7 ways to learn a language

One of the most useful skills in the traveller's repertoire, learning a language can help you make friends, unlock a culture and get you out of trouble. But where to start?

Published 10 Dec 2016, 15:00 GMT, Updated 19 Jul 2021, 16:08 BST
Embrace the world of smartphone apps

Embrace the world of smartphone apps

Photograph by GETTY IMAGES

1. Have a goal
It's all very well making the grand New Year's resolution to learn Mandarin. But without realistic, short-term objectives, you're likely to flounder. For example, if your first goal in learning Spanish is to chat to locals in bars, make a learning plan that includes questions and opinions about popular conversation topics like music and football. The key is to break down your language acquisition into achievable milestones and tailor your practice accordingly.

2. Get with the tech
Don't throw away the text books just yet, but do embrace the world of smartphone apps. There are a lot of fun and addictive resources to tap into. Combine a language course app, such as Duolingo, Busuu or Babbel, with
a flashcard app for vocabulary, such as Memrise, AnkiApp or Tinycards, and practise with native speakers on chat platforms, including HelloTalk or HiNative. When abroad, keep Google Translate or iHandy Translator in your digital arsenal.

3. Virtual immersion
Living abroad is not a prerequisite for learning a foreign language; there's nothing 'in the air' that will magically make you fluent. The useful bit — being exposed to everyday language — can be replicated wherever you are through TV, film, radio, podcasts and music. Having a Brazilian soap opera on while you commute or cook, will help tune your ear to the cadences and pronunciation.

4. Start with cognates
Romance languages, such as French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian, have many words in common with English as result of shared Latinate sources. 'Action', 'nation', 'frustration', 'tradition', 'extinction', and thousands of other '-tion' words are spelled the same in French (although pronounced differently). Switch that '-tion' to a '-ción' and you have the same words in Spanish. Italian is '–zione' and Portuguese is '-ção'. In any language, loan words are your allies; they should be quick and easy to memorise.

5. Memory techniques
If you're having a hard time getting key words to stick, try to glue them in your brain using a visual mnemonic. Picture the meaning in a dynamic, colourful and weird way that links to its translation. Also, when you come across a new word, try using it a few times right away in different sentences. Studies show using words flexibly activates different parts of your brain.

6. Practise speaking early on
There may never be a time when you feel 'ready' to begin conversing, so find a conversation partner and jump in, using whatever phrases you know. Companies such as Conversation Exchange can set up conversation lessons with native speakers via Skype.

7. Learn to sound more native
Fillers are the words and phrases people say all the time between sentences. In French, an example might be 'alors'; in Spanish, 'pues'; in Japanese, 'so desu-ne'. They don't always mean much, but peppering your conversation with these flourishes will make you sound native, and buy you precious, face-saving time to think while formulating your sentences.

Put these tips into practice alongside one of International Houses' language courses. For information about International House, visit ihworld.com

Checklist: Language learning tools

The podcast:


News in Slow

, in various languages. Free. iOS/Android

The book:


Language Hacking

by Benny Lewis. RRP: £11.89

The electronic dictionary:



Partner Lux 3. From £349.95.

The app:

Google Translate. Free. iOS/Android

Follow @AmeliaDuggan

Published in the December 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)



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