Speaking a second language is a wonderful tool to have at your disposal. Not only is it fun and cool, but it opens doors to experience another culture in new, exciting and personal ways. And if you're working on speaking a language that others speak in your community, it can also open doors for you professionally. So, if you're itching for some tips to help advance your language learning process, have no fear…I'm here to share with you 10 of my trusty tips for how I learned to speak my second language! (How well do I speak it, you ask? Well, native Spanish speakers often think I’m a native Spanish speaker, just to give you some context.) These are all things that I did myself, so I’m confident in recommending them all to you! :) Let’s get started with some specific tips, and then move on to my more “philosophical” and general advice:
1. Watch television shows, movies and videos in your target language
For those working on learning Spanish, watch the Spanish-language TV station with closed captions on. For less common languages in the U.S., there are TONS of videos online. Watching children’s programming is good, because the characters sometimes speak more slowly intentionally and cover everyday language. If you can watch a learning program, such as
Plaza Sesamo (Sesame Street in Spanish) or Pepa Pig in French, even better. If you’re learning a common language—such as French or Spanish—you can also watch your favorite DVDs in the language, either with the voiceovers or with subtitles.
2. Listen to the radio in your target language
Listen to either an actual radio station, or online radio. The Internet makes it incredibly easy to find programming in a vast number of languages. (Since I’ve started learning French, I enjoy the tunes of Radio Ouistiti, for example.) The more you expose your ears to the new language, the better. Your brain will grow more and more accustomed to what it’s supposed to sound like, and you won’t have to rely on the way it sounds in your head, which may or may not be correct phonetically.
"The more you expose your ears to the new language, the better. Your brain will grow more and more accustomed to what it’s supposed to sound like..."
3. Read newspaper articles in your second language
When I was learning Spanish, I would frequently get free Spanish-language newspapers to read a few of the articles. Nowadays, there’s also a great deal of free content available online, or even through free apps. Even if you don’t catch every word, read an article all the way through as much as possible without stopping, circling the words you don’t know. See if you can figure out the gist of the article without looking up every word. Then go back and look up the circled words on a site like
4. Volunteer or intern at an agency that works with native speakers of your target language
This is a free way to get some semi-immersion experience. My first internship was with an agency that advocated for the Hispanic/Latino community in my state, and since it was a paid internship, it was like getting paid twice. If people try to speak to you in English, politely let them know that you really want to speak your second language, and ask them to speak to you in it as much as possible.
5. Find informal ways to talk to native speakers
Another thing I used to do (that now makes me look back and laugh at myself) is literally walk up to Spanish speakers in grocery stores and simply start a conversation. I was VERY determined. Well, that may or may not be your cup of tea. Of course you should be careful about whom you approach, but people are usually very friendly, and will often find it fascinating that you're interested in their native tongue.
6. Study abroad!
If you’re in college, study abroad! Just do it! It may feel like a semester or a year away from home is a long time, but on a larger scale, it’s not; the time truly flies and it returns in dividends. Not only that, but there will be few times in your life after graduation where you’ll be able to take an extended international “trip” and be expected to do nothing but learn. Another reason for studying abroad is that it really broadens your horizons and view of the world we live in. Living in another country for 5 months is an indelible education, and it helps you gain perspective of yourself and of others.
Personally, I studied “abroad” in Puerto Rico while in college, which proved to offer many of the benefits of a lot of study abroad programs without the price tag. If you’re finished with college, there are other opportunities to go abroad long-term. I joined the United States Peace Corps, and spent three-and-a-half years in another Spanish-speaking country. This was an incredible experience, that—while not for everyone—helped me grown in my linguistic and cultural fluency, and also gave me the chance to do incredible work.
7. SPEAK the Language!
The best piece of advice someone told me about language learning (while in Puerto Rico) was this: “You'll never improve your Spanish by speaking English.” So, SPEAK the language! You have to allow your mouth to form the words. Even if they're wrong at first, even if they just don’t sound right, even if your tongue gets twisted up, you have to open your mouth and speak. You just do! But the more you do, the better you'll get. I promise. If you want to speak the language, well…speak the language!
"You have to allow your mouth to form the words. Even if they're wrong at first, even if they just don’t sound right, even if your tongue gets twisted up, you have to open your mouth and speak. You just do! But the more you do, the better you'll get. I promise."
Okay, so now on to my more general, and philosophical advice:
8. Listen to the language organically and pay attention to tone
Remember that understanding a second language in conversation will likely be significantly harder than understanding it in writing…at least at first. If someone is speaking quickly, you may not catch every word, and that’s okay. For reading, context clues can help you figure out what's being communicated; for speaking, tone can help you figure out what's said. Keep that in mind, and try to open your mind to try to understand the spoken language organically instead of mechanically whenever possible. This may sound hard, and it is indeed a challenge, but the subconscious is pretty powerful. (Admittedly, this of course is much more effective for languages that lend themselves to this, like the romance languages, and perhaps not as pertinent for tonal languages, or those in which what’s expressed can actually change depending on the tone.)
9. Keep a positive attitude during the process
One of the most important things to remember is that learning a language is a process. So, if you're really set on learning your new tongue, don’t let bad days or setbacks deter you. I often liken learning a language to learning to play a musical instrument. It would be great to be able to pick up a saxophone and belt out John Coltrane’s Giant Steps just two days after you started learning it, but that's not reality. The fact is one has to start with scales and basics that help him/her become a more FLUID player (more on that word in the next point). In learning a new language, don't be discouraged if you have trouble with forming full sentences at first; work on the basics.
I definitely faced my challenges during my 300-level Spanish courses in college, and there were days when I felt confused. But I was determined to get the language. If you're determined to get it, you WILL get it. But know that if you’re not in a position where you HAVE to speak it day-to-day, you will HAVE to be determined and make yourself speak it.
"...if you're really set on learning your new tongue, don’t let bad days or setbacks deter you."
10. Focus on “fluidity” rather than “fluency”
In retrospect, I would have reframed how I thought about the language learning process, and focused less toward FLUENCY, and more on becoming a more FLUID speaker. “Fluency” (at least the way we tend to use the term connotatively) suggests that there's a point at which, *POOF!* you're fluent. It just doesn’t work like that. “Fluidity,” as I call it, acknowledges where you are in your understanding and ability, and in your progress. For example, if someone were to ask you if you were “fluent” in English, you'd likely think they were crazy; that's a silly question. Do you know/understand EVERY single word in the English language? Of course not, but you communicate in it, because it's just what you speak. It would likewise be silly to expect a 4-year-old native English speaker to understand Shakespeare. But they do communicate…and it is effective for their level, until they move to deeper degrees of communication. Work on becoming more fluid in your communication, rather than towards this arbitrary (dare I say, non-existent) point of “100% fluency.” Appreciate where you are in the process, and keep stretching until you advance further.
So there you have it, folks—my 10 tips that will help you advance in your language learning process. I hope they’ve been helpful to you. If you have any questions or comments, or if you’re interested in how I can advance your language learning as a tutor,
contact me via WyzAnt