Foreign languages
Credit: Escondido Public Library

Becoming fluent in a foreign language may feel like a difficult task to accomplish. Classroom-based learning is rarely exciting and limiting your contact with the new language to only 2 or 3 hours a week at school or college won't be enough to master it in a short time.

Indeed, in order to reach the native standard in any language you have to familiarise yourself with its literature and the history of its people but to acquire a good enough knowledge to be able to read newspapers, watch TV and talk about everyday matters isn't such a difficult task after all. The key is to personalise the process, i.e. do what you always like doing but... in the foreign language of your choice. Below you will find a few suggestions.

Involve all your senses

You have to teach your brain to create associations between the foreign words and the surrounding world. That’s why rather than learning lists of words, it's more effective (and fun) to involve all your senses. When you learn the names of flavours, don't just learn the foreign equivalent. Taste it. Absorb the flavour and think of the word that describes it. When you learn verbs, do the action that the verb represents. When you learn the word "run", have a run in your bedroom even if it's only on the spot. When you learn the word "love", look at the picture of someone close to your heart. When you learn the names of things, touch them, feel the texture of the object and see how it corresponds to the sound of the word in the foreign language.

Write a diary

Think about what you talk about with your friends and family in your mother tongue. Most of the matters will be about what you or others have done, want to and will do. Despite the vocabularies of our mother tongues being very rich, speakers of most languages tend to use only 3,000 words in their day-to-day communication. If you don't believe it, try focusing on what words you use for the next few days and you will realise that you tend to use the same words over and over again. 

How to learn those 3,000 words quickly though? Words are learnt the fastest when they are in context so your brain can create semantic connections between them just like in your mother tongue. For example, when you think of breakfast, words such as "cereal", "milk", "coffee", "bowl", "eat", "drink", etc. come to mind and you immediately see the image of yourself at the "table" with a "spoon" in your "hand".

Next time you eat breakfast and you're not in a hurry, write down all the words that you would need if you wanted to tell someone about your morning routine. Then sit down and write about it in the foreign language. Ideally, write a diary in the foreign language for a month. That way you will cover most of the vocabulary you need in order to talk about your life and the life of others. Do not worry if, for example, you don't know all the tenses to describe what you've done today. You can write it in the present tense for the time being. Learning a new grammatical tense is easier than learning 500 new words so use the grammar you already know. 

Another good tip is writing your shopping list or to-do-list in the foreign language. That way the language quickly becomes part of your life.

Immerse yourself

One of the reasons why people who move abroad learn the language faster is because they are surrounded by it everyday. You can also do it even if you live in your home country. Here's how:

  • Watch the news - watching the news is especially helpful because most news bulletins tend to write a summary at the bottom of the screen, which makes it easier for you to work out what the reporters are talking about. Those summaries are also a rich source of vocabulary that's in everyday use.
  • Watch films or TV dramas - since we are all drawn to stories and easily create links between what we see in each scene of a film, we tend to understand quite a lot even if we don't know every word the actor is saying. Another reason why it is good to watch TV in general is because you are more likely to remember a new word if you see it in context and associate it with a particular image or story.
  • Read newspapers or online news - the vocabulary in news articles tends to be repeated over and over again and repetition is the mother of learning. It is also a great confidence booster for language learners when they realise that they are able to read the same publications as native speakers.
  • Read novels that interest you - apart from the pleasure of following a story that is of interest to you, you are also familiarising yourself with the language's literature which is a very important aspect of foreign language learning if you ever want to speak like a native.

Think in the foreign language

You will never be fluent in a foreign language unless you start thinking in it. Translating everything from your mother tongue when you talk to someone slows down the conversation and creates a barrier between you and the other person. Try to eliminate the habit of translating sentences in your head as soon as possible. You know that voice in your head that talks to you when you remind yourself that you've run out of toilet paper or that you have to do something? Train that voice to think in a different language. Start small, for example, next time you realise that you have run out of bread, instead of thinking "I have to buy bread" in English, try to think it in the language that you’re learning.

Latin roots

If English is your first language and you're learning another European language, you will be pleased to know that there is a large group of words that look very similar. They are the words with the Latin root. In the ancient and medieval times Latin was the lingua franca of Europe and, hence, even though you might not speak Portuguese, German or Polish, when you see words such as rápido, Universität or incydent, you will know what they mean.  

Monolingual dictionaries

Start using monolingual dictionaries as soon as your vocabulary allows you to. The meaning of a word is always context-dependent. There are numerous words that are the same but their meaning changes when they are put against different words. Think of all the meanings of words such as trial, term, key, etc. In another language the key that opens the door, the key on the keyboard and the key in music might be totally different words so it is important to check what those words mean to a native speaker. Monolingual dictionaries are an invaluable source especially when you're writing an email, letter or a text message to a native speaker because you don't want to find yourself in an awkward or embarrassing situation. Working in only one language when looking for the right word also prevents you from switching to your mother tongue.

It is important to absorb and embrace the language as your own. You did manage to learn your own language somehow so there is nothing that stops you from learning another one. Good luck!