To learn a language is to have one more window from which to look at the world. — Chinese Proverb
“Mom, when I grow up I want to speak at least three languages!”
I have always loved learning languages since I was a kid. I find it fascinating and mind-opening. And I recently found out that it also has several benefits for our brain.
For example, did you know that speaking more than one language improves our cognitive processes and learning skills?
Also, according to a study published in the journal Cerebral Cortex, people who speak more than one language have more gray matter in the executive control region of the brain. In other words, the volume of this brain area increases in bilinguals and polyglots.
Incredible, isn’t it?
First of all, what does being fluent mean?
Some people can perfectly speak a foreign language but the moment they send you an email, you only see grammar mistakes and typos everywhere. Some people instead, can perfectly understand a language, but can hardly speak or write.
All this happens when your level is still basic or intermediate. Or when you learned a language living in a foreign country but you never studied its grammar and syntax.
Imagine the language you want to learn divided into four equal areas.
These areas correspond to four skills:
- Written understanding (reading);
- Oral understanding (listening);
- Written production (writing);
- Oral production (speaking).
When you are at a beginner or intermediate level, you are probably good at one or two of those skills and need to work more on the others.
When I was learning Spanish, I remember I could understand anything I read, but when it came to understanding what I listened to I felt lost. Completely lost. And when I had to speak I panicked. I knew I had to work on my listening and speaking skills.
It’s very subjective.
So, being fluent means mastering all the four areas of a foreign language — that is reading, listening, writing and speaking — and using the language effortlessly and automatically.
How to get started?
There are many ways to get started. What has always worked for me is the combination of several activities. It’s the best way to develop all the skills — reading, listening, writing and speaking — learn the grammar and enrich your vocabulary.
These activities complement each other and are a great way to practice if your goal is to become fluent.
The best way to start is to attend a course. When you are a beginner, it’s always a good idea to take classes with a native-speaking teacher regularly. This helps you become familiar with the structure of the language and with the grammar.
After you get a solid foundation, you can study on your own and practice through other activities. In any case, I always recommend taking classes up to an upper-intermediate or advanced level.
One essential part of a language course is homework. Don’t underestimate its importance. Practicing grammar 45 to 60 minutes a day and doing your written homework is the best way to learn and improve quickly.
At least, consistently doing my homework and copying every single sentence of my grammar exercises on my copybook worked wonders for me. Yes, instead of just filling in the blanks I copied everything. This way I memorized the grammar and now I don’t have to think too much about the verb conjugations or other rules when I speak.
Also, practice makes perfect, so when learning a new language, it’s also important to watch movies, speak that language as much as possible, travel and read a lot.
It’s Netflix time
One activity that helped me learn the languages I’m fluent in, is watching movies and series. And it’s still helping me a lot with the languages I’m learning now.
This is a great activity not only because it helps you improve your listening skills, but also because you learn vocabulary, idioms and the most common expressions of a language. You don’t even realize it, but when watching movies you absorb a new language.
Platforms like Netflix or Amazon Video are useful because you can switch language whenever you want and you can decide whether to use subtitles or not.
If you are at a beginner level, the best thing is to use subtitles, as it also helps you learn how words are spelled. Once your level is a bit higher you can start watching movies and series without them.
The most effective way to improve quickly is to travel to a country where you can practice the language you are studying. The moment you are forced to communicate in that language is when you start learning. If you want to become fluent, you have to step out of your comfort zone.
When I was learning Spanish, I travelled to Spain anytime I could. I remember I always kept an eye out for cheap flights and travelled on weekends. And since I mainly travelled alone, when I was there I attended language exchanges.
Travelling to a country where you can practice with locals the language you are learning, is one of the best ways to become fluent.
If you can, the most effective way to achieve fluency is to spend a period of time in your target language’s country. You should at least spend two months abroad — I recommend between three and six months.
When I was 25, after working for a long period in my hometown and saving enough money, I moved to Barcelona for six months to attend a language course. I had a basic level back then and still had a lot to learn.
After three months I was living there, I could already consider myself fluent. This became possible because while living there I had the opportunity to practice daily with my local roommate, go to school every day and attend language exchanges in the afternoon or at night.
If your goal is to become fluent, consider the option of saving some money and spending some time abroad to attend a language course. If you can’t save a lot of money, you can also temporarily move abroad and find a job to cover your living expenses.
Language exchanges are events where you can practice a language with native speakers of your target language who also want to learn your native language. It’s the best way to put into practice what you have learned, especially if you can’t afford or you don’t have time to travel often.
They are an excellent opportunity to meet new people from other countries and learn more about their cultures. This is also a great way to enrich your social life.
You can search for language exchanges in your city on platforms such as Meetup and Couchsurfing. Some events are also promoted on Facebook groups.
Attending regularly this type of event both in my country and abroad, helped me a lot become fluent in two languages and it made a difference.
Read a lot
Another activity that helped me a lot is reading. Not only books but also news and blogs. And I now read a lot in the languages I’m learning.
Are you passionate about fashion? Are you learning French? Start following blogs about that topic in French. Read every day and take notes of all the new words you are learning.
Also, read the news and follow some interesting Facebook pages in your target language. For example, if you are passionate about food and recipes and you are learning German, you can look for some Facebook pages about that topic in German.
Language learning apps
If you want to practice every day — even when you are on the bus or when you are waiting in line at the post office — there is an app that I always recommend: Duolingo. It helps memorize grammar rules and vocabulary and it’s great to become familiar with the language.
Another good app is HelloTalk. Through this app, you can practice your target language with people who are interested in practicing your native language.
Also, there are great language-specific blogs with free resources that you can use to learn a language faster.
Apps like Duolingo and Hello Talk are definitely a great additional language learning tool.
I don’t have any affiliations or relationships with any of the apps and blogs mentioned here in this article, which means you’re getting my full, transparent opinion.
To recap briefly, if you want to become fluent in one or more languages, consider the following activities:
- Attending a course and studying;
- Watching movies and series in your target language;
- Living abroad for a while (if you can, it’s the most effective way to become fluent);
- Attending language exchanges;
- Reading a lot;
- Use language apps.
At any rate, I always suggest being consistent and relying on the combination of more activities to become fluent. It’s incredible how quickly you can learn a new language if you want to.