Everyday Life Hacks to Learning Any Language

Becoming multilingual has a number benefits beyond those that are immediately obvious. For example, cognitive benefits can include improving brainpower, delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s, increasing concentration and reducing biases. Put simply, learning a new language expands a person’s consciousness in ways that give them the chance to build stronger, better habits. Perhaps the most important of those habits, is the habit of becoming a lifelong learner. There’s learning the language itself, and then there’s all the new information which that new language opens up to you.

Learning new languages, although challenging, is a rewarding and enriching experience that begins to build momentum toward life-improving changes right from the outset. If you ask any polyglot, they’ll tell you that learning a second language makes it much easier to learn the third, fourth, and so on. Yes, it appears pretty daunting at the beginning. That’s understandable. But a few tips on learning strategies should make the process easier. And once you have a learning process figured out, those same principles can be applied to any new language.

The fact is that language classes aren’t taught in the most efficient way. Students gather in large groups and expect a few worksheet exercises will help get them from novice to fluency, but then it’s four years later, the exams have all been passed with flying colors, and they still make a hash out of ordering Mousse de Foies de Volaille au Foie Gras in a French restaurant. Worksheets are fine practice. If your goal is to actually use the language, you’re going to have to practice with speech. If you want to learn how to speak the language quickly, then you’re going to practice speaking a lot.

Life Hack #1: Accountability

You don’t need to be an expert to know classrooms make poor language learning environments. Listening to someone describe the language over years doesn’t help you hold any conversation worth having. Language is a purely experiential process.

That said, if you’re stuck taking a class, you’re still in luck. Class or no, the key is accountability in the real world. While it’s helpful to have a consistent study program, it’s most helpful to supplement your learning time with time spent actually speaking it. If you know any, spend an hour with a native speaker using the language you’ve learned from a classroom; this will give you contextual wisdom rather than textbook rigidity.

Life Hack #2: Learn High Frequency Phrases

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The English language is comprised of over 1 million words, but the majority of what we say and write can be narrowed down to 500. This rule of high frequency words and phrases tends to stay true across all languages, so it only makes sense to start studying these. Here’s an example: If you’re learning English, you could try to learn nudiustertian, a word most native English speakers don’t realize means “the day before yesterday,” but it only works in that specific context, whereas “the day before yesterday” contains four very common words used in millions of other applications.

Life Hack #3: Acting Out Movies

Beginner Version: Foreign movies are one of the best ways to passively pick up a language. The problem with that base concept is it’s one built by the lazy individual inside all of us that wants to achieve without effort. Unfortunately, learning a language, even slowly, takes effort. Nobody ever becomes fluent passively. Movies with subtitles are an improvement, but watching them for eight consecutive hours with the expectation that you’re on the path to becoming fluent is like trying to become a doctor by watching trauma shows. You might pick up a few important, relevant words, but you’re no expert.

That said, movies that use subtitling services are still worth their proverbial weight in gold. The real crux of this lifehack is to not pick a random foreign movie. Instead watch a favorite movie in your chosen language that has been enhanced with English subtitles by a subtitling and closed captioning company. You’ll already know most of the dialogue, so it should be easy to engage with the material and act out the parts – read out the lines, copy body movements and feel the language come to life.

Advanced Version: After you’ve done the beginner version a few times, find a foreign film in your chosen language, maybe one you’re already familiar with. But this time instead of English subtitles, find one that has subtitling in the same language as the film. This enables you to see the spoken words of your chosen language as text at the bottom of the screen. As a variation on this approach, many immigrants to the United States learning English as a second language have made use of the closed captioning services available to the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Like same-language subtitles, closed captions display text on screen in the same language as the program. By law, almost everything on television has closed captioning these days. In fact, if your chosen language is Spanish, you’ll find that Spanish closed captions are available for most of the Spanish-language programs. You can see how this strategy requires a certain level of proficiency.

Life Hack #4: Make Mistakes Without Fear

Are you ready for this one? You’re not perfect. If you were, you would already know every language, after all! It makes sense to fear making a mistake and looking or sounding stupid, but nobody ever speaks fluently and perfectly from the start, even with native languages. Forgive your own humanity and allow room for errors; after all, you are a student who is learning. If you understand that, you will move forward from any mistakes.

Life Hack #5: Specify SMART Goals

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The only smart way to make goals is to make them SMART: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Timely. “Learn to speak Spanish” is a great goal, but it doesn’t tell anyone how well you want to learn and by when. Narrow it down:

  • Learn the 100 most common phrases
  • Learn to hold a basic conversation with greetings and directions
  • Learn how to order 50 different dishes in a restaurant

Life Hack #6: Singing Along to Foreign Songs

Along with movies supported by subtitling and closed captioning companies, foreign music is seen as a rapid path to passively learning another language. Songs have less emphasis on vocabulary and grammar as they’re meant to be more emotive, but don’t count them out completely. Same as with movies, you need to get engaged with the songs. Study the words, learn the tune and sing along. Spend time singing along with the lyrics, but do remember it’s in a similar vein to learning a language from poetry – you’ll see the right words, but not necessarily an appropriate structure.

Life Hack #7: Consistency

This is less a lifehack than an ordinary piece of advice. But it’s enough of a problem that it should be addressed. You won’t hold onto any language, or any knowledge base for that matter, without consistency. Make it a point to spend an hour each day practicing, and those hours will quickly add up over time. A tutor – which speaks back to the accountability hack – can help maintain this consistency.

There you have it! As the saying goes; different strokes for different folks. There may be other useful tips to learning a new language, but these seven, applied with consistency, will get any new language learner to proficiency or fluency in no time.

Pablo Butler