Across the Globe

AC Insights: Five Tips to Master a Foreign Language

September 16, 2019

Anatasiya GulakEditor’s note: Anastasiya Gulak is a program assistant for Open World who grew up speaking Ukrainian and Russian. She later studied English and French and has maintained her skills in all four languages. She has worked as an interpreter, volunteered as a translator for refugees and students, and continues to seek out opportunities to hone her skills. She offered her tips for studying, learning, and maintaining a second (or third, or fourth) language.

My love for foreign languages started during my childhood in Ukraine. I grew up speaking Ukrainian and Russian and in first grade, I began learning English. My family immigrated to the US when I was 14 and I started studying French in school too. So as a teenager, I already spoke four languages, but I was just beginning to discover how they work and what benefit they can serve in the future. In college, I minored in French and began researching language tools to personalize and supplement my studies. My knowledge of Ukrainian, Russian, and English helped me expand my research of French language aids and techniques.  
Learning and maintaining a language requires perseverance and work, especially if you want to utilize it in your future career. Speaking a foreign language is a tool that not only expands your horizons, but also strengthens your resume. Whether you are in your home country or abroad, these tips can help you learn and maintain any foreign language. 

Tip #1: Equip yourself with language learning tools 

My favorite language tool is music. When listening to songs, translating the lyrics helped me learn new words and phrases, including slang. I love music, but if you are more of a podcast and radio person, there are many apps that can help you listen to news stories. TuneIn, for example, offers podcasts, radio, music, talk shows, and more filtered by theme or a language of choice.  

I also explore YouTube channels, online classes, audiobooks, and other media for more structured classes. On YouTube, I often find channels that focus on learning grammar and vocabulary. You can also explore apps and websites, such as Coursera or Udemy, to find online language classes for free. If you are an auditory learner, I suggest trying out “The Michel Thomas Method” developed by a famous polyglot, Michel Thomas (offered in 18 languages). With his Spanish course, I was able to construct simple phrases in just two lessons.

And last, yet not least, I like watching movies and TV shows. Sometimes I prefer using Netflix’s audio and subtitles feature to learn phrases and slang vocabulary.   
If you are a more traditional learner, your local library or bookstore should carry pocket guides that cover essential grammar rules and vocabulary terms. I still own Barron’s French pocket guides (offered in multiple languages) and use them for a quick review. 

Tip #2: Make a schedule 

Once you have your language tools, you are ready to create your unique schedule. You need to set a realistic goal of what language level you want to reach and develop a timeline.

But how do you know what language level are you? I like to measure it in the number of vocabulary words you may learn. As Erik V. Gunnemark, author of “The Art and Science of Learning Languages,” suggests: if you wish to carry a basic conversation, you should know at least 400-500 words and 300 commonly spoken phrases.

Use your daily schedule to determine how many words you can learn, mastering grammar rules to put together sentences along the way. I always find a list of the most commonly used verbs and nouns, as well as cognates (words of common origin). I like using the Evernote app to organize grammar notes and vocabulary lists on the go.  

Tip #3: Learn and practice every day 

The minute you start learning a new language, you need to completely immerse yourself. You should aim to practice and learn something new every day. Finding a conversation partner can help you speak the language and write in it.

If you do not live in a place where your target language is commonly spoken, look for language groups. Embassies, nonprofits, language centers, and universities often organize these groups. You can also connect with groups online or through a MeetUp app.

To practice my French, for example, I go to regular meetings of Alliance Française, where people of different French levels meet to converse. Remember, if you want to learn the language, making mistakes is a part of the journey. Be bold and start speaking. 

Tip #4: Repeat what you have learned 

Learning a language is science and art and, thus, requires dedication and belief in yourself that your goal is reachable. “Repetition is the mother of all learning,” according to an old Latin phrase. One of my most important tips is to repeat and review what you learn. If you have learned ten new words today, do not forget to repeat them tomorrow and learn ten additional words.  
Tip #5: Have fun  
Learning a language is like going on an adventure to a different country and exploring its cultural treasures. It takes planning and hard work, but each new vocabulary word or phrase you master is another new sight to behold. Enjoy the process!