Fait intéressant: Seulement 17% des Américains parlent plus d’une langue. Yep, according to a survey cited by Forbes, less than one fifth of Americans know a second language. And yet there are countless benefits to being bilingual, or at least able to fumble along in another dialect.
To name a few: It looks good on your resume and can help you get jobs; locals in foreign countries appreciate it when you make an effort in their own tongue; it makes you better at your own language; it’s believed to grow your brain and may protect against Alzheimer’s.
But what’s the best way to learn a new language? Approaches vary but there are some simple guidelines to make it a whole lot easier.
Recent years have seen a shift away from rote learning and monotonous grammar rules in favor of a more holistic approach. Beginning with elementary schooling, where immersion programs see kids learn other subjects like math and art in a foreign language, modern thinking places greater emphasis on a less intimidating and frankly more fun approach.
As adults, though, time is at a premium and learning a new language can feel like an extra chore in a life already crowded with parenting, netflixing or just trying to stay afloat. If you’re determined to master a second dialect, there are some key things to consider. Here are a few tips, and some of the best apps and courses on the market.
Make learning language fun
There’s no test score at the end of this, and no one will judge you for the odd mistake, so see it as an opportunity to broaden your horizons and engage with people on the other side of that language barrier. Many online courses and apps base their learning around gamification — if fanfares and rosettes do it for you, seek out one of these first.
Spaced repetition is your friend
As the name hints, spaced repetition is the theory that you’re more likely to properly memorize something if you repeatedly learn it over sections of time. As Quartz explains, it’s based on the idea of the “forgetting curve” from 19th century German psychologist Herman Ebbinghaus, the notion that we quickly forget something over a short period of time.
Spaced repetition sees you go back over things you’ve learned (like new vocabulary) repeatedly to get them to stick in your head. The Duolingo app (mentioned in more depth further on) is a good one for this technique.
Find bite-sized chunks of time to devote to it
Just a few sessions a week will seriously improve your vocabulary and pronunciation, as long as you stick at it and keep reminding yourself to do it regularly. Many apps for iPhone or Android are structured to work in tiny segments of time.
Try TV as a teacher
Mashable’s Brittany Levine Beckman swears by melodramatic telenovelas to learn Spanish, adding that listening rather than reading helps you pick things up quickly, and the pained facial expressions, overt emotions, and repetitious plots all work towards helping you understand. Pedro Almodóvar movies and other foreign language films — without subtitles — could be an entertaining place to start, too. As well as Netflix’s Cable Girls, a 1920s drama that takes place at a Spanish telecom company. It runs in both Spanish and dubbed English if you want to toggle between the two.
Meetups are a social way to learn
Meetup hosts listings of gatherings worldwide to practice another language, which can be a great place to practice your vocab while making a few new friends.
Don’t sweat the rules too much
Knowing the grammar helps, especially if you need to read and write in the language, but that doesn’t mean you need to spend days poring over dusty text books. Think back to how you learned the correct tenses or conjugation in English — it was through mimicry, repetition, and practice, right? There’s no reason why the second or third language in your arsenal should be any different.
Don’t worry about making a fool of yourself
You’ll make mistakes during this language learning process. You may tell an Italian you’re horny when you meant you’re hot. Or a Greek person that you’re pregnant when you meant embarrassed. Don’t take it too seriously. Most people will be pleased you’re trying and will point out the mistake.
Have fun with it
Chuck the odd phrase in a text message, write a poem or a song in your new lingo, or surprise your next server when you’re abroad with a phrase they weren’t expecting. Just don’t get too prétentieux.
Essential language apps to have you fluent in no time
There are almost as many language apps available as there are global dialects. Some worth investigating include:
Rosetta Stone – The best known and perhaps most comprehensive, Rosetta Stone promises to “train you to associate words with imagery in real-life situations” and has 24 language options. It’s definitely an investment – currently $7.49 per month for 24 months – but many people swear by it.
Babbel – This app breaks its tuition down into short, 10-15 minute chunks so you can pick up a por favor or an arigato on the subway or waiting for a bus. Subscriptions start at $5 a month.
Memrise – If you want to learn French, Spanish, Japanese, Korean, or a host of other dialects, with cartoony game rewards helping you along, this is for you. Prices start at $8.99 per month.
WaitSuite – Taking the concept of learning in your spare time to its logical extreme, this free to use MIT-associated project sends translation flash cards to your phone in those “micro-moments” when you’re waiting for a Wi-Fi connection or taking an elevator.
Mango – Mango’s exercises combine listening, reading and even movies to help you pick up vocabulary and grammatical patterns in 70+ languages. Pricing starts at $7.99 per month for one language. However, Mango partners with many libraries, so you might be able to access it for free with your library card.
All of the above aside, though, the single best way to learn a language is probably just to listen and talk. A lot. To whoever you can find. And keep at it. Удачи!
This story was originally published in 2018 and updated in 2020.