cope with switching from one to another or even how I can put up with grammar school with only A's on my school report with almost no studying (not more than 1 hour for exam) and plenty of after school activities (and I still have enough time to be bored). The only answer is: ATTITUDE. I don't even think of the fact that I've got a lot of work. I don't let it "hit" my mind, if I've got something to do, I just do it and don't meditate about it:D Too much work? So what, I just CAN do it, there's no other way:D And about the languages, what really helps me is to THINK in that language. It became very natural for me to think in English (sometimes more than Slovak!). Sometimes I wake up and say to myself in French: Je me suis réveillée. C'est samedi, et je ne dois pas aller à l'école...Then I make few other little comments throughout the day, just to get into it. Sometimes I make up easy sentences in Mandarin (I want to study Chinese after I finish high school) or I talk Russian with my mother who teaches it. I am a huge travel lover.Going abroad and talking to people is the best way to learn a language. Noone is there to help you out, so you are forced to speak somehow. Just forget about being grammaticaly correct and don't be afraid to make a conversation. My father is a bright example, even though he doesn't speak English very much (yet understands all). He can make a conversation with ANYONE by just few simple words he murmurs and body laguage. My mother (as a teacher) sometimes cares too much about being correct, but she's getting over it and year by year they're becoming more confident. Some time later, I won't be the main ultimate interpreter in our family! :D

    1. Yes yes yes! I'm all about positive thinking! It applies to all facets of life, not just learning languages!

      And talking to yourself is also a great way to practice language daily. I too think to myself in several languages if I know the vocabulary for whatever I'm thinking at that moment. It's a awkward sometimes though one someone interrupts my thoughts and I respond to them in the wrong language lol.

      Good luck with your future studies!

    2. Thanks! :) Yes, sometimes it's really awkward to say ,,oui" instead of ,,yes" on English class (you can imagine that laughter of the class), or to know the chinese name for something and can't remember the one in my native Slovak! :D Keep up the good work with your blog, it's a good inspiration for me, since I am interested in similar things:) I should work on my blog more!!! (But you know how is it like with penultimate grade of high school...not enough time even for myself:D )

    3. I know what you mean. Good luck with high school! (Also, could you link your blog??)

    4. It's :) Not many posts though and it's like everything from here and there, haven't had time to post anything in a while:) I hope in summer I'll be a proper blogger:) I'm also planning to post something from my travels (since I have a travel diary for around 10 years, there will be a lot of things to write about) :) And thanks in advance for checking out my blog:)))

    5. Wow, so many languages, haha! If you ever want to write about travel, you're welcome to be a guest blogger on Driftwood and Daydreams!

    6. Oh! Thank you!!! I am so pleased, I'll let you know as soon as I get to writ something!:D How should I contact you then?

    7. Email me at when ever you would like to submit something!