I just did an Internet search on the topic, using the keywords “tips for learning a foreign language”, and the results were astonishing. All-knowing, far-seeing, well travelled Mark Manson gives you his 22 Tips For Learning A Foreign Language and you should probably go no further! But I’m being facetious here. I’m a highly experienced language teacher and learner, and believe me, his advice is mainly for “rich kids”. Some of us learned foreign languages without the advantages that Mark Manson had, and the older ones—like yours truly—managed to master a foreign language without a single overseas trip.

If you want to read a lot of cute and expensive hacks that may or may not work, read Mark Manson. If you want to find out how you can acquire foreign language skills in a classroom environment, read on. Ah, if you happen to bump into Mr Manson, you can also point him towards this blog, haha!

Some language learners can’t possibly afford the cost of an overseas trip. I certainly couldn’t for years. However, I did learn English before my first trip to an English-speaking country. Before I tell you how, I’d like to mention the four language skills that need to be developed in an integrated manner.

The Four Skills:

  • Listening.
  • Speaking.
  • Reading.
  • Writing.

I had a few good teachers that helped me develop all four and their objectives were clear. Some of those teachers were hell boring, and it does pay off when teachers develop their communication skills as well as their background in teaching methodologies. My teachers didn’t use the communicative approach and used some highly questionable techniques, but I managed to learn all the same and so did my classmates.

Students also need to be given a space to move on from what is called a surface approach to learning a foreign language to what is known as a deep approach. I found this article where both are outlined in a friendly, nontechnical way. In the world of language learning, a student who uses the surface approach is the typical stresshead that “crams” for tests, whereas those who use deep approaches have a much broader interest in a foreign language, for example, being able to interact in real-life situations (here I agree with MM; there’s nothing like having the opportunity to interact with native speakers of that language).

For that you need a teacher (Yeah! MM seems to consider us unnecessary, but I’d like to challenge him to have a conversation on topical events in Spanish).

On the topic of overseas trips, I’m totally aghast at the number of gullible people who believe that if they spend two months in a Spanish-speaking country, they’re going to come back home speaking Spanish fluently. With a bit of luck, they’ll be able to order their meals / drinks, say “por favor” y “muchas gracias”, and use a handful of four-letter words, with “culo” at the top of the list (and who said that “culo” was a four-letter word?).

Conversely, when it comes to Spanish speakers learning English as a foreign language, people will fall for some magic trick such as a YouTube video, complete with suggested activities that nobody will give you feedback on. Or probably worse: they’ll pay a fortune for an “immersion course” in their country of origin (rather than an English-speaking country) that will only succeed at making them exhausted and cranky for weeks on end, and give them no chance to study, research and explore on their own.

Darlings, I’ve seen all these tricks and more. There’s no point listing them all because you’re painfully aware of them. There are no silver bullets for learning a foreign language, but there are good strategies and “hacks”. Where does it all start? It starts with your linguistic competence in your own mother language. Yeah, that’s right. Linguistic competence in your own mother language. Sadly not everybody scores well on this one. Some school syllabuses are to blame, and in Anglo Saxon countries English grammar isn’t taught at schools. Spanish speaking countries, as well as other European countries, do a lot better here. I can’t tell you how many of my students here in Australia tell me, ‘Oh, I wish I’d known that in English!’ or ‘Believe me, through learning Spanish I’m learning heaps of facts about my own language (i.e. English) as well.’

So remember that competence in your mother language is of the essence, as well as interest in the language and culture you want to study.

More specifics in my second post. Cheers 🙂


Learning a second or foreign language—tips and hacks: what worked for me, Part 1

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