Monday, January 27, 2014

tips for learning a new language

It's now been almost a year and a half of me living in Germany. And most of the time, I enjoy living this bilingual life, running my business in both languages, and challenging myself to learn more and more words every day. Learning a new language can be so incredibly empowering. It can open up so many opportunities, and more than that- it can also be fun! 

But let's be honest here. It's also really hard. For the first 10+ months of living here, it was basically my full time job. Of course there were classes to attend and homework to do, but living here meant that every single simple task I needed done had to be done in German. (I remember at one point crying to Waldi that I just wanted to go to the grocery store without being completely embarrassed by my lack of vocabulary!) Sometimes I felt like my German family/friends didn't really know me, as there were aspects of my personality that I just couldn't yet share without my own language. Also, all social engagements were of course in German. Even something that was supposed to be relaxing (like, say, watching a movie on a Friday night) turned into a bit of a stressful event for me. 

When I look back on this past year, I can honestly say that I've come a long way. And while it wasn't easy, there were things I learned along the way that helped me. I thought I would share some of those today, in case anyone out there also finds themselves in the process of living abroad, or just wants to be able to speak a second language. 

So, without further ado: here are 10 things that helped me! 

1. Listen: This is especially helpful when you are in a situation where you don't have to speak back. Watching movies, listening to music, or (if you live in a country where your new language is spoken) attending events are all really helpful ways to internalize the words and sounds of a language. Being in a position of listening, without constantly having to think about what you will say can really help you to remember new words and pick up on the natural flow of conversation.

2. explore: Obviously, this is most helpful if you live in a country where your new language is spoken. Talking to strangers in simple, every day situations can work wonders for your confidence. Learning to order from a menu, to shop, or to take public transport are all good ways to practice. If you are learning a language that is not spoken where you live, I would still encourage you to bring an attitude of exploration to your work. Think of new situations you can put yourself in that will help you to learn new words! 

3. attend a language class: I kind of feel like I have to mention this one. I spent the first 10 months of my time in Germany attending daily language classes. While they were really helpful, I know they would not have been enough on their own. A language class can be great: first of all, you meet people who are also learning and have friends to practice with. It's also helpful to have tricky grammar points explained to you, to have the structure of daily assignments and to spend hours at a time completely immersed in your new language. But I think it's best if you already have a bit of knowledge of your new language before jumping into a class. And you should never expect to learn fully just from going to school. Let's face it, the best way to learn a language is to practice. And I don't necessarily mean in a classroom.

4. do things you enjoy: Chances are, whatever hobbies you take part in can also be done in your new language. Reading is an obvious one, but there are plenty of other options. Anything that requires following instructions- such as cooking or crafting, can easily be done in a different language. Knitting from German patterns has been a really helpful tool for me. Sure, I knew an insane amount of crafting words before I knew all the basic verbs, but I also spent time immersed in German while doing something I love. If your hobby doesn't involve a lot of language elements, you could consider joining a group or class in your new language that is centered around an activity you enjoy. Even learning vocabulary that surrounds the things you are interested in can help. 

5. speak with kids: If I am completely honest with myself, this is probably one of the things that helped me most. I found it so much less intimidating to speak with my nephews than to speak to adults. Of course, everyone was really patient and encouraging to me, but I still felt a bit ashamed of my German. Not so with my nephews. I felt I could take more risks, make more mistakes, and speak slower. I also often found myself cheating when I spoke to other adults. If I didn't know the German word for something, I would throw in the English one and they would most of the time understand it. When I spoke to my nephews and didn't know a word in German, I had to think of a way to explain it to them in their language. No cheating possible! These things all helped me so much with my learning process.

6. make your daily routine bilingual: Chances are, there are a ton of things you do every day that you could try doing in your new language. I've already mentioned cooking above, but you could also try writing a grocery list with new vocab words, or switching your language setting in your email or Facebook account. These may seem like small steps, but they all contribute to surrounding yourself more with your new language.

7. use the new words you learn: This is so so important. I cannot emphasize it enough. There really is no better way to remember the new words you learn. I remember learning French in high school (most of which I have now forgotten) and having to write long lists of new vocabulary translations in my notebooks. I'm not sure this helped me much beyond the exam. I think a better tool is to try and recall these new words in the few days after learning them. Practice using them in sentences, take note of when you see or hear others using them. 

8. carry your dictionary around: This is related to number 7. I found a really helpful way to learn new words was to bring my dictionary around with me, and look up any new words I saw while I was out and about. Again, this is not really helpful if your new language isn't spoken where you live, but you could still apply the concept while you are reading or watching movies in your new language. I found this helped so much with memory. I was more likely to remember a word because I had looked it up in an actual situation, rather than simply read it off a vocab sheet.

9. Read. Read. Read: When we moved to Germany, I set myself the goal of reading 5 novels in the fist year. It was a little ambitious, but I am an avid reader so I thought I should try and push myself in an area I enjoy. The first few were torture. I was looking up words like crazy! The next few were much better and by the time I read the last one, I felt like I was actually reading. I didn't even have to look up words I didn't know because I could figure them out from the context. Reading has sure taught me that context is one of my best friends! I also found a German magazine that I was interested in and made sure to get my hands on it every time it came out. Reading small magazine articles (or blog posts!) about something you're interested in can be a great way to start reading in a new language. They don't take long and even if you have to look up a bunch of things, you won't loose the flow of what you're reading the same way you would in a story. The more you read, the less you will need to look up. And hopefully this will transfer to your speaking and listening comprehension as well. 

10. Don't get too caught up on those tricky grammar points: Yes, it's important to learn the gramatical pillars that hold up a language. But I think you've got to try and not focus on them too much. I spent so much time studying and doing homework exercises around the different grammar rules that I sometimes forgot to try and use them when I spoke! Reading and listening also really help with learning grammar, as you hear and see how each principle is used correctly. It can also be helpful to find a native speaker of the language who is willing to meet you for conversation and correct your grammar errors. It's less embarrassing in a one-to-one situation and slowly you will learn to use each rule correctly. 

**bonus: make sure to celebrate your successes and to recognize all the hard work you've been putting in. Small moments (like the first time you can laugh at a joke in your new language or the first time you overhear a conversation between two native speakers and realize you can understand) are worth recognizing and remembering in those other moments when you can't make yourself understood or feel like you're in over your head. 


  1. This is a great post. I'm going in 9 months here and I don't know near as much as I'd hoped. Granted, I have my son all day and I threw myself into my writing, but still. I do find that I learn a lot from my husband speaking to our son in German and his German cartoons. I imagine I'll learn a lot concurrently with him which is kind of fun. :-) good on you for learning so much so fast! Impressive!

  2. Replies
    1. Thank you for offering the link up! So great to meet other bloggers this way! As far as the learning quickly, for me it mostly happened because we spent our first 3 months here living with my husband's family. This was the most effective learning tool because they speak NO English, so I had to either 1) learn German quickly or 2) not say anything. At the time it was so hard, but now I'm grateful for it. I think it's so great that you'll get to learn concurrently with your son! So sweet :)

  3. These are great tips! I never thought of speaking to kids but that's a really good way to learn. And you're pretty brave for doing German craft patterns! When I was in Marburg I had a few tandem partners I'd meet for coffee after class and those girls really taught me a lot!

  4. There are some good points you listed here! I'm from Switzerland so German is something I can speak. But I learned English. First in School and now I just use it every day and it naturally evolved it over the time. Of course, I can't speak and write it perfect and there are always mistakes but I can read a book or watch a movie and understand everything.

    In this year I want to learn a new language. Italian. I like the sound of it and my boyfriend is half Italian. We are many times in Italy and I love that country. So I hope I can implement into my life like I did it with English.