Tips for Learning a Foreign Language

Moving to a new country presents many challenges, not least of all is having to learn a foreign language. Even in countries where English is widely spoken, as a matter of courtesy you should at least make the effort to communicate with the locals in their native tongue.

I am English but for over twenty years have lived between the Middle East and Germany. Whilst I am by no means fluent, I get by at a basic level in Arabic and reasonably well in German. I want to share here my tips for language learning novices.

  1. We live in a digital age. There are many applications (or “apps”) for phones and tablets available free of charge or for a nominal fee. The ones I use most are Lingvist and Duolingo. Babbel is also popular and all three are available in several languages. I find Rosetta Stone’s app a bit boring and it comes at a higher price, but it does work for some people.
  2. Continuing the digital theme, there are many websites offering free or cheap courses such as the BBC or Deutsche Welle. For learners of German, the latter is particularly good.
  3. It may sound daft, but activity books targeted at kids such as word searches, crosswords, etc. can be helpful. You can get them in supermarkets, newsagents and bookshops or as apps. I myself find books targeted at adult beginners still too complex and strangely condescending – the kid’s books are more fun!
  4. Search on the internet for the list of the 100 most common words in the language you are studying and print them out. Use this list to learn the words (with the translations) and also to test yourself. Once you have mastered the first 100, get the list of the 500 most common, learn those and then move on to the 1000 most common and so on.
  5. Do the same thing with the 20 most common verbs, but as well as learning the translation, learn the various forms of the verb (present, perfect, etc). Just doing that gives a good basic understanding of the language. Once you master the 20, you can move on to the 50 most common verbs and so on. This is an excellent way of building up your vocabulary and they are of course words which you will hear constantly daily in Germany.
  6. Target learning at least one new verb and all its various forms plus at least five to ten other words per day. Doing this means within three months you will know at least ninety new verbs and almost five hundred new words. Carry a small study list around you with the verbs you want to learn. Whenever you have a moment free, whip it out and study – we waste so much time waiting for buses, daydreaming, heck, even sitting on the loo!
  7. If you like music in your target language, download the lyrics (in German) and try to learn those, starting with the chorus. Then, try to translate what you can, after which you can get a proper translation from the internet to fill in the gaps and to see where you got it wrong. I picked up quite a bit of vocabulary this way, and it also introduces you to some of the colloquialisms, dialects and things like that. Songs are rarely sung in “Hoch Deutsch”, they are usually sung in dialect or with slang. Purists will say that you should not learn dialects, slang or even swear words. I disagree – it is those you will hear daily and will likely be using yourself. Besides, it impresses people when you know the words of a foreign song!
  8. Watch local TV with subtitles in the local language rather than in English. That way you keep up with even the fastest speakers and you’ll be surprised how much you can follow even if you can only understand 10% of the actual dialogue. Doing this helps you to “tune in” to how the natives speak – speed, dialect, local accents and slang all come into play. Whilst these are things you will be exposed to, few formal courses actually teach them.
  9. Don’t be afraid to talk to people in your target language. I find the best ones to talk to are those who speak no English at all. Older folk are usually a good bet as they will talk to you like a local (or at least they make you feel like that) and don’t get upset if you make mistakes. Besides, they usually have interesting stories to tell. Take care to use the formal “Sie” form rather than the informal “du” – you will get away with it with younger generations, but older people may cringe!
  10. One real annoyance is when you speak German to someone and they reply in English. It feels so patronizing, like they are saying “nice try, but your German skills ain’t so good and I don’t have time to listen to you struggling”! Avoid such people. Or point out to them that you are trying your best to learn the language and it would be nice if they could help. Don’t worry about being direct – it’s normal to the Germans.
  11. Avoid people who insist on correcting your every error. These people make you feel like you are being criticized for not speaking perfectly. It kills your confidence. The reality is, even Germans get things wrong. The most important thing in your early days of learning is being understood. You don’t usually need to be grammatically perfect to achieve that.
  12. If you and your partner or family are all trying to learn together, practice on each other. It’s fun when you are in the same boat. Sure you may be saying it all wrong, but learning is all about making mistakes and recognizing those mistakes.
  13. As far as books go, I bought stacks of them but quickly got bored with most. Activity books targeted at younger learners are more fun and great for beginners. For the more advanced stuff, I find the wealth of worksheets, grammar tables and other resources on the internet unbeatable. YouTube can also be good for video clips. There are also some apps and websites with video clips of things such as news reports, documentaries, etc. graded according to ability.
  14. For learners of German, consider a subscription to Deutsch Perfekt magazine. You can find it at some bookshops and larger newsagents. Or, you can order it online either as a postal subscription or as downloadable PDFs. The latter option is cheaper and they magazines are available on the day of publication. It is not cheap, but it has interesting articles graded according to level with translations of the more complex words. A trial subscription of two magazines is available at a discounted price so you can try before you commit to the annual subscription.
  15. A technique I found useful to aid my failing memory sounds crazy but is apparently scientifically proven to help short-term and long-term memory retention. It only works if you are good at visualizing things. What you do is imagine a cross (in the “x” configuration), and focus on the centre of that cross for as long as you can. I find it is best to look at a blank wall to do this and eventually I can “see” the cross. At first, it is quite difficult to do for more than a few seconds, but with practice, half a minute or more becomes possible. I found doing this immediately before studying helped with memory retention significantly. Ironically I cannot recall the exact science behind it but it is something to do with getting the two hemispheres of the brain working together.
  16. Flashcards can be your best friend. A language expert told me that we need to repeat a word around forty times before it becomes etched into our memories. Flashcards are a great way of doing that repetition without things getting too boring. Once you have learned a word, you can either remove that flash card from the pack, but there is no harm in leaving it for further practice. Shuffle the cards regularly as otherwise there is a danger that you will only be able to remember the words if they are in a particular order! I use a flashcard app on my phone so I can practice at any time. Or, you can buy packs of cards from bookshops, online, or you can download them for free from the internet and print them out.

Please be aware that I am no language expert. The tips above are things which I found useful in my language learning journey not only in German but also when I dabbled with French and Arabic. We all have different learning styles so I cannot guarantee any of them will work for you, so please take what you find helpful and leave the rest. If you have any other techniques which helped you on your language learning journey, I would love to hear them.

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