The first thing you’re asking is probably “What does this woman know about language learning? Why should I take her advice?” I actually grew up in a completely bilingual environment: speaking Taiwanese Hokkien at home, and American English everywhere else. Seven years ago I decided to move from North Carolina to Taipei, Taiwan, to learn Mandarin Chinese. I enrolled in a language training center, and two years later, decided to put my Bachelor’s in English to use start teaching English. Based on my experiences and observations as both a language learner and teacher, this is the list I’ve come up with for mastering any language.
Research has shown that the best way to learn a language is to be in an environment where you are exposed to the language at all times. Not everyone can pick up their things and move to another country to learn a language, but there are plenty of language immersion programs you can enroll in. Another option is to find a community of native language speakers in your area. Many places have enclaves based on nationality or language, particularly near universities. Seek these out and make some new friends!
Forget what you’ve been taught about not listening in on people’s conversations. If your goal is to use a foreign language to communicate, then listening in on native speakers is a great way to learn grammar, slang, and every day vocabulary. This will help your speaking sound much more natural. You don’t want to sound like you’re reciting lessons from a book, do you?
Use materials that interest you
Think about the conversations you have in your native language. Chances are, you spend most of your time talking about things that interest you, or are related to your life in some way. The same thing will occur in your foreign language. That’s why it’s a good reason to choose learning materials that you find interesting. You’ll be more likely to remember vocabulary words that are relevant to you, and you’ll use them more often, which helps them become part of your long-term memory. I recommend that my students use TV shows and magazine articles that they enjoy, but with a focus on learning words and terms they aren’t familiar with.
Learn to think in that language
A 2011 study shows that thinking in a foreign language can lead to better decision making. It can also help you improve your skills in that language. For one thing, thinking of a sentence in your native language, then translating it into the foreign language is time consuming. Learning to think in the second language will improve your response time. On top of that, your grammar and sentence structure are much more likely to be wrong if you’re translating from one language to another.
Practice every day
Learning a language isn’t like riding a bike; you can easily forget what you’ve learned. This is why you should expose yourself to the language you’re learning every day. Maybe you don’t have time to sit down and study for 2 hours. That’s ok, even something like listening to a podcast during your commute, or watching a TV show while you work out can give you the exposure you need. The most important thing is to keep at it!