What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Trilingual. Two? Bilingual. One? British. A joke that rings painfully true: a survey published by the European Commission confirmed our reputation as the worst language learners in Europe. 38% of Britons speak at least one foreign language compared to the EU average of 56%. In April 2020 however, at the outbreak of Covid, language app Duolingo reporting a 300 per cent jump in new users in April 2020. Chances are, if you weren’t using the extra time to perfect your sourdough or screenplay, you might have dabbled.
Since moving to Spain nearly two years ago, I have been trying to learn Spanish. Trying being the operative word - I am far from fluent. I completely underestimated how hard it would be. Contrary to popular belief, unless you are under ten or living somewhere entirely cut off from English speaking, you don’t just ‘pick up’ a language. It takes time, perseverance and commitment. Plus, if you don’t have previous experience with learning a language and can’t remember anything from your GCSEs, getting your head around grammar and linguistic terminology makes it much trickier. However, the payoff is well worth it in the end.
After all, there are many benefits to learning a language. First, it forces the brain to interpret and process information in two different ways. “This puts the brain under a rigorous mental exercise regime that lasts for life," Eliza Serna, a language expert from McGowan Transcriptions, explained. "This can even prevent the development of brain diseases such as Alzheimer's." Learning a new language also helps you to see the world with fresh eyes. “There are expressions, phrases, and sayings in other languages that English just does not have an equivalent for. This can make people more creative and alter their outlook on life,” Serna added. When you’re stuck in a situation where you don’t know the words you want to say, you’re forced to think creatively and find another way to express yourself. Plus, there is no better route to really understanding a culture than getting to know its native idioms.
The best way to learn is to practice and practice some more. “Set simple, realistic goals and try to speak or write in the new language every day, even if only for 20 minutes.” There’s many ways you can effectively learn a language at home. Here are some ideas to get you started:
It seems obvious, but signing up for classes is a sure-fire way to accelerate your learning of a language from home. If you’re struggling to motivate yourself, paying for lessons holds you accountable. Find an online tutor via platforms like ClassGap, Italki or Verbling. If possible, group in-person classes can be fun (try Cactus or CityLit). It’s a good way to learn from others' mistakes and practice conversation without the embarrassment that comes with messing up when chatting to native speakers in the real world.
Apps allow you to get extra learning in, anywhere and anytime, and often for free. Duolingo (available in 19 languages) works well for learning vocab and familiarising yourself with sentence structure but is less helpful with practical phrases. Babbel is customised to the specifics of each language as opposed to being cookie cutter across the board and culture while Mondly is good for conversation and pronunciation.
Getting your ‘ear in’ is key and listening to podcasts, radio or audiobooks while you walk/cook/bathe is a good way to up your passive learning hours. Try Coffee Break Languages (bite-sized lessons and conversations across all levels) or News in Slow (current affairs discussed at an understandable pace). Or, as you progress, use TuneIn to access live-streamed radio from your country of choice or Audible to download familiar books in your new language.
There’s more crossover with some languages than you might think thanks to cognates (essentially words that stem from the same origin). If you’re learning a Romance language (like Spanish, French, Portuguese and Italian), there are some handy hacks for learning thousands of words quickly. For example, words ending in ‘tion’ in English (like action or communication) are the same in French, and with slightly different endings in Spanish, Italian and Portuguese (ción, zione and ção respectively).
Watching films in your chosen language with English subtitles is a great way to hear its rhythm and pick up phrases or words. On Netflix, you can filter by language while BFI Player and Curzon online also have a great selection of foreign language films across all genres.
Conversation exchanges are one of the best ways to practice speaking, via platforms like Conversation Exchange and Interpals you can find people all around the world who want to practise English in exchange for you speaking with them in the language you're learning. Normally you meet over Skype/Zoom/Whatsapp and split the time 50/50. In non-pandemic times, you can find group IRL events of a similar nature via MeetUp (just search ‘language exchange’ and your city).