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How to Succeed in Learning a Foreign Language

By Edited Aug 10, 2015 2 1
Learn a Second Language and Travel the World
Credit: mjpyro

If you are American, you should know that there is a fairly common worldwide joke where we are the butt of it. It goes like this.

What do you call someone that speaks two languages?


What do you call someone that speaks one language?


However, most people on this planet only speak their native tongue. It is only the Europeans with their small, integrated economies that have to learn various languages to get by in the world. Good for them.

Learning foreign languages after childhood is incredibly difficult. There is something about the child brain that enables them to absorb language. Think about it for a minute. Children never have any formal learning to understand English or any language. They simply hear it, apply it to certain situations and eventually repeat it. The rate at which they learn new vocabulary is astonishing, all from simply hearing and watching adults say and do something. It is amazing when you think about it.

If you have ever tried to learn foreign languages past a certain age, you have probably struggled with it. I have read studies that show that past the age of 6 or 7, if you learn a new language, you will always have a detectable accent no matter what.  I think that is true for most people.

However, there are others that have a knack for learning a second language. I am always amazed when I read about someone that can speak five languages. While I am sure they are not perfect in each language, just the fact that you can understand German, English, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese is amazing to me. I am more impressed by that than anyone that has achieved an MBA in anything.

I started learning Portuguese about 10 years ago and it was really tough at first. Portuguese is very different from English. It is not the easiest language to learn. It is very verb centric with various endings for pronouns, some you can memorize, while others offer no regular conjugation.

Then there is the issue of things being either masculine or feminine. We refer to a dress as “the dress”, however, in Portuguese, a dress is considered feminine so that determines how you refer to the dress, in this case “uma” instead of “um” for the masculine.

Yes of course a dress is feminine you say, but trust me, it is not always so obvious.

At first, I muddled through books and CDs trying to get a grasp on Portuguese, but I eventually came upon the best system for me to get the most effective learning. This was all self-taught mind you. I’ve never had a class in Portuguese to this day. I’m sure an Advance Portuguese class might help me at this point, but I am confident in what I know to get me through the day when I am traveling in Brazil.

If you are trying to learn another language as an adult, I want to provide some tips here in this article on the best way to learn a foreign language.

But first, why learn a foreign language?

Why Learn a Foreign Language?

Benefits of Learning a Foreign Language

Best Language Learning Program
Credit: mjpyro

Guys, there are two reasons right there.

Learning a foreign language in adulthood is one of the best mental exercises you can do to keep your mind active. Study after study has shown that as we age, it is critical to keep building new synaptic pathways in our brains. It is the "use it or lose it" theory.

So rather than doing crosswords puzzles, learning a foreign language will challenge you in ways you cannot imagine. After all, you learned at least one language in your life, you just cannot remember how you did it.

So aside from the brain exercises of learning Spanish or German might bring, what are some other benefits?

Reasons to Learn a Foreign Language

Resume Builder

I can tell you from personal experience that it is a resume enhancer. When the subject comes up in my situation, a lot of people are interested in how I did it, which is one of the reasons why I am writing this article now. If you can learn Spanish in particular in the USA, then you have an edge on any other applicant when applying for the same job, even if the position does not require a bi-lingual person.


Because it takes effort to learn another language in adulthood and people pick up on that.

Work Internationally

If your goal is to be employed by a multinational corporation and would like to live abroad, it is essential that you speak the native language. If you are an American and want to live in London or Sydney, hey, you are in luck. Anywhere else and they are going to expect you to know something, else you will be lost in meetings.

Learning a foreign language opens more doors for you and if your goal is to travel internationally on business, this is a great motivating factor to learn a new language.

Impress People, particularly the Natives

People from other countries are actually flattered when Americans take the time to learn their language. Some people around the world see Americans as a little bit arrogant and we always think we are the best at everything. It is not true, but that is the perception among some.

However, they still admire us for our movies, culture, music, university system and our system of laws. So when we take the time to learn their language and culture, again, they are flattered and trust me, they will cut you some slack even if your pronunciation or grammar is not perfect.

So here are some tips on learning the second language of your choice.

How to Learn a Foreign Language

The Best Way to Learn a Foreign Language
To learn a foreign language, you need to focus on three things at the same time:
  • Listening to spoken word in natural conversation
  • Reading language grammar books
  • Practice writing and reading

Again, I said at the same time. I made the mistake of listening to Portuguese CDs almost exclusively during the first few years. It was only when I started some other things which I will describe in a moment, that I was able to go back and listen to those same Portuguese mp3s and it made a lot more sense.

Best Language Learning Program - Rosetta Stone

If you really want to know how to learn languages, ones of the best ways is through interactive language software.

A language learning program is a piece of software that you load on your computer at home and it walks you through a series of lessons. It starts out very slow but it helps you with the basics of vocabulary by seeing, hearing and yes, saying the word yourself. Some exercises make you repeat the word or phrase into your microphone on your laptop and will grade your attempt. It forces you to concentrate on the words.

Some programs even have live tutorials which provide interactions with other more experienced members.

One of the best all-around language learning program is the series from Rosetta Stone. It offers beginning, intermediate and advanced options in virtually any language you can imagine. If you are serious about learning a language as an adult, I would strongly recommend Rosetta Stone. It is pricey but worth it if you are serious.

Rosetta Stone Learn Latin American Spanish, Level 1-5, PC/Mac
Amazon Price: $499.00 $229.00 Buy Now
(price as of Aug 10, 2015)

The Pimsleur's Approach for Learning a Second Language

Another great option is to listen to the conversational audio CDs available in all language from companies like Pimsleur. These CDs offer conversations that repeat situational phrases over and over again going back to them during the 30 minute lessons.

Does the Pimsleur approach work? Yes, they are great for commuting to work. You simply listen, then repeat the phrase during the pause.

They also come with some workbooks that you can use at the end of some of the lessons.

Foreign Language Books

While you are immersed in your new foreign language learning, you need to also be studying books on the subject. I am not talking about romance novels, I’m talking about books on grammar and vocabulary. I even have several Portuguese dictionaries.

Books will help you put it all together. The stuff that you are hearing on the Pimsleur’s CDs, plus the stuff you are interacting with on the language learning program will begin to come together.

Amazon and other online retailers have just about every type of language book you could want.

Learn Foreign Language Online

Online Chatting with a Native Speaker Works Wonders

Honestly, the thing that helped me the most was chatting via Windows Live (now Skype) with Brazilians. I was able to see written Portuguese and interact appropriately. I did not understand some phrases, but I was able to copy and paste them into an online translator.

This “studying” went on for several years and was invaluable to my overall understanding of the language.

So my advice it to find some native speakers and interact online, even via text messages. If you don’t have any in mind, there is a site called Livemocha which will help you become acquainted with other members that speak other languages. There are even some free lessons of the language of your choice on the site which will give you a taste of the Rosetta program before you purchase it.

It has been several years since I have used this approach, but I mainly text via WhatsApp with my Brazilian friends. The conversations are just shorter.

Best Way to Learn a Foreign Language

Final Thoughts

As for the best foreign language to learn, I will leave that up to you, but my preference was Portuguese since I travel to Brazil frequently. I always tell my Brazilian friends that English is the easiest foreign language to learn because English language movies and music is everywhere around the world.

Some people think that the best way to learn a foreign language is total immersion by going to live in a particular country. Trust me, it is not easy. If your first language is similar to the language you are trying to learn, for example, Spanish and Portuguese or Italian and Portugese, you will have an easier time. For native English speakers though, total immersion is very difficult and only those adept at learning language will succeed at it. Instead, try the approach I outlined above.

Of course, you can always go the formalized class route, but that method is more expensive.

Learning a foreign language past the age of five is not easy. I don’t know when the exact cutoff point for all of us is when we become language dumb, but it is somewhere around there.

If I had any children, I would start them off on another language as soon as possible. It helps if you live in a bilingual household, but it really is the greatest educational benefit you can give a young child. It will help them grow in so many other ways.

So take these tips and use them in the way that works for you to learn a language fast. Everyone is different so go at your own pace. At some point though, it will all begin to click so don’t give up.



Aug 9, 2015 8:17pm
I'm a big fan of Pimsleur. And an even bigger fan of the 2 reasons to learn a second language in that picture above. Cheers!
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