5 tips to learn a new language for expats


I recently got involved in discussions about different methods to learn a new language for adults. Most of my friends find that to learn a new language, you have to take language classes. But they often don’t really feel comfortable to talk the language in public. I’m a researcher, translater and language teacher with a great knowledge of linguistics and I know different approaches to language teaching for adults. I personally consider the full immersion method as the best way to learn or improve a language and I recommend to consider these following 5 tips while or before you’re taking language classes.

1) What I can recommend is to first of all try to like the new language you want to learn to speak. Try to become familiar with the sounds of it. If you already know a language that sounds familiar  the phonetical part will be easier. It’s very important to decide why you want to learn a particular language. Maybe you want to learn it because it’s the language of a person you love and you want to share this knowledge. Or you just like the sound or the aesthetics of this language or you’re fascinated by the culture and history associated with the language. Or you want to travel freely in the country (or countries) the language is spoken.

2) Copy the sounds. Try to repeat whatever you hear on the radio or on TV. After a while you will feel more comfortable about talking. I tried to copy the phonetics and to memorize entire sentences. I also learned some standard sentences by heart like “Could you please tell me where I can find…”, “Can you (please) repeat it slowly” etc.

3)  Read out loud. In the beginning it doesn’t matter what you read. Simple sentences like in nursery rhymes, children’s books or short articles on newspapers (maybe choose a light subject) are good to help develop your narrative skills. Seeing the language in print helps to understand sentence structure. In addition to reading literature, also read grammar books and visit online grammar sites. If you’re not sure how to pronounce a word, some online dictionaries offer user recordings for the word (like http://www.dict.cc).

4) I always felt more comfortable to learn languages in a social context. Whether doing sports or pursuing some hobbies, this helped me to have first contacts with native speakers. Obviously, team-sports are better than just the gym where you probably don’t speak that much with others. I got pregnant a few months after we moved to the Netherlands and I signed up for a prenatal class. It was a great help for me to get to know all the vocabulary and to become familiar with the health care system. I also met my first dutch friends there. – Try to get out as much as you can: restaurants, musea, even theater, cinema etc.

5) Be passionate and try to invest as much time as possible in your language learning project. Passion is above all the most important factor in learning any language (or anything else in life…).

Do you have any tips about how to learn a new language as an adult?

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38 responses to “5 tips to learn a new language for expats

  1. Pingback: The situation of language teaching – comparisons: the Netherands « Learning and teaching English in the Netherlands

  2. Hi, Ute, I find your ideas very good and useful. I’d stress the role of not only passion but basic need, which really isn’t there in normal class situations but which is completely there in full immersion, when someone lives in the country of the target language. However, what happens if one doesn’t like the language or the sound of the language of a country where he likes living and has friends? That’s happening to me here in the Netherlands, where I’m also faced with a lack of cultural stimuli in the way I’m used to. Greetings from Peter

    Liked by 1 person

    • Peter, this is a very important point. I know so many people who know already a great range of languages but can’t really find a way to like dutch. I had a similar experience with Swissgerman, and it is phonetically similar to dutch (lots of uvular sounds, the diminutive forms etc.). For me it was important to have really good swissgerman friends to like this language. And I did prefer one specific variety of Swissgerman… However, when I arrived to the Netherlands, I wanted to learn this language because I knew that we would spend several years here, and I wanted us all (my husband, my son and me) to integrate as quickly as possible. I came from Florence and also did also suffer from the lack of cultural stimuli. I practically did go to every museum and Library I could reach in the first few weeks… I probably got used to this now and found a few friends to share my cultural interests with. Maybe you’ll find that you can like the sound of a particular dutch variety too? Or some dutch songwriters? I hope you’ll find a way to like dutch too.

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      • ZJShen-PSimon

        Hoi, hartstikke bedankt 🙂 You’re right in what you’ve done and what you suggest. I also visited museums during my first visits to the country. Fewer opportunities since I settled down. Unfortunately, I’ve found that I really detest Dutch pop music – I find the type similar to 70’s Hungarian pop and the quality similar to Chinese pop. Not a good mixture, but I can’t help it, I grew up with classical through and through. Fortunately, I’ve also found a few friends who I can talk about interesting stuff with and think in similar ways to me.
        I also wish good luck to your work efforts … P

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  3. This is such a great post! The greatest gift you can give yourself when overseas is to learn the language. I’m going to add a #6, if you don’t mind, that’s more a mind-set than a practical tip: Face down fear. You will sound dumb, but don’t fear it. You can’t sound smart without sounding dumb.

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    • Hoi, a good point there too. Language learning works through making mistakes, so never be afraid to make them (easier said than done though …).

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  4. Pingback: Language, fear, and childishness « Loving Language

  5. That’s a really important point 6! Thank you very much for adding it! Not to fear to sound dumb is very important. We don’t have to take our linguistic performance too seriously. Surely not in the first phases of the acquisition of a new language.

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    • Graag gedaan, Peter 😉 Not to be afraid to make mistakes is difficult, I know. But when you start with the new language, they are inevitable. No one is perfect. Later, if you have already a certain competence and it happens that you sound dumb in a more official context, it feels very embarassing. I found a selfironic attitude very helpful… And as for the music: I think it’s clearly a matter of taste. I’m very glad you found some friends with whom you can talk about interesting stuff with and who think in similar ways to you. In the end, I think that finding people who can be friends in the new linguistic context, helps a lot to appreciate the language too.

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  6. This is a great post! Finding the passion to learn the language is pretty challenging for me. I always rationalize that Czech is such a small country and only very few people in the world use the language. 🙂 But of course, since we are living here indefinitely, I really do need to learn the language.

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    • Hi Grace. Thank you very much for sharing this. I completely understand. It took me several years to finally speak Swissgerman. It was easy for me to understand this language, as it is very close to german, but at the beginning I didn’t like it because of its intonations and uvular sounds… – I grew up in Italy and the difference was just too big. I have to say that the most important reason for me to speak this language were my Swissgerman friends. But they had to get used to me not speaking german with them anymore 😉 Even if a language is a minority language, it deserves to be learned, especially if you live in the Country. I hope you’ll find a way to learn it and to enjoy it!

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    • @ Grace, you make a good point. It’s easy to rationalize away learning a language because it’s not relevant in the “global” context. But in your everyday life, it makes perfect sense to learn it. I’m having the same problem convincing people that learning Somali in St Paul, Minnesota, USA, is an important idea–even though you see Somalis every place you go (mall, gas station, grocery store). I’m glad you’re looking at the people in front of your face as your reference point.

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  7. Grace, I’m really glad for that! Let me know how it goes, ok? Na shledanou (that’s all I know ;-))

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  8. Great points, Ute! 🙂

    Number 2 really sums up my own method for language learning in that ‘natural’ language acquisition comes about by learning entire sentences (lexical chunks) and emulating sound patterns.

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  9. Hi, Donovan, welcome! I’m very glad you liked this post. For me, natural language acquisition is the best method and to emulate sentences is one of my favourite points as well. Btw: I joined your guild (and will try to read all your posts!).

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  10. For me the strong reason is the most important thing starting to learn the new language. There is also good to watch movies, shows on TV and plays in theater (especially the ones that you have already seen in your native language or the other language you know). Great post! Thanks!

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    • Thank you, Jurgita, for your sharing. Theater is a great idea too. I do it too, but sometimes the text really differs a lot – it depends on the play you choose. I’m really glad you liked the post! Thank you for stopping by.

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  11. Pingback: 5 tips for expats about how to encourage your child to learn the local language | expatsincebirth

  12. Actually nice style and design and good content , nothing at all else we need :
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  13. Hello Ute,
    Good tips indeed.I learned English and Japanese the immersion way.
    I did not have the opportunity to learn Russian before moving to Moscow but I am highly motivated 1) because I love learning languages like I love listening to music 2) I think you cannot understand a culture without getting clues from the language structure, 3) I like to be independent so my target is to get survival level as quick as possible and 4) learning a new language may prevent you from getting Alzheilmer 🙂

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    • Hello Anne, thank you for your very precious comment! I can only agree with all 4 points! The fourth one seems funny but I guess it has its truth 😉 Point 2 is so imporant: you can’t really unerstand a culture without these clues from the language structure. For me, being independent is very important too and I always learned my languages autodidactically (at least those I learned as a grown up). I only took dutch lessons for a few months because I enjoyed the company of my friends attending, and had the opportunity to ask some specific questions about the language (it’s déformation professionnelle, I suppose…).

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  14. Pingback: Answers to our applications – take heart, or give up? « Learning and teaching English in the Netherlands

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    found that it’s really informative. I am going to watch out for brussels. I will appreciate if you continue this in future. A lot of people will be benefited from your writing. Cheers!

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  16. Pingback: Expats Since Birth | Maternidad en 2 Lenguas Motherhood in 2 Languages

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  18. Pingback: One year expatsincebirth « expatsincebirth

  19. Pingback: How many languages can a child learn? « expatsincebirth

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  21. Very encouraging. I’m just hoping one day my brain will click into gear, and i’ll be like, oh wow, i understand everything now, and aren’t constantly translating everything back to english in my head

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    • Thanks for your comment, Anna! You will translate less and less into English. I see that you’re writing your blog in a code-switching way. I like it, but there are some translations into Italian che andrebbero rivvedute 😉 But this is the teacher in me talking, sorry. The more you listen to the language, the more you’ll build up not only passive vocabulary but you’ll inconsciously use then parts of sentences and expressions when you talk. It will come naturally (like when you learned playing the guitar ;-)). Try to listen to Italian as much as you can. On the radio, the TV, DVD’s etc. Take litterally a “shower of Italian” every day. Even listening to it in the background can help a lot. That’s the way my mum did learn it in the ’60ies. And I did learn a few languages this way too. And practice: don’t worry if you make mistakes (everyone does!) everyone who learns a new language must make mistakes in order to learn, improve. Fammi sapere come va, ok? Ho visto che cerchi una lista di libri da leggere: che tipo di letteratura ti interessa? Se mi dai qualche spunto (=hint) ti posso dar qualche consiglio. – Per intanto ti auguro una buona giornata. A presto! xxx Ute

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      • Hi Ute, the advice you gave is so helpful. I try to practise talking with my boyfriend all the time, he seems quite happy that i’m slowly progressing. Hopefully by the time we get back to italy in february I can actually understand a lot of what is being said around me. Every time I am on my computer I make sure I immerse myself in the language. I might try and find a italian radio station to have on in the background at home that could be helpful. I bought lo hobbit for my boyfriend to read because he doesn’t like to read in english, but I figure that’s a bit too advanced for me yet. So i’m trying to look at some easy children’s chapter books to look at. When I watched half of la tigre e la neve it made me dream in italian that night which was cool, although i didn’t understand much. I just figure the more i persist the easier it will get. That should work right?
        molto grazie!
        Ciao
        Anna 🙂

        Like

      • I’m glad you found it helpful. About the Hobbit: try to read the first pages.If it’s too hard to understand, skip it for a while. People often tend to look up every single word they don’t understand and that can be discouraging. If you understand the word in its context, go on with reading. You’ll build up a passive word competence (I just invented the term ;-)). Reading books in Italian that you already know is actually a good idea. You know the story etc and will find it easier. There are many Italian authors who write in an accessible style. But maybe you don’t find them where you live. My students liked Natalia Ginzburg or Piero Chiara. But there are many many more… I’ll maybe write a post about a reading list soon. Thanks for the hint 😉 In ogni caso ti auguro una buona lettura, buon ascolto (mi interesserebbe sapere quale canale radiofonico italiano scegli) e a presto! Ute 🙂

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  22. Pingback: Multilingual Blog Carnival - Priorities in Language Learning

  23. Nice article and great ideas. here is my personal experience (and according my opinion the best tip I ever receive when i was learning a new language): Stay away from other ex-pats and try ti involve with local people!
    Otherwise you will stuck in a “English speaking ex-pats bubble” and you will spend 10 or 20 years in another country without learning even the basics of the local language!

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    • Oh yes, that’s an important point! If you want to learn the local language, get involved with locals and insist that they talk their language with you. I know many people who didn’t learn the basics of the local language. Thanks for adding this very important point to my list.

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