20 Common Sense Tips On Learning Your First Second Language

If you are committed to moving away from your country, at some point in life chances are you will have to speak a language that’s not your own: Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, you name it. Here are a few tips to help you on your quest of learning a second language…

1. Figure out the reasons why you want to learn the language and write them down at the beginning of your notebook. This will help to keep you focused when you lose direction later on.

2. Choose carefully the learning method of your choice (an online course, a book, a university class) and stick to it for at least 3 months. Don’t be that kid that complaining about his gym training program not working after 2 weeks working out.

3. Practice at least 30 min a day: it could be spent reading online, working on grammar, and speaking over Skype or in person.

Beginner level

4. Work on the basics to get you started, like asking for things (Where is X?, How much does Y cost?, Ordering food/drinks), and describing attributes (numbers, colors, sizes, good/bad, funny/sad, tasty/plain). There are some popular phrases available for translation from English to a gajillion different languages here.

5. Learn basic vocabulary and expressions. For translations, try Wordreference or Google translate. If you need to figure out how to pronounce a word, give Forvo a try; if you are struggling to find the right word to translate from English to your second language, it’s always useful to try with synonyms you can find in Thesaurus or define the words you want to translate in order to make sure it’s exactly the one you want in The Free Dictionary.  Once you feel like taking a challenge, start reading simple children books in your second language. For example, for Russian children’s books I found in Goodreads the following list here.


6. Start with short and simple sentences and go through them with your language buddy/teacher. Tangentially, when doubting between two different but similar expressions, I always do a google search of both and see which one gets more results (remember to search with the quotation marks so that the exact sentence will be looked for e.g. “sentence I am looking for”.)

7. Do a few Duolingo tests. Duolingo is a website that offers free courses online for Spanish, French, Italian, German and Portuguese, which in practice consists of gamified tests involving translating words (e.g., English to Portuguese), writing down what you hear in audio clips and more. It’s quite addictive and particularly great when you have spent some time without practicing a language and you need to get in the mindset.

Oral communication

8. Find a language buddy. In case you are not familiar with the concept, he or she will be willing to help you with their native language in exchange for one of yours. You can meet a few times a week and have some conversation. Making a quick search for “language buddy communities” can land you some interesting sites. I did a few searches for different European cities and languages and this one seemed the most active. You can of course skype a language buddy, but I would use this as a last resort: you wouldn’t want weird noises or connection problems on top of the already existing difficulties of learning a language.

9. Focus on the vibe of the message you are trying to get across without over-relying on immaculate grammar use.

10. Start with simple ideas. Don’t jump in with complex discussions about the meaning of life. Focus on media (movies, TV series), travels and hobbies. E.g. ‘I saw a movie and it had these situations’, ‘I will travel to Bombay next month and I am really excited to see…’, ‘I really like to cook this and that plate’, ‘This weekend I went out and something unexpected/funny happened’.

If you are absolutely clueless, for your first session I would prepare some information about your background: ‘I come from X country and I came here because Y and Z.’ or ‘What I like the most is…’. Ask your buddy some general questions and have maybe one small story to tell. The point of conversation sessions with your buddy is not to run a script you have prepared beforehand, but for your first time it may help things flow. But have that as a backup, because you want to try and let the conversation develop naturally—to get ‘lost’ speaking the language. If you are living abroad, do not hesitate to ask for advice on night venues—you might discover one or two new spots.

11. Make clear you are happy to be corrected and don’t get annoyed if you end up being wrong most of the time. You are learning and stumbling through it is just part of the process.

12. When unsure about how to phrase a sentence, don’t be afraid to ask. For example, “How do I pronounce Obrigado?”, “How would you say <expression in English> in Portuguese?” (extra points if you ask these questions in Portuguese e.g. ‘Tão pronunciada Obrigado?’ or ‘Como se diz <expression>?’). It’s good to ask when stuck or curious, but don’t fall in the temptation of turning the conversation into a discussion of grammar. Find the balance between learning and actually talking.

Intermediate level

13. Tackle abstract topics like philosophy and emotions. Try to tell stories.

14. Once you feel like you grasp most of the words and meaning in simple books, start reading internet forums and news articles.

15. Learn useful phrases a native person uses frequently and include them to your repertoire. Even at the first steps of learning a language, these phrases help you blend in a bit better, making your conversations feel more fluid and natural.

16. Listen to songs in the second language and go through the lyrics. Music tends to help significantly remembering words and expressions.

Advance level

17. Learn to tell a few jokes. By this level you should be able to understand spoken language seamlessly (TV shows, movies, two people talking in the street) and also literature (starting with contemporary and advancing slowly towards classics from decades ago). To follow up with the Russian example: Russian school curriculum literature looks like a good place to start.

Final remarks

18. Whenever motivation falters, visualize your goal, whether it be moving away, communicating better with local girls, or pursuing business opportunities. If all else fails, think what you have been through already. Remember where you began and where you stand today.

19. Book a trip to a country where you can practice your skills with the locals. Reap the advantages of showcasing your interest in their culture, which sometimes will help tremendously in building a connection. I’m not saying it will automatically get you laid, but it certainly helps certain situations.

20. Check your ego at the door. You are learning and your first couple of attempts will suck, like how you wouldn’t attempt to deadlift 500 lbs off the floor on your first day in the gym. This is a marathon, not a sprint, so accept that progress comes slowly.

Read More: 15 More Language Learning Tips For Self-Study

31 thoughts on “20 Common Sense Tips On Learning Your First Second Language”

  1. I learned German the “easy” way – I took a class in it during the week, and then on the weekends, being stationed on Germany at the time, I spent most of my spare time on the weekends hitting on just about every female from the Rhine to Luxembourg.
    I tell you, if you want challenging game, try “Foreign language that you can hardly speak while sporting a bad military regulation haircut” game. 😀
    Ahh that was 20 years ago. Ironically I got better results in Denmark but that’s another story…
    Let me add though that learning a second language opened a door in my brain to learn computer languages and from that I got an entire career.

    1. And, if you’re not stationed overseas, you can try Goethe-Institut (German), Alliance Francaise (French), Confucius Institute (Mandarin Chinese), etc.

    2. i love programming, and i love foreign languages. that said, i think it’s bad to confuse the monolingual by implying that computer languages and human languages have much of anything in common.

  2. This is good advice, especially if your Plan B includes expatriating. If your an American who speaks Ebonics, patois, Franglais, Spanglish, Singlish, Honglish or Yiddish, you’re already bilingual so take it to the next level.

  3. Solid, specific information that we can all benefit from.
    Regardless of your methods and techniques, maintaining your motivation and staying with your program will eventually bring you rewards.

  4. I’ve tried your method, and to be frank if you don’t spend time where the language is spoken you don’t learn it, at least most do not.
    But I’ve found that going the long way works, in the beginning watch stupid kids shows in that language etc and progress.

  5. I got a tutor online and it pretty inexpensive. They will get on you about pronunciation. Best 13 an hour I’ve dealt out. I’m to the point now where I don’t use google translate anymore unless I want to translate one specific word. And I can carry on decent albeit limited conversations but the more more you do it, the more your vocab will expand. I also watch univision and ecuadortv.ecu. Spanishdict.com for conjugations has been more than helpful as well

  6. Good advice buddy!
    I put a lot of efforts to learn Montagnais (Innu Aimun) and Cree (Eeyou Aimun), two Native Languages, while teaching in Northern Quebec, Canada. It helped me to teach French as a Second Language to Native kids, because I got a better understanding of their mindset, and also the stucture of their language compared to French.
    However, since I quit teaching in 2006, I regret not having spent more time and efforts on learning a more common language, like Spanish, that would be more useful than a language only spoken by a few thousands people.

    1. yes, i focused my efforts on learning big languages, spoken in former empires: russian, spanish, german, italian. still, learning a native american language sounds pretty fascinating. i imagine spanish would be a breeze for you after learning a much more complex, non-indoeuropean language.

  7. Being a native Swede has it’s up and downs, trying to master Russian and German now.

  8. Any suggestions for good self taught systems? I’m looking at Rosetta Stone for German.

    1. I’ve been using Pimsleur to learn Spanish since January. In the middle of level 2 now. I love it. I do the lessons in car during my work commute. I supplement it with the Duolingo app on my iphone.

  9. 21.Use Google news.You will get current news of the language of your interest matching topics of your interest.As a beginner start by trying to understand the major head lines;as you advance, read and translate a whole article.
    22.Youtube.Watch and learn pop ,rock or traditional folks in the language of your choice.And it’s not just useful to impress those comicon fake geek girls who are interested in a literal translation of Gangnam Style.
    23 Recipe Books in the foreign languages.Don’t just learn french cooking.Learn in French!At least you will get the correct name for food terms rather than sourcing it from fuckin Foodies.

  10. Good article, lots of good advice in here. One thing I would add is to not focus too much on levels and what you ‘can’ or ‘cannot’ do at a certain point in time. Study and learn whatever you’re interested in. I currently live in Korea, and I can name all the political parties and their general platforms because we recently had gubernatorial elections, but if I were asked to name the four seasons I would have to stop and think for a minute. While it may sound silly to not have something so basic on immediate recall, it’s not something I have need to use often.
    In the same way, I might not be able to read through a second grade book with full understanding, but I can play a show and banter with the crowd all in Korean, including telling jokes and riffing on people who cause problems. It’s all about what you’re interested in, because ultimately that’s the reason you learn the language to begin with.

  11. I don’t wanna’ be burstin’ anyone’s bubble with my proficient use of apostrophes, but ROK is about finding the truth, accepting it, and improving from it. I’m learning Chinese and this is good stuff, but this is one of the less valuable articles because the information is…well…common sense!

  12. I learned English as my second language using YouTube. That gave me access to red pill content on the Internet. In my native language.content like RoK isn’t available. But feminism propaganda is translated into every living language on earth.

  13. Best way to learn a language for almost free! Show up at college classes for advanced levels 1 month summer courses, enroll and then unenroll. After you unenroll, it will take some time for it to show up on the system. Maybe 1-2 weeks. Simply insist that you did enroll. This will mean you get through half the course before the instructor even knows that you de-enrolled. At some point the professor will simply tell you not to come to class until you get it straightened out but this will usually be by the 3rd week. And by the deadline to join a new class you can just show up and claimed you enrolled and tell the same lie for another week. Congratualtions, you have take 100% of an advanced course for probably $20. Now wash and repeat and since most colleges have 2-3 courses that do this. So you can get through 2 advanced courses in a summer. That is enough to turn most people functional. hOW DO I know you will be functional? ecause I did this with French in university, and n the advanced level course I learned more in that 1 course than the previous 2 courses combined despite remembering nothing.
    Also if your language is spoken in poor countries like arabic, spanish, french etc. Then just go to the poor country and hire a tutor who is of college age and pay him $20 or pay him in beers and just kick it with him. You’ll learn more of a language verbally just kicking it with Spanish people than in a textbook. Its unnatural to learn language from a book FIRST. Your parents don’t throw 1 million grammar rules at you as a child do they? No they talk to you first for literally 5-7 years before you are given your first grammar test.

  14. As someone who knows four languages, this is good advice. Having backup languages is also a good idea if you want to work abroad.

  15. Wonderful advice. The Beginner paragraph section is pretty crucial. The wrong learning method can certainly be counter productive & de-motivational in the long run. I started taking Mandarin Chinese at beginner level years ago as a night community funded class. Later moved on to online sites & YouTube to move up to intermediate level.
    Currently working on Spanish beginner level through online communication. I feel that works better as it seems to have more similarities with English as compared to mandarin.

  16. I find learning Japanese very hard. The speaking part is quite easy, but smartasses on the internet will write shit in Kanji when you ask how something would be translated from English. I would imagine the same being true for any languge that doesn’t employ the Roman alphabet.

  17. Yet more Brazil fixation on ROK, even an article about languages threatened to veer off into another I love Brazil monologue.

  18. All these are excellent tips. I would like to add another. Find radio stations online in the language your are studying and just LISTEN! It does not matter how much of it you can understand at first. You will get used to the sound of the language. People often ask me if this is a waste of time and don’t I need a grasp of the language first before I do this? Not really. It’s like listening to music and plenty of people listen to music without knowing how to play an instrument. It’s like that with the language you learning. Soon you will become familiar with the sounds of it. You will hear common words repeated often and want to look them up in a dictionary. I read this idea in a book a long time ago and it was the number one tip that propelled me forward in learning Spanish and other languages. I hope this helps somebody in their quest to acquire a new language.

  19. Great advice, but regarding Romance languages(Spanish, French, Italian, etc.) I’ve heard that French is most difficult for people in general, and hence is best to start with. Has this been the case for anyone here?

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