7 Ways to Boost Your Foreign Lingo

Dispatches from the Road, Studying Abroad, Taiwan — By on March 15, 2010 at 12:00 pm

When Lost Girl Ashley Cheng moved to Taiwan a few months ago, she set a few simple language rules to make sure she stayed on top of her Mandarin. Picking up a second language can be really tough, especially if you’re not living in a country that speaks the language. Try Ashley’s quick tips to make language learning a little easier…


by Ashley Cheng

What’s the quickest way to pick up a new language? Date a foreign boy! My Chinese teacher told me about a student who spoke six languages fluently because she had six foreign boyfriends in a row (insert off-color joke about being sex-lingual here).

For all you travel gurus who want to steer clear of boys, the second quickest way to pick up a new language is to immerse yourself in the culture and live among native speakers. This is why I quit my job and moved to Taiwan to study Mandarin three months ago.

During our three-week break from classes, I traveled outside Taiwan with classmates, and it got me thinking about ways to keep up with my language studies while away.

If you have a passion for linguistics but don’t have the time or $$ to enroll in classes, or you want to keep practicing a language after you’ve returned home, fear not! Your language skills won’t fall by the wayside if you try these tongue twisting tips when you don’t have the means for the real deal.

  1. Make a Language Pact with a friend: My buddy and I vowed only to speak Mandarin to each other during our travels. We cheated a lot, but it did prove useful when discussing whether we thought cab drivers were trying to rip us off or how to dodge men who approached us at bars. Caution: Talking about others in front of their backs should be exercised with great care as you never really know who may understand you. We learned this the hard way trying to ditch a Polish guy on the beach. What are the chances of meeting a Polish guy in the Philippines who happens to be studying Chinese in Shanghai? Luckily, he owned up to his secret before we said anything too offensive.
  2. Keep a dictionary handy: I downloaded an electronic Chinese/English dictionary from Pleco for my phone, but there are plenty of other free and paid-for apps to choose from online. I didn’t have the extra weight of an old-fashioned dictionary, and we could look up words we didn’t know on the spot. Pleco also has a flashcard feature that allows you to save unknown words and quiz yourself later. Great for long bus rides.
  3. Buy a Foreign Glossy: I purchased a Chinese Vogue instead of bringing English magazines for beach reading. Magazines are less daunting than full books if you’re just getting started. With the help of your dictionary, you’re forced to learn new words and review old ones. If you don’t have access to foreign language magazines, try news sites or blogs.
  4. Download language podcasts: You can get tons of free lessons on iTunes as well as general news and entertainment podcasts in other languages. Play one of these instead of listening to music during a workout or commute. You can also download podcasts of essential phrases in 36 different languages for free at http://www.bbc.co.uk/languages/. The BBC language center has online lessons and games as well as RSS feeds and email newsletters with tips and new daily phrases available for French, Spanish, German and Italian.
  5. Watch foreign TV shows online: I have a friend who swears by Asian soap operas to learn languages. http://www.mysoju.com streams Japanese, Korean, and Chinese shows.
  6. Make your electronics bilingual: Switch the Internet settings on your computer or language options on your cell phone, so you’re forced to interact with your new language everyday when you make calls or check your email.
  7. Practice, Practice, Practice! If you’re learning a language that’s common, you may be able to find native speakers wherever you are. Don’t be afraid to strike up a conversation and make a new friend if you notice a stranger speaking in your second language. Chances are they’ll be delighted to meet a foreigner who appreciates their native tongue. We came across a chatty Chinese tour group at the airport. Jackpot! If you’re at home and don’t want your language skills to fade away, find a pen pal abroad or start a local language exchange. Check out http://www.livemocha.com or http://www.interpals.net for people willing to speak to you in your second language.
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  • Heidi says:

    I travel a lot and I’m trying to learn Spanish and Arabic fluently! I love these tips! I also find it really helpful to watch TV in the local language with English subtitles. This has really helped me with my Spanish! I like the idea of downloading language podcasts as well. I’ve used the Spanish Russian ones from Babel Yak: http://www.babelyak.com

  • Andi says:

    Awesome tips!!! I still think finding a foreign lover is the best way to learn a new language though! 😉

  • Mary says:

    This is absolutely true; thanks for the post! I’ve learn Spanish and I’m in the process of learning French and Italian now — they’re all beautiful languages that just roll off the tongue! And the cultures that go with them are equally fascinating of course 🙂

    I’ve learn Mandarin since I was a child but have never been 100% fluent; it’s just a little beyond me I think.. 😉