Tips you won’t find in a foreign language textbook

Learning a language on the ground is hard. It can also be a fountain of amusing anecdotes. But whatever the cost, you’ve got to open your mouth and speak to people.


Because it is hard, here’s a range of tips I’ve picked up trying to improve my grasp of a language that might help – vitally, these tips are not about ‘how to become conversational in six weeks’ or how to polish your verbs. I’ve set the bar far lower than that; these tips are about how to survive.

  1. People will laugh at you, and perhaps even refuse to speak to you. It’s unpleasant but be realistic – you do sound funny and you probably are frustrating to talk to. Remember this next time some tourist is trying to speak to you in broken English.
  2. Talk to everyone. Talk as much as you can. It’s really only by practising that both your skill and your confidence will grow.
  3. Accept that you will make mistakes. You choose whether to see these as the end of the world, or instead as amusing anecdotes e.g. the time I asked a bemused restaurant owner if she had any playing cards, instead of a menu; and when they arrived, literally considered that they might have different dishes written on each card, like I was in a hipster café in London rather than a family-run place in rural Austria. You will likely never see these people again; it doesn’t matter as much as you think it does.
  4. Accept that you will not understand everything, or even the majority, of what people say to you. Try and keep calm, listen for the words that you do know, and work with the context.
  5. When in doubt, mime.
  6. Carry a dictionary or phrasebook and make notes of words you want or need to learn. Examples I’ve always found helpful include things, like, more, less, before, after, some, only.
  7. Don’t get hung up on exact wording. If you know a similar word, use that instead, even if it sounds less elegant, even if it sounds downright stupid. Your first goal should be to be understood, not magically and instantly fluent.
  8. Try guessing the words you don’t know (especially if the language is quite close to English). Vocabulary can often be similar and it’s worth a go. Same if you think you know the first half of the word, but not the second.
    8b. If you know the phrase is wrong, but comprehensible, say it anyway.
  9. Learn new food names by ordering dishes at random.
  10. Know how to say ‘slowly please’, ‘once more/ again’ and ‘I don’t understand’ as a minimum.

There you have it! I hope some of these are helpful, or at least entertaining, if you’re considering learning another language/ have started/ have started and stopped more times than you can count (just me?).

Yes, speaking a new language can be hard and embarrassing. It can also be fun and mind-opening and so, so worthwhile. Have a go!