The art of learning a language

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Every British woman has a French woman inside her who is dying to get out. OK, the woman inside might be Italian, or even Japanese, but the fact remains that most of us would love to be fluent in another language.

However, while we daydream about being able to trade banter with a gruff boulanger in Paris or dazzle a Tokyo boardroom, we’re strangely reluctant to take on a new language. The stats are rather embarrassing: only one in 10 Brits are capable of having a basic chat in a second language, compared to 56% as an EU average.

We know the entire gamut of excuses will run through your mind, from having a hopeless memory to being too busy to devote hours to learning Italian grammar. But it’s time to reassess these “truths” about our abilities. For most of us, they’ll be based on experiences we had at school, more often than not negative ones such as incompetent teachers insisting on being called “Madame” and mortifying oral tests during which you said “My father is a window”. Or worse: diligent teachers who still couldn’t get us to conjugate a verb.

However, it’s worth examining this aversion in a more mature, informed way. Educational methods have taken leaps forward since you left school so if you struggled to digest Spanish pronunciation despite excelling at other subjects you were probably taught in a manner that wasn’t right for you. The past decade has seen vast progress made in understanding different learning styles. Learning a language is made infinitely simpler when you understand how to harness your own personal mental strengths. “Sadly, most people who have ever tried to learn a foreign tongue come out convinced that they are incapable of it,” says teacher Paul Noble, who taught himself to speak six languages after leaving school and is the founder of the Paul Noble Language Institute and creator of Collins audio language courses.

“The problem isn’t our ability, it’s the way we’ve been taught. If you can speak English, you can learn any language.” Figure out your learning type, and mastering even Mandarin becomes a simple step-by-step process. We spoke to the world’s leading experts to develop a fail-safe plan to mastering a new tongue.

Numero Uno: Which Language?

Picking which new language to learn is a simple question if you harbour fantasies of moving to France or your company is opening new offices in Shanghai. Some of us have a decision to make, however, and it’s not one we should make lightly. Amelia Green, author of Faster Foreign Language Learning, suggests three factors to consider before you sign yourself up. “I know ‘follow your heart’ sounds like trite advice, but when it comes to something as personal and long-term as language learning, your interest in the language is critical,” she says. “If you feel drawn to a language because you love the native speakers’ culture, give it a shot for six months.”

The second factor Green identifies is “personal usefulness”. “Chinese, Arabic and Spanish are all considered ‘useful’ languages because they’re widely spoken, but this doesn’t mean they’re useful to you personally.” Choosing this way boosts your motivation, because the more you learn, the closer you’ll get to your career and personal goals.

Finally, think about how tricky it will be. For native English speakers, the easiest languages to learn are thought to be Spanish, French, Portuguese and Italian. The most difficult are Arabic, Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese and Korean. Scots who can roll their Rs and pronounce “loch” properly have a definite advantage over the English when it comes to Spanish pronunciation. And if you studied the language at school, it’s a head-start.

For native English speakers, the easiest languages to learn are thought ot be Spanish, French, Portuguese and Italian

Numero Dos: Get Committed

Now that you’ve made your decision, solidify it by pinning down your motivations. They might be career-oriented: employers rank foreign language skills as second only to IT in prospective candidates. They might relate to your health and happiness: scientists at UCL have found that learning a second language “boosts” brainpower, altering grey matter – the area of the brain which processes information – in the same way that physical exercise builds muscles.

This phase in your quest to learn a language is all about “ownership” of your decision, and making it real. Tell your friends and colleagues that you’re studying Arabic. Check out blogs about the culture this new language will open the door to. Fantasise about owning a Parisian patisserie one day, backpacking in Central America, or fall for an Italian vineyard owner. Experts believe that spending just two minutes a day visualising success with a new language can make a tangible difference to your learning curve.

Numero Tres: Discover your learning type

Have you ever picked up something really quickly, been able to explain it to others and put it into practice almost immediately? And have you ever tried desperately hard to master something, only for it to prove a complete waste of time? We’re all guilty of assuming that it was the subject matter that made the difference to our learning abilities, but it might boil down to the way you were taught or went about learning this new topic.

Each of us has a preference for the way in which we prefer to receive, process and impart information. There are various ways in which preferred processing modes become apparent, and some simple ways in which we can enhance the effectiveness of our communication once we are aware of them.

There are different strategies for determining your learning type, from the left brain versus right brain theory (logical versus creative) to the visual, auditory and kinaesthetic distinctions. The latter, known as the VAK model, is more applicable to the study of languages, so get online at and take a free test which determines what sort of learner you are. Or read through the options below to see which jump out at you.

When you’re prepping for a work presentation, do you head straight for the stationery cupboard and busy yourself with flashcards? If so, you’re a visual learner – methods such as making sure that you can see words written down, focusing on pictures whilst you memorise vocabulary, as well as using picture books and flashcards are the tricks which will help you pick up language the quickest.

Alternatively, can you remember the words to every Blondie song or recite lines from Breakfast At Tiffany’s word for word? You’re an auditory learner then. These types of learners have the easiest time developing conversational language skills. They benefit more than other types of learners by listening to instructional tapes, French music or poring over Italian film such Cinema Paradiso or The Leopard.

Or perhaps you were an inveterate note-maker during college lectures? Does the act of scribbling down someone’s address commit it to your memory long-term? Kinesthetic learners often need to use some sort of physical activity to help themselves learn and retain information. They also do well to speak their lessons out loud working better as part of a group of language learners or use software that encourages interactivity.

Listening to another language helps to build new neural pathways in the brain, which you need to learn a new language.

Numero Cuatro: Choose the right course

Now that you’ve got your learning style pinned down, research the course, method or teacher that will work best for you. If you're a visual learner, you’ll get the most from a traditional language course which incorporates both text book-based learning and conversation skills. Cactus and Berlitz run well-regarded traditional courses (evening, intensive or distance) in a number of languages.

There are definite advantages to physically attending a class, but the internet has effective alternatives.

AccelaStudy is an award-winning iPhone app which uses pictures with native speaker audio, perfect for more visual learners.

Auditory learners also benefit from traditional courses, providing there’s an emphasis on conversation.

The class limit of eight at the Goethe Institute ensures you’ll have your say. As for online options, provides live online classes with native speakers across the world, while the paid version of Pocket French, Pocket Spanish and Pocket German are classic linguistics apps.

If the thought of a textbook makes you wince try Paul Noble’s courses, which focus more on practical learning.

Rosetta Stone is the UK’s most popular language-learning software, setting out to teach you a language the way you learned as a child. In their “dynamic immersion” method, words and concepts are presented in a series of pictures with audio and text. If you’re on a budget, has well-rated programs for £49.99. Noble says, “If you’re on a good course match for you, it should take 15-20 hours to learn the basics of a new language.” He adds it would take 30 minutes’ practice a day for a year in order to become fluent.

Numero Cinco: Expose yourself

Listen to foreign radio, watch television and films – even if you can’t speak a word of the language. Our ability to learn new words is directly related to how often we have been exposed to the sounds. “Just listening to another language helps to build new neural pathways in the brain, which you need to learn the new language,” says Dr Paul Sulzberger of Victoria University in New Zealand. “I call this ‘massive exposure’: babies do it, kids who move countries do it, but adults tend to avoid it.” In 2010 the Medical Research Council’s Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit at Cambridge University found that the brain learns a new word in less than 15 minutes if it hears it repeatedly. After that the brain will have formed a whole new network of neurons specifically tasked with remembering that word.

If you want to learn French of German, you know 40% of the vocab already

Numero Seis: Cheat with 100 magic words

In the early stages of a new language course, there’s a stage where we all think “I’m never going to master this. There are too many new words.” But take heart. When memory guru Tony Buzan gave himself a challenge to learn Spanish in 40 hours for a TV show, he discovered we rely on just 100 words for half of our conversation. “The average person speaks 1,000 to 2,000 different words, but there will be just 100 words that are regularly repeated,” says Buzan. “So if you learn these key words – which include ‘I’, ‘You’, ‘Thank you’, ‘Why’, ‘Who’ – you’re halfway there.”

What’s more, we actually already know a lot of these words. “If you are learning French, German or Spanish you already know 40% of the vocab. “‘Danger’ is the same in French and English, so is ‘information’ and ‘excellent’. There are rules you can learn: all words ending in ‘ion’ stay the same. Suddenly you have thousands of words,” says Noble.

Numero Siete: Study Smarter

One of the biggest factors stopping women learning a new language is the time investment involved. A fantastic shortcut to learning languages quickly is LinkWord, created by Dr Michael Gruneberg who has written various language books. It involves using images to link a word in your own language with a word in a foreign language. For example, in French the word for ‘rug’ is ‘tapis’ – so you could imagine an ornate oriental carpet with a tap as the central design woven in chrome thread. The Turkish for ‘blood’ is ‘kan’ so you imagine pouring out a can of blood.

The trick is to spend 10 seconds thinking about each picture. This lodges it in your mind. Imagery aids memory and it is claimed that using this technique enables learners to grasp a language three times more quickly than other students. A trial found that after 12 hours of learning using LinkWord, students achieved the standard that would normally take 40 hours’ practice.

Another smart study technique is mind-mapping, pioneered by Buzan. Draw a mind map of words associated with each other. For example, sketch a cafe, then start by writing ‘manger’ (to eat) on the page in, say, blue, then add in a thick red branch with ‘le sandwich’, leading on to thinner twigs with fillings such as ‘fromage’. Draw pictures beside each. The idea is that mind maps mirror the way our brain naturally thinks – with colours, pictures and associations – which makes words easier to learn than in a linear fashion. Linguist Arnold Glass agrees that grouping words together is also a more efficient technique for our brains. Our short-term memory is on average only capable of storing seven items of information, but what he calls ‘chunking’ helps us use the storage space in our brain more effectively.

Now that you’ve got all the tips and tricks it takes to unleash your inner senorita, it’s just a matter of taking the plunge. Un, deux, trois…

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