Learning a new language is a bucket list accomplishment for many of us – it can make travelling easier, help us develop an appreciation for other cultures, and broaden our career options.
But what’s the best way to learn a new language? While there’s no magic method (it will take time and dedication), experts recommend immersing yourself in the language you want to learn (your ‘target language’) as much as possible.
With this in mind, we’ve pulled together seven tips for immersing yourself in foreign languages.
1. Learn a new skill in your target language
If you’re currently learning a new language, the odds are you believe in the power of personal development, and it can be helpful to ask yourself: what other skills would I like to learn?
Many traditional language learning pathways – such as school courses – focus on learning the language itself. For example, they typically involve studying grammar and memorising vocabulary.
This type of learning is essential for building a stable foundation at the beginning of your journey. But once you’re relatively confident, it can be helpful to practise your skills by learning an entirely different subject in your target language.
This study, published by Cambridge University Press, compared the listening, speaking, reading, and writing progress of two groups of students learning French. The first group took a course on a non-language subject in French, while the second followed a traditional French learning pathway.
The results showed that while the second group seemed to do better in writing, the first significantly outperformed them in speaking. The first group also demonstrated a much better attitude towards language learning – which is key if we want to stay focused and motivated.
One way to learn a new subject in a different language is to take an online course. Course provider, Udemy, allows you to search classes by topic and filter them by language.
Note: To make the most of learning something new in your target language, try to pick a content-based topic, not a skill-based subject.
Content-based subjects (for example, humanities and the arts, mathematics, and sciences) use language and texts as learning resources. They’ll give you plenty of opportunities to study grammar and vocabulary. Skills-based subjects, on the other hand, are often taught using practical examples.
2. Create a word wall
When we said we’d list some helpful ways to immerse yourself in language, you might not have thought we were using the word in the literal sense. But it can actually be beneficial to physically surround ourselves with our target language.
When it comes to learning, retaining something is just as important as learning it in the first place. For example, what good is finding out how to ask for a cerveza if you can’t use it on your trip to Barcelona in a few months? So, to help make sure new vocabulary sticks in your brain, you could try making a word wall.
A word wall involves sticking Post-it notes with vocabulary written on them on a wall in your house. Make sure it’s a prominent wall, so you’ll be reminded to take a few minutes to study it each time you pass. It’s best to leave words up there for a few weeks – and once you’re confident they’re cemented in your brain, you can replace them with new ones.
Research shows that repeated exposure over a sustained period can help with retention when it comes to language tasks.
3. Listen to audiobooks and podcasts
Another excellent way to immerse yourself in your target language is listening to audiobooks and podcasts. These are great resources because they not only introduce you to different vocabulary and grammar but also pronunciation.
While audiobooks offer a more formal listening experience – with professional voice actors pronouncing words clearly and correctly – podcasts tend to be more conversational. This means that, unlike most audiobooks, they can introduce you to informal aspects of language, like slang.
While the beauty of audiobooks and podcasts is that you can listen to them while doing other things (passive listening), it’s best to try to listen to them actively to make the most of the learning experience.
Active listening involves devoting your attention to what’s being said and engaging with it. You can listen actively in many ways – for example, by making notes as you go, rewinding and re-listening to parts you don’t fully understand, pausing to look up unfamiliar words, and pronouncing words aloud as you listen.
If you’re relatively new to your target language, why not try listening to a book you already know well? This means you’ll be able to pick up words using contextual clues and generally follow along a little easier. Children’s books also offer a less intense listening experience – you can always move on to more complicated books when you’re ready.
Audiobook book provider, Audible, also has a few handy tools to simplify things. For example, you can select the speed at which books are read.
Note: While active listening is more effective for learning new vocabulary and grammar and retaining information, passive listening is better than not listening at all. In fact, there’s even research to suggest that listening to the vocabulary we’ve already learned while sleeping can help consolidate words in our minds, making them easier to remember.
4. Join a conversation club
While it’s important to practise your writing, listening, and reading skills regularly, it’s important not to neglect the speaking aspect of learning a new language. As Michael Geisler, the vice president for language schools at Middlebury College in Vermont in the US, tells the BBC, “A lot of people don’t make progress if they don’t open their mouths.”
With this in mind, one of the best ways to work on your speaking skills is to join a conversation club – where language learners meet regularly to have informal conversations in their target language.
Some people neglect the speaking side of the language learning process simply because it opens us up to embarrassment. Reading, writing, and listening can all be practised in isolation, but speaking forces us to converse with others, which can be daunting.
However, the beauty of conversation clubs is that they allow us to make mistakes and learn from them. As Geisler says, “If you are not willing to put your identity on the line, progress will be slower”.
When choosing a conversation club, it can be tempting to pick one that’s a comfortable level for you. However, it’s worth being aspirational and joining one slightly above your comfort zone. Speaking with people who have a better grasp of the language than you means they can correct your mistakes.
Having someone to point out where you’re going wrong is essential for developing your language skills. Without feedback, you risk learning and reinforcing bad habits.
There are plenty of conversation clubs to choose from, both online and in-person. Meetup has lots of options, or you could even start your own. And, if you’re currently learning Spanish, why not check out the intermediate-advanced conversation club over on Rest Less Events using the button below?
Note: Conservation clubs aren’t just for language learners. If you’re living abroad in a country that doesn’t speak your native tongue, joining a conversation club can be a great way to get a taste of home.
5. Make time for writing in your target language
For many people, writing is the ‘leg day’ of the language learning journey. It’s easy to skip it and focus on more appealing activities like listening or reading, but writing is a key part of the process. Think of it as hitting the gym and not forgetting to work on your leg muscles. Taking the time to improve your writing skills can help you become a more well-rounded language learner.
It allows us to take our time to see words on the page, arrange sentences, and revise our work. This sort of slow, deliberate communication is tricky to achieve when practising speaking. Plus, writing vocabulary down can help to cement it in our brains.
Studies like this one have also revealed that developing your writing skills can boost your speaking ability.
There are a number of ways you can make time for writing. Firstly, try carrying out the writing tasks you already do in English in your target language – this could be anything from writing a shopping list to doing your daily journal entry. By piggybacking on your existing writing tasks, you won’t have to find any extra time in your schedule to polish your language skills.
To take it even further, you could write short essays in your target language, which you can ask your language tutor or a friend to mark for you. Because, again, getting feedback is essential for making progress.
For some ideas for other writing activities, check out this article from ESL Authority.
Top tip: If you’re using writing tasks to memorise vocabulary, try writing on paper instead of digital devices like laptops and tablets. Studies have shown that using paper improves recall when compared to screens.
6. Learn about the culture of your target language
If you ask any language teacher, they’ll tell you that delving into the culture associated with a language is essential for learning.
If you’ve been studying a language for a while, you’ll know that simply practising and memorising words can become monotonous – which is why many foreign language students give up. However, immersing yourself in the culture behind that language can enrich your learning journey, keeping you interested and motivated.
Firstly, culture provides context. It gives meaning to words and expressions, transforming the simple sounds of a language into stories. Acquainting yourself with the culture can give you an understanding of the language’s nuances – like humour and idioms – and have more in-depth conversations with native speakers.
Also, understanding the culture associated with a language can help you avoid misunderstandings when talking to native speakers. Although you might be able to directly translate a phrase from English to your target language, this doesn’t mean you should. In fact, some phrases in our language may be considered impolite or confusing in others.
Taking time to understand the culture behind the language is also a sign of respect. It shows that your interest in the language goes beyond what it can offer you and that you’re generally interested in the people who speak it.
Of course, travelling is the best way to learn about a foreign culture (which we’ll talk about later). However, there are plenty of ways to do it without jumping on a plane. You can…
- Read books or watch movies from that country – for example, if you’re learning Spanish, why not check out the films of Pedro Almodóvar?
- Head to a local restaurant serving the country’s cuisine. You could even try making some popular dishes at home. In our food and drink section, we have a variety of ideas from around the world – including Middle Eastern, Caribbean, and Scandinavian recipes.
- Read news outlets from the culture of your choosing to get anunderstanding of current affairs that you can use in conversations with natives.
- See if your local museum has any relevant exhibitions that delve into the culture you’re interested in. If you live near London, there’s currently an exhibition on Contemporary African Photography at the Tate Modern and one on Japanese art and culture, which opens at the Victoria and Albert Museum this month.
- Follow foreign social media accounts – these can give a personal look into the lives of people living in the culture you’re interested in.
7. Travel and/or live abroad
You might have already guessed that the best thing you can do to immerse yourself in a language – and learn it more quickly and competently – is to live in or visit a country where your target language is spoken.
This will not only mean that you’re constantly surrounded by the language but you’ll also be forced to actively work on your skills each day. From ordering a flat white at the corner café to asking a shop assistant where the beans are, every moment becomes a language lesson. Some people report becoming nearly fluent in the local language after spending only a handful of months abroad.
As we’ve said, travelling to a country where your target language is spoken is also the best way to learn about the culture. From taking part in local festivals and traditions to observing social norms while you’re out and about, going abroad offers you insights into cultures that you can’t find in a book.
Plus, having conversations with real locals can be a breath of fresh air after spending so much time with the stilted dialogue found in learning tools like textbooks. Chatting with natives can help you to get a firm grip on aspects like accent and pronunciation too.
If you’re thinking about putting down roots in a foreign country, why not check out our article; 14 tips for moving abroad? Or, if you’re just looking to book a holiday, you can head over to our top travel deals page to find yourself a bargain.
Learning a new language is one of the most exciting and rewarding things we can do in life – and it’s never too late to get started!
We hope these seven tips for immersing yourself in foreign languages have given you a few ideas to supercharge your learning journey.
And, if you’re only just considering learning a new language but don’t know which is best for you, why not head over to our learning section? Here, you’ll find articles like 9 most spoken languages that are useful to learn and 6 languages that are easier for English speakers to learn.
Are you currently learning a new language? Or have you learnt one in the past? If so, we’d love to hear from you in the comments below!