There’s never a bad time to learn a new language. While we often think of picking up a new tongue as a pursuit that’s best left to the young (and indeed, it’s easier for kids to pick up a new language without a discernable accent), it’s a beneficial exercise for everyone, both from a cultural and cognitive standpoint.
Studies have shown learning a new language can improve your memory and maybe even slow the effects of aging, among other cognitive benefits. And of course, not having to resort to asking for the English-language menu while traveling doesn’t hurt, either.
Here are a few tips to help you pick up some new conversation skills this summer, whether you’re looking to learn a few words in your second language or become an expert in your fifth.
1. Have a conversation—even if it’s with yourself.
Talking is an essential part of learning a new language. People have multiple types of vocabulary: oral and written, receptive and productive. The words you understand when you hear them (receptive) may not be the same as the words you can use in speech yourself, and the words you say aloud (productive) are not always the same as words you might use in writing. Unless you’re looking to pick up a new language solely for the purpose of translating written documents, you’re probably going to want to have a conversation at some point. In order to develop your oral, productive vocabulary (the words you can produce, rather than just understand if you happen to hear them), you have to have practice generating those words.
2. Don’t be afraid to sound ridiculous.
Having a conversation in a language you’re not entirely comfortable with inevitably leads to a few mistakes. You may mispronounce words, invert sentence structures, or spit out something completely unintelligible to a native speaker. But no one expects you to be perfectly eloquent from the get-go. And, on the bright side, the more embarrassing your mistake, the more likely you are to have the correct grammatical construct burned into your memory when someone points it out.
3. If you’re going to take a class, make sure it’s conducted in the language you’re learning.
Children take between two and five years to fully master the grammar of their first language, even with hours of practice every day. Even if you can’t recreate that environment while you’re learning a second language, it helps to expose yourself to it for as much time as possible. Don’t waste vital learning time with a teacher who speaks to you in English. Instead, take an immersive class where the instructor uses the language you’re trying to learn.
4. Grab some flash cards.
One study of Japanese students learning English found that encountering a word 10 times in context helped students learn it—but the researcher noted that more than 10 repetitions may be needed to fully understand the word. Get a jump on your vocabulary by making a set of flash cards and looking at them regularly.
5. Make sure to listen.
One study from a New Zealand university found that frequent exposure to the sound of a foreign language—regardless of whether you understand the words—helps you learn. Listening to native speech can help familiarize you with the new sound patterns of your target language. So even if the plot goes over your head, tune in to Spanish language television or listen to radio news.
6. Figure out why you’re learning.
Studies have found motivation to be one of the key drivers of second-language learning. Mastering a new language is hard work, and it takes practice. Identifying why you want to learn this particular language can help keep you going, even when you would rather do anything but run through another round of flash cards or have another stilted conversation. Will becoming a better speaker help you at work? Will it give you greater access to a culture that fascinates you?
7. Check out your local library.
Many public libraries have language-learning software in their collections, as well as audio books in your target language. Rather than shelling out hundreds of dollars for a fancy online lesson plan, ask your local librarian about those taxpayer-funded resources.
8. Download an app.
To become a language master, you need to practice every day. Plenty of apps (many of them free!) offer vocabulary lessons that you can access on the go, so standing in line or sitting around in a waiting room can become an educational experience.
9. Go on a vacation—or at least head to a new part of town.
As mentioned previously, the best way to learn a language is to immerse yourself in it. It’s more helpful to practice with native speakers than other students who make the same mistakes you do and know all the same vocabulary you’ve learned—but finding native speakers to chat with can be tricky in the course of a normal day. If you can’t actually take that trip to Beijing, try visiting your nearest Chinatown, or join a meetup group of local native speakers. And remember, no English!
10. Take a deep breath.
Recent studies have shown that some students experience “foreign language anxiety,” much like anxiety over taking tests. Speaking in a foreign language can feel like a performance, but conversation is an integral part of learning a new tongue.
11. Set realistic goals.
If you aren’t fluent in just a few weeks, don’t give up. It took you years to achieve complete fluency in your first language, after all. Don’t be disconcerted if a 5-year-old can talk circles around you. They’ve been practicing longer.