How to learn a foreign language – it’s simpler than you thought

Languages are like diets. Just like that pill which promises to give you a Victoria’s Secret model’s body in a week, anyone telling you they can make you fluent in Russian overnight is lying.

I studied French and German at university, I dabbled in Arabic while living in Damascus and I’m now trying my hand at Spanish here in Chile. I’ve tried group classes, one to one courses, online tutoring… But what’s best?

I got in touch with a top language tutor and asked her. Kerstin Cable is founder of Fluent Language, a resource offering online language learning classes and language retreats.

Kerstin is a German native, although you’d be forgiven for thinking she was a born and bred Brit. She’s studied nine languages and is passionate about sharing the joy of language learning. Here she shares her thoughts on how to learn a foreign language the smart way.

Anyone, yes anyone, can learn a language

Language learning is absolutely for everyone of any age. Yes, I do believe that some people come with a stronger preference for learning languages, and that the mindset makes a huge difference. But it’s about this mindset, not intellect.

Do it your way

The best method to learning a language is one that you can fit into your life.

Online lessons are fantastic because they allow learners to connect with tutors from anywhere in the world and get individual attention at their own convenience.

Group and in-person lessons are just as great, because we need personal connections outside our screens to make language come to life.

I’m also hugely excited about language retreats, which combine the amazing elements of focus, relaxation, immersion, and working with an expert tutor and a small group of fellow language learners.

The key is that you can’t get it wrong. Keep an open mind. Try out different methods and teachers. Find what works best for you on a personal level.

It’s all about joy, not immersion

Immersion is often held up as an “ideal learning method”, but you have to have some basics, otherwise you get lost and frustrated. You have to have confidence, otherwise you feel overwhelmed. You have to have support and rest periods, otherwise you waste a lot of brain power without retaining the good stuff. The perfect method is ever evolving, trial and error.

It’s experimental joy in learning.

Define your goal

Set yourself great goals and allow yourself to play. And think about how you want to go about the process, in simple terms: what do I want to achieve? What’s realistic in the next months? What’s going to be fun?

It’s very daunting to work towards a big, fuzzy goal like “fluency” or even “have a conversation in this language”, because often learners will start to feel like they’re getting nowhere. It’s no wonder: language learning is about putting in the hours and trusting the process.

I like to focus on more than results. I ask my clients what kind of person they will be when they succeed. The answers show so much about how rewarding language learning is for each person, in more ways than just one.

It’s better to get specific and commit for the next 30 days, then review and set new goals for the next 30. At the start, it’s extremely important to get support and to build in accountability, so a language tutor, a coach, or a step-by-step manual or toolkit on how to learn (not just a textbook) will give you that guidance you need.

The Language Habit Formula

Plan well, track what you learn, and review your results on a regular basis. Then add to that the four core skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing, and a good dose of individual flair. I call this the Language Habit Formula.

It is about setting good goals, taking small steps, and celebrating when you hit a milestone. Be realistic! You won’t become bilingual overnight, but you will continue to have small successes if you commit to the idea of the language habit.

As with so many things, it helps to remember that we can control our actions rather than our results.

Don’t get hung up on accents

Unless you want to be an undetectable spy, your foreign accent should not hold you back.

Having said that, I often hear from people that I sound like a native English speaker, and I never studied English until I was 10. I started learning Welsh way into my 30s and will never worry about accent. I’m too busy working on saying things people can understand!

The Growth Mindset

Your language learning skills are not fixed. You can get better at them, you can discover methods that work for you, you are not destined to be monolingual. Communication is a human skill, not an individual one.

This learning is what I call adopting the Growth Mindset.

And remember it’s not just about the language

We are miles away from all speaking the same language. It is extremely important to avoid a monolingual culture, as that also implies one dominant culture which becomes oppressive.

As many expats know, tolerance and diversity are crucial to our success. We need to understand people who think differently. I genuinely believe that language learning makes the world a better, more peaceful place.

For more information on learning a foreign language, see, an online resource for language learning with videos, podcasts and language courses and retreats.
You might also like to read how my preschool son learnt Spanish in a month. Read the article here.

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