15 April 2020

This is a guest post, written especially for the 20/20 Travel Project, by Sarah Cole, who speaks French at a high level, publishes courses in over 65 different languages, and is currently learning Spanish.

If you’re interested in learning a language then you likely already know the benefits: multi-cultural sensitivity, empathy, new ideas and ways of thinking, different perspectives on the world, new opportunities, access to foreign literature and media, a better awareness of your own culture and language, improved career prospects, and best of all, enhanced cognitive functioning and overall health. In fact, according to research by Dr. Thomas Bak, from the University of Edinburgh, bilingualism delays the development of dementia by 4-5 years compared to monolinguals, and bilinguals are twice as likely to recover cognitively from stroke than monolinguals. 

But what does it mean to be bilingual? And where do you start on this presumably long journey? First, let’s dispel the myth that the goal of learning a language is perfect fluency or bilingualism. A basic working knowledge is sufficient for most people’s needs. So, my first recommendation is to start with small, realistic, and achievable goals. Then build them up consistently over time. Learning a new language enriches your life and is a journey and passion that can continue throughout your life. 

For most people, the point of learning a language is to communicate through speaking. But often, this is the last thing we attempt to do when learning a new language, and many people stop before even getting to this essential step. This is antithetical to how we learn a language as a child, where speaking is the first activity, albeit imperfect. But through determination, lots of correction and feedback, and being undeterred by mistakes, we all become fluent in our first language. 

So, what if we used this premise to learn a second language? What would that look and feel like? And how can you do it from home?

  • Study your language every day. 

Learning a language

Start with ten minutes. If you can manage it, keep it there until you feel you can extend it to 15 mins. If you can’t pull off 10 mins, just do 5. Consistency is more important than duration.

  • Speak the language every day. 

Sprinkle the words you learn in place of English throughout your day. Meet with a study buddy who keeps you on track—it can be someone in your household or a virtual meetup. And use a course that incorporates speaking activities. Talk to your pet, your partner, yourself. It doesn’t matter. Just speak. It will help you embed the language in your mind and get you comfortable speaking.

  • Don’t worry about making mistakes. Mistakes are part of the process. And being corrected is helpful, not shameful. Yes, it’s difficult as an adult to speak like a child, but embrace it and you will thrive. 
  • Don’t worry about your accent. 

Communication is simply about being understood. No one cares about your accent. Think of all the second language English speakers around the world and all their wonderful accents. It’s charming. 

  • Surround yourself in your new language

You need input to have output! Watch foreign films with subtitles in English. Watch English films with subtitles in the language you’re learning. Watch movies and TV shows you know well dubbed in the language you’re learning and see what you can pick up. Watch everything in your language by simply changing your settings. Netflix series addictions can now be guilt-free. Read in your new language. Pick up some graded readers like Olly Richard’s Short Stories for Beginners. Follow interesting people on social media in the language you’re learning. There are so many opportunities to immerse yourself from the comfort of your own sofa. 

You should start with programs that teach you by getting you to speak and encourage speaking from the start. The most effective method for doing this is the Michel Thomas Method. This unconventional audio-only method teaches you in a way that is similar to how you learned your first language and gives you a solid working knowledge of a language by introducing small building blocks that you put together to figure out sentences yourself. It’s engaging, enjoyable, and convenient. There are no grammar rules to learn and no vocabulary lists to memorize. Other courses that focus on speaking are Language Hacking conversation courses, which include an online community for you to practice your spoken ‘missions.’ Benny Lewis’s motto is ‘speak from day 1,’ and he teaches you the essential language to allow you to do just that. I also recommend online communities that provide tutoring and language exchanges with native speakers, like italki.com and HelloTalk. And download a few fun apps to help you whizz through some vocabulary and grammar practice. You’ll need lots of input and no one course can do it all. 

Sarah Cole has her Masters in Applied Linguistics, Multilingual & Multicultural studies from NYU. She was a French and ESL teacher and is now the Publishing Director for John Murray Learning, publisher of the Michel Thomas Method.