How to Learn a Language

Last night I joined a group of ladies in Abu Dhabi to start learning Arabic from a wonderfully gracious Emirati lady.  She is volunteering her time to help us better understand her culture and language – how amazing is that?!  We went over basic greetings which to me was so exciting – it’s been a goal of mine (and Ken’s!) to learn some Arabic while we are here.  It IS the language of the country, so it’s important to us that we make an effort to at least be able to have a basic conversation and know simple greetings.  I was delighted when this opportunity came up!

beautiful, beautiful Quebec City in Canada.  I LOVE the French heritage and language that is such a wonderful part of the Canadian fabric. (picture courtesy

Culture and language are so intertwined (as past posts on here describe) that understanding the simplest of greetings can help you better understand and appreciate a society.  Not to mention how important it can be as a solo traveller for a) ordering food, b) watching out for danger, and c) being able to respect and communicate with people.

But how do you go about learning a language?  What are the best steps for quickly understanding and integrating?

These guidelines I take from my own experience, language training (i.e. I studied French through university and have ESL teaching certification), and growing up my whole life with a mom who taught FSL (French as a Second Language) and who instilled in me the intricacies of language learning.


  1. The best way is immersion.  Period.  So if you want to learn a language and have all the time in the world and no attachments, go live in a community.  Study after study, experience after experience, shows us that this is the BEST way to learn.  But most of us can’t do that so…

2. Try to create an environment of immersion.  Watch TV shows, listen to radio stations, listen to music, etc…surround yourself WITH the language!  For example, as you listen to music, even if the language is completely new, you’ll subconsciously start familiarizing yourself with the musicality of the language.  No, I don’t mean music itself.  All languages have a certain rhythmic way of speaking.  When you hear accents, much of what you’re hearing is rhythm – the variations of sound and movement.  Listening to music, watching TV, listening to the radio will help you learn EVEN IF YOU UNDERSTAND NOTHING.  If you’re confused, you’ll just have to trust me on this!

Tu penses quoi-toi?  Tu dis rien!  (from the song “DIS RIEN” of Louise Attaque’s 2000 album Comme On a Dit.  This album always takes me back to the summer of 2000 when I lived in Quebec to learn French as part of the Government of Canada’s awesome Explore programme (visit if you’re Canadian for further details).

3. Reflect on your learner type.  There are 4 types of learners: kinesthetic (you learn best by doing); linguistic (you learn best by reading and writing); auditory (you learn best by hearing and listening); and visual (you learn best by observing).

For example, I am a highly linguistic learner.  If I want to start learning a language, I need to READ the grammar, READ the words on the page, READ the structure, then write it over and over.  If you are an auditory learner, you will learn best by HEARING the language and beginning to respond.  How I best learn a language may well be different from you.  Understanding your learner type is the quintessential way to start learning in a way that is best tailored to your own brain’s approach to learning and understanding new material.

4. But don’t just appease your own learner type.  I read this awesome book in the Fall (well, listened through audiobooks on my commute), “Make It Stick” by Peter C. Brown, Henry Rodruiges III, and Mark McDavid.  The book was all about learning and how best to make new information “stick”.  One of the authors’ main points was that we as humans learn best when it is DIFFICULT to learn.  Hard word equates memorization.  So when I start learning a language, I start with reading and writing, but I must not forget the other learner categories.  Because simply listening to a language is a struggle for me, in the end this will make me memorize what I’ve learned even faster.  What to do?  Practice with ALL the learner types.

make it stick
“Make It Stick” by Brown, Rodriguer, and McDaniel (Belknap Press, 2014).  An awesome book to read if you’re interested in the human learning process.

5. Practice. Practice. Practice.  All the time.  Daily.  If you want to learn a language, you need to be DAILY reading, reciting, writing… And don’t forget to remind yourself of what you’ve already learned.  Language is BUILT upon.  If you don’t use it, you will lose it.  So as you progress through weeks, make sure you are still going back to the basic greetings you learned in the very beginning.  And importantly, EVERY DAY do something. Even if it’s just 2 minutes of remembering greetings, you gotta do something every day!

6. Practice with others. Of course, the best case scenario is practicing with speakers of the language (and by the way, drop your courage at the door.  You sound like a 2 year old, yes, but most people appreciate the effort you’re making to learn they’re language).  But if you don’t in that moment have a native speaker either: i) look up youtube videos that get you to practice, or ii) have a conversation with yourself.  I’m not kidding.  To practice my French, sometimes I’ll just pretend I’m telling someone a story.  I’ll just ramble on out loud to myself, just for the sake of practice.

7. Use the internet!  There’s a fortune to be made in language learning and you can absolutely pay for courses, library fees, instructor fees.  But if you want it free and are willing to put in the effort, there are LOTS of resources, applications, tools, youtube videos, etc. online to help you!  DuoLinguo is a great app if you’re wondering where to start (; it has a fairly good range of languages too!

8. Don’t forget language is multi-functional.  It’s not enough to simply read the word and know what it means…you need to know how to pronounce it and how to listen for it.  Make sure you’re practicing ALL forms of the language: reading and writing, listening and speaking.  In language education we put these into two categories: Reading + Writing, Listening + Speaking.  Most people are much better at one category than the other.  Usually the one we are best at is the one we gravitate towards.  But we HAVE to practice both!  So try to incorporate both into your language learning schedule.

Love this greeting design from  What language do you want to learn?

9. Be patient with yourself.  Especially when you’re first learning a new language, it is extremely difficult.  If you’ve ever learned a language you probably know what I mean by “the language headache.”  Your head LITERALLY hurts after focusing on so many new words, sounds, letters.  It’s HARD!  But be patient.  It WILL come.  It just takes daily practice.  A little bit at a time goes a long way.

10. Finally…think about your goals!  Write down your goals so that you have a constant reminder of WHY you want to learn this language.  Otherwise, when it gets difficult, you may throw in the towel!  Secondly, thinking through your goals will help you learn what is most important.  Why learn science vocabulary when all you want to do is order dinner?  Listing your goals will help you focus your learning.

Alright.  There are my top ten.  Now GO!  DO! LEARN! And let me know how your learning is going 🙂  Happy language learning!


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