I speak four languages, and here's what I can tell you about learning a foreign language

Updated: Jul 8, 2020

Since I was a child, I’ve been interested in other languages. I officially started learning another one when I registered for French as an eighth-grade student. In college, I majored in Spanish Teaching and minored in French Teaching—which I did around an 18-month break living in South Korea, volunteering and learning Korean. I’ve also spent summers in France and Colombia. I spent several years teaching middle school and high school French and Spanish, and even earned my master’s degree in Spanish Pedagogy.

As you can tell, I’ve spent much of my life learning other languages, practicing other languages, and teaching other languages—and I can tell you that those processes have turned out to be a lot different than what I was expecting all those years ago as an eighth grader attending my first French class. So here’s a list of things I’ve learned about language learning since then.

1. Knowing a language is a continuum, not a binary state

People often see “knowing” a language or “speaking” a language as an either/or state. You speak the language, or you don’t. Simple.

If I could get across to you just one thing about learning a language, though, it would be this: Languages are not binary. Instead, they're on a continuum.

It goes something like this: You start off on one end of the continuum when you learn your first word or two. With practice, you start being able to put sentences together, and understand pieces of what others are saying when they speak it. As you keep learning, you keep making progress along the continuum. You become able to talk about a wider range of topics, to navigate formal versus informal, to generally understand speakers. As you keep learning, you’ll be able to use cultural references and idioms that don’t translate literally to your native language. Even so, you’ll still make the occasional mistake, and you still might not understand speakers from a country with an accent you’re not familiar with, or references from a culture you don’t know.

I love this quote about this that comes from an academic paper:

"Individuals can never be perfectly monolingual or bilingual: Even the most monolingual people have had some experience with another language…and all bilinguals have preferred languages or contexts."

Bialystok, E., Craik, F. I. M., & Luk, G. (2012). ‘Bilingualism: Consequences for Mind and Brain’, Trends in Cognitive Science, 16/4: 240–50.

Learning a language is a complex, lengthy process—even when you're a native speaker. There are a whole lot of stages to that process, and there are a whole lot of contexts, topics, grammar structures, and cultural understandings to a language. Instead of thinking of knowing a language versus not, think of the continuum that is the journey of language-learning.

2. Learning a new language is not simply learning to exchange one word for another

I’ve learned while teaching foreign languages that, often, when someone starts that process for the first time, they expect it will simply a matter of exchanging one word for another. Let me illustrate with the type of conversation that has happened a lot between me and my students over the years. It goes something like this:

Student: “Ms. Gold, how do you say ‘I’ in Spanish?”

Me: “Yo.

Student: “How do you say ‘am’?”

Me: “Soy.”

Student: “And ‘cold’?”

Me: “Frío.”

Student: “Okay. Ms Gold: Yo soy frío.”

Me: “…are you trying to say ‘I am cold’?”

Student: “Yes, that’s what I said!”

Me: “Ooohhh…so…actually…first of all, in Spanish, you actually say ‘I have cold,’ not ‘I am cold.’”

Student: “What? That’s ridiculous! That doesn’t make sense.”

Me: “Well, actually, things don’t always literally translate word-for-word from one language to another. It’s like in English, how you say things like ‘That’s hard to wrap your head around.’ If you said that word-for-word in another language, someone who has never heard that phrase might think you mean physically trying to stretch your head and put it on something—it wouldn’t make any sense!”

Student: “Oh…”

Me: “Also, different languages have different grammar and structure. In Spanish, for one, you don’t always have to use pronouns. The way their verbs are conjugated are so different between, say, ‘they are’ and ‘we are’ that you don’t even need to use ‘they’ or ‘we’! So, actually, you would usually just say tengo frío.”

Student: “…”

Me: “Yay languages!”

3. There are awesome benefits to learning another language--even as a beginner, even if you never get great at speaking it

As a junior high and high school French and Spanish teacher, I knew the majority of my students would not end up doing much more with the languages than that class. For that reason, I always made a point of how language learning has some awesome benefits--even if you don't go on to get incredibly proficient. Here are some of those benefits:

  • Learning another language teaches you about people who are different from you

  • It teaches you empathy

  • It teaches you patience

  • It lets you practice and refine your study skills

  • It shows you the world is bigger than you and your own culture

  • Studies associate taking another language with benefits like higher creativity, improved cognition, and better grades in classes like math and science

  • It improves your communication skills--even in your native language

  • It gives you practice in handling situations where you don't understand everything that's going on

  • It allows you to meet people and have experiences you wouldn't have otherwise

  • It shows respect for other countries and peoples

4. Flashcards are your friend

And, as much as I hate to admit it, a fair amount of learning another language is…memorization. Yes, it’s ideal to learn a language by using it and speaking it. You will pick up lots of new words and learn lots of grammar this way. But, the sad fact is, you need to memorize a goodly amount of things like vocabulary and verb conjugations in order to build enough of a base to start using the language.

I’ve seen a lot of students who study by reading through their list of vocabulary words and their translations several times, then who are surprised they don’t do well on a quiz. To actually memorize this stuff, though, you must force yourself to recall the meaning—not just passively read it. Use flashcards, lots and lots of flashcards, and force yourself to think of what’s on the other side of each one before you turn it over. That technique will get you far in language learning.

TIP: Quizlet is an awesome flashcard website and app. Try the "Learn" feature.

5. "Fluent" is a misnomer

Even before I had taken any foreign language classes, “fluent” was a term I was very familiar with. Growing up in Mormon culture, I saw young men and women left as missionaries for 18 to 24 months at a time, often to foreign countries and assigned to learn a foreign language. They would come home, and people would call them “fluent”—as in, “isn’t that amazing, she left knowing no Chinese at all, and now she’s fluent.”

For this reason, “fluent” was, of course, my primary goal when I first started learning a language. I wanted to be fluent in French, and to be able to answer people who asked if I was with a solid yes (or oui).

After many years learning different languages, however, I’ve come to believe becoming “fluent” isn’t the best goal to aim for with a new language. The reason? “Fluent” can mean a lot of things to a lot of different people. Are you, for example, fluent at the point where you can travel around a different country, comfortably asking directions and interpreting menus, but not able to hold more than a superficial discussion with someone? Or are you not fluent until you are able to write a complex academic essay without having to look up any words, then have a deep philosophical discussion on the topic? And if the latter definition is the correct one, what about all those people with language skills that better fit the previously mentioned-situation? Do they still count?

TIP: For an easy way to determine how proficient you are at a language, check out this post on self-assessment.

The term "fluent" itself doesn’t specify an actual level of proficiency—nor do, generally, people specify when they use it. My personal belief about what people mean when they use the term is this: That you are “fluent” in a language when you know enough of it to sound impressive to someone who does not.

When someone asks me if I’m fluent in a language, I try to answer by instead explaining a bit about what I can do in the language. For example, when someone asks me if I’m fluent in Spanish, I might say, “I can get along fine in most situations with the language, but I sound like a gringa, I still make mistakes, and I don’t have the vocabulary for more really specific situations.”

6. There’s no secret best method or system, and if you hear someone promising there is, it’s a load of hype

When I was a freshman in college, I was on a mission to become an awesome language teacher. I was convinced that there was a “best” method out there for teaching foreign languages, and I just had to discover which one it was.

I spent time looking at different teaching methods, both on my own and in my classes on foreign-language teaching. I even went to Switzerland, interviewing high school foreign-language teachers there and sitting in on classes. I knew Switzerland had better foreign-language learning outcomes than we seemed to in the US, with more people more proficient at speaking more than one language. I reasoned that checking out foreign language classes in the country would help me discover the secret to teaching and learning other languages.

Visiting Geneva, Switzerland to learn about language learning as a student in 2007

I was sitting in the back of a high-school English class (in French-speaking Geneva) when the realization occurred. The teacher was leading a class in repeating English-language vocabulary words and phrases from a textbook, explaining things in French, then in doing the exercises in the same chapter. The textbook looked a lot like foreign language textbooks I had seen in the US. The teacher’s explanations sounded familiar. The fairly boring phrases and exercises didn’t seem to have a lot to do with real-life language use—just like phrases and exercises from my own high school foreign language classes.

Maybe there isn’t a different, super-effective method after all, I thought.

One major difference between foreign-language learning in the countries, though? Swiss students are required to take foreign language classes, and required to take them year after year. In other words, they spend a lot of time on language learning.

Along with my own experience learning languages and taking college classes on teaching, my experience in Switzerland taught me that learning a language isn’t so much about getting a specific kind of experience. Instead, what matters is your consistency. You need to continuously learn and practice a foreign language in order to speak it—and you need to do that for a long time. Years, even. This has held true as I’ve learned French, Spanish, and Korean.

Just any practice won’t do, though. The quality of your practice does matterspeaking the language, for one, is really, really important. You also need to actually use the language as much as possible, not just passively listen or look at vocabulary words. And, you need to understand at least some of the input you hear and read (more on that later, too).

Besides that, though, there is no magical method. There is no special course that will make you fluent in a certain short amount of time. Trust me, I’ve tried to find it. I promise you that if someone is selling something that will make you incredibly proficient in a miraculously short span of time, it’s a load of hype. The actual answer is, unfortunately, the same boring answer that is the answer to so many questions in life: Work hard, get lots of good-quality practice…and then keep going and don’t give up.

The Jet d'Eau in Geneva, Switzerland

7. To learn to speak a language...you have to speak it

One of the best things you can do to learn a language is seek out and seize opportunities to speak it.

Unfortunately, speaking is often the least-practiced skill in many language classes. It’s just easier to have students listen, read, and write in the classroom setting. So, often, getting speaking practice falls on you.

Speaking is also really scary, especially at the beginning. I promise you, though, the more you do it, the easier it gets. So seek out opportunities to do so—and be brave.

TIP: The site iTalki is an awesome resource for getting speaking practice with native speakers from across the world. There are tutors on the site who advertise paid services. My favorite way to use the site, though, is setting up a language exchange, where you talk to someone from another country (for free!), spending half the conversation in each person’s native language. You'll learn a lot!

8. Native speakers aren’t automatically the best teachers

Over the years, I’ve had a lot of people suggest to me I should teach ESL, English as a second language. There are definitely more jobs for ESL teachers in the school system than for teachers of other languages. I was just never interested, though—for a simple reason. I love teaching French in large part because I remember what it felt like to learn French. I remember the things I thought about as a learner, the things that confused me, my “ah-ha” realizations. When I teach French, that past-me is the learner I think about and who I try to explain things to. I feel like this is something I have to offer because I'm a non-native French speaker, and it's something I believe helps my students.

I also remember when, as a learner, I had a native French speaker as a teacher for the first time. I was so excited, and sure that I would learn more than ever. It surprised me when she actually hardly spoke French in the class, when her explanations were confusing, and the classes boring.

Basically, you shouldn’t choose or judge a foreign language teacher just on whether or not they’re a native speaker. Both native and non-native speakers have things to offer. Both native and non-native speakers can be awesome (or not-so-awesome) teachers.

9. You'll have a foreign accent

"Do you know what a foreign accent is? It's a sign of bravery."

--Amy Chua, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

I spent the summer after my sophomore year in college in France. I was determined to interact only with French people and speak as much French as possible—so rejected the study abroad programs from my university, where a professor would travel with a class of students around some foreign country. Instead, I found a program through the school that helped me set up an internship in France.

My internship was in northern France. I lived with a French family and was an intern at a French community center. And, just like I wanted, I spoke almost exclusively French.

I noticed something troubling, though, when my internship started. It seemed like at least half the time I finished a sentence while having a conversation with a French person, they would look at me and say, “comment?”—that is, “what?”

I had always known that I didn’t sound like native speakers did when I spoke French, but living in France made me feel particularly self-conscious. I tried harder than ever to pronounce French words correctly, but finally I had to accept a simple fact: I was a foreigner, and I had an accent.

That simple fact has been something I still have to remind myself of whenever I use another language: That I speak with an accent, that I make mistakes, that I don't always understand things, that I don't always know how to say what I want to say. And then, I have to consciously remind myself: It's okay. Getting caught up in your accent or other shortcomings just makes it harder to use a foreign language. So just take a deep breath, then give yourself a pat on the back for how awesome it is that you're communicating in another language, and keep doing it.

There was some small consolation, though, from my experience in France. After a summer spent getting discouraged by how frequently someone asked me, “comment?”, I went home and started speaking English to people again. And, for what seemed like at least half the time I ended a sentence, the person would look at me and say, “what?” I realized: I wasn’t that terrible at French. I actually just needed to learn to speak up.

10. There's no specific "point of arrival"

I was super excited to learn French when I started my first French class. I started to realize pretty soon, though, that I wasn’t really going to learn French in that one year. As time went on, I kept signing up for different opportunities for learning French, so excited to really learn the language. I kept thinking: After this, I’m going to know French.

I went to French Camp while I was in high school—after this, I’ll know French. I took AP French—after this I’ll know French. I took college classes, and moved into my university's Foreign Language Student Residence, where I spoke French with my roommates, I spent a summer in France—and at every step, I kept thinking: this is going to be what makes it finally happen.

I think it was during that summer in France that I started to realize: With each new language-learning effort, I loved the language even more, I got so much better at it, I met awesome people, and I got to learn about and experience different cultures. But finally, I had figured out: There wasn’t going to be one specific thing that officially made me a French speaker.

Instead, I was becoming a French speaker all along the way. Each of those steps has made me better and better at the language—and during that progression, I have learned to speak French. At the same time, each of those steps has helped me realize: There are always new and exciting things out there to learn. Learning a language is a continual progression. It isn’t a matter of just finding that one, specific thing that will finally get you there. Instead, it’s a lot of smaller things that you do consistently.

11. You haven’t even mastered your native language—there is always more to learn

I mostly taught French during my career as a middle- and high-school teacher, but I did also teach some Spanish classes. These classes would inevitably have a few students who spoke Spanish at home—some who really did want to learn, but most of whom would sign up for beginning Spanish for an easy A.

For that very reason, “heritage speakers,” as they are called, were a topic in many of my teaching classes. I was taught that these speakers can vary widely in their language ability as a group, but that they often understand the language pretty well, speak it less well, and generally have little experience reading or writing in the language. I was taught to adapt the class curriculum for these learners so that they were still challenged and still learned new things, with a particular focus on reading and writing.

My Spanish-language heritage-speaker students, however, were often not happy when I used this approach. Many of them did not like the idea of having different work from their peers, or the idea that they had anything to learn about the Spanish language.

One of these students confronted me during the first few days of a class one year.

“I already know how to say everything in Spanish,” she told me.

“Oh?” I asked, thinking fast, trying to think of the biggest, fanciest word in Spanish that I could come up with. I asked her, “What does penúltimo mean?”

She glared at me. “I don’t know,” she said. “Fine.”

Penúltimo,” if you were wondering, means “penultimate.” This was a word I hadn’t known until taking advanced Spanish grammar classes in college, and in those classes, I learned the word in Spanish before I knew it in English. (It was used frequently in those classes to talk about the grammar behind what words in Spanish have an accent mark.)

I remember choosing that word when speaking to that student because it was one I hadn’t even known existed in my own, native language until college. And that’s the thing with languages. Even if you grow up hearing your parents use it, if you grow up speaking it, there is no way you’ve mastered your native language (or, like that student, native languages).

Just think of all the words out there that you don’t know. Think of all the times you misspell things, of when your grammar or punctuation gets corrected in a paper you wrote. Think about how you had to be taught how to write essays, how you didn’t know what iambic pentameter was until you read “Romeo and Juliette” in eighth grade, or even how you don’t always understand other native speakers who speak with a different accent or use different regionalisms—even though you have the same native language.

I promise you, you don’t know all there is to know about your native language, so you certainly won’t with a language you’re learning, either. And, the fact is: That’s perfectly okay. The only thing that would be wrong is to assume you know everything when you don’t—because the only thing assuming you know everything does is ensure that you won’t learn anything new.

12. "i + 1": Learning materials have to be at the correct level for you, or they won't help you learn

A couple years ago, my stepdaughter’s main type of homework from her Spanish class at school was simply a log where she recorded what she did to practice Spanish on her own. I liked the idea, and asked her what kinds of things she did to practice. She showed me one of the main activities she recorded was listening to Spanish-language songs on the radio.

This is a great thing to do, and something that helps you learn about culture and the Spanish-speaking community in your area. As far as language practice, though, it can be quite challenging. I mean, I don’t always understand the lyrics of songs in English, my native language. Right?

To get good quality practice with a language you’re learning, the level of the book you’re reading or the podcast you’re listening to or the conversation you’re having needs to be only just beyond your level of proficiency.

I think a good guideline to measure this is that you should be able to understand half or more of the language used in that book or podcast or conversation. If you don’t understand anything or nearly anything of what’s going on, you can’t build a framework in your mind of the things you understand. That framework is so important—it’s where you attach new words and phrases. You need that framework, that context, to be able to figure out—to learn—new things.

This idea also goes the other way: Things can also be too easy for you. If you can easily hold conversations with people in a language, for example, the first lessons on Duolingo are probably not helping you improve your skills (though it feels good to rack up those Lingots). Find different materials to help you learn!

The linguist Stephen Krashen came up with a name for this concept. He called it the “input hypothesis," and even came up with a handy little formula: i + 1. The “i” is your current ability level in the language you’re studying—what you can do comfortably. The “+ 1” simply signifies the best input (books, conversations, movies, podcasts, etc.) to learn is just one level up from what you can already do.

To sum up? Don’t jump in and start reading Victor Hugo novels when you are in French I. Use things where you can understand at least about half of the language used. And don't worry, if you keep at it, you'll get to Victor Hugo.

13. Culture is the vocabulary list you can’t memorize

You see the world through the lenses of your own culture.

Your understanding of the world, how you interact with others, your religion and belief system, your concept of what’s rude and what’s polite—your expectation for what someone means when they say “I’ll meet you at 8:00” or “She’s looking fat”—all of these things are tinged by your own cultural context, the same way a pair of tinted glasses changes how you see anything and everything around you.

In Cartegena, Colombia in 2012

For some examples: When I was in Colombia, I figured out that if someone said “I’ll meet you at 8:00,” it really meant something like “I’ll find you sometime this evening.” While I was in Korea, I figured out it wasn’t rude to comment on someone gaining or losing weight. Basically, just learning the words of a language doesn’t mean you’ll always understand what's being communicated.

So, learning to communicate in another language must include learning about culture. Learn about other countries, their politics and histories, their food and holidays. Learn their idioms (those phrases that don’t translate literally) and cultural references. And—this is important—as you learn about those things, try to put together in your mind the culture’s perspective. Perspective is the reason behind the culture’s practices and products…as well as the reason behind your own. As you do this, you start to see beyond your own “lenses”—or, at least, you realize the valuable lesson that others see the world in a different way than you do, a way that is just as real.

Back in Korea in 2019, this time with my husband

14. You'll fail. A lot.

Enough said?

15. You must be brave, and you must keep trying.

Using a foreign language can be really scary, especially at the beginning, with those long pauses as your brain works to put words together. It can be scary to not know every word of what you're reading. It can be discouraging to realize you made a cultural gaffe. You will make mistakes, though. The key is to be brave, and to keep going.

And when you are brave, and you do keep at it, the rewards feel amazing. That moment when you realized you had a whole conversation for the first time, or when you understood a joke that doesn't translate, or when you helped someone or connected with someone because you spoke their language--those moments are incredibly rewarding.

So stick with it. Keep learning. Keep seeking out opportunities to practice. Keep being brave. Learning a language will teach you about yourself, others, and the world. It will help you empathize and connect with people. It will allow you to access experiences you wouldn't have otherwise. You don't even have to "know" a language to get those amazing benefits--part of the magic of languages is that you get these things even in the process, even at all stages of the continuum. So jump in, go for it! And then...keep going.

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