Some Tips on How To Learn a Foreign Language

Friday, June 27, 2014

Foreign languages Foreign languages (Copyright: Shahid Ali Khan/Shutterstock)

Katharine B. Nielson, chief education officer at Voxy, discusses how we learn languages, why it can get more difficult to learn new languages as we get older, and why the challenge of learning a language is good for our brains.




Here are a few tips that came out of our discussion:

The secret to language learning is 1) practice, 2) paying attention and 3) getting lots of real world input. 

The way we often teach languages is incorrect. Nielson said: "We try to teach people the system of how a language works, but that's not how language learning actually happens." Memorizing Italian verb charts isn't going to do you much good when you get to Italy. 

Practice listening to conversations people are having. Nielson said: "In reality you need to listen to people speaking the language and notice words and notice things you don't know and do it over and over again until you're able to do it."

Start by learning words for universal needs and courtesies like "Hello," "Thank You" and "Where is the bathroom?" Nielson said: "We find that the best language instruction works when it's needs based. When people can see right away that the words they're learning and the phrases they've picked up will help them. And it will give them building blocks to learning more pieces of the language." 

Focus on tasks in the language you want to accomplish. If you want to learn French, figure out what it is you want to be able to do in French. "We should start with what a real person is going to say in France when he or she is going to order coffee in a coffee shop or going to a business meeting," Nielson said. 

Don't be afraid of sounding silly. Nielson said: "learning a language is learning a skill and you have to practice it in uncomfortable situations."

Watch foreign media you find interesting. Leonard noted that one of his producers learned a fair amount of German by watching bad German soap operas. Nielson added "So much of learning a language is paying attention, and it needs to be motivating. If your producer thought that the German soap opera was interesting, already he's going to be in a better place to understand what's happening." 

If you’re going to watch a foreign film, use subtitles in the language you’re trying to learn. 


Katharine B. Nielson

Comments [28]

KC from Colorado

Here is another tip that will help you improve your language skills, this website has great games and lessons all for FREE

Oct. 09 2014 10:40 PM
Florencia from Westchester

I love your show. Very interesting topic.
The idea of children's speech development being delayed because of bilingual rearing is old fashioned. You should speak with a bilingual speech therapist about this.
I am a pediatrician, I am bilingual, so are my three children. The youngest one with severe communication issues. I think that being bilingual helped him develop alternative neuronal routes and gave more plasticity. My typical children spoke very well at the normal age.

Jun. 30 2014 12:49 AM
John from Upper West Side

You should really check out Yabla — which immerses you into authentic Spanish, French, German, Italian or Chinese television as well as Yabla produced programming. The company is based in Chelsea.

Jun. 30 2014 12:13 AM
Gail from Harlem

Excellent. Please have her back.

Jun. 28 2014 03:32 PM
M from brooklyn

her advice is counterproductive. if you don't learn the plumbing (grammar, etc) of a language you will have only memorized phrases to fall back on. also when people speak to you, you will be unable to make sense of what theyre saying because you will be looking for only phrases.

when you know the details of the language you will understand anything anybody says because you will understand what the conjugations mean and you will be able to respond in kind because you will know the precise words necessary to form a relevant response.

as someone who has learned more than one foreign language i was shocked at the advice she was giving.

Jun. 27 2014 04:45 PM
Tish from NYC

Leonard -- this was a superb segment. Thank you. It was so interesting in so many ways both for parents of young children and particularly adults like me who are taking language lessons and struggling to become fluent (in my case it's French). I now understand better why and how I'm struggling and also what kind of out-of-classroom learning -- and speaking -- I should do.

Please have this guest on again as she's terrific.

Jun. 27 2014 03:25 PM
Jenny from nyc

Is following true?
I understand that the level of SPF is also an indicator of how long the protection will last. SPF 30 provides the maximum protection at any one time, but it only lasts a certain amount of time (an hour??). thus SPF 60 will not give more protection, but it will last twice as long.

Jun. 27 2014 02:18 PM
Helen from New York City

How many times have I tried to learn French? I have a few phrases which are amusing but French classes have proven to be very little help…conjugate, memorize, gender assignment and the age of my brain makes it all very difficult. Katherine Nielson is the first person to make sense of all these various efforts…including why studying alone, albeit diligently, is not the answer. Real-world input! Actual conversations! Make mistakes but make them in the language you are trying to learn. This was a terrific show and every word spoken in English brought me closer to the real answers about how to learn French. No more silent studying…speak French out loud! Merci beaucoup!

Jun. 27 2014 02:14 PM
Bebe from Queens

This was an excellent segment, Leonard. Please have this guest on again, she's very articulate and knows a lot!

My Spanish improved when I began to listen to popular songs in Spanish, reading the lyric sheet in Spanish, and then separately translating the vocabulary I didn't know. Finally I got to where I could sing along, and I memorized the lyrics so I could sing without reading. Once I understood all the words and could pronounce them by imitating the singer, my spoken Spanish really took off. Also, songs use different forms of speech, such as poetic or vernacular, so you're introduced to more variety in the way the language is used. Plus you hear some wonderful songs and singers that you might not hear otherwise.

Jun. 27 2014 02:09 PM
Amy from Manhattan

E, I agree too. When I was learning Spanish in high school & college, I listened to the local Spanish radio station, & it really helped. The best part was that it made my Spanish more natural. The song lyrics helped me learn grammar better & gave me idiomatic ways to say things rather than using literal translations of the English equivalents, like "por eso" instead of "eso es por que'" for "that's why" (can't get an accent on that last "e" here).

I also found reading poetry (w/a dictionary) great for vocabulary. It helped w/the things native speakers learn as children that too many textbooks leave out.

Jun. 27 2014 02:02 PM
Noam Back from Washington D.C.

I was born in Israel and lived there for two and a half years before moving to the States where I now live. I don't speak Hebrew anymore, but I'm curious more broadly as to whether my exposure to language at such a young age might allow me to relearn Hebrew more easily then another language. Is there any hard wiring there?

Jun. 27 2014 01:58 PM
stefano from 11206

I did not go back to my native Milan Italy for 6 years as my Green Card application had been lost and it took a few years to get it straightened up.

When I went back several people told me that I had lost my Milanese accent and also I constructed sentences like a foreigner.

It is interesting how the native language can get rusty.

Jun. 27 2014 01:56 PM
marcus climton from bronx

how about gender differences? I heard a story of a man who learned Dutch from his girlfriend and at a corporate meeting he spoke Dutch and was laughed at

Jun. 27 2014 01:54 PM
andrea from Brooklyn

I perfected my "real world" street Italian by reading fumetti, the down and dirty comic books that were omnipresent at every newstand.
Everthing I needed to score some hash, buy condoms, curse a reckless driver and negotiate prices.
Really essential real world skills that you won't learn in polite society.

Jun. 27 2014 01:53 PM
Octavio Pondal

I learn English when I was 24 - I used pop songs and film to learn. Trying to learn words out of ocntext was useless. I always recommend people who are learning English to activate the caption on TV, so they can hear and read the TV shows. It helped me a lot!

Jun. 27 2014 01:52 PM
E from Brooklyn

Your caller is right. Listening to music in another language is MOST DEFINITELY a good way to increase language absorption. I had formal training in Spanish from middle school all the way through university level. It wasn't until I started listening to world music (including songs in Portuguese and French) that I started being able to understand spoken Spanish--surprisingly, it also helped me decipher spoken French, Portuguese and some Italian. It took me a while to figure out why my comprehension suddenly improved, but I determined that this was the reason why.

Jun. 27 2014 01:52 PM
Amy from Manhattan

Some children don't speak until late, then start right out w/complete sentences. So could delayed speech in children raised w/2 languages be unrelated to learning >1 language at once? Do those children speak any better (in both languages) once they do begin speaking?

Jun. 27 2014 01:51 PM
Dave from Long Island


Any tips for self learning? I'm trying to learn japanese and I tried to use the techniques talked about on the show like listening to conversations and shows, but I'm lacking on vocabulary. Is learning lists like the Japanese n5 and n4 going to help fill the gaps when I try listening to conversations?

Jun. 27 2014 01:51 PM
Sarah from Argentina

The most frustrating thing about learning a new language is getting to a certain level of fluency and THEN realizing how many idiomatic expressions and cultural references you don't know! It can take years living in a place before you get fluent at that level.

Jun. 27 2014 01:49 PM
Maryann from Westchester

I studied French in high school, first exposure at 13/14 years old. Although I continue to read French grammar books, I've not had sufficient exposure to speak the language.
Surprisingly, when I visited France, a French woman complimented my accent even though I struggled with sentence formation and vocabulary. Could my decent accent be due to the early exposure in high school?
What is the age where phonology production drops off?

Jun. 27 2014 01:48 PM
Amy from Manhattan

I read somewhere that the more languages you've learned, the easier it is to learn the next one. I don't think the source addressed age in relation to this. Does Ms. Nielson know if this is true &, if it is, whether age matters?

Jun. 27 2014 01:45 PM
Truth & Beauty from Brooklyn

I want to know about language ability in adults. I have some adult family members who are easily able to learn foreign languages mostly by listening. They become fluent relatively quickly. Do they have the same cognitive ability as young children? Does that mean there is a part of the brain that is active as a young child but deactivates over time in most people?

Jun. 27 2014 01:44 PM
Peter from Brooklyn

Pimsleur language approach - what do you think of it? I've had good results. The CDs have you engage in real conversations, such as asking for directions, ordering in a restaurant, making a date with a friend. You're prompted in English - "Ask your friend whether she can play tennis next Wednesday at 2 pm." You have to say it in the language you're learning, and then the actor replies in that language. Almost a real conversation. Thoughts?

Jun. 27 2014 01:43 PM

I initially learned Spanish by having no fear and just speaking with native speakers -- and I was able to do so with the benefit of my many years of French.

I'm currently taking Spanish classes, but it is only one three hour class per week.

I use the website to take on-line Spanish classes, to supplement my speaking practice. I do this precisely to have the practice of interacting in Spanish, which games and software alone cannot achieve. Yay for the internet. :)

Jun. 27 2014 01:41 PM
Linda Griggs from LES

What about the ability to mimic?

My husband can't mimic sounds at all.
He was unable to learn Slovenian from his mother who barely spoke English.
Actually he may have learned to speak English poorly from her. He almost 60 and it hasn't improved.
Otherwise, he's a smart guy.

Jun. 27 2014 01:39 PM
Jim from Brooklyn

I teach English at a predominantly African American public high school. How would your guest suggest I approach teaching so-called "proper" English grammar to students who have grown up implicitly learning vernacular structures? Is this possible without the kind of explicit instruction she seems to be criticizing?

Jun. 27 2014 01:37 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

Unquestionably harder. My mother from the old country could speak 4 languages, besides broken English, because where she grew up the farmers came to market from all around, Poles, Czechs, Ukrainians, Russians, etc. And she probably never read a book.
My contrast I studied Hebrew in Jewish parochial school, in public high school, and even some in college, but when I went to live in Israel it took me about 6 years to be able to reasonably comprehend what the newsreader on the TV was saying.
It's very hard to learn and become fluent in a different language after a certain age.

Jun. 27 2014 01:25 PM
antonio from baySide

Can this also be applied to programming languages?

I imagine they're parallels (in a spoken language, you have to get actual practice, in programming you have to sit down and code something out)...

I am basically out of the 101 stage but are there any tips which might be applicable in my case?

Jun. 27 2014 01:12 PM

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