Learning a New Language: Why You Should Do It, and How to Get Started

A word cloud of Greek words from a newspaper article

As I mentioned last weekend, I recently began studying the Greek language.  My husband and his family (who hail from Athens) had previously taught me a few basic words, but until a couple of weeks ago, I hadn’t tried to learn the language in any disciplined way.  The main reason is that my husband and his mother, sister, and brother-in-law all speak English, so I can communicate with them just fine in my own native language.

Still, that felt a bit lazy on my part.  And now that we are planning a trip to Greece, I want to be able to read street signs, say hello to any non-English speakers I encounter, and ask the kinds of questions one often needs to ask when traveling.  My husband will be there to translate for me, but there’s a certain satisfaction that comes from being able to speak and read at least some of the local language when traveling.

I enjoy learning languages, though I’m not fluent in any but my own.  I studied Spanish in high school and college and have picked it back up from time to time.  A few years ago, I taught myself some French, though I’m afraid I’ve forgotten most of it now due to lack of use.  Years ago, in preparation for international trips, I learned some Italian and German.  Studying languages is fun for me — I like seeing the connections my brain makes when learning words with similar roots, and it’s exciting be able to string together full sentences after initially struggling to remember individual words.

Greek is proving to be much more challenging than the other languages I’ve studied because it has a different alphabet.  Many of the letters visually resemble English letters, but they represent different sounds, so that can be tricky.  Though I often get frustrated when my Duolingo app asks to me translate something from English into Greek, I am making progress, slowly but surely.  I look forward to the day that I can have real conversations with my husband and his family in Greek, and we hope one day to raise a multilingual child.

Even if you have no plans to travel internationally in the near future and no family or friends who speak a different tongue, there are many reasons to learn a new language.  Studying another language has a whole slew of cognitive benefits, from becoming a better test taker and improving memory to significantly delaying the onset of dementia.  It may even cause parts of your brain to grow physically larger.  Those of us who weren’t lucky enough to be raised bilingual can reap many of these benefits by learning new languages as adults.

Fortunately, learning a new language is not as difficult or time-consuming as you may think, and you can do it for free if you want.  I spend about ten minutes before bed each night working through a Greek lesson on Duolingo, and I supplement that by occasionally listening to an audio lesson my phone.  Here are some sources you can use to learn a new language:

  1. The BBC Languages site: free lessons, videos, and games in more than 35 languages.  The site says it has been archived and is no longer being updated, but it looks like you can still access all the materials.
  2. Pimsleur audio courses: somewhat expensive but very effective audio courses that you can download to your device or purchase as CDs.  If you are mostly concerned about speaking the language and don’t care much about reading and writing it, Pimsleur is a great option.  Each lesson is about 30 minutes, and you complete one per day.  It’s a good way to become conversational in a few months.  Available through audible.com as well for Audible members.
  3. Duolingo: free app that offers daily lessons of a length of your choosing — 5, 10, 15, or 20 minutes per day.  It also sends you a daily notification to remind you to practice.
  4. Collins audio courses: these are also available on audible.com and for purchase online.  They are less expensive than the Pimsleur courses and have a different format.  The instructor does a pretty good job of explaining things in ways that will help you to remember them.
  5. Coursera language courses: this MOOC provider offers free language courses.  I took a Coursera course in a different subject once, but I haven’t personally tried the language-learning classes.
  6. Meetup groups: in many areas, there are Meetup groups for language learning and conversation practice.  I’ve attended groups for Spanish and French, which are probably the most common languages offered.
  7. Foreign films: while I wouldn’t recommend this as a starting point, watching movies in the language you are learning can be a good way to immerse yourself in the language and get used to how native speakers converse.  Another option is to watch a movie in English with subtitles in the language you are learning.

These are some of the tools I’ve used when studying other languages.  What have you tried, and what’s worked best?  Let us know in the comments.

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8 thoughts on “Learning a New Language: Why You Should Do It, and How to Get Started

  1. When I taught English at MECC, I often had students from other countries. We didn’t have an ESL (English as a Second Language) instructor, so I would work with the students during my office hours. One thing they always enjoyed doing as homework was watching a movie with subtitles. I would ask them to bring in 20 new vocabulary words they wanted to learn that were in the movies. I could always tell what kind of movie they had seen by the words they brought to learn.

    If any of you are interested in working with an adult who needs help learning English, I encourage you to volunteer to be a tutor at the Literacy Council of Kingsport. You are provided with excellent training and materials, so you don’t have to be a teacher to be able to really help someone. I worked with a guy from China for several years. It was a great experience. They really need people to work with ESL adults.

  2. I have a “pen pal” – a friend who lives in a French speaking country and we whatsapp. He sends me texts in French and then an English translation. I reply in French. It’s great practice. There’s also YouTube. I discovered Comme Une Française (https://www.commeunefrancaise.com/) because of YouTube. And now I follow Géraldine and get her newsletters. In my experience, daily practice, preferably with a native speaker, seems to work best.

  3. I got the idea for learning to at least read Spanish by simply reading a Spanish novel, and slowly, but surely, translating it.

    1. I bought a Spanish-language copy of The Alchemist a few years ago for that purpose, but I still haven’t gotten around to reading it. Sounds like a great study tool, though!

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