Tricks for Learning Foreign Languages

11 Dec 2013

I get by in a few foreign languages (Spanish mostly, some Portuguese and French). People’s first response to this is “oh that sounds so hard” quickly followed by “I’m going to learn languageX next year”.

As if learning is a language is something you can quickly tick off your bucket list, to be followed by “go sky diving”, “see the Pyramids” and “walk Kokoda”.

There’s always more to learn in a foreign language, and sitting down and doing grammar and exercises is boring. Here are a few tricks I’ve learned over the years:


Music is the easiest one - listen while you’re driving or working and just “pick up” phrases.

But what music to listen too? The latest hip-hop full of street slang isn’t going to help you… I search for “top 100 albums languageX” and start from there. Older ballad-based music is usually best - the equivalent of Neil Diamond or Simon and Garfunkel in English. Sure your foreign friends will wrinkle their nose at your “music for oldies”, but it’s easy to understand.


Foreign films are another good tool, especially when you do want to learn street slang. But the trick is to download the subtitles in the foreign language rather than English subtitles, and slow down the dialogue.

For example, one of my favorite films is Tropa de Elite (Brazilian Portuguese). Lot’s of fast dialogue and street slang. So I download the Portuguese subtitles from, load them into VLC, and set the playback speed to 80%. Instant enjoyable learning.

Sometimes the subtitles aren’t synched with the film - tools like subtitleeditor or gnome-subtitles can help you fix them up.


First thing in the morning don’t read the news in English, read it in your new language; for example I regularly read El Pais or Sin Embargo (Spanish). The good thing about news is that you probably already have a general idea of world news, so you can get the jist of the article even if you miss a few sentences. And the language in most newspapers is usually pretty easy (about year 10 level), so it’s going to be easier than reading a novel.

My languages (Spanish, Portuguese and French) are latin-based languages. So learning in one of these languages often helps in the other languages. For example last night at BJJ training I asked my Brazilian instructor how you say “too late” in Portuguese (as in “you should’ve gone for that armbar, but too late!“). He said that it’s “demorou!“, which is the same verb as in Spanish (demorar). And not a phrase as in French or English trop tard/too late.

Similarly, if you were good in Japanese, Korean and Mandarin would be easier languages to pickup than (say) Russian.

Have Fun

Languages are fun once you get past the boring beginner stuff. All those new films to watch, all that new music, new food, new ways of looking at the world. Happy learning and “que te vaya bien” (good luck in Spanish).

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