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How to learn a language – 8 top tips and advice

If you want to learn a language but aren’t sure where to start, we’ve got just the thing. We take a look at some top tips for language learning that can help you on your journey.

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As the world becomes ever more connected, the appeal of learning a new language is clear. Whether for business or pleasure, being able to communicate on an international level can bring many benefits. To support you on your learning journey, we take a look at some top tips and advice on how to learn a language. 

As well as looking at why learning a language can be beneficial, we also look at some of the most common ones to learn. If you’re trying to find out how long it takes to learn a language, we also explore how long your journey might take and how difficult it might be. Whether you’re new to this kind of learning or want to improve your efforts, you’re sure to find some useful information. 

Why learn a new language? 

Learning a new language can be rewarding on many levels, both personally and professionally. Although it can sometimes seem like a daunting undertaking, there are plenty of reasons to do so. What’s more, it’s never been easier to find the right resources and connect with native speakers and other learners. 

If you need further convincing, we’ve highlighted some of the potential benefits that come when you learn a new language: 

It enhances your brain 

There have been many studies that examine how we process language learning in our brains. It’s a fascinating subject area, with some surprising findings. For example, the complex process by which we learn a language can increase white and grey matter volume in the brain. Some of these regions of the brain are associated with things like enhanced problem-solving, focusing, and switching between tasks.

One study even found that bilingual participants developed dementia 4.5 years later than monolingual ones, regardless of factors such as education, sex, occupation and dwelling. Clearly, there are some fascinating impacts on the brain when it comes to learning a language. 

It boosts your career prospects

Another area that has been studied in detail is how being multilingual can impact a person’s career prospects. Several surveys have shown that those who can speak more than one language have the potential to earn more money. 

In 2010, for example, The Guardian reported that in roles such as sales, marketing or technical support, learning another language can add between 10% and 15% to your wage. Of course, it also means that more opportunities are available to you. Whether you want to work in a different country or in a role that requires you to be multilingual, being proficient in a second language can help significantly. 

It improves other skills

As you work on your language skills, you’ll also learn and be able to demonstrate a variety of other competencies. Learning a foreign language helps with things like creativity, multitasking, and problem-solving skills. Clearly, showing your skills in another language can enhance your CV in a variety of ways, making you stand out to employers. 

It helps you meet new people

Whichever language(s) you choose to learn, you’re giving yourself the opportunity to meet and interact with new people. Whether it’s through a language course, learning app, or on your travels, you’ll be able to communicate with people who don’t necessarily share your native tongue. 

It helps cultural understanding

As we’ll see, one of the essential elements of learning a language is understanding the different cultures that speak it. This cultural insight gives you the chance to travel to new locations (after the pandemic), immerse yourself in the lifestyle, and even improve your intercultural understanding in the workplace. 

How long does it take to learn a language? 

You’re probably eager to get started on your language-learning journey, and might be wondering when you’ll be able to understand and speak it. Of course, these things don’t happen overnight. It takes a fair amount of time and dedication to learn a new language, and this often varies based on a whole variety of factors. 

That being said, there are some estimates out there for how long it takes. Perhaps the most reliable is the United States Foreign Service Institute. They divided languages into four different tiers based on difficulty, and then examined how long it took US diplomats to reach ‘Professional Working Proficiency’. Here’s that they found: 

  • Category I Languages. These are more similar to English and include languages such as French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Swedish. An estimated 24-30 weeks or 600-750 class hours are usually required for professional proficiency. 
  • Category II Languages. This includes languages such as German, Indonesian, Malay, Haitian Creole, and Swahili. An estimated 36 weeks or 900 class hours are usually required for professional proficiency.
  • Category III Languages. These are harder languages that are significantly different from English and include Bengali, Czech, Finnish, Greek, Hebrew, Icelandic, Polish, Russian, Tamil, Thai and Vietnamese. An estimated 44 weeks or 1100 class hours are usually required for professional proficiency.
  • Category IV Languages. These ‘super-hard’ languages are exceptionally difficult for English speakers. This includes Arabic, Chinese Cantonese, Chinese Mandarin, Japanese and Korean. An estimated 88 weeks or 2200 class hours are usually required for professional proficiency. 

Of course, you probably aren’t aiming for professional-level proficiency just yet. Thankfully, you can master many of the basics in a much shorter time span. Many of our language courses take only a few weeks to complete and can help you build a solid foundation. 

Which languages are most in-demand? 

If you’ve yet to choose a new language to learn, you might be interested in which ones are popular at the moment. Whether you want to use it for your professional development or to unlock new countries to explore, it can be useful to know some of the in-demand languages around the world. 

As you might expect, English is one of the most widely spoken ones out there. With around 339 million native speakers and 1.5 billion language learners, it’s useful for travel, work, and learning. Qualifications like the IELTS are popular around the world, taken by around 5 million people each year. 

Aside from English, there are many other languages with high numbers of native speakers, learners, and job opportunities, including: 

  • Chinese. There are around 1.3 billion native Chinese speakers, with roughly 917 million of these people speaking Mandarin. Becoming fluent in Chinese could create a variety of opportunities for you, both personally and professionally. 
  • Spanish. Roughly 20 countries around the world use Spanish as an official language.  With over 450 million native speakers, it’s the second-most spoken native language in the world behind Chinese. 
  • Arabic. Arabic is a language that’s rapidly growing in terms of speakers, especially on the internet. It’s also the official language in around 25 countries worldwide and spoken in roughly 60, meaning there are so many ways and places you can use it. 
  • French. About 51 countries around the world speak French, placing it behind only English and Arabic in prevalence. What’s more, it’s a language that’s being spoken in many of the fastest-growing areas of the world. 
  • Russian. There are nearly 150 million native Russian speakers, as well over 120 million people who speak it as a second language. It’s the eighth most commonly used language globally. 

How to learn a language – 8 top tips 

So, now that you know about the benefits that come from studying another language, it’s time to get into some of our top tips. 

When it comes to deciding how to learn a language, there are several points to consider. It’s worth noting that there is no exact science to how you will learn best – everyone has their own learning style. However, there are some tried and tested methods that many language students find useful. We’ve highlighted some of the best ways to learn a language below:  

1. Set your language goals

Setting goals brings all kinds of benefits when it comes to learning. It can help with things like motivation, self-esteem, and self-confidence. Goals also help you achieve success. 

When you’re first figuring out how to learn a language, you should focus on some short-, medium- and long-term goals. These can help to give structure and direction to your learning. 

For example, your ultimate long-term goal might be to have an in-depth conversation with a native speaker of your chosen language. However, to get there, you might have a medium-term goal of passing an exam, and a short-term goal of learning some specific, relevant vocabulary. 

With this approach, you can start to systematically build your knowledge and tick off your progress. Adding timescales to your language-learning goals can help to keep you on track and motivated. 

2. Learn common vocabulary 

According to some studies, native speakers know roughly 15,000 to 20,000 word families. By this, they mean a root word and all its variants. For example, speak, speaking, spoke etc. These studies suggest that by learning the most common 800 to 1,000 root words and variations, you can learn to speak a language quickly and effectively. 

So, when you’re wrestling with how to learn a language, a useful place to start is by learning some common vocabulary. This can help to quickly build your understanding in a day-to-day setting, allowing you to have and follow basic conversations. 

Of course, grammar and structure will also need attention. What’s more, 800 to 1,000 root words will only give you a basic grasp. To follow dialogue in movies or TV, you’ll need around 3,000 root words. For a novel or newspaper, this increases to roughly 8,000. 

3. Find a style that works for you

There are many different tools, techniques, and styles you can use when you’re learning a language. Sometimes, it can seem a little overwhelming to try and use them all. Instead, you should try a few and select the one(s) that work best for your learning style. 

Whether it’s using flashcards, grammar translations, spaced repetition, immersive learning or any other approach, you have plenty of options. Figuring out the right combination of techniques can help you progress at a rate you’re happy with.  

You’ll find all kinds of apps, websites, textbooks, and other materials out there that help with different methods. Of course, our language courses often have a mix of ways you can improve your knowledge.   

4. Practice speaking 

A crucial part of learning a language is being able to recognise, understand and reproduce sounds. For many language learners, concentrating on these first two aspects, as well as vocabulary and grammar, takes priority. However, this can result in a reluctance to practice speaking, which can delay your progress. 

You don’t have to necessarily go out and start chatting with native speakers right away (although this can certainly help). However, talking to yourself, practising your vocabulary out loud, and even recording yourself speaking your new language can help to build your confidence. 

5. Connect with a native speaker 

One of the best ways to learn a language is to connect with a native speaker. Communicating with new people in your target language is often intimidating. You might be scared to make mistakes or feel that your current level isn’t good enough. However, practising with a native speaker can help you quickly improve your language skills. 

As well as working on your pronunciation, you’ll also unlock more natural-sounding conversational elements. It also helps with your listening skills, as native speakers will often speak at a more natural pace. 

Again, there are various tools you can use to connect with native speakers when learning a language. Whether it’s face-to-face meetups (post-pandemic), online video chat, or instant messaging, you can meet people even if you’re not in their country. You’ll also find that many of our online language courses are taught by native speakers, such as our Introduction to Italian course

6. Consume media

To get familiar with the different ways in which people use your target language, you might want to consider watching, reading and listening to as much media in that language as possible. 

You’ve probably heard how the TV show Friends has helped people as they learn English. As well as teaching colloquial language and gestures, it can also help with things like common words and phrases, expressions and cultural references. 

There are so many mediums you can choose from this. Whether it’s watching TV and movies in your target language, listening to music and radio, or reading the news, you have plenty of options. 

7. Engage with the culture 

Tips six and seven are somewhat related. Understanding the culture(s) that use the language you’re learning is often an integral part of the learning process. As well as providing a solid context for your studies, it also means that you can better connect with native speakers. 

Language often evolves in line with the culture of the groups who speak it. Therefore, to really master a language, you’ll want to make sure you’re also familiar with the cultural context that goes with it. That’s why courses like our Explore English: Language and Culture one are so popular.  

8. Make travel plans 

Although times may be uncertain for travel right now, it won’t always be the case. The best way to put your newly found language skills to the test is to visit some of the places where the language is used. This point brings together many of the others, as the techniques you’ve used when figuring out how to learn a language will help you on your travels. 

When you travel, you get the opportunity to see new places, interact with local people, and immerse yourself in the culture. Although it can be daunting at first, you’ll soon find your feet. It also gives you the chance to identify any gaps in your knowledge and means that you can pick up some new phrases and vocab. 

Final thoughts 

So, there we have it; everything you need to know about how to learn a language. Clearly, it’s a worthwhile project, but it isn’t one you want to rush. There are many hours of study ahead. so taking time to set goals, learn vocabulary, and practice with native speakers can help you improve your knowledge. 

Learning a language can help in both your personal and professional life. As well as adding to your CV, it can boost other skills and improve your cultural understanding. Whatever your language goals are, you can find one of our courses that can help you on your way.

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