As international travel opens back up, it’s only natural that we all want to grab our suitcases and escape to foreign lands after a year and a half of staying home. Many of us had grand ideas to finally knuckle down and learn a language during quarantine, but chances are not all of these lofty quarantine goals came to fruition. Or perhaps you are hoping to teach your kids another language without making them sit at the table with index cards. After all, learning a foreign language boasts a range of neurological benefits, from enhanced problem solving and spatial skills to improved memory function.
I myself studied French in high school and have used it a few times as an adult, but without frequent use, I’ve forgotten a good deal of it. But I’ve found that even without native speakers around with whom to practice, there's a lot I can do to improve my natural understanding.
Whether you’re looking to brush up on some basics before travel, or searching for an outside-the-box teaching strategy, here are some practical tips on how to learn a language beyond just downloading the Duolingo app.
When learning another language, one of the greatest challenges is understanding native speakers. I can read and write in French, and string together several sentences, but while my husband and I were on our honeymoon in Montreal, I couldn’t understand a word the cabbie was saying as he babbled on in rapid French.
When I got home, I bought the audio version of all seven Harry Potter books, and listened to them on my commute. Having read the English versions several times, I'm able to follow the story well, even though I don't know the language perfectly. I also recommend buying it in print and following along for a double-pronged approached. It’s also best to start with children’s books, as the language is simple and easy to follow along: even if your favorite book is Pride and Prejudice, it’s likely too advanced when listening or reading in another tongue.
Listen to foreign music
I prefer older music with a slow melody and easy-to-catch lyrics (sometimes I don’t even know what English music is saying). Check out the Luca movie soundtrack for Italian classic songs, and Edith Piaf for French.
Pink Martini is a go-to music group of mine: since they sing in several different languages, you can usually find at least a few in the one you’re trying to learn. I keep playlists on Spotify for this purpose: “French Music” and “Italian Music” so they’re always on hand.
Rewatch favorite movies
Know a movie line-by-line? Go to the audio options and change the language to the one you’re learning. Your brain will hear real conversations at real speed and you already know what they’re saying! For an added bonus, turn on subtitles so you can read it in the foreign language as well and follow along. Of course you could watch foreign films, but I’ve found I learn so much more when I already have a general idea of the script. Plus, if it’s a new movie, I have to use subtitles, and I end up just reading them instead of actually paying attention to the language. Your go-to comfort movie is the best way to go.
Make one day a week your “foreign language day”
As with all goals, it’s best to set up a system or routine into your life to give yourself consistent progress. For a year, I made Wednesday my “French” day and I saw a huge improvement in my understanding and proficiency. In the car I listened to French music or an audiobook, in the evenings I watched a favorite movie in French and I did the exercises on the Duolingo app. Set yourself some study time as well: Learn 10 new vocabulary words and one verb conjugation. Once a week is just enough to make progress without feeling too overwhelmed.
As with all languages, the best thing you can do is try to immerse yourself as much as possible in that language. Listen to it, speak it, think in it, dream in it. You know how you learn best. Maybe you’d do better to find a podcast in that language than listen to a children’s book. It’s also true that some languages are easier to learn than others, and some native speakers are also more forgiving than others when you make a mistake (Most Italians will mirror your mistakes to make you feel better, for instance.) No matter what language it is, the best way to learn is to use it. And when traveling, insist on practicing. It’s tempting to fall back on English because “everyone knows it,” but it’s a compliment to the native speakers that you want to learn from them. Bon chance!