Language Educators Share Tips and Tactics on Becoming Bilingual

6 Language Educators Share Their Tips & Tactics On How to Become Bilingual

Becoming bilingual can change your life.

Having a second language under your belt massively widens your field of opportunity, giving you the chance to meet new people and experience the world through a dazzling array of unique perspectives. 

And it’s never too late to start learning. Wherever you are in life, you can start your journey to fluency right now, and there are so many people out there who can help. We were lucky enough to speak with six of them for their language learning advice.

Eva Petruzziello | French Immersion Teacher 

Eva currently teaches full-time French to English-speaking students in Toronto, Canada, and previously worked as an ESL teacher in Japan for three years. When she’s not teaching French, Eva runs a sustainable living website called Simple N’ Delight.

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Why become bilingual?

For me, learning a second-language has always been important, as it’s allowed me to communicate with more people at different points in my life. Growing up in a bilingual city (Ottawa, Canada), French is very important as a young person trying to get into the job market.

When living in Japan, it was important for me to learn to speak Japanese, since it better allowed me to get around, pay bills, and understand the world around me. And learning Spanish allowed me to connect with my heritage from the Canary Islands.   

Becoming bilingual can change your worldview for the better. With fluency comes:

  • Increased job opportunities
  • Greater problem solving capabilities 
  • Greater ability to connect with others

Some tips for language learners

Reaching your goals in learning a language can include:

  • hiring a good tutor to help with understanding
  • practicing vocabulary during times of rest
  • repeating sequences of phrases in your mind as you walk, drive, or do mundane tasks
  • testing your memory on the go with flashcards
  • listen to language learning audio in the car 

Proficiency tests are another great way to measure your fluency. For example, I took a Japanese proficiency test for no other reason than to prove to myself that I have come a long way. Celebrating the wins in language is important too!

The best practice is immersion

Being understood and communicating is the only real value in language learning. If you’re not going to converse with others, you are missing half of the opportunities available to you through that language. 

One of the best ways to practice conversing is through immersion. If you are not in the country where the language is spoken, make sure to take time each day for “forced” immersion. These days, I’m sure you can find language exchange students who would love to swap an hour of their language for an hour of yours!

I have seen many people try and learn languages from textbooks without practice or dialogue, and these people were not successful. I would not recommend learning a language while isolated unless you are diligent and motivated.  

Does fluency really exist? 

Fluency does exist, yet it spans a spectrum. Fluency to me means being able to manage the tasks that the particular language requires of you. 

For example, if you are solely speaking to family members in Spanish, you may only need a particular set of vocabulary and grammatical structure. You may not need to read all that well either. 

If you are learning Japanese and you are living in Japan, you may need enough Japanese to read the street signs, ask for directions, order at a restaurant, and make friends with Japanese people. 

Biggest challenges in becoming bilingual

The biggest challenges for adults are time, motivation, and fear. The idea of learning a language is attractive for most people, yet becomes bogged down when most adults realize there is a constant need for practice and immersion. Adults often have busy lives, so making the time can be difficult. 

Another challenge is being scared to make mistakes. I learned from a very young age that mistakes in language learning are not only common, but necessary!  If your message comes across, don’t worry about the mistakes. Most people fail because of this fear. Don’t be one of those people. 

One way to overcome these challenges is by setting realistic goals. Here’s an example of a daily routine that almost anyone can do.

  • 10 minutes of reading
  • 20 minutes of listening and repeating the language from a video
  • 20 minutes of vocabulary and grammar practice from a book

If you do this EACH day, you will learn!  

Eva’s language resource recommendations

  • YouTube videos and podcasts – they’re free and there’s a ton of info for students
  • Pimsleur  – I learned Japanese with it! It was a great program and I learned a lot while walking the dog and repeating things out loud. By the time I got to Japan, I knew a lot of Japanese already!  
  • Your public library has lots of programs available for free

Iya Nemastil | Japanese Teacher

Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, Iya Sensei acquired a second language at the age of eight when her family immigrated to the United States. She took Japanese in high school and college, and currently teaches Japanese at Dublin Jerome High School in Dublin, Ohio.

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Why is becoming bilingual important?

Learning a second language is important because it exposes you to a different way of thinking and processing the world around you. Through another language you are able to understand other cultures and their beliefs, and see things from a different point of view. 

Once you are able to see that there are other people who exist outside of your comfort bubble, you can see that your way of thinking, and your exposure to reality is not the only way someone lives their lives. Language is influenced by the country’s customs and beliefs about how they treat other people, what their ideas of respect are, and what matters most to them. 

Conversation is everything

Conversation is the most important part of language learning. After all, you want to speak a second language in order to communicate with that culture, right? What’s the point otherwise? Translating sentences and conjugating grammar is not what you would be doing if you went to the target language country. Conversation is the main focus.

How to set realistic language-learning goals

To help set language learning goals, first break them down by short-term or long-term. 

An example of a short-term goal would be taking a short trip to the target language country, then focusing on the tasks you will need in order to have the bare minimum communicative proficiency.

For longer term goals to reach more fluency, you need to seek opportunities where you are interacting with speakers of that language often, and consistently check in on your progress and growth. 

An example of a long-term goal would be successfully completing a communicative task, such as reserving a hotel room online in Japanese, speaking with a friend in Japanese, or ordering food at a restaurant in Japanese, and being able to negotiate meaning without completely breaking down. 

Getting meaning across, sharing feelings, emotions, and experiences with other people — that is the ultimate goal!

Does fluency really exist? 

Fluency does not really exist. The idea of the “native speaker” is biased, and in many ways not beneficial to learners. Speakers of any language can be proficient in different aspects and situations.

For example, a native English speaking high schooler might be very proficient at daily conversations and tasks, but if asked to call the car insurance company and set up a claim, they will no longer have the right vocabulary and experience necessary to complete that communicative task. 

Language is fluid, and fluency can range so much depending on the purpose, context, and speakers of a particular situation. We all adjust our language and are more “fluent” in some aspects compared to others in all of the languages we speak. 

Since language is fluid and always changes, it’s not really possible to be fluent at something all the time. But it is possible to be highly proficient and advanced at something specific. 

Biggest challenges in becoming bilingual

Adults hate change, and they don’t like taking risks or being vulnerable. We are often stuck in our ways and never want to make mistakes. We think that because we’re adults, we should understand everything 100 percent of the time. 

Adult language learners can overcome this stubborn mindset by practicing a language with someone with whom they are comfortable taking risks and coming out of their comfort zone. If you can’t come out of your comfort zone, language learning will never take place. Remember: Making mistakes drives progress.

Iya’s language resource recommendations

There are so many great apps and websites for learning Japanese. Here are a few:

Dictionaries

Jisho.org
Weblio
Tangorin 
Alc.co.jp
Shirabe Jisho (iOS app)
Imiwa? (iOS app)

Flashcards

Quizlet
Anki

Hiragana, katakana, & kanji

Yoshida Institute hiragana and katakana
Tae Kim’s Guide to hiragana and katakana 
Usagi-Chan’s Genki Resource Page (with review games for hiragana and katakana)
Real Kana and Real Kanji
Kanji Alive
Kanji recognizer
WaniKani 

Language and culture

Erin’s Challenge 
NHK Video Programming
Hirogaru
JapanesePod101 
Memrise
Lingodeer
Imabi

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Luzi & Johannes | German Teachers

Luzi and Johannes are German language teachers with almost 20 years of combined teaching experience. Their popular YouTube channel, Your German Teacher, was started as a way to give their students some additional material to deepen their German knowledge on specific topics not properly detailed in textbooks.

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The advantages of being bilingual

In times of globalization, being able to speak more than one or two languages can be a huge  advantage in terms of finding a job or a place at a university. It will open doors to new cultures and make it much easier to get to know people and make new friends.  

By learning a new language, you will also get to know a completely new culture, or at least learn something about this culture and their people that you didn’t know before. And when you’re able to speak this language, you will also be able to understand the culture better. Language is the key to the people and culture of a foreign country.  

Conversation is everything

Conversation plays a very important role when it comes to learning and speaking a foreign language. Once you’re able to have a conversation, even if it’s just a couple words, you’re already a step ahead of your classmates.  

We see this all the time in our classes. Students who try to talk and express themselves in the language they learn always improve the fastest. Trying to speak from the beginning is essential if you ever want to be fluent in a foreign language.  

On setting goals when learning a new language

Setting goals can be difficult, especially for people trying to learn a language by themselves. In pretty much all cases, students set their goals way too high and end up disappointed after a short time, and eventually give up. 

The key is to set realistic short and long-term goals. Short-term goals could be learning a certain amount of vocabulary or specific grammar topics within a week. Long-term goals could be  studying abroad or getting a job in a foreign country.  

To set realistic goals, you need the experience of older classmates or teachers. Therefore, try to connect with advanced students or teachers and ask them for realistic goals that fit with your schedule and learning environment. Nowadays, it’s not difficult to ask other people online via Facebook groups or language forums about their experience. You can even try connecting with language teachers on Instagram or YouTube and asking them nicely. 

We often get all kinds of questions and do our best to answer the important ones and try to help whenever possible. But just a general tip: Take baby steps! 20 new words a week is enough. Be consistent and stick to your “small,” achievable goals.  

Biggest challenges in becoming bilingual

Time, self-esteem, courage, and self-discipline. Here’s how to overcome them. 

  • Time: Plan your days with a to do list and included your goals 
  • Self-esteem: Force yourself to leave your comfort zone and start talking  
  • Courage: Stop caring about other people’s opinions. If somebody makes fun of your language skills, they’re probably just jealous that you’re bold enough to try. So see it as a compliment.  
  • Self-discipline: Complete your tasks first, then have some fun.

Luzi & Johannes’ language resource recommendations

There are many apps out there which seem to make learning a language easier. The problem with learning a language for most people, however, is that you need to write and not type. We see this all the time. Students who write their own flashcards learn so much faster than others who just use their phone. Flashcards are probably one of the oldest and most efficient tools when it comes to learning vocabulary.  

Aside from flashcards:

Duolingo is probably the best for vocabulary. They created a pretty good app which keeps students learning due to their gamification factor. 

On Instagram and YouTube you can find tons of very good material created by language teachers. 

A combination of those free resources and taking a language class is probably the most efficient way to learn a foreign language. 

And of course, if it’s doable, visit the country and spend as much time as possible with people from there.  

“There’s no right or wrong way to pick up a new language.”

Every person learns differently, and there is no right or wrong way to pick up a new language. You need to find out how you learn the best. Listening to podcasts or news, watching movies, reading articles or newspapers — whatever it is, stick with it to get the most out of it.  

Write down your own short and long-term goals and try to immerse yourself in this language as much as possible. Speak it as often as you can. Even talking to yourself is very helpful.

And most importantly: Make as many mistakes as possible, then find out what you did wrong and why. 

And lastly: Be patient! 

Beth McCarter | Spanish Teacher

Beth teaches Spanish to grades K-12 and ESL to adults at community college. She has also presented on the best and easiest methods to acquire a second language at several conferences. When not teaching, Beth runs the travel blog The Travel Fam.

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The benefits of bilingualism

There are infinite reasons that learning a second, or even third language is more important than ever. The makeup of the United States and many other countries is multicultural, and only knowing one language can put you at a disadvantage.  

Besides boosting your resume, a second language can also enhance your first language. For example, many conversational words in Spanish are cognates for higher level academic words in English. By increasing your vocabulary in Spanish, you’re also adding to your English lexicon.

In addition to the academic benefits of knowing a second language, it can also enhance your interpersonal relationships. One of my favorite quotes is from Nelson Mandela, who said: “If you speak to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

“Organic conversation is a real test of language acquisition.”

Conversation is incredibly important in the process of language acquisition. Most people try to pick up a second language in order to communicate, something that cannot be done by practicing rote grammar drills.

Organic conversation is a real test of language acquisition because it does not follow strict rules and there are no hard and fast correct answers.

The more conversations you have with native speakers, the more comfortable you will be with your language skills.  

Goal setting when learning a new language

Setting realistic goals is a good idea for any learning process. You just have to define your goals in a way that is measurable.

For example, “Have two conversations a week with my neighbor in their language” or “Watch an episode of my favorite show in Arabic once a week with the subtitles off.”  

By qualifying your goals rather than making them abstract (for example, “Become fluent in French”), they automatically become more attainable.  

Does fluency really exist? 

Fluency exists in the real world, but it can’t be attained by bookwork alone. There is a myth that only children can acquire a second language, but really, anyone willing to step outside of their comfort zone is capable of doing so. 

Fluency to me means that you are able to communicate with someone in your second language without resorting to English when you encounter an obstacle.

Biggest challenges in becoming bilingual

The biggest challenge that adults face in becoming bilingual is the common perception that only children can become fully fluent. 

I would advise you to remember that immigrants attempt to learn new languages successfully at many different ages. It’s your motivation level that determines a lot of your success with languages.

And keep in mind that having an accent is perfectly natural and just means that you speak more than one language!

Beth’s language resource recommendations

I subscribe to a theory called ‘comprehensible input’ proposed by Stephen Krashen, which basically says that in order to learn a new language you must frequently expose yourself to the language in a way that is easily understandable.  

The best example of this is when adults learn English by watching Sesame Street or other kids’ shows. They’re highly visual, repetitive, slowly paced, and predictable.  

A non-example of comprehensible input would be to pick up a huge book like Lord of the Rings in another language, especially if you haven’t read the series in English first.  

The best tool I’ve found for comprehensible input is Youtube. Watch videos made originally in the language you’re trying to learn; not videos designed for English speakers. Then select the option to slow them down. 

Rafael Tavares | Portuguese Teacher

Rafael is a Venezuelan-born Portuguese teacher who grew up speaking both Spanish and Portuguese in the home. He co-authored The Language Learner’s Guide to Learning Portuguese and runs the website Learn Portuguese With Rafa.

Why become bilingual?

Speaking a second language is seeing the world in a different way. When you become bilingual, you understand other people better and naturally make an effort to be understood by other people better as well. It also gets you out of your comfort zone, which introduces new feelings, and new ways of seeing yourself.

This ultimately makes your life easier and more joyful.

Conversation is paramount

Language is all about sound, and these sounds are often translated into graphic representations like letters, words, and sentences. But these graphic representations are just ways to mimic the sounds produced by our mouth. 

That’s why conversation must be the most important area when you learn a new language. It focuses on sound and meaning, not grammar. Grammar does give you the rules for building your sentences, which is important, but you must first focus on meaning. They go hand-in-hand.

Goals and the roadmap of your language journey

Goals are important in order for us to see the roadmap of our journey. To set realistic goals, start with small steps, such as knowing how to say a few things about yourself, and knowing how to ask others about the same information. When you are confident on one topic, explore new ones. 

When setting these goals, make sure to define both the goals and the reasons why you want to accomplish them. Every time you feel frustrated or unmotivated, get that list of reasons and remember how you felt the day you wrote that list of reasons.

You will see wonders happen if you manage to return to that mindset. 

Biggest challenges in becoming bilingual

In my experience, the biggest challenge in becoming bilingual is learning to control your ego and overcome past bad experiences. Your ego is what often refrains you from trying to express yourself in a foreign language. It is what internally tells you: “Don’t even try because you’ll make a fool of yourself.”

Often, past experience will reinforce this egotistic barrier. For example, maybe you once tried to express yourself in a different language and your colleagues laughed at you. But these barriers are only in your head.

Ed O’Neill | Multilingual ESL Teacher

Before starting the UK Language Project, a company specializing in foreign language training, Ed was an English as a foreign language teacher for over 10 years. He speaks five languages: English, French, Spanish, Polish, and Russian.

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Why is being bilingual important? 

Knowing how to speak another language opens doors and opportunities you may not have if you just speak one language. By communicating with people who don’t speak your language, you not only gain access to the language, but also to a wide array of culture and history that wasn’t available to you before.

Learning a language is also incredibly useful for the brain and the mind. It keeps the brain sharp and can even help to stave off mental deterioration in later life.

Conversation is everything 

Conversation really is critical. In language learning, conversing is like practicing a sport. You can learn all the theory you like “off the field,” but to really improve, you need real-time on-field experience conversing with natives, or at least people who speak that language somewhat fluently.

“To set realistic goals, it’s important to know yourself.” 

Know why you’re looking to learn, how much time you have to dedicate to language learning per week, and when you want to achieve your goal. 

From there, you can decide on the most appropriate goal based on your circumstances. For most people, that goal is being able to converse in the language, but there are other, intermediate goals too. For example, learning to speak using the past tense.

Biggest challenges in becoming bilingual

Time is the biggest challenge. Life gets in the way and language learning often gets put on the back burner as a low priority, a nice to have, an addition. 

To overcome this, you need to be motivated to learn the language and somehow stick with it, possibly for years. Yes, years! 

Starting slowly and not expecting miracles, learning little by little, day by day, is the best course of action. As the months pass by, the wins slowly add up. You just need to find some way to keep yourself motivated. And that’s, for better or worse, up to the individual person.

Ready to become bilingual?

Becoming bilingual takes time and perseverance, but by setting realistic, measurable goals, embracing the act of making mistakes, and stepping out of your comfort zone through conversation and immersion, you can reach fluency, even as an adult. 

To help you on your path to becoming bilingual, start working with a language tutor on Wyzant today.

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