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The 5 best ways to learn a language

The 5 best ways to learn a language

learn the languageLearning the language is always one of the most daunting challenges about living abroad. Luckily it is also one aspect of living abroad that we can start to conquer before we leave.

Here’s my top 5 ways of becoming proficient in another language:

Number 5: Teach yourself

There are lots of books, courses and online resources which you can start looking at to learn the basics. From experience I would recommend that you start with a beginner’s course with audio learning aids so that you can practice pronunciation and understanding native speakers.

I also advocate learning the grammar, whilst this may put a lot of people off you really will need to understand the different parts and tenses of the verbs etc. in order to get beyond the most basic of conversations.

I found that complete courses such as the Linguaphone Portuguese Course suited me better.  It seemed a little out of date but covered a lot of ground.

It’s also a good idea to continue teaching yourself no matter what other options you go for.  Even a basic grammar book  to go through each day/week would really help.  Doing little and often is the key and if you have materials at home then you can always keep learning.

Number 4: Group Classes

I’ve separated group classes with one-to-one tuition because they really are very different.  Groups classes come in two main forms – in your native language or in your new language.  A lot of teachers will teach in the subject language, even back home, because it gets you used to hearing the language.  If you learn in your new country they will almost definitely be so.

In Portugal the local authorities put on free Portuguese lessons for any expats wishing to learn.  Our area was very multicultural so we had Brits, French, German, Ukranian and more in our classes.  The classes were all in Portuguese for obvious reasons.  

Group classes are good to practice (especially if you are still back home) but there are 3 main downsides:

  • you won’t get as much individual help (depends on class size)
  • if you are shy then you may find it somewhat stressful
  • everyone is at a different level so the classes will cater for the most basic level

Number 3: One-to-one tuition

One-to-one tuition is very different to group classes. Although they are likely to be much more expensive you also get much more value for money. The advantages are that the lessons will be individually tailored to you, your ability and what you want to learn. You can also spend a lot more time on whatever aspects you choose. Embarrassment and shyness will be non-issues and this can give you a lot more confidence when you try your new skills in real life.

What worked best for me was having two lessons per week, one on grammar and the other purely conversational. Practicing speaking and understanding was my main focus so it was important for me to get a good balance with learning the more structural side.

Number 2: Go to an immersion school

I’ve never tried this but it is possible to go abroad for 2-4 weeks on special language holidays. They usually follow the pattern of having lessons throughout the day and you are usually only allowed to speak your target language. After a few weeks of this you are bound to be speaking to a reasonable degree. They tend to be very expensive and probably aren’t for the less confident.

Number 1: Live with a native

By far and away, from my experience, of learning a new language (especially in a colloquial sort of way) is to live with a native speaker. Now, I didn’t actually live with a native, I lived with someone who spoke Portuguese almost fluently.

What helped more than anything was constant speaking and listening in Portuguese. I was picking up colloquialisms (admittedly there were a lot of swear words in there) almost by diffusion and growing in confidence without even realising.

I had done courses and lessons all before I lived with a native speaker which helped tremendously and throughout I still kept learning the grammar and going to individual tuition but it is the practice that living with someone gives you that makes all the difference.

No matter which or all of the above methods you try I would recommend to self-teach no matter what. Arm yourself with some good grammar and vocabulary books and you can’t go far wrong.

Remember practice makes perfect. Once you are abroad practice as much as possible and set yourself tasks and goals. Every day try to go and out and strike up even the most basic conversation. Every time you go to the cafe or bar try asking for one more thing or in a different way. There is no substitution for real-life experience. But no matter what, do not give up and don’t ever think you can’t do it, no matter how old you are!

Image: nuchylee /


  1. Jeroen van Baardwijk

    I’d like to add a sixth option: full-blown immersion. Before you leave for an other country, go to your local bookstore (it’s faster than ordering from Amazon!) and get a copy of the relevant Lonely Planet Phrase Book. Read through it while you’re travelling to your destination (unless you’re driving there yourself!). Once you get there, immediately start using your Phrase Book and your hands to communicate, and don’t be afraid to ask the locals about correct pronounciation. In my experience, they’ll love it that you’re trying to learn their language and be happy to help.

    You will then notice that within a few days you’ll have picked up the basics and then start using your Phrase Book less every week. Less than a month later you’ll be able to spend whole days
    without needing your Phrase Book, and only carry it with you “just in case”.

  2. Sarah

    Indeed, as I say, practice makes perfect and there is no substitution for getting out and practicing for real.

    Trouble is, you have to be very confident to do that and I certainly wasn’t. Self-teaching,using phrasebooks and courses, was the first step for me and then I decided that to progress I needed a class or tuition.

    I wasn’t brave enough to strike up a conversation in a foreign language with a stranger!

  3. Jeroen van Baardwijk

    I never cease to be amazed that learning foreign languages doesn’t seem to be part of any mandatory school curriculum outside The Netherlands. Over here, once you leave grammar school (that would be around the age of 12) and move on to secondary education, learning foreign languages is mandatory. You typically start with English, German and French in the first year. After that you get to choose but you’ll have to keep taking classes and do final exams in at least one foreign language.

  4. Sarah

    When I was at school it was mandatory, I have no idea now. Probably not.

    I had to learn 3 languages – 2 of French or German or Spanish and Latin! One of which I had to get my GCSE in. So pretty similar to your experience. I ended up doing French, Latin and Ancient Greek!

    Although I probably became pretty good at French, because I have never put it into practice I have forgotten almost all of it. The only reason I can speak Portuguese is because I lived there and that is really the only way to get really good at a language (unless someone you live with speaks a different language).

    I think the problem in the UK is that so many people speak English, it’s a question of what language should you learn at school? Traditionally it was French but that was because they are our neighbours. But should they teach the languages most spoken such as Mandarin or Portuguese or Spanish?

  5. Jeroen van Baardwijk

    If I’m not mistaken, the three most widely used languages in the world are English, Spanish and Mandarin Chinese. At the very least, a curriculum should include English and Spanish. Mandarin wasn’t really necessary until a few years ago because the People’s Republic of China was pretty much closed to foreigners.

    However, now that the PRC is opening up to the rest of the world, it’s a different story. Learning Mandarin now is what learning Russian was two decades ago — it will open up great career and travel opportunities. The PRC is rapidly becoming an economic power we can’t ignore. I’ve been there, and you really can’t get much done there if you don’t speak the language. I think it would be good if schools would offer it at least as an optional extra.

    It’s a bloody hard language to learn, though. A mere change of tone changes the meaning of a word; get it wrong and rather than saying something friendly to someone you’ll be making a scathing remark about his mother…

  6. Sarah

    You’re probably right there if you look at sheer numbers. I think it also important to think of numbers of countries as well as people. Mandarin is probably really only spoken in China so English and Spanish or probably better options in terms of moving to new countries.

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  8. Claire

    I’m attending group classes to improve my English and I’m having fun! I know that the best way to progress quickly would be one-to-one tuition but, like you said, they can be pretty expensive!

    • Sarah

      I think that, in the end, anything helps as long as you do it regularly enough so it sticks!



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