Live Fully – Learn a New Language

Have you ever stopped to think how amazing it is that we can communicate with each other so well via the incredibly complex medium of language?

Our own native language that is.

Every day we communicate a limitless array of thoughts, emotions, ideas and perceptions effortlessly. It has taken us years to get here, but as adults we are stunning communicators.

However, when we travel to places where they speak a different language, it is frustrating not to be able to get thoughts and ideas across. We are so used to being fluent at home it is physically painful not to be fluent with new friends in a foreign country.

Travel is much more fulfilling when you can speak the language. It is immensely satisfying able to communicate with new friends in their native tongue. But it’s not easy to do. Learning takes work. But the sense of accomplishment you get every time you understand a new phrase or make yourself understood in a new language is worth the effort to learn.

A different language is a different vision of life.
Federico Fellini

How do you think?

Languages illustrate how different cultures think. Not only are the customs and attitudes different among various cultures, but the actual thinking process differs. Having a deep understanding another person’s language – the processes they use to understand and explain their world – opens a magnificent avenue to understanding. As much of the world’s conflict comes from misunderstanding each other, taking the time to learn how others think can only help us get along.

But again, it's not easy.

I have been trying to learn Spanish for years – decades actually. And I have been constantly frustrated. I can speak English rather well, it shouldn’t be this hard to learn another language, should it?

But, when we break the process down, it is easy to understand.

As a native English speaker, I have been learning English all my life. As a child I learned through immersion, as we all do. But I was child and capable of very rapid absorption of information as all children are. Later, I studied English in public school and then in college. I have been a student of my native language all my life.

However, when we try to learn a new language as an adult or even as teenager, we are seldom in an immersion environment like we were as a child with our sponge-like brains learning our native tongue.

So we turn to textbooks and lessons to try and absorb the new vocabulary, grammar and idioms. Textbooks and lessons are, to a certain extent necessary, but they are not enough.

How do we approach learning a new language to make it fun and productive?

Young boy with big round glasses sits with an open book in front of a red bookcase filled with colorful books.
Like a sponge...
You don't learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing, and by falling over.
Richard Branson

Learning language in the digital age.

Fortunately the internet age provides wonderful opportunities for language learning. Especially with the more popular languages, there are countless courses, programs, apps, etc… to chose from to help learn a new language. My experience has been to look around, find a couple of approaches that resonate, and stick with them.

If you are traveling abroad and an absolute beginner in a language, phrase books can be a good place to start.  They will give you access to the very basics and at least supply some framework for the language.  I like the Lonely Planet travel books overall and their language guides are well laid out.  Phrase books are certainly worthwhile even for a short trip as the locals will always appreciate your attempt to speak their language.

Next up are the phone apps – Google Translate and are indispensable. I have had many conversations with store clerks with both us only using Google Translate to communicate.  Just entering what you want to say and showing them the translation on your phone works wonders.

Language apps like Duolingo have been only partially successful for me. Maybe they will work better for you.  They certainly have their place as they put needed vocabulary in front of your nose day after day, but I have trouble staying engaged and never really feel like I am making much progress.

Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.
Benjamin Franklin

One of scientific discoveries about learning language is that we learn best when we have material reinforced according to a specific schedule. By presenting repeated material at carefully planned, increasing intervals the information will move from short- term to long-term memory more easily and more quickly. The pioneer in this work was Dr. Paul Pimsleur and his legacy is Pimsleur Language Programs. Many language teachers, online and elsewhere, use this idea to one extent or another. Jo Ann and I both have used Pimsleur material to good effect.

One of the online humans I like is Olly Richards. His site – – uses a multi-media toolkit and is full of insightful language learning information. He has courses for several different languages. I have used his Fluent Spanish Academy course and like his overall approach.  Plus, he seems like a pretty nice guy.

If French is your thing, Olly has a new program for learning French called French Uncovered. He puts a lot of effort into teaching the how of learning language and provides lots of tips to make the journey easier and more fun.  It starts off with some free videos about getting to French fluency.  Definitely worth checking out whatever language you are learning.

Olly strongly believes in two basic ideas which I have found immensely helpful – listening to your target language while following along with a transcript – and –  the use of level appropriate reading for language learning.  By reading along with the material you are hearing, progress comes much more rapidly because you realize you already know much of what is being said – you just haven’t been able to pick it out.  With level appropriate reading he uses a trick that I consider yet another variation the 80/20 rule.

The 80/20 rule.

The basic idea, which comes from economics where it is known as The Pareto principle, is that 80% of an outcome comes from 20% of the effort. And the last 20% of the outcome will take 80% of the effort.  Many things in life follow this rule.

In language learning, it is not the percentage of effort but the level of understanding you have that is essential for success. The important twist on the 80/20 rule is that you should always work with material that is 80% understood and 20% new.

In order to most efficiently learn, you need to be presented with material that is only slightly above your current level of understanding. You should understand 80% of the material while 20% is new. When you listen to 80/20 material while following the transcript, the magic happens. 

Of course, what constitutes the 80/20 of your understanding changes constantly. When you are a total beginner, 80% of nothing is still nothing so what you’re learning must be very simple. Which brings us to the topic of immersion vs. bilingual teaching.

Immersion vs. bilingual learning.

When you are just beginning, having a bilingual teacher is important. The teacher can explain the concepts of the new language in your native language so you can understand. Otherwise you waste a great deal of time. Because, if you cannot even understand what the teacher wants you to do, frustration arises.

Once you have a basic understanding of vocabulary and how the new language differs in structure and content from your native language, you can make progress through immersion. Once a student has a basic vocabulary and a basic understanding of sentence structure and verb conjugation, the 20% that is above current understanding can be motivating. Until then, it is just frustrating.

Language schools

Jo Ann and I spend a year living in Chile. When we first arrived, we took immersion Spanish classes at Escuela Bellavista Chile in Santiago. Even though I had endured several years of Spanish classes at school, my fluency was not high. I became frustrated at my lack of understanding of what was being asked of me in the immersion classes.

If I had had a bilingual teacher who could have explained concepts in English, I think my progress would have been much faster. Later, when I reached a higher level of competency, immersion classes became much more effective.

Escuela Bellavista. Santiago, Chile.

One-on-one with a teacher can be the best.

Eventually I sought out a teacher for one-on-one lessons.  Once you reach at a high beginner or low intermediate level, having a real human being sitting in front of you with their full attention focused on you is very helpful.  My teacher was Gabriela Garcia.  She is a very lovely woman, originally from Argentina who is now living in Lisbon, Portugal.  If you ever need a Spanish teacher in Lisbon, or want lessons online, contact me and I will put you in touch with her.

And speaking of online. . .

Video language learning.

Online video conferencing software such as Skype and Zoom now allow direct lessons with native language speakers from all over the world. This can be a great way to get much needed human contact and feedback during the learning process. Services such as italki connect students and teachers together at whatever level and language you desire.  This can be a great way to get a head start on learning language for your next trip.

Don't give up, enjoy the process.

Learning a new language is hard. But it is fun and worthwhile. Keep in mind that sometimes things don’t go as planned. One of the reasons we decided to spend a year in Chile was to finally learn Spanish. Little did we know, they don’t actually speak Spanish in Chile! They speak Chilean.

It is certainly based on Spanish, and your typical Chilean can speak classic Spanish, but the vocabulary, the rhythm, everything is very different from other spoken Spanish. We had friends from Venezuela and Argentina – native Spanish speakers – who could not understand the Chileans when they first arrived in Chile.

Imagine an English-speaking American, going to a pub in a wee Scottish town and trying to understand a Scotsman who has had a few pints. He’ll be speaking English, but you won’t understand a thing.

A pug with the quote "Ma heid's mince!"
Translation: I'm confused.

My experience...

So after all this work, am I fluent in Spanish? Well… no, not yet. Mainly because I don’t practice every day like I should.  But, I’m a LOT closer than I was before traveling to South America. And I can see real progress when I make learning a priority. And that’s what keeps it interesting. Every time I am able to make myself understood to my Spanish speaking friends, it’s a precious victory. I get a little closer to really understanding who they are. And hopefully, they get a little closer to knowing me.

What been your experience?

Have you tried learning a foreign language? 

In a foreign country? 

How did it work out for you?

What are your favorite learning tips?

Text saying "Goodbye" in many different languages, in different colors.


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