Language Schools

5 Tips to Improve Your Foreign Language Skills

Learning a language is challenging, but by implementing these simple strategies, you can overcome the main language learning barriers on your path towards fluency.

3 students standing together in front of hills

Learning a new language is a significant endeavor that challenges nearly everyone who attempts to do so. Fortunately, there are tools and strategies to speed up the learning process.

If you're passionate about studying new languages, you will achieve fluency with time and effort -- and by applying these practical strategies to the common problems you're destined to encounter. In my own experience, I've studied Spanish, Latin, Chinese, and Arabic and picked up some Portuguese and Amharic, so I feel your pain.

Persist through these natural challenges on the road to fluency, and you'll someday gain all the benefits of being bilingual.

Problem 1: Mastering a comprehensive vocabulary

To speak another language, knowing what to call things -- especially things you can't just see and point to -- is the essential first step toward fluency. However, vocabulary is often spotty in classroom learning, which tends to focus on memorizing lists of words in the target language and their definitions in English.

The traditional academic approach leads to the common frustration of knowing how to talk about the constitution in French but not knowing how to say useful things like cupboard or butter knife.

💡 Strategy: Try alternative methods of building vocabulary

There are a few ways to improve vocabulary, all of which include learning in context. When I studied Chinese, for example, I had a five-subject notebook and dedicated one of each section to a topic, depending on my level and interests, i.e., food, household items, politics, finance, and music.

I would then spend a few weeks learning words related to these five main subjects and categorizing them separately. When I reviewed vocabulary, I'd review them by topic. I would also build lists of synonyms, so whenever I defined a word, I'd list a few other synonyms in the target language so my vocabulary would become more sophisticated and diverse.

There's also the old trick of building vocabulary in a physical space, like putting up note cards all over your kitchen and bathroom to label things in the target language. Defining words in the target language instead of English is another excellent tactic that helps you rack your brain for words you already know to describe the new word.

Read more: The 10 Best Languages to Learn (and where to learn them)

Tips for Overcoming Language Learning Hurdles in Vocabulary

Problem 2: Incorrect "semantical usage" of vocabulary

Also known as "using the correct word in the wrong context," or using a word in a way that makes sense, but a native speaker would never put it quite the creative way you have.

Semantic mistakes are a more advanced-stage problem in language learning that occurs once you're already at a conversational level and is probably related to the origins of your vocabulary using the antiquated "target language: English definition" method.

💡 Strategy: Increase your exposure to native speakers and phrase-based vocabulary work

The first easy adjustment is an extension of the vocabulary techniques described above. Once you've mastered grouping vocabulary by topic and defining it in the target language, add phrases containing that word to its section. Progress to studying phrases, especially common sayings, instead of words singled out of their linguistic habitat.

The next strategy is to drastically increase the amount of time you spend listening to and reading content written by native speakers. Since you're already having conversations, you're ready for this next big step.

It may seem counterintuitive to listen more since the problem is related to your speaking abilities, but think of how a baby learns a language: by listening, catching on to context, and repeating. Children listen to native speakers (adults) for years before speaking. Do the same when you're learning your second or third language. Watch movies and TV with a notebook and jot down useful phrases you hear.

Another tip is to follow Instagram accounts in Italian to learn Italian, read Brazilian fashion blogs, and listen to Japanese podcasts. Integrate the language into all aspects of your media diet.

Read more: How to Find and Make the Most of a Language Partner

Tips for overcoming Language Learning Problems in Writing

Problem 3: Mastering a wildly different writing system

For learners of languages like Chinese and Japanese, you'll soon realize the reason these languages are notoriously difficult is not that they're all that hard to speak or understand, but because the writing system is unbelievably complex.

Languages with a different alphabet, like Arabic or Korean will also come up against the need to recognize different shapes and swirls and the new sounds they produce.

💡 Strategy: Repetition, read, write, and review

Children across the globe are no different than children in your home country; they've just been repeatedly exposed to a different language system from a young age. To build fluency, you just have to catch up. Start with repetition. For example, write every Chinese character 50 times on a whiteboard (saves paper). It's brutal, but eventually, it sticks.

Once you have a foundation of approximately one thousand essential words, progress to reading anything you can get your hands on -- with a dictionary nearby. A friend of mine ordered the Harry Potter series in Chinese, and it took about a year to read the first one, but she did it. She wrote down all the vocabulary she learned, categorized it, and memorized it.

Finally, start writing. Try keeping a daily journal in your target language and write a few sentences about your day every night before bed. Have your teacher or a native-speaking friend review and correct it for you once a week. You'll build vocabulary relevant to your daily life, make fewer grammatical mistakes over time, and practice those difficult characters.

Read more: Why You Should Learn a Second Language

Tips to overcome language learning problems with your accent

Problem 4: Getting rid of your accent

It's not that big of a deal and one of the least important things in language learning because you should strive to understand and be understood above all. But for advanced learners and fluent conversationalists, this can become frustrating over time.

💡 Strategy: Try immersion and careful listening

This is mostly a matter of immersion. If you're only speaking a few hours a day in the target language and going back to English, you'll never lose your accent. In my experience, I've only adapted my accent once I was speaking non-stop with native speakers day in and out and unconsciously picking up their pronunciation.

Listening intently to the native speakers around you and hiring a tutor to focus exclusively on your pronunciation is another way to make strides towards sounding more local.

Apps like Pimsleur are great tools for learning pronunciation as well, as you're practicing by listening and repeating.

Read more: How Long Does it Take to Learn a Language Abroad?

Tips for overcoming language learning problems in comprehension

Problem 5: Listening comprehension at native speaker speed

A common experience along the language learning journey is getting to a point where you understand everything in classroom exercises but can't keep up with how fast native speakers speak. For example, after two years of painstaking Arabic work, the first week in Lebanon was enough to make many language students give up.

💡 Strategy: Consume media in the target language

For now, the most important thing is time and consistency. Download TV and movies in your target language, listen to the radio, and watch the local news. It will get better. Don't worry about getting every word; just keep listening to entertaining things and try to get the gist of what's going on. Or use subtitles in your native language to follow along until you can go without them.

I used to watch movies in Chinese one night with English subtitles and the next night without them. I also watched CCTV news every night and let my head spin. Eventually, along with diligent classroom work, I started to understand more and more.

Read more: The Pros and Cons of Learning a Language Abroad

Language learning is a matter of time, effort, and exposure

A person in a library reading

While it's always impressive to meet someone fluent in various languages, you're just as capable of reaching that level. These people have simply had more exposure to the languages they speak and have put in the time and effort to build up fluency.

To overcome the difficulty of learning any new language, your must craft an environment that maximizes your familiarity with your target language and stay committed to active work in all four areas of the language reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Do this and you will become fluent!

Ready to take the next step along your language learning journey? Check out language immersion programs from across the globe and read real alum reviews through our language schools program page right here at Go Overseas.