How to Learn a New Language in One Year

By Jenn Rose Smith

Texans live surrounded by Spanish. It’s on our menus, our street signs, and on the lips of so many people who live here. But even given all of that (and the four semesters of Spanish I endured during college) I still didn’t speak Spanish back in November of 2015. Rosetta Stone was something I’d been thinking about for a while, and on a whim I decided to treat myself to an early Christmas gift: a two-year subscription to the online learning course. Four months later I’ve already logged over thirty hours of progress in the program. I’m stringing together complete sentences (in the past tense!), hooked on the Spanish TV show Velvet, and looking forward to planning my next trip to Tulum. While I’m making great strides, I still feel miles away from fluency. It seems like everyone on our team is interested in learning a second language, so I called up the Senior Director of Language Learning at Rosetta Stone to learn more about what it really takes to become fluent. Lisa A. Frumkes, PhD is a full-blown language prodigy (“Mandarin has been my biggest challenge to date,”) and she also works with an international team of language experts in content creation, testing, and research. “Together we create the unique learning materials and assessments that Rosetta Stone offers. I love my job because it combines my favorite things: education, technology, language learning, and management.” According to Lisa, it is possible to become conversational in a new language inside of 12 months. “If you put in the time (say, thirty minutes per day) on your language, most days of the week — and it’s good, focused practice — you can definitely keep up your end of simple conversations in a year,” she says. Read on to discover her secrets for language learning and start planning your next trip abroad. Buyers beware: Rosetta Stone is incredibly addictive and fun to use. I have every intention of keeping it up. So when you see me in Tulum, be sure and say qué pasa!

featured image by the glamourai

Thanks for joining us today Lisa! We’ve heard that you’re a true polygot… How many (and which) languages do you speak?

I’ve studied about a dozen languages, and dabbled in a few more. My best ones are French, German, and Russian. I loved studying Czech and Indonesian. Lately, I’ve been working on Mandarin, which is easily my biggest challenge to date.

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Wow. That’s impressive. What’s the most common mistake you see with people who are trying to learn a second language?

I find that people don’t put in enough time to make and maintain their language learning progress. Language learning is a process of building, exercising, and maintaining a set of skills. It doesn’t happen overnight, and if you stop practicing, it’s easy to lose what you’ve gained. Like staying fit, learning to play a musical instrument, or mastering any complex skill, you need to dedicate time to it regularly–you need to practice most, if not all days of the week. Success will come with regular, focused practice.

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We’ve heard that certain people just have a “knack” for foreign languages and others don’t. Do you think that’s true?

We all have things we’re good at! It’s true that some people have an easier time learning languages, just like some people have a gift for fixing things, or for picking up complex mathematical concepts, or for playing basketball. But anyone can learn a language. Have patience with yourself when you’re feeling stuck, and be willing to try new approaches to keep moving forward.

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Is it easier for children or younger people to learn a second language than it is for adults?

Children definitely learn language differently than adults–and they have more time to devote to it than adults do. But that doesn’t mean it’s easier for them to learn to communicate in another language. It’s never too late to learn. But if you did learn one language in your youth, and want to learn another now that you’re older, you might find it easier than someone who has never learned another language at all.

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Do you have to live in a foreign country to become fluent in a language? Or is it something that can be achieved at home?

It’s all about interactions with the language. Plenty of people go to live in a foreign country but never pick up the language, because they spend all their time talking to speakers of their own native language. You’re not going to make much progress that way. If you’re willing to make contact with other speakers and learners of the language, either in your community or online, and really commit and focus on communicating with them, you can make great progress–whether you’re abroad or in your home town.

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For someone who speaks English as their primary language, are there certain foreign languages that are easier to learn than others? Which do you recommend and why?

Yes, some languages, like French, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, and Swedish are quicker for English speakers to learn, because the vocabulary and structures of the language are similar to English. But that doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t tackle languages like German, Russian, Arabic, Japanese, or Mandarin. It just means you’ll have to work a little harder and longer to make the same progress. The important thing is to choose a language that you truly want to learn, because that desire will keep you motivated to keep going.

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What habits and techniques do you see your most successful students using that others don’t?

Successful learners set aside time for their language study every day. They put it on their calendars and keep those appointments with themselves, and with other speakers of the language they’re learning, whether they are native speakers of the language, fellow learners, or a coach or a teacher.

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Read on for 8 great tips straight from Dr. Frumkes herself on how to learn a second language this year…

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1. Sign up for a class (or two).

Sometimes what you need is a deadline, and a class provides just that. When you know you have to interact with other people, you’re more likely to prepare. But the class doesn’t need to be in-person: For example, Rosetta Stone offers live tutoring in small groups with native speakers. You sign up for a time slot that works for you, and then participate from the comfort of a place of your choosing. Even in your pajamas.

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2. Get out there.

In addition to formal interactions in a class, informal conversational meet-ups provide opportunities to practice. Think of it as a pickup game of basketball: you get in there and participate and practice the skills you’ve learned through your classes, book learning, or software. But it’s low-stakes, because you’re just playing (speaking) for fun.

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3. Mix it up.

Don’t limit yourself to a particular approach or resource. Use books. Use the internet. Interact with teachers, native speakers, other learners, via text or voice. And even if a particular approach or resource doesn’t work for you, keep in mind that it might be useful to you later when you’re at a different level or working on your language skills for another purpose. Keep those resources in your back pocket so they’re there when you need them.

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4. Work all the skills.

Even if your main goal is to speak the language, don’t neglect the written form. Believe it or not, working on reading and writing can help you to develop your listening and speaking skills. And it works the other way around too. So hit all four language skills regularly: reading, writing, listening, and speaking.

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5. Sneak in extra practice.

While it’s important to devote a good solid, chunk of time to your language learning on a daily basis, you can also keep learning during odd moments, like on your mobile device  while in line at the grocery checkout counter or while waiting for a treadmill at the gym. Even a stack of old-fashioned flashcards in your pocket can be a handy tool when you’re not connected to the internet. Talking to yourself in the shower is also a great way to think through things you’d like to say. Don’t let those little opportunities pass you by!

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6. Don’t neglect culture.

Learning a language is about more than grammar and vocabulary. Learning about the culture–how people interact with each other, what their traditions are, and what they consider important–is a big part of becoming comfortable speaking a language. Watching TV, perusing magazines, and listening to music in your target language can help you tune in to the cultural cues. Advertisements are particularly great because they’re short and to the point.

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7. Be patient with yourself.

Learning a language is a long process. There will be times when you make great strides effortlessly, and other times you’ll feel stuck. It’s natural and normal to struggle, and it’s not an indication that you’re somehow unable to learn. Keep at it during the tough times and enjoy the times when it’s smooth sailing.

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8. Don’t worry.

All of us, even in our native languages, get tongue-tied occasionally. We forget words, we mispronounce, we sometimes just say the wrong thing to the wrong person. Laugh off your mistakes, apologize if you’ve caused offense, but keep going. You’ll get better with practice, and every day brings a new opportunity to learn, stretch, and grow your skills. Enjoy the ride.

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Thanks, Lisa! This is so inspiring. We intend to put these practices to good use.

learn more about Rosetta Stone on www.rosettastone.com
and follow Lisa on Twitter: @frumkes47