I learned a new language at the age of 50, and here are some strategies from language experts that have helped me speak Spanish with hundreds of native speakers in various countries.
1. Learn a new language the same way you learned your first language:
- Listen to native speakers often and for long periods of time.
- Watch how they communicate.
- Imitate what they say and how they say it, which may require using your face muscles, mouth and tongue in new ways to produce some new sounds so that you can be better understood.
2. Listen to content that is interesting and at your level (beginner, intermediate, or advanced).
3. Be happy, relaxed, and curious while learning, and be comfortable not understanding everything that you hear. Focus on understanding the general meaning of what is said, and not so much on understanding every word.
4. You should spend time every day learning if you want to learn fast, even if it is for only 15 minutes. If you go for days or weeks without contacting the language, your progress will slow to a crawl.
5. Ask native speakers for help, and in particular you should know how to say in your new language:
- “Excuse me …”
- “How could I (find/do/go to, etc.) …?”
- “What is this?”
- “How do you say …?”
- “I don’t understand.”
6. Learn the 100 most common words in the language, then the 500 most common words, and by the time you learn the 1000 most common words you’ll understand 75% of daily conversations.
7. Speak from the first day you start learning a new language, and be willing to make many mistakes every day for the rest of your life communicating in your new language. Be creative and say things any way that you can, because having to say things in a roundabout way is both normal and essential.
8. Use all of your senses to learn the language by connecting words with sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touch. Have fun learning a new language!
9. In order to move from beginner to intermediate and then to an advanced level, you must develop the ability to speak using expressions of time and mood – past, present, future, and conditional verb tenses, and in some languages the subjunctive mood.
- Beginners speak in the present tense, and learn to speak about the past and the future as they progress.
- Intermediate speakers are much more comfortable speaking about the past, present, and future. They also learn to speak using conditional phrases that any native speaker uses commonly, for example: “I would keep doing things the way they have always been done, but I have an idea …” Another example: “If I were you, I would learn a new language because …”
- Advanced speakers use various expressions of time and mood, and when they can do this like a native speaker, they speak like a native speaker speaks. The word “fluent” is hard to define, and I choose to believe that I have been speaking “fluently” since I reached intermediate level (which many people can reach in 3-6 months, but which took me a few years).
10. Find language coaches and teachers who (1) work at understanding you, (2) don’t correct every mistake you make, (3) demonstrate how to say things correctly, and (4) use words you understand or can learn.
It’s never too late to learn a new language, and not only is it good exercise for the mind, but it will enable you to discover and enjoy more places and people.
IMPORTANT! Chris Lonsdale’s insightful TEDx video is the inspiration behind much of this content, together with strategies that I have gleaned from various other sources as well as from my own experience teaching English as a second language. Watch the video of Chris at https://youtu.be/d0yGdNEWdn0