Longing to learn a language?

Longing to learn a language?
Picking up a new language is a daunting prospect with a tantalising reward, but it’s easier now than ever, writes Jason Osborne

Most of us would like to be able to speak at least one other language, and most of us leave school without the ability to do so (unless we attended a Gaelscoil). Or at least that was my experience. If you were good at Spanish, French or German in school, you were likely to retain quite a few words and phrases, and maybe even some of the grammatical rules, upon leaving, but fluency or proficiency remain elusive.

As such, learning to speak another language falls into our own hands. It’s not all doom and gloom, though – there’s never been a better time for doing so, with the prevalence of helpful apps and the ease with which we can travel now. There’s also been much research and study done, both professionally and casually, into the language learning process, revealing helpful insights that perhaps went unnoticed for a long time.

I’m grappling with Polish at the moment, an undertaking that often feels far beyond my capacity. However, I’ve picked up a few tips along the way that have made the process significantly smoother and have given me hope that one day I’ll speak the language, at least communicatively if not perfectly fluently. I’m convinced that those who stick with the often-tricky process will enjoy a reward they’ll possess for the rest of their lives.


It goes without saying that immersion is the best way to learn a new language. Our brains may not be as malleable and impressionable as they were when we were children, but they still soak up an awful lot. Moving to the country of your chosen language, if possible, is the best choice you can make. You hear conversations, see signs, watch TV and movies, talk to people and more in your desired language, which naturally increases your chances of picking it up eventually, if for no other reasons than necessity and exposure.

These days, with the omnipresence of English, it can be tricky even abroad to escape your linguistic circle, the populations of many countries possessing functional English at the least. Despite this, going abroad is your best bet for a full-foreign language experience.

If this is totally off the table for you, as it is for many, there are still ways to increase your exposure, such as putting your language’s subtitles on movies and shows you watch, or better still, watching content from that country and getting the full experience. Listen to music in the language, read children’s books in the language – do whatever it takes to increase its presence in your life. While none of these things alone is enough to get you speaking it, my attitude lately has been that “any Polish is better than none”, or whatever your chosen language may be.

Do lessons

Good, old-fashioned lessons are being ignored sometimes these days in favour of apps (which have their place), but you can’t beat lessons, especially in the early stages of the learning process. Of course, not all teachers are of the same quality, so research and selectivity are essential.

While physical lessons are becoming possible again with the mass-easing of restrictions in recent months, the internet has expanded our horizons beyond all recognition. I do one-to-one Polish lessons online twice a week of the exact same quality as physical lessons, if not better, because I’m receiving far more attention than I would if I were in a classroom full of students. Lessons for every language you can think of can be found online, along with thousands of hours of recorded lessons on YouTube.

Toucan works by automatically translating certain words and phrases on the page into your target language”

While I mentioned that immersion is the best strategy for learning a language (and it is), the process will be much easier if you understand the basic rules and underlying principles of the language beforehand. This is where lessons come in. They won’t equip you to speak the target language by themselves, but they provide a useful framework or understanding of the language which enable you to pick it up faster and faster.

Apps and online resources

Unlike lessons, the world of apps and online resources doesn’t see you getting face time with a teacher. However, many of them are developed by language experts and linguists, so their quality is assured. Apps like Duolingo and LingoDeer are very user-friendly, while browser extensions like Toucan are equally useful in helping you pick up bits and pieces of the language during your daily browse of the internet.

Toucan works by automatically translating certain words and phrases on the page into your target language. As such, it’s not an overwhelming experience while helping you to learn new words you wouldn’t otherwise have picked up.

Flashcard websites such as Quizlet are also a handy tool in the aspiring multilinguist’s arsenal, offering a very simple system for keeping track of your vocabulary and phrases, and helping you to remember to practice them in a timely manner.

Patience and humility

A ‘softer’ tip, if it could be phrased that way, is to develop the virtues of patience and humility. Why patience? Because there is no way to learn a language quickly. There are ways to learn it quicker, but not quickly. It really is more like running a marathon than a sprint. There will be days that you feel far more motivated than others to learn the language – some days feel like victories and some like defeats. This is when patience is key. It will happen, if only you stick with it long enough.

As for humility, one of the biggest barriers to language acquisition, in practice, is self-consciousness. The less you know of the language, the less you’re able to say, write and understand – which sometimes makes you feel a bit of a fool. Giving in to the feelings of self-consciousness, timidity and embarrassment only make the process harder.

The best way to approach the process is to accept and become comfortable with the fact that you’re going to make lots and lots of mistakes, and that’s ok. In fact, those mistakes are what the road to speaking another language looks like. No one has ever seamlessly and perfectly started speaking another language, and you won’t either. At least this way, we get to work on some spiritual virtues while picking up a practical new skill.

Find a friend

A final useful piece of advice is to find someone to tackle the mammoth task with. Whether they’re a friend from the country of your target language, or whether it’s a local friend who’s decided to strive with you, it’s easier taking on the challenge with company.

An intimidating prospect, sure to take a sustained and often uncomfortable effort, but the end result makes it all worthwhile”

If your friend is abroad, it may be time to evoke Leaving Certificate memories by writing letters as pen pals – a good, controlled environment for a beginner to attempt expressing themselves in. Alternatively, if your friend is also picking up the language, hold each other accountable and synchronise your studying. You’ll be thankful for it on the days you don’t feel like practicing.

All in all, learning a language is just like climbing a mountain. An intimidating prospect, sure to take a sustained and often uncomfortable effort, but the end result makes it all worthwhile.