Increased opportunities to travel, the globalization of business and the interconnectedness fostered by social media have made learning a second language extremely advantageous, as well as making it easier to accomplish. Being bilingual comes in handy whether you've signed on to an international gap year programme, are transferring to your company's international branch, or want your art to speak to a global audience.
As you contemplate taking on this new challenge, consider all the benefits of learning a second language. It increases your job opportunities, your knowledge of other cultures, your multitasking abilities and networking connections. Studies show it also improves your memory and slows cognitive decline, no matter what age you become bilingual.
To help you take advantage of these benefits, we've put together a handy guide on how to learn a new language. It works for everyone, whether you're on a budget, have time constraints, or haven't ever taken a language course.
How to learn a new language
So, where do you start? There are so many paths to becoming fluent in another language, it's important to have a plan before you begin. Follow the secrets and tools below to learn a new language by yourself — for free!
1. Choose the right language for you
Learning a new language requires a big commitment. Consider your motivations and choose wisely. It can be advantageous to select one of the most widely used languages in business, but it should also make sense for your career path. Learning Mandarin is a good choice for a high-finance job or if you’re planning on working abroad, but it may be more useful to learn Spanish if you're interested in international sports media, for example.
Consider your own skillset and learning style as well. A language closer in structure to your native tongue may be an easier choice, but you might personally be motivated to work harder on a language you find truly unique or beautiful to speak.
2. Set goals
The only way to achieve something substantial in any aspect of life is to effectively set goals for yourself. Becoming fluent can seem like an overwhelming undertaking, but creating a step-by-step plan will keep you on track. Focus on a goal of 100 words, or 20 useful phrases, or whatever sensible targets work for your ultimate objective.
Remember your motivation for learning a new language when setting goals. A person hoping to translate technical texts is going to focus more on vocabulary, while someone planning to travel for vacation concentrates their efforts on useful phrases and pronunciation.
3. Choose a method
As you'll see in our online tools section below, there are many options available to learn a language. You may already know your own learning style, or you can try out different methods to see which works best for you. Visual learners, for example, choose flashcards to learn vocabulary. Auditory learners try recordings that repeat key words and phrases.
Factor in your short-term goals. If you're traveling next month, try an immersive program that has you practising with native speakers right away. Workers in literary jobs like translators, editors or book cataloguers may need more specialized coursework in addition to online translation software and vocabulary drills.
4. Learn useful vocabulary
Your language textbooks at school probably included words and phrases that were easy to learn but weren't necessarily useful. Now, you should tailor your lessons to the most commonly used vocabulary that will assist you. Vacationers can focus most of their efforts on words related to the hospitality industry and travel. In contrast, anyone hoping to communicate with international colleagues and clients must commit to learning technical terms and even the usual corporate jargon.
Study words in groups. Knowing a single root word can instantly expand your vocabulary. The French root “port”, meaning “to move or carry”, helps you translate words like transport, déporter and téléportation. Learning subject-related items in one lesson, like various foods on a menu, can help solidify them as a group in your memory.
5. Use media
A language is more than just words and grammar. There is dialect and speaking style, cultural references, slang terms and more. To get a fuller picture of a modern language in use, utilize media in that language. It's easier than ever now with streaming services like Amazon, Netflix and YouTube offering programming in multiple languages with multilingual subtitles.
Use the subtitles in the matching language to absorb how specific words and phrases are ordered and pronounced. Use the subtitles in your native language for a content translation.
Choose media closer to your skill level. A beginning language learner should consider children's programs, reality TV or soap opera dramas, where action is slower, and the story is simpler to decipher.
Programs in your area of interest can also help you learn fast. Listen to a political podcast or sports commentary, for example, where common terms and names you recognize will help you understand context.
6. Listen carefully
We learn our native language as children by listening to the adults around us. Regional accents perpetuate because even adults who migrate to the area listen daily and mimic the sounds and cadences they hear. To learn a new language, listen carefully to native speakers.
Whether working in a classroom, with a personal tutor, or just conversing on Zoom, make sure to listen. Focus not just on the meanings of words, but how the speaker groups them together, which syllables get stressed, and which are rolled over or connected to other sounds.
Listen to audiobooks and foreign language radio on headphones to really focus on the sounds and vocal structure. Close your eyes and meditate on what you're hearing. If you're too busy with other tasks, just having the audio on in the background will help you absorb and grow accustomed to the way the language is spoken.
7. Talk to yourself
One of the largest impediments to learning a language is being too embarrassed to test out your skills with a native or expert speaker. While you work to overcome that hurdle, you'll still need to practice. Read the words and phrases aloud to work on pronunciation and cadence. Some language learners practice by narrating their day or trying to describe the scene around them.
Speaking the words aloud also helps you learn. A University of Waterloo study found that the active, dual process of vocalizing information and hearing it was the most effective way to commit that data to long-term memory.
8. Connect with people
The whole point of language is to communicate thoughts, ideas and feelings to other people. Learning a new language can help you engage with others when you travel, to understand more about their cultures and to make new friends. It's also a great way to improve your intercultural communication skills at work, and find common ground with your colleagues.
The ultimate test of your new language skills is making conversation with a fellow learner or native speaker. Online courses, forums, video conferencing and social media have made this aspect of learning a language much easier.
If you already engage in an active niche on social media, such as movies, TV, sports, fan sites or politics, you likely know someone proficient in the language you hope to learn. They may be just as eager to practice their skills in your native language. It's easier to find ways to converse when you already have common ground, and you may feel less embarrassed making mistakes with a friend.
9. Consult a professional
If you require more structure when learning, are looking for practice partners, or just feel like you've stalled in your learning, it may be time to check in with an expert. Opportunities for professional advice include online courses and online tutoring, as well as in-person classes at a community college, university or at a language learning centre.
Learning a language is a steppingstone to career advancement. Some companies will even pay for your coursework. If there's not a written policy, ask your boss if they'll consider contributing to your continuing education. Check with your colleagues to gauge their interest in joining you, as these would be the perfect practice partners.
10. Go all in!
The only way to become truly proficient in a new language is to dedicate yourself fully to the task. In addition to regularly applying the above steps, immerse yourself in the language as much as you can. One bold option is to change your laptop browser and phone settings to the new language. The familiar formats can help you intuitively decipher unfamiliar words, and the deep dive forces you to constantly think in your new vernacular.
An added benefit of language learning is that it helps you hone many of the professional skills you need in the workplace. Flex your time management muscles by finding ways to work language study and practice into your busy schedule. Use your problem-solving skills to decode complex grammar problems and find the best way to memorize vocabulary quickly. Work on your language and teamwork skills by collaborating with others who have more expertise.
Tools for learning a new language
Now that you know the best ways to learn a language, it's time to explore some of the online tools and programs that can help you achieve your goals. Whether it's translation tools, online courses, or resources for finding practice partners, there are low-cost and even free options available. We've put together a list of some of the top language tools to help you get started.
Cost: Free, low-cost monthly or lifetime subscription
2. Rosetta Stone
Cost: Free, low-cost monthly or lifetime subscription
Millions of users worldwide have made use of these online programs and app, which incorporate speech recognition software to check your pronunciation. Rosetta Stone also offers industry-specific lessons and vocabulary for workplace language goals.
Cost: Rates set by individual instructors
Italki is an online resource that connects you with professional teachers for one-on-one instruction. You can also find more conversation partners for free in the forum.
Cost: Free with ads, monthly or yearly subscription
Available online or as a mobile app, Duolingo uses short lessons and games to keep you engaged in learning. AI technology adjusts the pace to your skill level.
Cost: Some free introductory lessons, monthly or lifetime subscription
The Babbel app has short lessons in vocabulary, grammar and culture at all skill levels. You can also take online courses, play games, listen to original podcasts and more.
Cost: Free trial, monthly subscription, multiple language discount
Professor and linguist Dr. Paul Pimsleur developed his first self-instruction course for languages in 1963. The modern-day Pimsleur app still follows his scientific method to focus on common vocabulary and gradually commit it to long-term memory.
Cost: Customized to your budget
Utilized by large corporations like Microsoft and BNP Paribas, Chatterbox combines intensive online study with live coaching from native speakers and global business professionals, including traditionally underemployed groups like refugees and marginalized ethnic minority groups.
Billed as “the ultimate language exchange”, HelloTalk connects you to native speakers of over 150 different languages. Converse via text, voice and video calls to learn their language, while they learn yours.
Cost: Free podcasts, pay by course
This online language program offers instructional podcasts in French, Italian, Chinese, German, English, Swedish and Spanish. You can take it to the next level with online video courses at CoffeeBreak Academy.
An incredible resource that allows key word searches in dictionaries for over 160 languages, Lexilogos has multiple sources for each. Expand your expertise with informative texts on alphabets and grammar, and access to language-specific keyboards and downloadable fonts.
As this guide has shown, you have multiple tools at your disposal to help you learn a second language. Start your journey by identifying your goals and choosing the method that will help you learn the most. Make a plan that keeps you on track.
Learning a new language can be a fantastic experience. It opens doors to new career options, travel opportunities and cultural awareness. Best of all, it can improve existing relationships with colleagues and friends, and help you make new connections. Bonne chance (good luck)!
Have you used any of the tips or tools above to help you master a second language? Share your experiences in the comments below!
This is an updated version of an article originally published on 7 July 2019.