Everyone has their own way of learning efficiently and you should go with what you feel comfortable with, whether that is going to regular classes or listening to the radio in the language you are learning. After university I packed a bag and travelled to Spain, with the aim of learning Spanish and having an adventure, which I certainly did, becoming fluent in both Spanish and Catalan in about 3 years. Whilst you may not be able to or want to do the same, here’s what I would recommend for anyone who hopes to learn a language well.
Find someone to talk to in that language. For most people it is not enough to read and write and do exercises or even attend regular classes. Practising by talking regularly to someone in the language you are learning is invaluable and will help your learning stick. Depending on the popularity of the language you are learning, the demand for your native language and whether you are in a small community or large city will determine how easy this is, but try to find a language exchange. Online forums, university notice boards, local press, community centres, language centres are all places you can “advertise”. Also, spoken language is often different from written and textbooks may not teach you colloquial phrases so only by talking to people about everyday topics will you be able to sound natural, rather than stilted, formal or old fashioned. Classes and exercises will give you groundwork on grammar and how to construct sentences but only conversation will make you sound like a pro.
Don’t overestimate the value of classes, books and apps. Nothing is as good as practising in real life. I’ve found classes, especially ones with a large number of students, to be of limited use. Everyone learns at a different pace and you can often end up waiting around for other students or getting lost if the pace is too quick. The worst is when the teacher goes round the class where everyone has to repeat a new phrase so for most of the time you are just sitting, waiting. Boring!
Talk to yourself. It might sound weird but something as simple as narrating what you are doing or practising conversations in your head or even better, out loud will help you practice for the real thing.
Don’t be scared to make mistakes. In my experience, even if you make an embarrassing mistake, native speakers will be forgiving and probably just glad you making the effort to communicate with them in their language.
Watch TV shows or movies in the language. This should be easy if you have an internet connection. When I learned Spanish I learned a LOT from watching Baywatch (which shows how old I am!). It was a show that had simple, easy to follow plots so I didn't need to concentrate on following the story and I picked up lots of vocabulary and popular phrases.
Live in a community or country where it is spoken. This is not always possible of course but if you are serious about becoming fluent in a language, the best and fastest way to achieve your goal is to live there. If you do this, make sure you surround yourself with locals and don’t gather too much with speakers of your own language, even though it will be tempting. I moved to Spain to learn Spanish while working as an English teacher and by sharing an apartment with Spanish students (actually Catalan!) and started with only “hola” and “gracias”. Other British people I knew who shared with other English speakers didn’t learn as fast as me. I went from having no Spanish at all to fairly fluent in one year but didn’t really study formally. Then I did formal classes to fix my grammar mistakes and would say I was fluent after two years then proficient in three. I was also pretty fluent in Catalan by then too, as that was the dominant language in the area I was living in. I even sat and passed a government exam for a job in Catalan!
Don’t stop practising! Even if you get to a proficient level, like I did, if you don’t keep up speaking, reading and writing in the language you will start to forget. Also languages evolve over time so colloquial expressions will become dated and new ones will be introduced, so you need to keep up.
- Have fun. I actually enjoy speaking a foreign language, it’s like a creative mental challenge. You do need to get over any shyness though and just go for it, if you want to be good. ¡Suerte!