The United States is full of monolinguists. In fact, a recent Gallup poll revealed only about 26 percent of Americans can hold a conversation in a second language. If you look at the numbers, it's clear that English is a dominant language across the globe, but Mandarin Chinese ranks as number one by number of speakers, followed by English then Spanish.
Learning a second language is not only a good idea if you're going to work in international business, it's essential. The internet brings all of us across the planet closer together, so learning a second language, or third, can help in all areas, including your career and personal life.
You can search online for ways to learn languages, and you'll find more than 100 million results. So, how do you pick the best way, the fastest way or the most effective way? Learning a new language can be easy for some and difficult for others, and it all hinges on how you learn.
Why Do You Want to Learn a New Language?
The first step in learning a language and choosing the best method to do so is to determine why you need the second language skill. Whether you need to translate text, listen to instructions in another language, or have a conversation with a friend or colleague, there are different ways of learning, and you can find one that suits your needs best. Also, answering this question helps you answer the next one.
What's Your Goal?
You need to set a reasonable and attainable goal for yourself. You're more likely to stay on task if you write down your goal and then work toward it. Some reasonable goals include:
- Ask for directions in two weeks
- Order take-out in one month
- Talk conversationally in three months
- Speak fluently in six months
Keep track of your progress as you approach your goals. No worries if you have some setbacks. Just dust yourself off and keep going.
What's Your Learning Style?
Next, you need to figure out your learning style. We all take in information differently.
- Visual: Looking at images, using flash cards, reading text, watching movies
- Auditory: Reading aloud, listening to someone else, listening to music
- Kinesthetic: Interacting with objects, moving about, taking notes
Once you've figured out your best learning style, or styles, and your goal, you can choose a method (or two, or three!) to learn a new language. Some of these options may be out of the realm of possibility for you – not everyone can afford to spend six months in a foreign country – so choose the methods that make sense for your budget and your available time.
- Try the Buddy System
Whether you log onto Skype and find someone in a foreign country to befriend or you know someone else who speaks the language you're longing to learn, talking to someone every day in that language can help. Set aside at least 30 minutes per day to practice, and try to not use your native language at all. Interact with your environment, if possible, too. Applying what you know to the objects around you can help you remember more easily, and if you can attach a memory, that's even better.
- Rosetta Stone
Once upon a time, Rosetta Stone was sold through infomercials on TV. The software has grown with the times, though. It combines visuals, audio and the written word to help you learn a language, and though you can still buy the software for your computer, you can also download the mobile apps (iOS and Android) to reinforce your vocabulary wherever you are. Rosetta Stone is also available as software-as-a-service, so you can pay for a subscription if you prefer.
- Try FluentU
Another approach to learning a second language is through videos. FluentU combines the idea of immersion in a cultural setting with grammar, vocabulary and entertainment. You watch videos to listen to people speak in the language you want to learn, and there are interactive captions that pop up under the video. Hover your mouse over the word you want to learn more about, and keep watching the videos to keep learning. You then quiz yourself to see how well you're learning. You can sign up for a free trial, but to keep using FluentU, you have to pay $15 per month.
- Get a Personal Tutor
If you learn better with traditional methods, you may want to seek out a tutor. A professional can create lesson plans, work with you on conversations, test you and grade you. The prices vary wildly for tutors – you can find some for $6 to $28 per hour. Verbling is a good website to find tutors.
Many of the apps and web-based programs included here use some version of the Pimsleur method to teach you a new language. At its core is learning through listening. You hear a phrase in the language you're learning, then in your native language. It's a method that's been used for decades and for good reason – it works! It's $150 per language per level, so it's pricier than most methods listed here.
- Start With Children's Books
As a beginner, you need books with shorter sentences to help you learn the basics. If you want to learn Spanish, you can find translated Dr. Seuss books for some familiarity, or you can pick up some original kids' books. Once you've got the basics down, try testing yourself online, and start incorporating some conversations here and there. If you'd like to keep learning on your own, pick up a novel in Spanish and try reading that.
When you make a game out of anything, it's easier to get through. App developers are learning you can gamify almost anything today. So, why not turn learning a language into a game? Duolingo uses some gamification in its method, and so does Memrise. It focuses on memorization, but it helps you build solid foundation with reinforcements. You see videos, hear people speaking the language and parrot it back, and see the words on the screen.
- Learn a New Skill Taught in Another Language
One of the best ways to learn a new language is to not even realize you're learning it. Take a cooking class taught in Spanish or French. You'll quickly pick up the words for “bowl,” “spoon,” “whisk” and “fork,” and when you see the instructor grabbing for the chicken and a bottle of red wine to make coq a vin, you'll easily make the association. When you go through the steps to make the food, and then eat it, you'll be committing a memory using so many different senses, it will be difficult for you to forget the words you've learned in another language.
- Watch Movies or Television
This is a more passive approach to learning a new language, but it fits in with the immersion technique. You can put on a movie in Japanese, Spanish, French or any other language and let it play in the background. Eventually, you'll pick out familiar words and understand what they mean. If you pay attention, you'll be able to pick up the language faster because you'll have visual cues to associate with the words being said.
- Listen to Podcasts or Radio
Another immersion technique is to simply listen to people talking. After all, this is one way we learned our native language when we were babies. Choose a podcast in the language you want to learn, and choose a subject you are interested in. It won't be long before you're following the conversation and learning the language as well as more about a subject you already love.
- Free Rice
Along with the free apps like Memrise and Duolingo, Free Rice offers you ways to learn a language at no cost to you, and you'll do a small part to feed the hungry. For every correct answer you give as you test yourself on languages on the website, the group donates 10 grains of rice to the World Food Programme. The tests are simple and focus on vocabulary, so it could be supplemental to another method you choose.
- Try Duolingo
This app can be used on a browser or any internet-connected device that allows apps, and it works for Windows, iOS and Android operating systems. It's a free app you can use to learn a new language (23 available) for almost any use. You'll get lessons in grammar, vocabulary, sentence structure and more. You'll also get the chance to practice by typing, speaking and listening.
When you were in school (or maybe you still are), did you make flash cards to help you study before every test? Anki is a program you can download on your computer, smartphone or tablet to use flash cards to help you memorize words, phrases and more.
- Visit a Foreign Country
Is this the end-all-be-all method to learn a language? Some swear by it, while others claim they only picked up a few helpful phrases. This is an expensive immersion method, but it may work for you – or it could work as your ultimate reward for learning a language.