You don’t need to have a degree to become fluent in a foreign language these days with so many resources at our fingertips with the internet. I’ve been learning French from a very young age, with my mum always wanting me to be bilingual she bought the ‘Muzzy’ language programme for me to watch as a kid, -hands up if anyone remembers good ol’ Muzzy- I always had a few French games scattered around the house and knew the very basics. I studied French in school at GCSE and AS Level and was always at a good level in classes but its been since stopping learning French officially in school that my language skills have actually improved tenfold using different self-taught methods.
Next year I’ll be living in the French city of Lyon for a year and I’m so excited to use my French everyday! It’s common knowledge that full immersion into the native country is the best way to become fluent in a language but that isn’t always possible. This is what I’ve been doing for the past three years whilst living in England and my best tips to improve your language skills. My recommendations below are slanted more at the French language because that is what I’ve been learning myself but these tips are also relevant to any language.
Listen to Your Favourite Programmes Dubbed
This is probably the easiest way to implement language learning into your everyday life. Binging on Netflix has to be pretty much everybody’s favourite procrastination activity and by changing the audio language you can laze around watching TV while also learning a language: win-win! It’s quite easy to find dubbed TV shows by using the google search from your chosen country- for instance I’ll type a programme name and ‘dubbed’ into google.fr and loads of links will come up. However, its even easier than this to change the audio language on Netflix: usually about 5 different languages are available on Netflix original series but if your language isn’t available use a Proxy like ‘Hola VPN’ as a plugin on your browser and you’ll be able to source TV on Netflix from most countries in the world. I’ve watched 4 seasons of Gossip Girl and all of Pretty Little Liars completely in French, sometimes with and sometimes without English subtitles (available on Netflix to make things easier if you’re a beginner). With 120 episodes of Pretty Little Liars each lasting 40 minutes, I’ve absorbed 4800 minutes of French without moving from my bedroom. Changing your TV to a different audio language also makes you feel less guilty about wasting your time watching absolute tripe- you’re learning a language after all!
Read a Foreign Book
This is pretty much the same concept as watching foreign TV but not quite as easy. It’s a lot harder to get absorbed into a book that you don’t completely understand whereas with a TV show, you can quickly forget that it’s not your native language you’re listening to. However, with Amazon in reach, it’s pretty simple to source and buy dirt-cheap books in any language or download ebooks for even less money and if you’re serious about learning your language, you’ll also need to hone your reading skills. You don’t have to start with Les Misérables or something of that calibre of course, it’d be of way more use to start with simple, teen-level books to get yourself off the ground. You’ll probably also want to have a dictionary nearby to check any words that go over your head. I love reading French books, it takes a much longer time to read than your normal book but its totally worthwhile. Only a few pages and you’re already expanding your vocabulary crazy amounts!
Listen to Audio Books/ Podcasts
This is something I like to do before bed occasionally to wind down and in the same way as watching French TV, the idea is to really get used to the foreign sounds and rhythms of the language- even if you don’t understand much at first (and audio books are way harder to follow than TV shows with no visual prompts to help you along) it’s worth a world of good to get your ear tuned to a different language. There’s loads of websites online with options to download French audio books like Audiocite and Litterature Audio (a quick google search can help you find sites in other languages) or you can get the Livres Audio app on your phone for even easier access to thousands of French audio books. Sometimes you have to pay a few pounds for certain popular or modern books but most classics are completely free.
Make a Vocabulary Book
This goes in hand with all the above ideas- watching TV, reading a book or listening to an audio book will be 100 times more useful to you if you do it actively rather than passively. By that I mean make a vocab book- write down new words and phrases you learn and their translation. The act of writing it down will solidify their meaning in your brain and this also gives you a personalised free resource to use for years to come.
Get a Foreign Pen-pal
There’s loads of online sites you can sign up to in order to find a pen pal who speaks your chosen language including PenPal World and Interpal. All websites will have different rules so have a look around before signing up to find one that you’re fully comfortable with- some might just be an instant messaging service, some you can swap emails and on others you might be prompted to swap postal addresses. I can’t recommend any websites in particular that I’ve used but I did message my french exchange partner for a while online and found it a valuable exercise for helping me practice grammar structures and vocabulary. The usual arrangement consists of you both talking in your desired language, so this is more of a writing activity than a reading one. I found this really useful because if I used a phrase or word that didn’t sound right or natural to my pen-pal, she would correct me and suggest something that sounded better. Without a language teacher to supervise your progress this is the best way to actually check that you are on track with someone else fluent in the language.
Read up on Grammar Rules
It’s all well and good immersing yourself in the language through listening and reading but it’ll be hard to speak and write in a foreign language (and actually be intelligible) without learning any basic grammar structures. Usually students of languages hate this part of learning a language, because let’s face it: you can’t avoid getting out a book and actually studying. It’s extremely hard to find a fun way to learn grammar and trust me, I’ve tried. It can be really difficult to get your head round foreign grammar structures, especially when like French, once you learn a rule you then have to learn the 1000s of exceptions to that rule. I’ve been recommended this book for grammar many, many times by teachers and fellow students alike- it explains French grammar in a way that relates to the English language so it becomes much clearer to understand why/when you use certain words and structures. I love this because it’s so much better actually understanding the grammar and its usage rather than simply memorising grammar tables and hoping for the best. I have this book and it’s extremely dense. Although it is really useful and probably contains probably anything you’d ever need to know and almost every exception to every rule, I wouldn’t really recommend it to someone who is a beginner as its almost too detailed and hard to work through without feeling slightly overwhelmed.
Ah… the repetitive worksheet after worksheet of GCSE French, how I do not miss it! However, it must be admitted that doing exercises are rather helpful for practising grammar structures once you’ve read over the rules. You can easily find games and exercises online to practice or buy a workbook like this one, which accompanies the grammar book that I have. This book is quite expensive though and you don’t need to splash out this much to find a decent workbook online.
Go on a Language course/work abroad
I was lucky enough to get on a subsidised intensive French course this past summer with my University and this was an absolutely amazing experience and so helpful. We got 3 hours of advanced French lessons every morning and 3 hours of workshops in the afternoon and the course was based in Northern France. It was French, French, French every day and I came back feeling 100 times more confident in my language skills. Obviously not everyone is going to be lucky enough to get a cheap option to go on a language course abroad and usually they are over a grand per person, which is a ridiculous amount to spend unless you’re loaded. However, there’s other ways you can immerse yourself in France and elsewhere with the Workaway website, which has thousands of options to stay free somewhere in the world and work in return for being housed abroad and sometimes even given meals. Obviously there’s loads of different options to this: with pay, without pay, many hours working or just a few, hard manual labour or something more relaxing but there’s probably something for everyone if you have an open mind. If its France you’re specifically interested in, have a look at the Immersion France app which has loads of similar options but also includes language courses, au pairing etc.
Use language apps
There’s hundreds of amazing apps that can help you improve and practice your language skills. Firstly most people have heard of Duolingo, and its a really good free little app to get some language practice in everyday. There’s also options to help translate articles on the web version if you want to take your skills further. You won’t be able to become fully fluent simply by using an app but it’s a good way to keep refreshing your vocabulary so it doesn’t go stale and forgotten. FluentU is an app that lets you watch useful foreign videos with on-screen subtitles and translation, available in 6 different languages. If you don’t know a word you can hover over it and it’ll give you definitions and contexts to help widen your vocabulary. The app uses real-life videos such as adverts and trailers rather than the staged content you get in GCSE listening exercises. No more stilted conversations between Jean-Pierre and Marie about holidays and the weather.
This is probably the most important tip of all… the reason my French has improved so much in the last year or so is a combination of all the above work but also mainly due to my confidence. During my French AS level I got so many opportunities to speak French with my oral supervisor and whilst abroad however, I didn’t make the most of it as I was too shy to speak and worried about embarrassing myself or getting things wrong. As soon as I started to approach French as a fun challenge rather than a source of potential humiliation I saw that I could actually speak quite well, and this encouraged me to try even harder. There’s nothing to be worried about when speaking another language, even as a beginner- native speakers will only want to help you along and be impressed that you’re actually trying!
Good luck on your journey learning a foreign language, its truly one of the most rewarding things that a person can do. Like anything, the more you put in, the more you’ll get out of it and don’t expect it to be a straight uphill battle- some days it’ll come easier to you than others but don’t let that get you down and try again and again until you get it. The most important thing in learning a language is doing it everyday and not giving up!
Much love <3
Disclaimer: I’ve not been sponsored to share any of the materials that I’ve recommended.