How to Learn to Speak Another Language

Not "oastmasters"

Practicing my Italian with an audience

What’s the best way to learn another language? The answer must be move to a country that speaks it. (Otherwise this trip was a very bad idea.) Then you just soak up the sounds through osmosis while sipping Mai Tais or Mojitos or Belline. (I’m claiming that as the plural of Bellini.)


Not a bellini, but still delicious…

Except our brains are lazy. They are very good at resisting any new skills that aren’t absolutely necessary. And it’s certainly possible to get by in most foreign countries using English and hand gestures.

So if I’m going to become fluent in three months I’m going to need a plan and discipline. (Though I really wish I could learn by drinking those Belline. I hate discipline.)  But it’s not going to be classes or Rosetta Stone software or even a top-secret computer program to beam the language directly into my brain, code-named The Intersect. (Very tempting, though. Especially if I get to work with Sarah Walker.)

No, I’m going to hack my way into the language. And if you want to play along at home, you can do this too.


  1. Find someone to speak with
  2. Prepare a conversation before it happens
  3. Refer to the Lonely Planet phrasebook
  4. Consult Google Translate
  5. Get over your pride

What is language “hacking”? It comes down to two things. First, you start speaking your new language right away. Not “someday”, or after you take a class, or buy a book, or listen to a CD. Right away, with less than an hour of preparation.

Second, you only learn as much vocabulary and grammar as you need in order to get your point across. Right now. Nothing more.

Here’s where I’m starting. And none of it requires being in country.

1. Find someone to speak with

Sure, I cheated a bit here. I’m surrounded by people I can speak Italian with. Except…I don’t know any of them. I’m still having to go up to complete strangers and convince them to talk to me. Good thing I’m so interesting I spent the last year practicing how to talk to anyone, at any time.

So, if you’re trying to learn Spanish and you live in Texas, California, or North Carolina, what are you going to do, move to España? Well I won’t stop you, because that would be cool and I’ll come visit. But lots of Spanish-speakers live in the US. You know where they are. Go find them and make friends. Take turns letting them practice English and you practicing Spanish. I once used our work directory to find someone who speaks Portuguese so I could practice before traveling to Brazil.

(Also, I find baristas and bartenders are great to practice with. If they’re not busy, then they’d rather talk than be bored. You just have to ask to speak slowly and not switch to English.)



There’s also the interwebs. There are lots of people who want to practice speaking English. Have a video call over Skype. iTalki is a site that connects conversation partners and even language instructors. I used it this week and love it.

Once you have someone to talk to, you can…

2. Prepare for the conversation before it happens

Most conversations are completely predictable. Dining out, traveling, shopping, etc – there are no surprises here. Take dining out. When you walk in the door, the hostess will say “good evening”. Not “Intruder! What are you doing here?!”. (Unless Calvin is working that day.)

As adults we don’t even think about these interactions in our native language. They’re that natural. So it’s weird to plan them out. But it’s also very helpful.

Because they’re predictable you can look up in advance what you need to say. At least for the first couple of sentences. Including what the person is likely to say back.

After you plan out the conversation, you can…

3. Refer to the Lonely Planet Phrasebook

And a nice photo

Pure linguistic gold

These little books are amazing. They’ve got all the typical activities. Dining out, traveling, shopping, etc. They have all the key sentences. They even tell you what to listen for the other person to say (those predictable responses).

Even better – it’s pocket sized! It’s so convenient you can’t afford not to carry it around.

Though if you do forget you can…

4. Consult Google Translate from your smartphone

Face it, you take your smartphone everywhere, even places you shouldn’t. (Like the pool.) Go download the Google translate app. Type a single word or a full dissertation and get the translation you need.

Even better, now it will use your phone’s camera to translate signs and printed menus. How cool is that! (We are so close to the universal translator I can taste it. Tastes like brushed aluminum though, which isn’t very yummy. Needs Sriracha)

Most important, you have to…

5. Get over your pride

You’re an intelligent, confident, articulate individual. You rarely make a language mistake in English. And it’s effortless. You get into complicated debates about healthcare and taxes and whether Adnan really could have killed Hae Min Lee, and if there was enough evidence to support a conviction.

You will not sound that way when you start your new language. And that’s going to be a blow to your pride.

Get over it. What does your pride really do for you anyway? Speaking like a five year-old isn’t a step backwards in status. It’s a step forwards. If you’ve achieved 100% of your native language and 5% of your new language, that puts you at 105% overall. (You know what I mean.)

Besides, 5 year-olds are cute. Especially if they’re trying. No one gets mad at a five year old who’s making an effort. It’s when they throw tantrums that we go ballistic. (Don’t throw tantrums in your new language. Or your existing ones.)

My pride is taking a beating and my brain is kicking and screaming. But I’d rather deal with that than admit to failure.

What language do you want to learn? (Or refresh.) And is it a daydream, or an actual goal? Let me know in the comments.

2 Replies to “How to Learn to Speak Another Language”

  1. Jessica

    I feel a little singled out by the Adnan paragraph. 😉 Agreed, the only way to learn a language is to dive in. Immersion (especially the total kind) is painful but very effective.


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