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4 Ways To Learn A Foreign Language, According To Science

Chances are that if you’re reading this, English was your first or second language. You spoke English at home and you live in an English-speaking country. But what happens when you decide to travel to a country where English isn’t popular or common? While some of us can get by using a few handy phrases, a language barrier poses infinite challenges – especially if you’re moving out for the long haul. So, what do you do?

Can you speed-learn an entire language in two weeks before you leave? Could you just take a few lessons once you get there? Or will you simply pick it up once it surrounds you?

We asked Alba Tuninetti, a post-doctoral researcher who studies languages (and learning them) for a living, for some hot tips.

#1 Jump right in and immerse yourself

jump straight in

If you’re travelling to a foreign country, you’ve taken an excellent first step. Immerse yourself! Studies show that an immersive environment (like an intensive summer program or moving abroad) is a far more effective way to hone your speech fluency and fluidity (pauses and errors) compared to a classroom setting. What better reason to move overseas, right?

“Don’t mistake being in the country for speaking the language every day! It’s important to actively avoid speaking your native language,” says Tuninetti. If you’re studying abroad, for instance, you have to take the language outside. You’ll learn far, far more if you speak your new language all day, every day – not only when you’re in class.


#2 Take it slow, take it slow, take it slow

study a new language

Repetition is boring. Repetition is boring. Repeti… You get the idea. But it turns out that repetition helps a LOT when it comes to becoming fluent in a second language. A study showed that patience is key for many of those learning a second language; when asked to write a story, they performed much better without a time limit, producing fewer errors in syntax and verb conjugations.

In the same study, those who had to repeat the task – with no time limit– performed even better and were able to produce complex, comprehensive stories. In a different study, participants improved speech rate, paused less, and were better at fixing their own errors on each repetition.

“You can use these studies to teach yourself,” says Tuninetti. “Watch a silent cartoon with a friend and ask them to listen to you narrate it. You can also record yourself, mark yourself for correct conjugations, how long your sentences are, and if your language is fluid. The more you repeat, the more likely it is that you’re encoding that structure in long-term memory. Flashcards are your friends!


#3 Yes, online courses work

apps work to learn a new language

A recent study showed that online platforms like Duolingo really can teach you a new language – in particular, those which offer real-time chat sessions with native speakers.

Users showed increases in syntactic complexity (as in, your ability to construct a longer, more detailed and descriptive sentence) with use. Though this increase did come with an increase in errors, this was considered an incidental rise – if you’re using more complex sentences, it only makes sense that you’re making more errors.

Ultimately, online resources that offer chats with native speakers are best. For those that don’t, Tuninetti suggests taking “an hour per week to chat to a live speaker in your city. There are plenty of language tutors out there who would be willing to practice conversation, or even friends who might enjoy a chat in their native language over a beer or coffee.”

All in all, technology has been shown to be really beneficial when it comes to learning a new language. People feel more engaged, it’s easy to do it on your own, and dedicated use really can lead to serious gains in language proficiency.


#4 Listen and learn

listen and learn

This might sounds a bit weird, but listening to a language without really understanding it actually allows you to pick out words and learn how to parse speech in that language.

One study showed that adults are able to learn which sounds belong to words from a completely nonsensical stream of syllables. “Say you’re listening to French radio or putting French TV on in the background,” says Tuninetti, “you’ll be able to actually pick up on the rhythm of the speech, understand how native speakers construct their sentences, and pick up on vocabulary.

However, do not underestimate the importance of paying attention and having explicit second-language instruction. Although you may pick up words from context, this won’t be enough – make sure to combine listening to your favourite Latin-American soap opera with explicit hours of online tutoring or meeting with a native speaker.”

At the end of the day there’s no cheat sheet for learning an entire new language – however you do it, you’ve got a lot of hard work ahead. However, the above tips can help speed up and enhance the language learning experience. “Don’t be afraid to mix and match different strategies,” says Tuninetti, “but remember to repeat as well. Overall, motivation, dedication, and a willingness to learn are some of the most crucial steps to learning a language.”

Alba Tuninetti is a researcher at the MARCS Institute for Brain, Behaviour & Development at Western Sydney University, and the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language.

Inspired to travel the world and learn a foreign language? Check out Qantas flights here.