The 5 Simple Steps to Foreign Language Mastery

Remember the last time you boarded an airplane?

Imagine landing in a foreign city and getting off the plane. You can read and understand every sign and every ad. You can follow the smooth voice announcing a delay in the flight to Munich. Even small talk with your local waiter during lunch comes to you spontaneously. You start to feel so confident in your new language that you offer language translation services for friends and family.

How do you get there? How do you become confident and fluent in a new language?

It might seem a mountainous task and it will take time to get to the peak, but just like with any hike, if you take one step after another and stay on your path, you will get to your destination.

Why is it challenging to learn a new language?

Everybody speaks English. Even abroad a multitude of people do.

The talented German Comedian Michael Mittermeier visited the U.S. a few months ago. To my surprise, he did his stand-up solo show at the Atlanta Goethe Institute in English. His funny, Germanic and dry sense of humor was successfully translated and was understood by his American audience. Not only was I not expecting English, I was impressed with Michael’s command of the language.

Many of us have been there: after six years of challenging high school and college Spanish classes, you finally have The Opportunity. Your new mechanic Pedro just moved to town from Argentina. As you drop off your vehicle and meet him, you remember the picture of a car in your Spanish book listing all the part names.

You start a Spanish conversation and:

  • It takes you tree times longer than in English to formulate a sentence
  • You feel like a 3rd-grade conversation partner
  • Pedro smiles and answers in charming English

And for the sake of your driving future, it’s lucky he did!

Geographical circumstances matter

How many miles are you away from the country of the language you are learning?

It is much easier to learn a foreign language if you only have to travel a couple of hundred miles to be immersed in it versus taking a long plane ride. Living in the center of Europe gives you easy access to a variety of cultures.

If your goal is to learn Korean and you live in the U.S., it can easily be done because the U.S. has many Korean citizens and a number of institutions to connect with.

If  you’re more interested in the Meditteranean, there is a large Greek community in Atlanta and I have even been to a Romanian festival with traditional dancing, food and excellent Romanian wine at a church nearby.

What can you do to keep up a fluent conversation?

Though location helps, even more important that that is how *you learn a language. The amount of time you have been learning it matters less than the method.

Most of us learn by doing, then repeating. The same is true for linguistic competency. Learning actively by utilizing what was learned in a real life context repeatedly is most effective.

Over time, you will reach a confidence and skill level in your new language that will allow you to stick with it, even after an English answer. Just like a parent would do when raising a child in a second language. No matter in what language the child replies, the parent will stay with her/his original language.

Growing up with German speaking parents in an Italian environment, there were many times when I would answer my parents in Italian. But they persisted, and German stuck as the language we use to interact to this day.

So once you have checked the box for taking language classes (can also be done online), what do you do? How do you actively learn a language and how can you practice what you studied?

The 5-step path to linguistic confidence and fluency:

1. Set a Tangible and Exciting Goal

For example: traveling or even moving to the country of your new language; speak with a specific person or group of that culture who is not at ease in your native tongue. Less concrete goals such as ‘keeping your brain fit’, do not work as well.

Have you ever dreamt of a culinary tour of Spain? The delicious tapas would probably taste even better if ordered in Spanish. And you could get serious advice, always in Spanish, about the multitude of Cava wines on the menu. Maybe even squeeze in a little cooking class that would allow you to replicate some of the tasty items back at home.

2. Team Up

Find a learning partner to compete, converse and have fun with. You will meet a variety of people while taking an initial language class. Pick someone to join forces with to keep your knowledge alive and to further it.

Go to movies with your language buddy, and eat at restaurants from the country of your new idiom. Art institutions, cultural centers and colleges screen foreign movies, often free to the community.

In regard to restaurants, skip the Olive Gardens or Maggianos to practice your Italian. Find a small pizza joint and see if the ‘pizzaiolo’ shaping the pies is the real deal. I have met a few all the way in Atlanta.

3. Immerse Yourself

The ideal would be to live, at least for an extended time, in an environment where everybody speaks your new lingo all day long. If not realistic for your circumstances, practice every day, any way you can:

  • Write
  • Talk, even if to yourself
  • Interact on foreign language blogs
  • Watch and listen to media such as TV and radio, and play games. The web has much to offer in the way of video games and language learning apps.

If your circumstances allow for you to immerse yourself by traveling to the country of the language, check out EF language courses abroad. They have courses for students and adults ranging from 2 to 24 weeks. For students, academic credit for time spent abroad is frequently offered.

These are effective ways to learn the language by using it daily and to experience a new culture. When back home, keep reading the country’s news online or find an internet radio station covering it to help maintain your fluency.

4. Use It

Find a cultural center, book club or other type of discussion group in your city. If you’re comfortable with it, visit a church that has services in your new language and branch out from there. Get out of your comfort zone and speak, it’s ok to make mistakes.

Do you have a long commute? Living Language has great audio materials to play in your car. The voices are of native speakers, they are clear and proceed at a slow pace. As each lesson goes on, you are asked to repeat and interact with the audio.

In the nineties, while living in Vienna, I took Spanish classes at the Latin American Institute across the street from my apartment. I still have vivid memories of Victoria, my peppy Ecuadorian teacher with whom you could only develop a love for the language. There were many events in Spanish organized by the institute, which allowed students to experience the language regularly.

To this day, I listen to Victoria’s favorite Mercedes Sosa album while singing along.

Even though I have not used my Spanish much lately, other than for homework help, those neurons can be fired again bringing passive knowledge back into active use.

5. Listen to Others

Pay close attention to people speaking the language with high proficiency. Keep in mind that:

  • Every language has regional flavors and dialects. Find where the version widely considered as ‘neutral’ is spoken.
  • Get used to the new pace: many foreign languages are spoken faster than English is.
  • Watch speakers and how their mouth moves. Try imitating sounds that you feel you need to practice; in particular, those that don’t exist in your mother tongue.

Don’t forget to have fun in the process! Sing along with some fun songs, play games on your phone and cook a recipe from your newly adopted culture.

If you are learning Italian, try, beautiful and scrumptious food with recipes. But be ready to convert from metric units if you need to before you turn your burners on.

Most importantly relax. Your conversation partners will be less hard on you than you are on yourself. Before you know it, you will have reached your goal.

Your mouth will be able to form new sounds and speak new words and sentences. Your brain will fire up new connections every time this happens and be more active and healthy. You will feel like a new facet was added to your identity.

It will allow you to connect to new people and explore new places. To read all the signs upon landing. Or departure, if you spend a prolonged amount of time in the country of your new idiom.

Your horizon has broadened and you can enjoy the feeling of extended boundaries.

The world seems to become a smaller place.

And just like an experienced and committed hiker would do, you ready to choose and climb the next peak.