4 Polyglots Share Their Advice On Learning A Second Language On Your Own

Learning a second language is one of the best things you can do for yourself. It challenges the brain, deepens your understanding of other places and cultures, and makes it easier—and more fulfilling—to see the world. But the process of learning a second language on your can feel daunting for those first starting out. 

Thankfully, the following four polyglots are here to ease your worries. They have all had to learn a second (and sometimes third or fourth) language by themselves, and together, they can offer a range of highly effective learning options to choose from. Here are their stories.

Marissa Blaszko | Owner of Relearn A Language, an Online Language Project 

History With Language

I started learning Spanish for work and pleasure. I’ve always had Spanish speaking clients, but I also love to travel, so it seemed a super handy language. Unfortunately, because I assumed it would be so hard and that I would be so bad at learning it, I did it the most expensive way possible: I moved down to Mexico to learn in full-time immersion schools.

And, because I assumed languages were so impossibly hard, on top of spending four hours a day in classes, I would go home and study for another two. It was pretty extreme, but I learned a two things:

  • Taking responsibility for my own learning set me apart from other students. Most were waiting for teachers to beam the languages into their brains, but I was constantly looking for ways to learn and practice outside of class. 
  • While immersion was helpful, it was also overwhelming to go to a grocery store and not understand anyone. My time spent alone at home with music and other immersion tools was actually more productive than going out and being “immersed” in the streets.

These experiences taught me that the best way to learn a language is through a mix of structured tutoring and fun at-home immersion. Once I fine-tuned this method, I began to learn other languages faster and on a better budget. I learned French, for instance, almost entirely through at-home immersion and occasional online tutoring. Eventually, with my languages like Catalan, Portuguese, and German, I’ve been able to learn without ever traveling to a country where they’re spoken. 

Tutoring

Structured tutoring offers more customized lessons and real one-on-one human connection—essential for learning a language! To me, a great tutor is like a tour guide. When learning Catalan, a small language in a part of the world I’ve never visited but was extremely curious about, my tutor not only helped me slowly learn grammar and vocabulary, but incorporated cultural context and helped me find more resources I would like. Without her, I wouldn’t even have known what search terms I should be using to find things like podcasts or music. She helped introduce me to the grammar and culture, and I took the  initiative to study a little bit every day and, more importantly, surround myself with the language in my daily life.

With the internet, finding both tutors and immersion is really simple. You can use just about anything as a DIY learning tool, all from home, no travel or “immersion abroad” required!

At-Home Immersion

The trick to at-home immersion is finding stuff at the right level. That means not going straight to Netflix, but instead exploring tools like YouTube, beginner podcasts, and graded short stories. 

Here are some of my favorite immersion materials for various languages.

Additional Advice on Learning A Second Language

I think the biggest problem students face is consistency. They get excited and want to dive in 100%, but that fizzles out within a few weeks. By making learning part of your daily and weekly routines, it can be simple and enjoyable. 

To set myself up for success, I have one big weekly task in every language: take a class with a tutor, then carve out time after to take notes or make flashcards. Then for the rest of the week, I have a daily rhythm: review a tiny bit of flashcards or notes in the morning with breakfast, then spend the rest of my day in a really chill immersion. 

Driving to work? I throw on some Brazilian music and bop in traffic. Cooking? I’ll throw on a Catalan psychology podcast and listen while everything simmers. Cleaning? I’ll throw a French Netflix show on and watch out of the corner of my eye. It’s stuff I would do in English anyway, and it massively reenforces my structured learning at other points in the week.

Paul Hudson | Owner of Playas y Plazas, a Travel Blog About Mexico and California

History With Language

I learned Spanish as a second language as an adult. I grew up in San Diego and was always exposed to the language, but I made a conscious decision to learn the language when I got to college.

Learning a language is a lifelong endeavor. I have been studying Spanish for over twenty years, and though professional motivations may come and go, being a part of a Spanish community is something that has kept me motivated over the years. Friendships and relationships proved to be a stronger motivation than grades or money. 

After College

When I left school, I had to actively look for opportunities to use the second language that I had worked so hard to acquire. Here’s what I’ve been up to.

  • I volunteered at the Institute of the Americas and attended as many events as possible. Some of the talks were in English and some were in Spanish, but to be surrounded by so many people who were professionally and academically bilingual was really inspiring. 
  • I continued to read Spanish-language newspapers and attempted some classic literature in Spanish, such as Gabriel Garcia Marques’ iconic novel 100 Years of Solitude. I worked with the English translation, the original Spanish text, and the audio version in Spanish with a lot of success. I was able to break the novel down into its individual chapters, first in English and then in Spanish, which made it a lot easier to understand. 
  • I took several night classes at the community college in Spanish for Spanish Speakers. 
  • During the pandemic, I hired a tutor to help me read more of the classic texts from the Latin American literature boom. 

But right now, the most important activity that I actively pursue to improve my Spanish is reading and listening to Spanish audiobooks. 

Finding a Community

There are a number of Spanish-speaking communities I got involved with, the first being music. I love rock en español and would travel to see a good concert. I took a last-minute flight to Mexico City to see Manu Chao perform. I have friends who threw events in the San Francisco Bay Area where we could mingle with the musicians at the after party. Music really brings people together and evokes a lot of emotion. Those events got me really excited to become fluent and have something interesting to say in my second language. 

Facebook also made it easier to get involved in activities that I enjoyed, but in Spanish. I like to eat good food and spent a lot of time in the hospitality industry, so I started following famous chefs and attending food festivals. Mexico is a culinary treasure and the best content is produced in Spanish. I also joined gardening groups, surfing groups, travel groups, and four-wheel-drive groups. Just about anything that I was interested in was also available in Spanish on the internet.

Each of these communities has a technical vocabulary associated with them. In the culinary arts groups, I learned about exotic ingredients, flavors, and cultures from different parts of the world.  In the four-wheel-drive groups, I learned the lingo of cars and mechanics. I can now describe the function of a certain part in simple words. 

Additional Advice on Learning A Second Language

Reading and listening to audiobooks is a great way to practice your second language on a daily basis, which is necessary if you don’t want to lose it. I started with children’s books like Harry Potter and slowly moved up to more difficult texts. There is a marked difference in the communication skills of a person who reads and a person who doesn’t. You have to put the time in, but finding things that you are interested in makes it fun rather than work. 

Joy Cheriel Brown | Author of The Secret Life Through Screenwriting

History With Language

I started formally learning Spanish in eighth grade, but my teacher was really discouraging and basically set me aside to tell me that I was over participating in class, so I got really bad in Spanish until about 10th or 11th grade. Around that time, there was a news report that Spanish speaking people would become the largest minority by 2000, so I started getting serious. 

Learning On Her Own

I was raised as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, so I began going to meetings in Spanish and reading the Bible-based magazines Watchtower and Awake! in Spanish, and translating the words I didn’t know from the English versions. 

I also learned Spanish from my Spanish speaking Jehovah’s Witness friends, with whom I did field service (going door-to-door) and meetings (services) in Spanish. Taking Spanish classes in school for an hour per day was not helping me learn the language, so I needed to be around native speakers. Field service allowed me to preach to native speakers, and meetings gave me another chance to practice the spoken language. 

Making Mistakes

One of the reasons so many people don’t master speaking the language they are learning is because they’re so terrified of making mistakes. I made mistakes all the time. Sometimes people laughed at me, but mostly they thought it was cute. They were usually really cool because they loved that someone was taking the time to learn their language and culture. 

As an American, it’s an especially big thing to actually practice speaking another language because the vast majority of Americans born here only speak English. Don’t be afraid to speak the language you’re learning aloud and make mistakes. Nine times out of ten, the native speakers are going to be very helpful and gently correct your mistakes. 

Once I became fluent, I used Spanish during the many years that I worked in property management. I spoke Spanish like an American, but I was able to communicate with many people nonetheless.  

Additional Advice on Learning A Second Language

To become fluent in a language, there are a lot of words that you need to learn. What really helped me was my Spanish to English dictionary (this was before apps, iTranslate, and Google Translate). I would literally take the time to look up every unknown word I came across. Even now, I’ll sometimes say a sentence in English and then say it in Spanish, just randomly, and if there is a word I don’t know or am unsure about, I look it up on my iTranslate app.  

For the languages I’m currently learning (Portuguese and Hebrew), I’m using apps like Duolingo, as well as Drops and Nemo for Hebrew. Once I get through the apps, I’m going to start listening to my old language CDs. Then I’ll start reading literature and books in the language, and eventually I’ll visit the countries where Portuguese and Hebrew are spoken, since it isn’t as easy to find those communities where I live. However, it is much easier to find Spanish speaking communities around me. 

Karen Ricks | Head Chef at Our Kitchen Classroom

History With Language

I am an amateur linguist who currently uses an average of five languages each day, and my family and I have been traveling the world full-time for the past four years. We were inspired to begin this nomadic Worldschooling lifestyle by meeting other nomadic Worldschoolers, first online, and later in person. Every successive relocation has gotten much easier, as we have been able to draw upon our own growing experience and the broader experience of our Worldschooling community. As of today, we have lived in over a dozen different cities and countries on four continents, in at least seven different community languages.

Learning new languages is both a mentally stimulating puzzle, of sorts, as well as an academic way to continually challenge our ways of thinking and moving through the world. It’s also a wonderful way to get to know the new people we befriend in our travels. The more we learn, the more we see what there is to learn! In addition to the constructed languages like Klingon and Esperanto, which we play with purely for fun, we have explored our native English, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, Albanian, Greek, Macedonian, and American Sign Language the most. To a lesser extent, we have also studied some Korean, French, Hindi, Hebrew, Vietnamese, Portuguese, Latin, Turkish, and Czech, either out of curiosity or as a precursor to possible future travel plans.

How We Do It

As a Certified Montessori Educator, I have always employed a variety of literacy techniques from my pedagogical training in order to strengthen the neural connections between the vocabulary and grammar structures I already know, and those I am exploring for greater understanding. The practice of literally putting pen to paper to visualize and feel the creation of the words is incredibly powerful. Combining the new-to-us languages with other sensory experiences, as I do when cooking with my new friends, also makes the learning experiences much more meaningful and memorable. 

When it comes down to it, however, there’s nothing better than actually speaking to someone in the target language when you must communicate about something vital (such as regarding food, shelter, transportation, etc.), making mistakes, and learning from those mistakes. Trial and error in the context of daily living is truly the best teacher!

Challenges

One of the biggest challenges to learning new-to-us languages as native English speakers has always been the desire for other people to practice their English with us. We’ve found the best way to overcome that is to interact with people who don’t speak any English themselves. Although this can be a bit more difficult in major cities around the globe, it makes for much more interesting experiences as we explore smaller towns and more rural areas of different countries. 

Another challenge is that not all languages have the same variety of available resources for studying them, especially if you are not specifically living within the borders of a land where that particular language is spoken. As we have had much less face-to-face interaction with locals since the pandemic, we’ve been fortunate to have our multilingual/multicultural Worldschooling community from which to draw on during these challenging times.

Additional Advice on Learning A Second Language

The best advice I can give someone who wants to learn a new language is that it’s never too late! Many people assume that they must start their language learning in childhood in order to gain any level of fluency, but that’s simply not true. I recommend that you find a context in which you truly enjoy studying your target language, and then have fun! Here are some ideas.

  • If you enjoy food and cooking like I do, explore your local foreign foods markets and chat with the owners and patrons. 
  • Sample products and dishes you’ve never tried before, restaurants that may be unfamiliar, and cuisines that you have yet to taste. 
  • Learn how to prepare a meal from someone who enjoys the food in the cultural context of their own home. 
  • Immerse yourself in the rhythm and cadence of the language by listening to the radio, news broadcasts, and/or movies and television programs that locals enjoy. Your “best” study method is whichever one you’ll practice regularly.

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