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How to Quickly Learn a Foreign Language (or Six)

Growing up, I made sure that all of my elective classes were foreign language classes, and in my last year of high school, I took German, Spanish and and online Japanese class as my 3 senior electives. I wanted so badly to learn about other places around the world, and to one day be able to travel to see them for myself. I wanted to talk to people in their own language, and to learn what their lives were like. I desperately wanted to be able to go beyond my small town life in Michigan, even if at the time it was only through my studies, and so I prepared myself to one day travel the world. It never really seemed like it would be possible, that I would actually be able to travel for a living, but I have been able to use my foreign language skills to visit places like Germany, France, Mexico, Japan, and so many more. I’ve studied French, German, Spanish, and Japanese extensively in school, as well as Italian and Latin, plus several other languages to a lesser degree, and I’m going to share how to quickly learn a foreign language, in the hopes that you can use them to pick up a few phrases for your next layover, or step up your speaking, reading, and writing skills in your language of choice.

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Why Bother Learning Another Language? 

I’ve had conversations in Spanish with Uber drivers in Los Angeles, I’ve given directions in Japanese inside of a Polish airport, traveled the German countryside where no one spoke any English using German, and I’ve used my ability to read basic Italian to find my way out of a complicated neighborhood in Rome late at night. More so than any other skill, learning another language allows you to truly connect with another person, and it, of course, makes traveling a million times easier to do successfully and conveniently. You can generally get by gesturing, drawing pictures, laughing a bit, or pointing (although this is rude in some places!), but there’s no substitute for truly being able to speak with another person, to understand them and in turn have them understand you as well. It’s such an incredible feeling! I hope these tips help you connect with others on a deeper, more sincere level.

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Practice, Practice, Practice

There’s no way around it. Practicing the language you’re studying is really the only way you’ll make real progress. After all, you can’t learn something if you’re not exposing yourself to it. Make flash cards with vocabulary words, listen to free language learning podcasts, read short stories or children’s books in the language you want to learn, write practice sentences, paragraphs, or stories, and just play around with the language. Set aside at least an hour a day to immerse yourself in the language of your choosing.

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Gather & Organize Learning Aids

Podcasts, apps like Duolingo, books, flashcards, music & movies with subtitles, and even YouTube videos all helped me tremendously when I was studying other languages. Do some research into which learning aids are the best and most successful for others and to get an idea of what you might like to use to study. Personally, I really disliked tools like Rosetta Stone CDs, but other people have had excellent success with them, which just goes to show that everyone is different.

One of my favorite things to do was to take flashcards and cut them into 1/4ths or 1/8th the size (so I wouldn’t waste too much paper), and create my own custom flashcards with relevant vocabulary and grammar. When I was studying German in high school, and ended up testing out of 2 levels going from level 1 to level 4 in just a year. To do so, I made hundreds and hundreds of flash cards and studied them every single day, in between classes, when work was slow at my part time job, and any other time I had free time. There are free flashcard making apps now, but I really recommend writing out each word by hand, because you will not only practice writing in your target language, but it will also help you remember each term better.

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Something you will absolutely need is a dictionary in both your native language and the language you want to learn, it will become invaluable to you!

I loved using free podcasts & YouTube videos made by native speakers to practice my Japanese pronunciation, since it is so different from English. Some people love listening to audiobooks or language learning CDs while they drive to and from work everyday, thereby making the most of their commute. Check your local library to see what resources they may be able to lend you, so you can test them out before buying your own copies. Experiment a bit and figure out what works best for you, and then dig into it to challenge yourself to learn the language as thoroughly as you speak your own native tongue.

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Set Language Learning Goals for Yourself

For some reason, German came very easily to me, so I challenged myself to study at least 2 chapters in the textbooks we used in school each week. I had to borrow the next three textbooks from my teacher because I progressed so quickly in my studies. If you’re still in school, ask your teacher if they have any recommendations or study tools/advanced class materials you can study in order to work ahead. I aggressively studied German grammar, which is similar to English grammar, and made it a point to learn and use at least 50 new words each week. Usually these were vocabulary words from the textbook, and I’d always mix in at least 10 words I wanted to learn about, like plant and flower names, food words, clothing item names, words related to my hobbies like tennis, hiking, and photography, and more that wasn’t covered in the textbooks. Set aside time each day, even if it’s only 30 minutes, to study and made it fun for yourself.

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Make Learning Another Language Fun & Interesting

Tailor your studies to what interests you. Like I mentioned above, I always rewarded myself for studying the basics by throwing in vocabulary about things I loved, like tennis, photography, and nature. This made it much more enjoyable to study. I would also watch at least 2 movies in each language I was studying each month, in addition to studying the language. I remember being so excited and so proud that I could understand so much of what was being said in the German version of The Little Mermaid. It was such an incredible feeling to realize I’d taught myself the skills to be able to watch a movie without subtitles. Sure, it was a movie meant for kids, but I was SO proud of myself!

Watch movies in English with subtitles in your target language, watch them again dubbed in the language of your choosing with English subtitles and then watch it a third time later with only the audio in your target language. Once you know what’s happening, and have context and an understanding of the plot, you’ll be able to recognize the phrases and terms they use. Do this often enough, and you’ll pick up on so much. Pause the movie to look up words you don’t know, and write them down. Then at the end of the movie, make flashcards with those terms, and quiz yourself over and over until you know all of the terms.

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Label Common Items & Study With a Friend

When my husband and I were studying Japanese, we enrolled in community college courses, and immersed ourselves in the language ahead of our stay in Japan. We labeled everything we could reach in our house with sticky notes featuring the kanji for each object (the complicated Japanese character), as well as the hiragana or katakana pronunciation under the object’s name(s). We challenged ourselves to study an hour each day to learn as much as we could. We also made some friends at a few local Japanese restaurants who offers to practice speaking Japanese with them when we ordered our food and during our meal (we tipped generously for their time and assistance, of course). Find conversation groups or study groups to join so that you can practice speaking and engaging with others.

Toshogu Shrine in Nikko, Japan the Ultimate Travel Guide to Nikko, Japan Written, Researched, and Photographed by Annie Fairfax

Learn the Culture Associated with the Language 

A huge part of learning a language is learning about the associated culture(s). Make time to learn about the history of the area the language you are learning hails from. Learn about current events, their holidays, how the average person eats a meal (at the table with family or in front of the TV, what utensils do they use, what are common meals in that area and what cultural significance does each dish have, etc.), learn about traditional dress, when those clothing styles are worn and what they signify, and learn about traditional music and dance. If you’re learning Arabic, learn about Islam and how they two are connect. If you’re studying Korean, learn about K-Pop, Korean skincare scientific advancements, and regimens, and delicious Korean specialty dishes. If you’re learning Japanese, learn about kimono, how, why and when they are worn, learn about Japanese temples & shrines, learn about their festivals, and their history before and after they open their borders to the world. These are just a few examples of things to look into about a couple of languages. The world is massive, and all of human history is at your finger tips with the internet. Dive in and immerse yourself as much as you can, it will make learning and understanding a language so much easier.

Crowds of People at Senso-Ji Temple Asakusa Kannon Buddhist Temple in Tokyo, Japan Shrine with Massive Red Japanese Paper Lanterns Near Tokyo Sky Tree Goddess of Mercy by Annie Fairfax

While you’re at it, be sure to learn the proper names for dances, food, outfits, holidays and festivities, and cultural norms in that language’s culture(s). Of course, some languages are spoken by many people all over the world who all live very differently from each other, like French which is spoken from Canada and France to Northern Africa and Haiti, so you will need to be sure not stereotype people and assume everyone that speaks a language lives the same way, because that isn’t the case. If you are able to get involved with festivities like Día de Muertos, Oktoberfest, or Hatsumōde, learn how to respectfully and authentically participate, or simply read about it and watch YouTube videos about it. This will help you feel a much stronger connection to, appreciation of, and understanding of other people and their language.

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Travel & Use What You’ve Learned

Whether vacationing, studying abroad, or traveling for work, there’s no substitute for being completely immersed in a language by living it. When you have no choice but to speak that language, you’ll be amazed to realize just how much you’ve actually learned. I’ll never forget the first time I had no choice but to speak Japanese while in Japan. I was ordering miso soup and some vegetable and tuna sushi at a café in the countryside while waiting to catch a train to another town, and no one there spoke any English, everything was in Japanese. I was so embarrassed and worried that I would mess up my order that I was shaking. The person who took my order understood what I wanted because they replied to me kindly and brought me exactly what I has asked for. Everything went smoothly, and there was no confusion. In that moment I realized that it was okay to make mistakes, and that everything was going to be okay. Just as I would never, ever judge someone for having imperfect English, I have never in all of my travels encountered someone who laughed at me for imperfectly speaking their language.

Even with all of my practice and studying, I still make a lot of mistakes when speaking (boy do I have some stories about these mistakes haha), and it’s okay! Simply making an attempt to speak to someone in their language is so endearing that they won’t judge you, so just go for it and do your very best. Order your food in another language, ask hotel staff for directions in their language, try your best to read a map in another language, or strike up a conversation with your Uber driver, and no matter what happens, don’t give up. Just keep practicing, keep studying, and soon it will become second nature. Sometimes, I even have dreams in other languages! It’s incredible how much the human mind knows and retains, even if we might not consciously be aware of it.

Mealt Falls on the Isle of Skye Scotland's Scottish Highlands Photographed by Annie Fairfax

More Tips Coming Soon 

I sincerely hope these tips help you learn. Learning another language is a lot of work, but don’t give up. Think about how long it took you to learn your native language, and remember that it will take just as long, if not longer to learn another language because you don’t have someone (the adults in your life or your parents and family) constantly teaching you new vocabulary, correcting your speech, and teaching you new grammar. Sometimes, I come across words in English I’ve never seen before and I have to look them up. Does that mean I failed to learn English? Of course not, it just means there’s more to learn, which is why learning a new language is a journey, not a destination.

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xAnnie Fairfax
Follow Me for More: @AnnieFairfax

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  1. Cassidy Nobles says:

    We went to U of M together and we were in the same final level Spanish class. I have been following your blog for awhile and seeing this made me remember that time you helped another person with their French homework, in our Spanish class, while you practiced writing for your Japanese class. I thought that was super impressive but now that this says you speak even more languages than “just” those 3, it’s clear to me why you love to travel so much! I hope you’re doing well and that life is going well for you. It’s fun to follow along on your adventures. If you’re ever in Denver, let’s catch up! I’d love to show you around sometime.