learn a new language
Learning a new language opens doors to new friendships, cultural exchanges and business opportunities. Source: AFP

Frustrating, hard, takes too long — these are the main complaints from those who have tried to learn a new language.

It doesn’t help that scientists have found that beyond 10 years old, your chances of becoming fluent in a new language just nosedives.

That doesn’t mean all those hours on Duolingo and Babbel are just pointless. The good news is even though you won’t be 100% fluent in a new language, you can still get pretty good at it.

And you can still reap all the rewards that come with it.

best ways to learn a new language

Are you too old to learn a new language? Source: AFP

The benefits of learning a new language

One of the greatest things about being human is how we can connect with people — even those from different countries and cultures.

Imagine being in France and being able to speak the language, order food and interact with locals. We may look different and come from a culture that’s the complete opposite of the French but through language, those differences dissolve and are replaced by realisations that we’re more alike than we think.

That’s a powerful feeling in an increasingly divided world.

Apart from opening the world up to you, you’re changing your body in various ways too — even physically.

Adults who speak two languages are found to have increased white matter integrity compared to adults who only speak one language.

White matter refers to that structured network of cells in your brain which act like cables to link up communicating brain regions.

When you learn new words and grammar rules, your brain creates new connections, which can improve your memory and decision-making skills.

Nine out of 10 of a meta analysis of 20 studies examining language learning and its impact on academic performance found that those learning a new language perform better across a range of academic subjects than their peers who are not.

What’s more, being bilingual or multilingual looks great on your CV.

More than half of US employers say that their demand for bilingual and multilingual speakers will increase over the next five years, according to an American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages study.

Bilingual employees can also earn between 5% to 20% more than those who aren’t.

best ways to learn a new language

Bilingual brains are stronger. Source: AFP

How long does it take to learn a new language? 

Now that you know how important it is to not neglect learning a new language, it’s time to plan how you’re going to do it.

But how long does it take?

When it comes to learning a new language there is no specific time. Each person learns differently at their own pace. 

The time it takes to learn a new language depends on:

  • your motivation
  • prior language learning experience
  • the complexity of the language you are learning
  • the amount of time you dedicate to learning each day 
  • the resources available 

That being said, according to the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) of the US Department of State, languages like Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese, which are considered to be similar to English, may take around 600-750 hours of study for a native English speaker to achieve proficiency

However, languages with different grammatical structures, such as Arabic, Russian, Mandarin Chinese, Japanese or Korean, may take longer.

FSI estimates that it could take around 1,100 to 2,200 hours of study to achieve proficiency. 

How fast you learn a language depends on the difficulty of the language, your learning style and consistency.

Some people may learn a new language faster through auditory learning styles like listening to a podcast or listening to native speakers converse, while others may learn better through visual aids like textbooks or apps. 

Whatever the language or your learning style, when it comes to learning a new language the most important thing is consistent practice.

Daily practice, even if it’s just for a short time, can produce great results.

Eighteen-year-old sea lion Leo receives a fish treat after writing the Chinese character for “ox” (back), which is next year’s Chinese zodiac sign, during a press preview at Yokohama Hakkeijima Sea Paradise in Yokohama. Source: AFP

10 best ways to learn a new language effectively and quickly

1. Watch loads of movies or TV shows

Immersing yourself in the language through watching movies or TV shows you enjoy is one of the best ways to learn a new language.

There’s a scientific reason for this. It’s called “intrinsic motivation,” the highest form of motivation where you do something because you find it fun.

When you watch a show you enjoy in the language you’re learning, with subtitles in your native language, you start to pick up on words and phrases. And because you’re happier, you’re more motivated and keep on at it longer.

That’s when you begin to notice those grammar rules being used in conversation.

Starting with short episodes allows you to watch scenes multiple times without feeling overwhelmed, and gradually, you’ll find yourself understanding more and more without needing the subtitles.

Songs can also be a great tool for language learning. 

You may even discover that the song’s meaning is different from what you initially thought.

2. Turn off the subtitles when watching movies and TV shows

While watching TV shows and movies can help you learn a new language, if you want to take it a step further, try turning off subtitles when watching.

This forces you to focus on your listening and comprehension skills. When subtitles are on, it’s tempting to rely on reading rather than listening to the language.

This means you’re not fully engaging with the language. 

By turning off the subtitles completely, you challenge yourself to listen attentively and pick up on context clues, tone of voice and body language, which are all essential for effective communication.

3. Write it down 

Writing down new words and sentences in a notebook is an old-school but effective way to learn a new language.

Even though we’re all used to using technology these days, it pays to put pen to paper (or app as this columnist did while learning Tamil, the primary language spoken in Tamil Nadu, a state in Southern India) 

You can jot down words or sentences that you hear in a notebook, which you can later refer to. It might seem old-school, but it really works. When we write something down, it sticks in our brains better. 

4. Flashcards 

Using flashcards is one of the best ways to learn a new language because it helps with memorisation.

Although there’s so much flak about it, don’t diss memorising off just yet. When it comes to learning new worlds, this is still a proven way that works.

You can write a foreign language word on one side and its definition in English on the other. By repeatedly going through each flashcard, you reinforce the connections between the foreign words and their meanings. 

You can start by reading the foreign word and recalling its definition, then flip the card and do the opposite, starting with the definition and recalling the foreign word. 

Then, test yourself by watching TV shows or movies and see how many words you recognise!

5. Free language learning apps

Free language learning apps are great because it doesn’t cost anything and you have the power to decide where and what you learn. 

Below are some of our favourites:

  • Duolingo: There are courses in over 30 languages, including Spanish, French, German, Chinese and Japanese. The app uses a combination of text, audio and images to teach vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation.
  • Memrise: Best to learn and remember new words. The app uses spaced repetition and mnemonic techniques.
  • HelloTalk: Great for those who want to learn from native speakers. Users can connect with native speakers of their target language through text, voice and video chat to practise speaking and listening skills in real-life conversations.

6. Sleep

In one study, researchers got 30 German speakers to sleep and had audio clips played to them during the REM and NREM stages. These are when the brain is more likely to absorb and process new information.

When awake, the participants could remember the words spoken to them in German but not the made-up ones.

“Studies show you can reinforce previously learned information during sleep, such as vocabulary from a foreign language,” says sleep expert and co-founder of Rise Science, Jeff Kahn. “However, this doesn’t mean you can learn a language from scratch while sleeping.”

7. Date someone who speaks the language 

Here’s an even more unconventional method: dating someone who speaks the language is like having your own personal Google Translate but with more cuddles. 

So, if you’re thinking about picking up Spanish, perhaps it’s time to swipe right and go on a date. After all, as they say, the couple that learns languages together stays together.

And it’s definitely effective.

“I now know how to pronounce certain words the right way – been pronouncing it wrong my entire life till then,” says Sivanesan Krish, whose wife has helped him improve his Tamil by correcting him whenever he makes a mistake. 

8. Go abroad

If you can afford this, do it. 

But rememeber, just visiting the country isn’t enough. You have to dive headfirst into the local culture. It’s all about getting out of your comfort zone, mingling with new people and listening to the natives speak the language. 

You could even stay with a host family who doesn’t speak your native language, which would mean you have no choice but to learn their language. 

So, pack your bags and get ready for a language-learning crash course like no other.

9. Focus on the important words

With hundreds of thousands of words in a language, how do you know which to choose?

Some professors tailor their classes to only the words used the most. Carl A Gelderloos,
Associate Professor of German at Binghamton University offers a completely online, interactive curriculum, der|die|das for beginners using this approach.

“By the second week of German, students are able to have conversations with each other, talk about their interests. By the end of two semesters, they’re really able to handle most situations, and even think about studying abroad in German at a German-speaking University,” he said.

10. Role-playing games

Role-playing games (RPGs) are a great tool when learning a new language. You will be able to connect with others, solve problems and work together towards common goals—all in the target language.

By joining online gaming communities you’re exposed to real-life scenarios. This helps improve your speaking and listening skills. For example, games like “World of Warcraft” or “Final Fantasy XIV” have large international player bases where you can communicate with others in various languages.

When you’re role-playing, you become your character. This means you are forced to speak the language as well.

Dungeons & Dragons is a popular RPG that involves storytelling, problem-solving and character interaction. You can create characters and stories while communicating in the language you are learning.