Just how do you learn a language?

Communicating with locals enriches travel experiences. If you live overseas as an expat, it is essential. Some are irritatingly good at learning languages and pick them up easily. How should the rest of us go about it though?

Take a course

I was lucky. I enjoyed the language classes I got at school. If you didn’t pay attention at school though don’t panic, you have not missed your chance to take language classes. Evening and weekend classes are available all over the world. These can be group classes or one on one sessions, depending on your need and what is available locally to you. Since speaking another language is considered such a useful skill and depending on what your profession is, you may be able to get classes through work. This is how my Dad learned Spanish at the same time that I was learning Spanish at school.

If you have limited time, before a big trip say, or are the type of person who needs the structure of a course, lessons and, dare I say it, homework, then a course is probably the way to go. When considering this it is especially important to be honest with yourself. There is no point setting yourself up to fail.

Teach Yourself

Now I’m no language teacher, but I have studied and learned several languages. As an experienced student, and having put them into practice, I can tell you that nothing is more useful than a broad vocabulary. If you have enough self discipline to follow a ‘teach yourself’ program using a book, podcast, or an app, then go for it, but if you are not (or abandon one halfway through) then I suggest you just focus on learning heaps of vocabulary. Write the words down and say the words out loud, several times. Try to memorise at least a few new words each day. If you can find out the correct way to pronounce words, great, but even if you say them a bit strangely, at least you will recognise and understand them when you see them written. Make sure you include numbers. I met a couple in Turkey once, who were on a 1 week holiday and told me they ended up buying 3 kilos of onions in the market one day because they couldn’t express that they only wanted 3 onions and the stall keepers were used to selling by the kilo.

Nobody enjoys learning grammar. Try though, because it is confusing if you keep telling people “He wants this please” when you mean “I want this please” and so on. There are some hilarious and awful mistakes to be made of course, but don’t panic if you don’t get it, you’d be surprised how far you can get with limited grammar. I speak Turkish fairly confidently but am aware that at times my grammar is shocking. If you can learn a few phrases to the point that you can say them confidently that will get you a long way. The only slight danger is that people will then engage in conversation with you, and they may end up being one-sided conversations that you don’t understand. Don’t worry, the universal ‘confused shrug’ should get you through that.


Surrounding yourself with a language sounds the scariest method, but is the simplest way that I have found to learn a language. It is easy to become a bit lazy when learning a new language, especially if you’re learning it on your own, and it is easy to get distracted by other things. When you are overseas and homesick perhaps, it is also easy to enjoy speaking your own language. However, if you dive in and immerse yourself in the language and the culture of a place then you have to learn at least some of the language, in order to go about your daily life. You also have an endless supply of native speakers (who are patient souls hopefully) on whom you can practice!

Absorption by Media


I love singing along to a good tune on the radio. Don’t you? Well, use that to help you. Get hold of some music in the language that you are trying to learn and listen to it. If you can find the lyrics and read them as the song is sung, at least once, then you will hear them more easily on subsequent listenings.


If you don’t feel like spending an evening with the grammar books (who does?) then why not watch a movie in that language? Keep an ear out for the words spoken while your eyes follow the subtitles.


If you have a favourite TV Series on DVD, look through its menu and see if it is possible to watch it in the language you want to learn. Some DVDs offer a mind-boggling number of different languages. I have been known to watch Sex and the City episodes in various languages. If it is something familiar that you know well you can concentrate on the words you are hearing (or possibly reading on the screen) and still follow the story.

Childrens Books

Childrens books involve lots of pictures and simple words. Enough said.


Magazines in foreign languages are a great way to practice reading in your chosen language and since articles are short they tend to be less overwhelming than the idea of launching yourself at a whole book in another language. They are also a smaller investment of time and money.

Obviously when everyone is different and every language is different, I cannot state that one method of language learning is ‘best’. However, I hope that you can identify a method here that will suit you, or I have given you a few ideas.

How do you learn languages?

original image by: Nacho Domingo


  • Jerick

    I agree, some people are natural on learning languages easily. Me and my friend both went on a year internship in Europe (I went to Belgium, she went to Poland) – we both went to classes, etc. After a year, she can speak perfect Polish while I spoke hardly any Dutch.

    But the tips are spot-on! Immersing yourself with the language probably is the best and the most natural tip for anyone keen on learning one!

    My recent post Destination Round-up #1: Philippines

  • Marvin

    Hey Liv! Nice post and many methods I’ve used myself. For people who want to learn a language by themselves, I can highly recommend babbel. It’s a great online tool with a lot of interactive learning material. Their page: http://www.babbel.com

    I don’t get commission or something. It’s just that I love their website and the fact that they have a very responsive support 🙂 I had to mention them 🙂


  • sugerfreek

    Great tips, thanks for sharing the page. I still think the most effective way to learn a language is to use it. If you don’t have any friends that speak the language you can always use sites such as couchsurfing or livemocha to find people and then just email them in your set language. Don’t worry if your sentences are simple or don’t make a lot of sense, you learn through your mistakes. It will also encourage you to keep with it.
    My recent post The Cunning Linguist

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