5 things: How to Learn and Retain a New Language

how to learn a language

I’ll be the first to admit it – learning a new language as an adult is hard. I was first inspired to learn a language my Freshman year in college, right after my parents moved to Luxembourg. At the time, the only minor language skills I could boast were some basic Spanish and Italian, so I thought “why not, at least I’ll use it when I visit home.” However, I quickly found that the grammar, vocab, and general format of the language seemed impossible to conquer. Not to mention the distinct, French-y nuances and “je ne sais quoi”s that were decidedly beyond my depth. 3 years and 5 semesters of intensive study later, I’ve finally reached the point where I feel like I can speak comfortably without fully embarrassing myself . Along the way, I’ve fostered a love for the language and culture that I’m certain I would find very difficult to separate myself from.

Through years of practice, I think I’ve figured out a good list of action items that should get you from 0 to 60 far quicker you would imagine. Yes, learning a language takes discipline and determination. But if you can stick with it through the “give-up” phase, I think you’ll find that a new language opens up a world of possibility.

5 Habits That Will Help You Learn A Language (and retain it!)

1. Carve out a good chunk of time and practice, practice practice. They say that immersion is the best teacher, but let’s be real. Who actually has the time or luxury to move to a new country for a while and learn in context? If you really want to learn a language quickly, set aside a good amount of time for yourself every day and PRACTICE. I know there are a lot of very cool apps out there that help with the language learning process, but beyond being helpful with vocab, they’re probably not going to help you hone your ability to communicate in a different tongue. My advice? Find 1-2 hours, 4 times a week, and practice your speaking, reading, and verbal comprehension. Rosetta Stone is great for this, and you could also take the route of buying a textbook/workbook set and teaching yourself (I used French in Action for class and it is by far the best textbook out there).

2. Find ways to immerse yourself. That being said, I definitely suggest finding as many (fun!) ways to immerse yourself as much as possible. Find a movie from a country that speaks your language and watch it with English subtitles. Listen to some music in your language. Or, my personal favorite, read the country’s newspaper. These little spurts of selective immersion will pay of dividends in the long term.

3. Keep a Journal. One of the biggest no-brainer  habits that I formed was keeping a light, daily diary in French. The entries were very simple – what I ate for breakfast, who I saw at a restaurant, etc. But, they were also tiny, useful exercises in grammar and vocabulary that kept my mind sharp. Your diary could be short or long form – whatever you like! Write whatever you want, as long as it’s something that you can commit to doing for a medium span of time.

4. Speak as much as possible. One of my biggest challenges has always been speaking when I knew I would likely get 60-80% of the sentence wrong. However, speaking as much as possible is the #1 way to drill things like native pronunciation, sentence structure, and vocabulary into your brain. Don’t be afraid of mistakes – use them as opportunities to learn and enhance your ability. My French teacher once told me that “getting it wrong the first time just increases the chances that you’ll get it right the next time if you’re willing to learn from your mistakes rather than run from them” . It’s sound advice. Get out there and SPEAK.

5. Find ways to appreciate the culture. This may seem like a no-brainer, but grasping a language will seem more worth the time and effort if you feel passionate about what you’re learning. One way to cultivate this kind of passion is to explore the culture(s) behind the language. If you’re learning Italian, perhaps expand your research to include a cursory study of Italian art, etc. If you can find ways to appreciate the native culture of your language, it will be much easier to justify spending hours and energy learning it in the first place.


There you go! What do you think? Do you have any other tips for learning a language? Let me know in the comments!


  • http://likesof.us Alecia

    this is such great advice. It is my dream to learn another language (especially french)…these are great practical tips.

    • Amanda

      I know what you mean! I had always wanted to learn French, and once I took the plunge in college I never looked back. I say go for it – you’d be surprised how much you can pick up in a short time!

  • http://starcrossedsmile.com Nnenna

    These are such good tips! I studied spanish for several years and french when I got to college, but since I’ve graduated I’ve fallen out of practice in both languages. I’ve been meaning to do something about that, like refresh my memory by taking a class or something. I love the idea of keeping a little journal- I think that would be a great way TO PRACTICE.

    • Amanda

      Thanks so much! I still keep a daily journal, and it’s a surprisingly powerful little tool to help with retention. Even in the summer months when I’m away from school, I’m can still keep up with French by practicing a little bit every day :)
      Have a lovely weekend!