How to Learn a Foreign Language

all languages

(Thank you to Alexei K. for the inspiration to write about learning languages)

Some people think that because my husband is French, I speak French fluently.  Truth is, I’m not all that great in French.

Well, actually, sometimes I’m pretty good, but sometimes I’m not.  It depends on a lot of things, but mostly it depends on how much I practice.

Practice, practice, practice

Practice (using the language as much as you can) is the key to fluency and improvement in language learning.  I’m an English teacher and this is what I tell my students all the time.

Use the language you’re trying to learn and you’ll improve.  There’s no way you can’t improve if you use it regularly.

People also think that because I have a French husband, I get to practice speaking French all the time.  That would be the obvious conclusion, wouldn’t it?  However, I’m lazy.  And, although I have the perfect French teacher with me under my roof every day, I don’t take full advantage of that.

I speak English at home a lot.  Olivier’s English, as a result, has improved immensely since we’ve been married.

Two different nationalities

People often ask us, when they learn that we’re of different nationalities (and especially when we were living in Moscow) what language we speak together at home.  And our answer is always the same – it depends.

It depends if one of us is tired, or if we think the other person won’t understand what we want to say unless it’s in their native language, or if we’re so excited about something we can only think/speak in our native language. It depends on a lot of things.

And for us, there are no rules when it comes to which language we use with each other. 

When Olivier and I first started going out together, I’d already learnt French and I could speak it to a certain degree.  I’d learnt French for 2 years in high school, but then in my 30s I took evening classes and learnt French to a conversational level (although not for very sophisticated conversation!).   

born in a car languages french

Learning a language as an adult

My French learning experience at 30-something was a lot different than it was when I was at school.  There was a lot more focus on speaking when I learnt it as an adult, instead of learning lists of words and their translations which is what we did at school. 

As an adult learner, I had one lesson a week, and studied for an hour or more at home EVERY DAY after work.  I watched French films all the time.  I read the Yahoo website in French.  I really wanted to learn, it was a passion.

And, although Olivier had only learnt English at school many years ago, he still remembered a lot and could say a lot of things in English, with only small prompts from me when he forgot something or didn’t know a word in English.

A bi-lingual family

However, we both wanted to improve in our second languages.  So, without even making a decision about what language to use, whenever we talked to each other, I spoke to him in French and he spoke to me in English. 

And when people first heard us talking together they were amused – I’m sure it sounded very odd to hear us both speaking different languages to each other! 

My French really improved in the beginning of our relationship, especially when I joined him in Paris and spent months there, speaking only French with him, with his friends, watching French TV and shopping in French.

Immersion is the best teacher when it comes to learning languages.

Then we moved to Moscow together, and a few months later I started learning Russian.

I’d had experience learning French for 2 years while in high school, and German for 1 year, plus then French again in my 30s as I just mentioned.  I was no stranger to the language learning process.

But Russian language – that’s another story.

born in a car russian language

Learning Russian is difficult

I spent hours and hours reading Russian grammar books.  I went to some lessons, but unfortunately the teacher wasn’t very good, and I wasn’t very good at getting up early to go to my 10.30am lesson.  So I missed a lot.  Then the group closed due to all the students dropping out.

I continued ‘studying’ Russian at home, reading grammar, reading little stories, doing exercises.  But nothing seemed to stick.  I couldn’t remember much, just random words.

Then Olivier and I joined another group to learn it together.  The teacher was better than my previous one.  And she had a lovely, friendly personality which made us want to do well in her lessons. 

We did our homework together after every lesson.

We spoke as much as we could in the class.

It looked like we were making some progress.

Then for various reasons we stopped going to lessons. So I tried to teach myself at home, finishing the book that we’d started in the group, and generally tried to retain what I was ‘learning’.

Which wasn’t easy.

That was the end of my Russian lessons with a teacher. 

Sometime later, Olivier joined another group, with the same teacher, and continued studying for another couple of years.  Unfortunately, my working schedule made it impossible for me to join the classes.

Back to English

The problem for me, or maybe it’s an excuse, is that as an English speaker in Moscow, most non-native English speakers want to speak English with me, for practice. 

I didn’t have any native English speaking friends in Moscow, only Russians.  And a lot of them spoke some degree of English.  They loved speaking English with me!

And why would I refuse?  After all, it made my life a lot easier!  (Remember, I already told you that I’m lazy)

So, all our Russian friends were speaking English to me, I was speaking English at home a lot, and I was speaking English at work all day with my students (because I was teaching it!) and the administration staff in the office.

Despite living in Moscow, it seems that I didn’t have much need to speak Russian fluently. I was doing just fine with mostly only English communication.

I could, and still can, function quite well in Russian in restaurants, cafes, bars, shops, markets, public transport and asking for directions.  I can speak and understand functional language quite well.

I just can’t have conversations with people because I lack the vocabulary, and my mouth doesn’t work when I want to use Russian words.

Russian grammar is quite complex, and it’s extremely interesting (for me) to study it and learn it.  I can correct Olivier when he makes mistakes with Russian grammar (to a point).

But I can’t use it myself!

Am I ashamed of having lived in Moscow for 12 years and not being able to speak Russian fluently?

Yes, I am. 

However, after some years, after all the lessons I took and the hundreds of hours I spent pouring over grammar books at home, doing grammar exercises, and even watching Soviet films, there was a point in time when I realised that we weren’t going to be staying in Russia forever. We were going to have to leave at some point, so I wouldn’t force my brain anymore to try and master this very difficult language.

Yes, I took the easy way out.  I didn’t try hard enough, I didn’t use every opportunity to practice with Russian native speakers.

I use the defence (excuse) that I didn’t need to learn more Russian, that I could manage my daily tasks with what little I knew already.  It was just too hard for me to remember everything!

I do think, which I also use as a defence, that it’s harder to learn, to retain new information, as we get older.  Age reduces our ability to learn.

At least, it feels like it for me.

born in a car grammar

Mixing languages

One thing I also wanted to mention is that at some point, Olivier and I started speaking Frenglish.  I mean that we would start a sentence in French and finish it in English, or vice versa.  It seems that we had no control over what was coming from our brains to our mouths.

And it wasn’t strange for us to do this, it seemed (and still seems) a very natural way to communicate with each other. We do it every day, even now.

And then after learning Russian we started adding Russian words into the mix.

For some reason, there are some Russian words that most ex-pats and other foreigners in Russia use, instead of using the English word, or whatever their native language is.

Words like:

  • smetana (сметана) – sour cream
  • remont (ремонт) – repair work (in an apartment/building/office etc.)
  • babushka (бабушка) – grandmother (is also used for any ‘old lady’)
  • dacha (дача) – country house/summer cottage
  • devushka (девушка) – girl/young lady
  • piva (пиво) – beer
  • apteka (аптека) – pharmacy/chemist
  • wagon (вагон) – railway/train carriage

So, when you combine English, French, and Russian, in our house you could hear us saying things like this:

“Did you know that the apteka is closed now?  It’s closed for remont.”

“Tu veux smetana in your soup?”

“The babushka from next door spoke to me on the stairs today, mais j’ai rien compris!”

French, English and Russian all in the same sentence sometimes!  And we don’t even realise that we’re doing it.

And, as if it wasn’t difficult enough for me to manage French and Russian as foreign languages, I decided to teach myself German.

born in a car german language

Let’s try to learn German

Why?  Good question.  It’s because I felt like such a failure with Russian that I needed something to boost my self-confidence, and apparently German isn’t so difficult.

So, I’ve spent quite a lot of time over the years teaching myself German.  I can understand some things, and I can talk in shops and restaurants when we’re in Germany. I can even watch films and understand them to a point.  But I haven’t managed to get anywhere near the level that I would like.

It’s because I’m lazy.  It’s because I don’t practice!  It’s because I’m old!

But I really love the German language, and I guess I’ll find some time when we’re more settled and try to improve on what I already know.  I can’t say it will be super useful now, because we don’t have any plans to visit Germany in the near future.

While we lived in Moscow we went to Germany at least once a year on holiday, sometimes twice.  So it was practical to learn a little of the language to be able to communicate while we were there.  I love Germany, especially Berlin, so I really hope we’ll get there again one day.

Adding Romanian to the list

And now, as you may know, we find ourselves in Romania.  And, even though we don’t intend on staying here long term, we have made an effort to learn some Romanian to be polite in shops etc.

Although I have found that a lot of people speak English here, so that’s a plus.

We’ve learnt numbers in Romanian.  When we do our daily exercise in the living room (an activity we started after being locked down in Bucharest), we count in Romanian!  It’s been a great way to learn and remember numbers.  Now when we shop, especially in the market, we can almost understand most prices when we’re told how much something is. 

We’ve also learnt some basic words and phrases like hello, please, thank you, goodbye, as well as some food words so that we know what we’re buying in the supermarket.

Another good way to learn languages is to go shopping.  Today I learnt the word ‘cabina’, which is the fitting room, or changing room, in a shop where you try on clothes.  I saw it on a sign on the wall of one shop we were in.

Then when we were in the next shop Olivier wanted to ask the shop assistant if he could try on some jeans, but she didn’t understand him and he didn’t have the language to tell her what he wanted.  So I just said ‘cabina’ and she understood me immediately and showed him where it was.

When I told Olivier later that I learnt that word just a few minutes before in the other shop, because it was written on the wall, he said that he didn’t see it because he hadn’t been wearing his glasses.

So, I guess the best advice for learning languages is practice, practice, practice – and wear your glasses when you go shopping.

What’s been your experience with language learning?  Do you love it or is it hard work for you?  Let us know in the comments any advice you have about learning a second language successfully.

~ Cheryl (scroll down for my language learning tips!)

born in a car language dictionaries

My top tips for successful language learning:

  • Make time every day for study, even as a beginner – just 10 or 15 minute a day can make a difference
  • Find someone to learn with, or at least a teacher who can help you, especially in the beginning
  • Learn your new language by doing activities that you love doing anyway, like watching films, doing puzzles such as crosswords, reading books, or just chatting to people online
  • Don’t worry about making mistakes when you speak, it’s going to help you learn!
  • Write something in your new language every day, just a few sentences about what you did and where you went, try to find new vocabulary to use
  • Keep a record of any new, useful words you learn each day
  • Try to visit a country where they speak the language you’re learning
  • Join groups online or in real life where they only use your new language
  • Practice thinking in your new language
  • Read websites in your new language
  • Don’t give up!

Author: Cheryl

I'm an Australian woman who is now living in a village in rural Bulgaria. I lived for 12 years in Moscow, Russian Federation, working as an English language teacher. My current loves are my husband and my vegetable garden.

30 thoughts on “How to Learn a Foreign Language”

  1. Hi Cheryl, You are right. It’s so much easier to learn a language when you are young. I learned Spanish when I lived with my family in Bogota, Colombia, back in the early 70’s. I took more Spanish classes in High School, then didn’t practice speaking it for many years. When Tim, Sarah and I went to Ecuador, it came back to me pretty easily. Sarah was 17 at the time and she picked up Spanish quickly. Tim picked up some, but does not speak fluently. I’ve forgotten a lot of my Spanish which is frustrating. I have a friend from Spain who I’d love to be able to talk to. Sarah lives in the Netherlands, now and after many lessons, her Dutch is very good. She and her Dutch husband are going to raise our new grandbaby speaking both English and Dutch. Sarah is going to buy her favorite childhood books in both English and Dutch. Tim and I are going to buckle down and learn Georgian, as soon as we get more settled. I found this post to be so enjoyable and relatable. Thanks for sharing.

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    1. Well, hello Christina! I just found this comment of yours that I didn’t answer. 😦 sorry. As you know we’re now looking at learning Bulgarian, but after 8 weeks I haven’t got much further than the basics. Olivier is learning faster than I am, but of course he’s more extrovert than me. I’d really like to become fluent, but I think it will take some years for that. Currently we’re managing to communicate here either with English (with the younger people) and Russian (with the oldies), so we’re getting by most of the time without Bulgarian. It’s hard, but I think if we’re going to stay here then it’s a necessity. Well done to Sarah for learning Dutch! Thanks for being one of my regular readers Christina. xx

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  2. Hi Cheryl – I wish I’d learnt another language in high school – I went to Rossmoyne and I don’t think they even offered languages. I think if you get your head around it when you’re young, it makes the process easier when you get “older”. I’m very jealous of your multilingual skills and I think you’re far from lazy to have two languages + smatterings of several others. At least you’ll get to use English when we have our coffee date one day!
    Thanks for linking up with us at MLSTL and I’ve shared on my SM ?

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    1. Hi Leanne, I think that a lot of state schools didn’t offer languages back then, or they were just starting to. I went to Perth College, which is private (God knows why, such a waste of my parent’s money!) and they had quite a strong focus on languages. I do appreciate the experience I had learning French and German as a teenager, because I think you’re right that it helps your learning when you’re older. Looking forward to speaking English with you! I hope to learn another language (at least the basics, not fluently) before you and I meet, it’s part of our plan for our next move. 😉 Wishing you a lovely end to the week. 🙂 xx

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  3. Well, you speak a hell of a lot more than I do. I have reasonable French, after living there for a couple of years, and I liked the language, but I spent the same amount of time in Holland and learned nothing much of the language. Most people, certainly below age 50, speak English there so it was easy to avoid learning it! #MLSTL

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    1. Hi Enda, yes, that’s my biggest problem when travelling, the natives often speak English so well that I don’t have a chance to practice. In Germany I’ll often start a conversation in German, and get a reply in English. It’s frustrating, but I know that they understand that I’m a foreigner and just want to make it easier for me. It’s also a good thing because it’s so much easier for us that a lot of people now speak English! Thanks for reading and commenting, it’s nice to see you here! 🙂

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  4. I learnt French and German at school and university and some Spanish from holidays and can read and understand them quite well but I struggle to speak them and make lots of mistakes when writing. I think it gets harder to pick up accents when you get older.

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    1. Hi Anne, yes, speaking seems to be the main difficulty. Writing is hard too, because we don’t often do it in a foreign language. In the old days we would get a penpal and practice our second language by writing to them, but it seems that doesn’t happen so often anymore. I find it sad that we spend hours and hours learning a language, only to forget it all through lack of use. Still, I’m going to try and continue my language learning journey, I find it fun and it keeps the brain active! Thanks for stopping by! 🙂

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  5. Hi Cheryl, My husband speaks French, too, French Canadian which is a separate topic altogether. I did take high school French. Also, another story.

    Your bi-lingual examples did make me smile. I get it on the “Frenglish.”

    My first language is German, even though I was born in Vancouver, B.C.. Canada. My parents only spoke German. When I started school I began to learn English. At that time everyone thought I would have difficulty in school, not speaking English. Nowadays, most people know how speaking more than one language is helpful. I do speak a few words in other languages. My parents and I would eventually speak a mixture of German and English in the same sentence. Like you mention, some words do not translate well. Thank you for an interesting post, Cheryl! Or should I say Danke Schon. Sharing #MLSTL and on SM.

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    1. Hi Erika, someone who understands! It can be so funny living with more than one language, can’t it? How interesting that your parents spoke German, but lived in Canada. I’m assuming they immigrated and you were born after their arrival? What a wonderful rich life you were born into! It makes me a bit sad that Australians aren’t really encouraged to learn another language. We ‘dabble’ in it at school, but it’s never been something that we take seriously. Most Australians only speak English. I plan to push myself into learning German again soon, I always feel good when I speak it. 🙂 Enjoy the rest of your week, and thanks for reading and commenting on my post. 🙂

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  6. I am lazy too and find it difficult to pronounce most foreign words to the delight of my husband. He just loves to laugh as I try to pronounce foreign names. I spent two years in German in high school and don’t remember much. I’ve tried apps to try to learn Spanish since we live in Florida now and there are a lot of Puerto Ricans and Cubans who live here. But alas…my laziness or my attention span foil my plans.

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    1. Hi Jennifer, I think that the best way to learn a language is to use it. Or, if you really don’t need to speak it, then knowing it passively is sometimes enough. Just understanding in general is sometimes enough to get you what you need. It’s not easy to learn a language, I think you need a really good reason to learn it. And if you don’t have a good reason or a passion for it, then it’s no use torturing yourself! Wishing you a lovely weekend. 🙂

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  7. Hi Cheryl I can’t imagine how difficult Russian would be to learn.My husband is Italian and although he came to Australia when he was 4 years old he still speaks Italian with his Mum and when we visit Italy. I have tried several times to learn but give up. I do find that when we visit Italy,even though some trips are short by the end of the trip, my Italian has definitely improved. What an interesting household you have! Thanks for sharing at #MLSTL and have a great weekend.

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    1. Hi Sue, it’s funny how quickly we recover our language skills when we’re immersed in it. It comes back easily when we don’t have a choice. I love going to France for that very reason – it enables me to be fluent in French again. Don’t give up Italian, speak to your husband in Italian sometimes! I’m sure you also have an interesting household with your different cultures. Love your blog’s new look, congratulations! Have a great weekend too! 🙂

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  8. Hi Cheryl, my piddly little attempts at learning a language pale in comparison, but currently I’m using an online resource to learn the basics of French. It’s fun, and I try to practice for about 10 minutes every day. Having said that, I am so impressed with you and your husband for the way you communicate in your own special language as well as your working knowledge of several others. Awesome!

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    1. Hi Candi, so nice to see you here on Born in a Car. 🙂 10 minutes every day is going to get you great results! I wish my students were that enthusiastic about learning a language! I hope you continue having fun learning French – if it’s not fun you’ll lose motivation and give up. You can be proud of yourself for this mammoth effort! Yes, as you said, my husband and I have our own special language, it’s rather interesting to have this experience. 🙂 I’m looking forward to picking up some more Romanian, and hopefully another language in the next country we’re fortunate enough to visit. Enjoy the rest of your weekend. 🙂

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  9. I’m impressed Cheryl that you even tried to learn all those languages! I took French in high school and college. Then I took a conversation class in my 40s in preparation for a trip to France. Since then I haven’t practiced much, and I am almost back to square one. You are exactly right about the benefit of practicing every day. I just can’t seem to stay motivated considering I don’t have any French speakers around me. I do love the language though.

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    1. Hi Christie, thank you for your kind words. I find it kind of fun, even if I don’t master these languages. Plus, when you travel a lot, it’s good to have several languages ready to communicate. We’ve spoken Russian to some people here in Romania because we can’t speak Romanian! So it’s really handy when English doesn’t work. Motivation is difficult, and so is the fact of not having French people around you to practice with. Maybe you should plan a trip to Paris to get some motivation happening again! 🙂

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  10. Wow! You and your hubby are so talented. Good for you for being multi-lingual. My mother was a French teacher, so I learned French when I was growing up and took French classes in high school. Then, when I went to college, I had to take either German or Russian (as a chemistry major). I picked German because I thought it would be easier. The problem was, I got into German classes with students who had studied German in high school. I was starting from scratch. I had trouble keeping up and now remember no German at all (except how to say speed limit and count to 10).

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    1. Hi Laurie, thanks for the compliments, but I think it’s not really a matter of talent, but in most cases necessity. 🙂 It’s a shame you’ve had such rich language learning experiences when you were younger but didn’t continue. I believe that if you started either German or French again you’ll pick them up easily. Why not give it a try? 🙂 Have a great week!

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  11. Hi Cheryl, Great post and I’ve used some of the tips you mentioned. I can relate to the multi-lingual life and conversations with mixed languages. When I visit my relatives in Europe, it’s common for me to speak English, French, and Spanish with my cousins and their spouses. Some of them speak Dutch, German, etc. When we speak fast and don’t know the word in one language, we just use a word in another language that we know in the same sentence! It’s fun and if we don’t understand a word, someone else in the family will translate. I like learning new languages, and have been keeping up with French and Spanish. Hope you and Olivier are doing well in Romania #senisal

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    1. Hi Natalie, I was so happy to read your comment! Yes, you’re right, it’s fun speaking in several different languages at once, and mono-lingual people just wouldn’t be able to relate to it. 🙂 Well done for keeping up with French and Spanish, it’s great that you’ve got relatives you can practice with. I’d love to listen in on your family conversations to see if they resemble ours! Yes, we’re fine in Romania, thank you so much for thinking of us. We’re in the middle of planning our next adventure! 🙂

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  12. It seems to me that the language(s) we speak shapes what we say, to at least some extent. Does it seem to you that speaking either French or English to each other changes your relationship to any extent, or the way you approach something?

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    1. Hi Ellen, you pose a very interesting question, and I’ve been considering my answer since you posted your comment. I don’t think that for Olivier and I speaking a different language changes our relationship much. We are both language teachers, too, which helps things I guess. I mean, we’re both very patient with each other and there’s no feeling of inferiority if we don’t understand something that’s said in our second language. I do find that if I have something ‘serious’ to discuss with Olivier, or if I think that he won’t be familiar with the English vocabulary related to what I want to talk about (eg. banking), I’ll switch to French for his better understanding. I also think that we have a lot of laughs related to misunderstandings between us that bring us closer together as a couple. It’s mostly good fun, although there are the rare occasions when I get upset for not understanding (feeling like a loser because my language skills aren’t good enough). All in all, I think that our language differences and how we communicate make our relationship stronger rather than weaker. Thanks again for your question, Ellen! Have a great day! 🙂

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