In 2011, I left Canada with a one-way ticket to Spain. A few years later, in 2015, I moved to Italy, where I currently reside. As a native English speaker from Canada, my Spanish language skills were limited and my Italian was non-existent when I first decided to embark on my new life as an expat. I was terrified. How will I be able to ask for directions if I get lost? How will I make friends if nobody understands a word I am saying?
My language journey was complicated. Full of errors and mishaps (that were sometimes embarrassing, other times funny, but most often a combination of the two) As a fluent speaker of Italian and Spanish, I want to share my language learning journey with you, as well as my top 5 tips for mastering a foreign language.
Practice makes perfect
You will not become fluent if you don’t have regular exposure to the language. There is no quick fix to becoming an advanced speaker and you need to commit to a daily program. You don’t need to spend hours studying on a daily basis, but consistency is key. Whether it be 20 minutes one day and an hour the next, the more contact you make with your target language the faster you will see progress. As a full-time worker, it was hard for me to find time to dedicate to my language learning, so variation was key. Mondays were for YouTube videos (30 min), Tuesdays were for news articles during breakfast, and Saturday nights were movie nights with subtitles in my target language. As a football fan, I even played matches in the background in Spanish while I washed the dishes, just to subconsciously hear the language while going about my daily tasks – startled by the occasional outbursts of “GOLLLLL!”
Online language programs like Babbel can help you establish a daily practice routine that fits your busy schedule. I love doing their advanced Spanish activities to pick up new vocabulary I may not necessarily hear during my daily conversations. Their customized programs allow you to choose your daily target (20 min, 60 min, etc) and have activities customized for you.
The best part is that you can do it while on the go! Whether it be during your commute home on the underground or on your lunch break, you’ve got everything you need on the Babbel app. You can download your lessons and finish your course even without internet access! Also, there are a variety of topics to choose from, so everyone can find something that fits their language learning goals.
2) Don’t be afraid to make mistakes
I made a ton of mistakes when it came to speaking with the locals, and I still make mistakes nowadays! The most important thing to remember as a language learner is that if you don’t try to put yourself out there, you won’t progress. Often times, people will appreciate your effort to learn their language!
When I first arrived in Italy, I thought the standard salutation was “ciao!” and would enthusiastically greet everyone with a bold “ciao!” every time I saw them – including my elderly neighbour in the elevator. I could see her surprised expression, clearly taken aback by my confidence. Little did I know, “ciao!” can be interpreted as slightly blunt and even rude when addressing a person that you do not know or someone who is much older than you. A polite “Salve” means “hello” while I was yelling “hey!”
Upon discovering my language blunder, I immediately greeted my elderly neighbour with a soft “Salve” the next time we crossed paths.
She looked at me a bit oddly, and replied with an enthusiastic “CIAO!” as if to say, aren’t we friends now?
3) Find your learning style
Another important tip to remember is that everyone has a unique learning style. Some language learners prefer grammar exercises while others prefer watching and listening to dialogues in videos and t.v series. Find out what works best for you, what stimulates your interest and use it to your advantage! My personal learning style is binging Netflix episodes in my target language and doing mini tests with Babbel to check if I am on the right track!
4) Active learning
If you get the chance to travel to a country that speaks your target language, practice your listening skills! Observe how people respond to one another in public places, whether it be at the supermarket, a cafe or in a group conversation. This is a great way to pick up on small nuances like intonation, humour and politeness. In Italy, I noticed that whenever I said thank you to someone who helped me out when I asked for directions or information, they responded with a “MA FIGURATI!” and a smile. This expression can be translated to “You’re so welcome” or “No worries!”
Meanwhile, In Spain, whenever I used to walk into a cafe or bar, the server would say “que te pongo?” which literally translates to “what do I put for you?” My first time hearing this left me confused, as I was thinking literally rather than how the phrase was used in context. Its figurative equivalent is “what can I get you?”
Babbel’s lessons are focused on getting you to speak as fast as possible using speech recognition technology that will give you the much-needed confidence you’re looking for!
Regardless of what language you have chosen to learn, patience is key. Your journey will be long, it may be complicated, and you may feel like giving up. There were times I felt frustrated, comparing myself to others, thinking “why don’t I speak like them?”
Each individual has their own pace, strengths and weaknesses. Learning a language has given me a deep cultural experience that I wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t attempted to learn the local language. Through language learning you can truly make profound connections and friendships, understanding so much more about what makes people who they are, what they believe and where they come from.
Babbel currently has a special offer where you can get 6 months of language learning material for the price of three months. If you give yourself enough time you’ll be surprised how much you can learn in half a year!