How to Learn a New Language
Credit: David Niblack,

In today’s globalized world, knowing a second language has never been more important. As globalization continues to increase trade in goods and ideas, people with limited language skills will find themselves at a disadvantage. However, learning that second language is not something you should dread. Instead, with the right approach, it can be a fun and rewarding experience. As a native speaker of only English, I have learned to speak, read, and write Russia, Spanish, and Urdu. The process is challenging but the rewards are immense. I will show you that by employing a few basic strategies, anyone can learn a second, third, or even fourth language.

Take a Class

When most people think of learning a new language, they immediately begin searching for traditional language courses. Such classes provide a strong foundation for the pronunciation, grammar, and general feel of the language. However, this method will not guarantee that you learn a language. The key to learning any language is repetition and most language courses provide only a few hours of exposure per week. To get the most out of a class, you must take the initiative to practice on your own anyway. If you are a beginner, I strongly recommend taking an introductory course to avoid developing bad habit that you will have to break later. If you are relatively familiar with a language, you can skip the cost of tuition and simply practice on your own using a few of the following strategies.

Use Technology to Your Advantage

In today’s technology dependent world, there is no shortage of tools to help you learn a new language. Most people think of products such as Rosetta Stone which can be extremely effective but equally as costly. As a student on a budget, I have used Pimsleur language programs to practice my speaking and listening skills. There are also countless free apps available to help you learn new alphabets, vocabulary, and phrases. In addition, YouTube and free language learning websites provide valuable resources that rival those offered by traditional instructional methods. The key here is to be creative and utilize as much of this free technology to your advantage as possible.

Make Flashcards

I cannot emphasize enough the importance of learning vocabulary. Words are thoughts. If you lack words then you cannot function in your new language. Trying to learn a language without developing a solid vocabulary is like trying to bake a cake following a recipe without actually having any of the ingredients. Everywhere I go, I carry a pocket full of vocabulary flashcards. This allows me to make use of every minute of downtime throughout the day. Over the days and weeks, these mini study sessions add up. Take out your flashcards while taking an elevator, waiting in line at the grocery store, or sitting on the train. Additionally, while digital flashcards are great supplements, it is important that you handwrite your own flashcards. This helps develop your writing skills in the target language by forcing you to look up and utilize the proper spelling.

Learn by Association

Some languages are similar enough to English that you can often guess the roots of many words and therefore their meanings. However, many of the world’s more difficult languages have little or no similarities to English. You will find that no matter how many times you stare at a certain word on a flashcard, you just can’t seem to remember it. In these situations, you must get creative. Think of an English word or phrase that is similar and come up with an association. For example, the Russian word for jar is banka. I remember it because as a child, I would save my coins in a jar and take them to the bank.

This method also works once you have built your vocabulary in the target language. For example, the Urdu word for banana is kayla and the word for alone is akayla. To remember this, there is the following joke: Why was the banana sad? Because it was akayla. Generally the more absurd an association, the easier it will be for you to remember. However, don’t go too overboard and forget the actual word you are trying to remember. 

Begin Thinking in the Target Language

People who are fluent in other languages listen and respond so quickly because they have trained their brains to think in a foreign language instead of translating it back to English. Translation takes time. In normal conversation, you often have very limited time before other people become annoyed or lose interest in you. You must therefore begin thinking in a language as soon as you begin studying it. I employ a strategy in which I consciously avoid thoughts in English for short periods each day. For example, when I began studying Russian I of course knew very little vocabulary. However, when I was in “Russian mode” I would walk down the street and name the things I knew. When I didn’t know a word, I would make note of it and look it up later. This is the natural way we learn languages because it allows us to associate concrete objects with words.

Make Friends

Finally, the best way to learn a language is to make friends who are native speakers. Your new friends will not only help motivate you to learn their language, but they will also expose you to the vernacular and modern slang that will increase your fluency. After all, the whole purpose of learning a new language is to connect with different people and learn about new cultures. The sooner you begin doing that, the closer you are to achieving your goal. Once you overcome your mental reservations about language learning, you will see what a fun and rewarding hobby it really is.