Computer desk study with yerba mate notebook and flower
Culture,  Travel

How to learn a language: a realistic guide that isn’t selling shortcuts

So many people like to sell a product by saying that you will gain something valuable in record time. “Lose 10 pounds in a week.” “Learn French in 30 days.” “How to earn $5000 in your first month of blogging.” Let’s be real: That doesn’t happen. Unless you are a prodigy or very lucky, big achievements which will change your life take time and effort. I have spent years studying Spanish, from not really trying in grade school to piquing my interest in high school to going all in during college. Here I’m listing the things I have found to work when you’re studying a new language (in no particular order).

Actually care

This is an essential yet often overlooked aspect of learning. It really applies to any subject. Care about what you’re learning. Feel connected to and passionate about the reasons your studying, and find ways to make the process enjoyable. Not only will this decrease your chance of burning out and giving up, but you will try harder and learn faster without realizing it.



Watching a movie or TV show in another language has a lot of benefits. For one thing, you get to hear various different people speak at a conversational speed and practice real-world levels of comprehension. Another nice thing is that there are images and emotions to help you understand what the words might mean. The academic community agrees that around 70% of communication is through nonverbal cues. (Source: a fact I retained from an Intro to Communication textbook in college). Watching a movie helps your brain synapses connect the words you hear to objects, people, or emotions to help you pick up on the meanings as well as retain the vocabulary more easily. Something great for beginners is to watch something they’ve seen before dubbed over in their target language with subtitles in that same language. Don’t use subtitles in your native language or you will get lazy. The subtitles help you pick out words that are spoken unclearly or too fast to pick up. Watching something you’re familiar with helps you understand better, because you already have a general idea of what they’re talking about. Once you’re more advanced (or right away if you’re feeling adventurous), you can start looking into movies or TV shows which were originally written and filmed in your target language. A film I enjoy in Spanish is Nueve Reinas, an Argentinian movie about con artists and heists.

movie theater cinema popcorn
Photographer: Pixabay Sourced from

Take a Class

Classroom learning is not always the best method for learning a language, but there are some important benefits. A huge one is accountability. You have to show up, participate, study and do homework, so there are consequences if you don’t force yourself to use the language on a regular basis. If you are hoping to learn academic-level language skills, which would be useful in professional settings, classroom learning is essential. It also puts someone who is an expert in the subject at your disposal to explain things and answer questions. And a class typically gives you information on a variety of subjects, many of which you probably would not have thought to study outside of the classroom. I’ve written essays in Spanish about bullying in schools and Chilean birth control policies over time. The second one I never would have taken much time to research, and both of them provided me with vocabulary terms which I had never come across before.

Empty classroom with chairs and desks
Photographer: Pixabay Sourced from


Listening to music is an incredible way to boost your comprehension skills. When you put it on, listen to the lyrics and try to pick out words you know. Understand that song moves differently than normal conversation and it might be difficult to pick up what the singer is saying sometimes. One thing I find helpful is to listen to a song, look up and read through the lyrics, find any words I don’t understand in a dictionary, then listen to the song again. I then understand way more that I’m listening to, and can more accurately sing along if I get into the groove. Different styles have different benefits, whether it’s differentiating words that run together or understanding fast-paced dialogue.

Photographer: Pixabay Sourced from

Use your language

A popular phrase amongst language learners is “If you don’t use it, you lose it.” Finding opportunities to use your language skills is super important for learning new things, and it’s also a good way to retain the knowledge you already have. Find as many ways as you can to use this language, especially speaking with someone. If there’s a cultural center near you, a religious location such as a church or temple offering services in your target language, or you have a friend who speaks the language (or is also trying to learn it). Even thinking out loud to yourself in the target language is helpful. Be creative and find as many ways to practice as you can.


Use the Internet

The internet is a powerful tool. Use it to your advantage. There is so, so much available online to help you learn. You can find lessons, podcasts, Youtube videos, connections with penpals who speak your target language. There are even apps you can download to improve your knowledge.

At the end of the day, what matters most is not giving up. Try a few of these strategies, spend consistent time and energy, and don’t get discouraged. You are embarking on a long road, but an incredibly rewarding one.

What are some tricks you are already using to practice your language skills?

Images sourced from


I am a writer, actor, translator, and social activist.


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