Are your foreign language skills gathering dust on the shelf? Perhaps you studied Spanish for a few years in high school or picked up a bit of French while studying abroad, but now it feels like all of that knowledge has slipped away.
Don’t worry – it’s never too late to polish off the rust and brush up on those skills! Our brains have the wonderful ability to quickly re-learn things we’ve learned and forgotten, it just takes a bit of effort and practice.
If you’re ready to rekindle your passion for languages, we have some useful strategies you can use to get back up to speed and speaking confidently.
Table of Contents
- “Use it or lose it” but easily re-learn it
How to get back into a language
- Find an online tutor to structure lessons and keep you on track
- Dedicate an hour per day to these 4 study activities
- How to get started right now
“Use it or lose it” but easily re-learn it
Learning a foreign language is very much a “use it or lose it” type of activity. Without regular practice, we quickly begin to forget the vocabulary and grammar structures we’ve learned. Our brains are wired to forget things we don’t regularly use and foreign languages are no exception.
Fortunately, with a bit of review we can quickly relearn the things we’ve forgotten thanks to neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to rewire itself in order to form new neural pathways and learn new things. Research has shown that once neural pathways have been created, it’s easier to re-learn material we’ve forgotten.
How to get back into a language
When it comes to language learning, the hardest part is figuring out what to study and where to get started. We recently had a friend ask us how to get back into learning Spanish after several years of not using it. She had learned Spanish to intermediate-level proficiency and had forgotten most of it, so she wasn’t quite sure where to begin – it wouldn’t make sense to start learning as an absolute beginner; she needed a useful way to review what she had already learned and pick up where she left off.
If you’ve studied a foreign language before and want to get back into it, we’d recommend you do two things:
1) find an online tutor to help structure lesson plans keep you on track, and
2) dedicate an hour per day to a handful of study activities.
Find an online tutor to structure lessons and keep you on track
First, find an online tutor you can work with on a regular basis. We usually recommend booking one lesson per week. There are tons of useful websites such as Wyzant or italki, the one you choose largely depends on your budget and personal learning needs.
Why should you work with a tutor?
If you’re serious about making improvements in your target language, working with a tutor is definitely worth the investment. If you’re relying entirely on self-study methods you might have trouble staying organized and on-track, whereas a tutor can provide a degree of guidance and organization to your study routine. Working with a tutor can also help you get a better understanding of different cultures and the roles they play in shaping everyday speech.
Additionally, a language tutor can introduce you to topics and concepts you might not realize you need to learn. For example, our Russian tutor casually mentioned recently that the letter “o” in Russian makes a different sound when it’s emphasized in the word compared to when it’s not emphasized. We probably wouldn’t have realized that without actively reading a lesson on Russian pronunciation rules. It’s much easier to simply ask a native speaker to explain a concept instead of having to search the internet every time you have a specific question.
How do you find the right tutor?
Finding the right foreign language tutor can be a bit of a challenge, especially since you’ll most likely be working with them entirely over video calls.
Fortunately there are dozens of online platforms that can help you connect with the right person. italki is a popular platform for learners on a budget, since you can usually find tutors to teach you for as little as $10-15 per hour, however there’s a wide range of experience levels. Wyzant tutors tend to charge a bit more for lessons, but they’re often more qualified and have more teaching experience.
Ultimately, the platform and tutor you choose will largely depend on your budget and learning goals. If you take the time to reflect on your needs, research platforms and read reviews from other learners, you can easily find a language tutor to guide and support you on your language learning journey.
How often should you meet with your tutor?
It might seem tempting to book three or four lessons per week with your tutor, but keep in mind you’ll need enough time for review.
We usually recommend starting out with one lesson per week so that you have ample time to review the lesson material (we recommend two to three reviews) before your next lesson. If your lesson schedule becomes too busy, you might end up feeling a bit overwhelmed. The most important part is that you have a regular schedule to keep you on track.
What should you ask your tutor to help you with?
If you’re new to the concept of working with a foreign language tutor you might not know exactly what you need help with – and that’s perfectly fine. An experienced language tutor should be able to get an understanding of your proficiency level and build lessons accordingly.
It helps to give your tutor as much information as possible about your learning habits and study goals so that you’re both on the same page. Here are a few questions you might consider thinking about:
- How much experience do you have in your target language?
- What methods have you used to study in the past? i.e. classroom, self-study, living overseas, etc.
- What is the highest proficiency level you’ve reached? (See our guide on the CEFR language proficiency table)
- How long has it been since the last time you were regularly studying your target language?
- How much time can you devote each week to studying/reviewing outside of your lessons?
- Why are you studying your target language? Are you planning to move to a foreign country soon? Do you want to learn enough for a vacation? What are your goals?
- Do you have any specific areas you’d like to focus on? Pronunciation? Grammar? Conversation?
- How would you like your tutor to give you feedback/corrections? For example, we usually ask tutors to write them down then go over them with us during the last 5 minutes of the lesson.
Dedicate an hour per day to these 4 study activities
If you want to quickly get back up to speed with your target language, you should spend time every day studying and reviewing – we recommend at least one hour.
It helps to choose a time every day where you can study without distractions. For us, that’s first-thing in the morning while we have a cup of coffee.
We’ve outlined four specific activities (15 minutes for each activity) you can work on every day in order to get a balance of different skills.
Everyday vocabulary memorization and review
When you’re studying your target language, keep a running vocabulary list for any new words or phrases you want to focus on specifically. Every time you come across something that feels particularly useful – something you don’t want to forget – add it to this list.
There are a few different ways we recommend studying vocabulary:
- Paper flashcards: the easiest way to get started, especially if you’re not familiar with flashcard apps.
- Quizlet: a useful flashcard app that lets you import vocabulary lists, review cards and play study games.
- Anki: the most effective spaced-repetition flashcards program (our top choice of these three), though the setup is complicated and it takes a while to learn how to use it effectively.
Every day, spend at least 15 minutes reviewing vocabulary you’ve come across in your studies. If you try to memorize, for example, five new words every day and review 20-30 previously-learned words, you’ll rapidly improve the amount of vocabulary you can comprehend and use in your target language.
Review grammar topics
If you’re working with a language tutor or have a language textbook you’ll likely already have some grammar notes to work on for this section. You can also find a topic list (this one on SpanishDict is pretty comprehensive if you’re studying Spanish) and pick something to focus on.
For example, we searched Google for “list of grammar topics french language” and found this website, which provides free French grammar lessons. If we were working on brushing up our French, we might scroll through that list and make note of three topics to review this week.
This might sound stressful if it’s been ages since you last studied your target language, but it really doesn’t need to be. Treat this as an exploratory activity – start with the beginner-level topics and see what you remember and what you need to review or re-learn.
Learn vocabulary with language learning apps
We often suggest learners find a language-learning app to help learn and practice new vocabulary, as well as keep things fun and interesting. Rosetta Stone is most useful for everyday vocabulary and has an amazing voice-recognition feature to train your pronunciation.
If you’re on a budget, Duolingo is a good free app that has a stronger emphasis on learning grammar.
No matter what app you choose, the focus of this activity should be on having fun while you explore your target language.
Expose yourself to real-life content
One commonly-overlooked language learning strategy is exposure to real-life learning material, for example by listening to podcasts or watching YouTube videos.
When we study a foreign language we always spend some of our daily study time listening to podcasts. Even though we often can’t understand everything that’s said (sometimes hardly anything!), it still helps train our ears to hear the sounds of our target language. We listened to the news in French for almost a year before we were able to really understand what they were talking about – but nonetheless all that listening practice paid off in the end. We got much better at hearing individual words within sentences and our pronunciation improved quite a bit too.
Watching YouTube videos is also an excellent way to practice your target language, especially since you can usually watch with subtitles to help you out.
How to get started right now
Ready to get started? Diving back into a language you’ve forgotten doesn’t have to be a daunting task. Our brains have the amazing ability to re-learn foreign language, even if it’s been years since we’ve used it.
Start with an hour per day of dedicated study time, focusing on the four categories we’ve outlined above: vocab memorization, grammar practice, language learning apps and exposure to real-life content.
It also really helps if you find a foreign language tutor to guide you and keep you accountable.
With a bit of effort and some helpful language learning strategies, you can easily get back on track and rediscover your love for language learning. You’ll be speaking like a pro in no time!