5 tips for learning a second language – even if you think you can’t

Learning a second language is no easy task. It’s difficult enough learning the rudiments of your own language — its structures, its grammar, its meanings. Why go through the same horrors again to learn a second language?

Well, learning a second language also isn’t as difficult as some might think. Although the ideal learning method varies among individuals, taking classes in the foreign tongue can help speed fluency. This is largely because you are immersed in the language, which helps you absorb the words, sounds, and speaking rhythms.

(Left to right) Post University ESL students Camille Midiere, Francisco Sastre, Yangting Wu, Shenghao Ye

(Left to right) Post University ESL students Camille Midiere, Francisco Sastre, Yangting Wu, Shenghao Ye

Some of Post University’s English as a Second Language (ESL) students in our English Language Institute (ELI) showed us how they’re coming along with their mastery of English when they gave their final speaking presentations at our “International Forum.”

We hold our International Forum every semester as a capstone project of the program. Students enrolled in ELC 110, otherwise known as Discussion Seminar, engage in 14 weeks of reading about, writing on, and discussing various topics ranging from leadership to education to pop culture. At the end of the semester, they each make a formal presentation to the Post University academic community about their home countries on a topic of their choice.

This year, our International Forum was called “Values Across Cultures.” Four of Post University’s international students presented short analytical vignettes on topics relevant to their respective home countries — euthanasia and international adoption in China, genetic engineering in France, and sports for sports’ sake in Brazil. We captured some of the day on camera:

Everyone did a fantastic job, and we are all so proud of their progress! Learning a second language takes a lot of time and patience, but just remembering to stay firm in your resolve to master the target language can get you results.

In fact, when it comes to strategies for learning a second language, I like to use the acronym I-FIRM. Just think of it as saying “I am staying firm” in my determination to learn Spanish, or French, or even Mandarin! “I” stands for immersion, “F” for focus, “I” for interest, “R” for review, and “M” for modeling. Ready to see how each concept can help you? Here we go!

Immersion. You need to immerse yourself in your target language. Spend at least an hour each day reading or listening to your target language, talking to someone or emailing someone in your target language. It’s really easy nowadays, especially with the advent of YouTube and all the various content sites on the Internet. Find a friend who is fluent in your target language and have him or her speak with you regularly in your target language. If you live in the foreign country, all the better. Go out and watch a movie, sit in a café, or take a sightseeing tour and listen to the sounds of the language. Listen to how native people use the language. Listen to their rhythm. Listen to the words and expressions they use, and pay attention to the contexts in which they use them. The more you immerse yourself in the language you want to acquire, the better you’ll be able to swim in it.

(Back to front) Post University ESL students Jiayun Lu, Yangting Wu, Camille Midiere, Francisco Sastre, Shenghao Ye

(Back to front) Post University ESL students Jiayun Lu, Yangting Wu, Camille Midiere, Francisco Sastre, Shenghao Ye

Focus. I’ve found that the best way to start learning a foreign language is to stave off all questions about how a sentence is formed and what the grammatical rules are. Instead, focus on building your vocabulary. Focus on words and phrases. If you live in a foreign country, you’ll find that just knowing the terms for things around you and the actions you have to perform, and stringing them all together regardless of grammar, can get you from home to the supermarket and back with the required bag of groceries in your arms. No sweat. That’s how you start learning a language, even if at first you’re speaking with hands and feet. Refinements in terms of forming sentences and writing and speaking fluently can come later.

Interest. You’ll find you enjoy your trek into foreign language learning more if you work with material that interests you. Love sports? Then plan your target language readings around your favorite sports. Always wanted to learn why there are so many churches in a single city like Rome? Read up on it. In Italian, that is. Enjoy cooking? Try cooking up a meal from your target country using recipes or videos in your target language. It’s a surefire way to make the learning experience fun and to keep you constantly involved in the language.

Review. Most textbooks for foreign languages are based on a logical progression of concepts. Going back to earlier concepts — be it verb tense or subject-verb agreement or modification — helps you master these concepts and make the necessary connections to newer subject matter. For instance, I started building my vocabulary in German until I could confidently name the most basic items around my home and neighborhood. Then I went back to my grammar lessons to learn the articles for the nouns I had just learned, because the articles are linked to the gender of the nouns. The gender of the nouns, in turn, determines the declensions and conjugations in a sentence. Reviewing what you already know of the rules of the target language solidifies your skills in that aspect of producing the language. It also allows you to progress into more complicated aspects of your target language’s grammar.

Modeling. You should practice and produce the language. Model all four language skills, not just listening and reading, but speaking and writing as well. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. When you see a fluent native speaker of your target language, remember that he or she started learning the language as a child, and made many mistakes, too. The important thing is this native speaker didn’t give up. Despite the mistakes and the false starts, constant practice brought this speaker to the level of fluency he or she enjoys now. Passive listening and reading will help you know about the language, but speaking and writing are skills that make you actually produce the language. And skills, like sports or sewing or playing the piano, need constant practice. Try playing a game in your target language. If you live in the foreign country where your target language is spoken, make some local friends, and speak and write to them only in your target language. Only with constant use will you hone your foreign language skills and eventually reach the level of fluency that you admire in others.

So, yes, stand firm in your resolve to learn your target language. It will help take away the horrors you may harbor about learning a second language. It will help you bridge friendships and cultures. It will give you an understanding of an entire world so different from the one you live in now. And it will hopefully give you a personal satisfaction in knowing that you accomplished that which you had set out to learn.


  1. You'll find you enjoy your trek into foreign language learning more if you work with material that interests you.

    This is the most important part to me. Have you used the Rosetta Stone study materials? I keep seeing them in the airports and makes me want to learn Italian so bad.

  2. As a 5th-year ESL teacher in Shanghai, I agree with the above but I would also like to add a few things. I like that you pointed out interest, but I think that can be expanded to include relevancy. In my experience, learners retain more of what they study if they can relate it to their lives, even if they're not necessarily interested in the topic. If it relates to their world somehow, it'll be more likely to stick.

    Also, instead of focusing on one aspect of language, such as vocabulary or grammar, learners should consider focusing on outcomes and abilities, i.e. what can they do with the language. The school I teach at uses the Common European Framework's series of 'can-do' statements, i.e. "Student can describe their job duties" or "Student can express an opinion on changes to the environment," as an initial ability assessment when student intake occurs, and our curriculum is designed to target these can-do statements so that they are able to literally chart their progress as they take more and more classes and assessments.

  3. Learning the basics of any language is not so difficult, but when it comes to communicating with it; there the challenge lies.

  4. You have to be interested in learning a new languge. That is really to key if you want to learn a second language and don't want to end up quitting.
    Another factor is motivation.

  5. Well said, Geigenkoffer. I found that speaking with my daughters' school teachers and communicating with their doctors were the ultimate test of understanding and getting my point across in a foreign language. I could deal with not getting the right kind of bread from the baker, but I could not sacrifice misunderstanding a teacher's report or a doctor's diagnosis. Thanks for the insight!


  6. Hi Thomas,

    I absolutely agree! If you're thrown into a country where no one speaks your language, that's bound to be the ultimate motivation I should think :).


  7. Great points, Jean-Paul. Relevance indeed does not necessitate interest. And the next step to learning vocabulary and grammar is of course to use them towards specific goals and outcomes.

    Xie Xie!


  8. Hi Scott,

    I have only used a demo version of Rosetta Stone, and it does seem to utilize first language learning techniques (picture to vocabulary linking) which is great. Many people like it, though some people who need more detailed rules of grammar and specific vocabulary find the simplified approach troubling.

    My daughter is actually in Rome right now and learning Italian pretty quickly. There's a lot to say for immersing yourself in the language and culture you want to study. Maybe you should take a long vacation to Italy and really learn your Italian :). Ciao!

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