As a travel blogger, I meet a lot of people from different countries – sometimes on my travels and sometimes at events. I’ve been gradually learning Spanish on and off for a few years now, so I’m always fascinated to learn which techniques people rate the highest for learning a foreign language. The most common response by far is moving to a country where that language is prominent and immersing yourself.
But, if it really isn’t an option to leave the country or if you’re looking for a way to learn a language to a more advanced level before you go, there are some options available that are almost as good.
My top tips
Repetitive Learning Platforms
Independent study can be a good starting point. If you get the basics down in your own time and at your own pace, it can give you the confidence to take the next step and to try out what you’ve learned. After much research, I decided to buy the Pimsleur audio courses to help me learn Spanish. These are available for many different languages and the 30-minute lessons are great for integrating into a busy schedule. I tend to listen to them on the commute to work or when I’m out running. The lessons use repetitive learning, which means they revisit phrases with decreasing frequency until the information is etched into your memory. It’s very effective. The only downside is that the courses are quite pricey at US$540 for the four-phase package.
Another little tool I’ve started using is Anki, which allows you to download some software to practise flashcards. You can use it on your computer or your phone, and there are plenty of ‘decks’ to choose from. Each day, you answer a set of questions and grade them on difficulty. The ones you find most difficult will come back around more often until you have them tackled. Simple!
Language Immersion Courses
Last September, I took part in a course run by Pueblo Ingles – a company based in Spain that specialises in week-long English immersion programmes. English-speaking volunteers from around the world are attracted by the offer of free accommodation and food, and an opportunity to mix with people from massively different cultures and backgrounds in a stimulating and rewarding environment. Spaniards are made to follow the rule ‘No Spanish allowed’ for the duration of the course. It may seem extreme, but it helps them to start thinking, and even dreaming, in English. While the courses are aimed predominantly at Spaniards whose companies are willing to pay for them to improve their language skills, they attract people from other European countries too, and some participants are self-funded.
Social Meetup Groups
One way to learn English straight from the horse’s mouth without having to leave your home town is to join social networks for like-minded people. Couchsurfing is a great way to find and arrange to meet people. No doubt there will be plenty of English-speaking foreigners backpacking their way through the region at any given moment who would be delighted to help you practise in exchange for lessons in your language or tips on where to visit. Meetup is another site with plenty of groups you could join. There are loads of people planning group activities for the sole purpose of exchanging languages, and if you can’t find one for your area, why not set one up!
Language classes are another way to gain some practise at interacting in a foreign language. They’re more expensive and less flexible than socialising, and it can be frustrating if you naturally learn much more quickly or much more slowly than your class mates. Having said that, it’s reassuring to know that you’re not the only one struggling with those idioms and phrasal verbs, and it can be much less intimidating practising your conversational skills with another student than a fluent speaker.
Music, TV and films
Socialising in your new language is, of course, the ultimate test of your ability (no matter how much you think you know, it’s always more difficult to formulate a sentence under pressure with the other person’s eyes bearing down on you expectantly), but you can’t be out every day of the week. Thankfully, there are some great ways to learn English solo, and many of them are much more fun and relaxing than browsing a phrasebook.
Listening to music while you’re on the go couldn’t be easier and you’d be surprised how many phrases enter your memory store subconsciously. A Spanish friend who I met on Pueblo Ingles put together a list of Spanish songs for me. It was broken down into current chart toppers, golden oldies and timeless tracks, and he’d taken special care to suggest songs that had clear words. If you’re looking to compile your own list, you might start with past number ones and ask around on Twitter and Facebook for suggestions.
TV and films introduce you to much more diverse language than phrasebooks or audio lessons and you can choose whether or not to use subtitles. For me, films win out over TV because many of them have been dubbed or remade in your own language, so you can get a feel for what it’s about before you launch right into the foreign language version.
If you’re planning a holiday, why not head to a place where they speak the language you need to practise? If you’re learning English, there are many English-speaking destinations available to you, but do consider the accents you might encounter.
Travelling overseas will definitely give you a taster of how far you’ve progressed. Can you understand what the other people on the bus are talking about? Do the locals understand you when you ask them for help? It can be disconcerting to realise you have further to go than you thought you did, but don’t be put off. You will have good days and bad days, but if you persevere, you’ll be rewarded with the prospect of new opportunities abroad and cultural interactions you never thought possible.