5 Tried-And-True Tips for Learning a Foreign Language (And That Time I Ordered a Fish Instead of a Glass of Wine…)

Imagine going to a foreign country and speaking with the locals, just like the locals. For me, that’s the dream.

Würzburg, Germany

As a Canadian, living abroad, one thing I know is that I am extremely fortunate to have grown up with English as my first language. The only downfall now is that my brain never had to learn to think in another language (from Western Canada – no French there) and now learning another one can be extremely frustrating at times. Also, as many of you probably already know if you’ve tried it, learning a language as an adult is much harder than if a child were to learn it. But! It’s definitely not impossible.

I have been living in Germany now for 6 months and have gotten to the point where I can go into the city and understand what people are saying to me at the grocery store, in restaurants, or in the train stations. And yes I can respond, auf Deutsch 😉 It did take me; however, about 2 or 3 months of constant interaction with the locals to get to that point. I have reflected a lot on what works for me and what doesn’t and observed how native speakers interact with each other.

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From this, I’ve come up with a list of 5 things that undoubtedly helped me the most to be able to understand and speak German better. As I live in Germany, most of the tips relate to German, but they would definitely work for any language.

And! As a reward for reading this article, I will bless you with the story of how I ordered the most theatrical serving of a fish, instead of what I really wanted, a glass of white wine.

5 Tried-And-True Tips that are perfect for language learning.

1) Memorize phrases, not just words.

The biggest thing that has helped me to learn more and speak more fluently, is learning a phrase by heart which I can use over and over again, in different ways. More or less making a “formula” that you can manipulate whenever you need to.

For example, common phrases that people say every day are:

“I would like to have __________ please” – “Ich hätte gerne ________ bitte”

or “Have a nice day” – “Schönen Tag noch”

For making longer, more complex sentences, you use combination phrases like:

“but apart from that…” – “aber abgesehen davon…”

or “because of…” – “wegen…”

and even idioms like:

“It’s a hop skip and a jump” – “Das ist ein Katzensprung”

or “You’ve lost your marbles” – “Du hast nicht alle Tassen im Schrank”

Learning phrases rather that just words, one at a time, will not only help you get your point across, but it will help you to actually learn more words at a time, speak sentences more fluently sooner, and sound more like a native.

2) Start a daily journal.

This was something I started about 2 months ago. I came up with the idea of writing a journal about my day (could be any topic really) and write it in German. Of course, I don’t get around to it every day, but at least 3 or 4 times a week has skyrocketed my vocab.

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Start thinking and writing how you would want to express yourself. Some things can be translated word-for-word, but some you will have to look up the translation – this would exactly relate to the first point; learning phrases.

Eventually (I know this to be true) you will start thinking in the second language when you write and will naturally know how to express yourself in that language.

3) Find a friend who’s also learning the same language.

I know, first-hand, it is VERY intimidating to speak to a native speaker of the language you are learning. Especially when you can both very effectively communicate in English without the worry of sounding like a complete fool. This is still something that I am trying to push out of my head though.

I’ve found that finding friends who are also learning the same language helps A TON! I have one friend from Canada and another from the US who are both at about the same level as me currently, so we are consistently texting each other in German, and speaking it to each other as well. Sounds silly right, when we could just talk in English. Well, listening or seeing another learner’s mistakes is so helpful because you will notice them and either correct them or make a mental note, which in turn helps you to remember the rules more. This is so helpful for both you and your friend!

4) Use effective apps and websites.

I have tried a lot of apps and resources on the internet, but the 2 I have found that work the best are Linguee and Deepl.

Linguee is great for translating single words or small chunks into all their different meanings. For each translation you can easily find the gender of the word, corresponding prepositions for verbs, or which case a verb takes.

Deepl, probably one of the most amazing resources when you are a beginner or even an intermediate, can be used to translate a sentence from your native language to how it is spoken in your target language as a native would. I know for me, still, there are times when I want to say something and I know it doesn’t translate correctly in the way I would say it in English, so I google the German translation. And quite often the translation is actually so much simpler than how an English speaker would say it – it’s the length of the German words or the word order that gets me most times.

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Finally (only for German learners), in your free time, I highly recommend watching Learn German with Anja on Youtube! She explains words and grammar so clearly, uses great props and themes for her videos, and as a bonus, travels the world, so you can learn German vocab about different countries.

5) Listen to the spoken words without trying to translate them.

This is something that I am still teaching myself, but once you can get a hold of this skill, your learning will dramatically improve.

At the beginning, when I would listen to people in meetings or in the city, I would listen to what they were saying and try to decode it into English all at once. Bad idea… While maybe you can get the idea of what they are talking about, you will never be able to completely understand the language.

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I realized that to be fluent in a language, you need to just hear the words, eventually the meaning will come over time and with practice. Now, every day when I’m on the train or at work, I listen to the words, just the words, and hear it as they hear it. Think about it, when Germans speak German, they don’t translate it to English at the same time. And when you speak in your native language, you don’t translate it to another language before responding.

I repeat myself, just listen to the words, the understanding will come.

Last but not least, be easy on yourself. Learning a language is never easy. Especially when you are a native English speaker and (almost) the whole world already speaks your language. If you want to learn a language, you have to put in the effort. It will be one of the most rewarding experiences when you finally see results.

Now, for the tail of the fish… or was it the head 😉 Pun intended..

2 years ago, when I was living in Bavaria doing an internship (story for another time) I was waiting to meet some friends to get off work. I had an hour to kill, so I thought I’d treat myself to a glass of white wine at a local restaurant. (By the way, at this time, I barely knew how to greet someone in German…) When the waiter came, I realized he spoke Italian and German, no English, but I mean how hard is it to order a glass of wine in German when the translation is simply Wein? Well, maybe I didn’t say Wein, I don’t actually remember what I said.. the only thing I know is that he took my order, and I was about to have the most interesting hour of my life.

Another note, I’m not a fan of fish, basically due to taste. So 5 minutes later I get my glass of wine, ‘perfect, I thought now I can enjoy this’. Another 2 minutes go by and a plate of bread slices shows up, ‘ok, maybe this is just a nice complementary item for the foreigner’. Then 10 minutes later, a plate of liver Pâté, ‘ok something is definitely wrong, but I don’t know how or what to say to this guy’. Finally another 10 minutes later, the fish arrives… the whole fish – head, tail, and all…… ‘ok, what the #$&@’. The waiter then proceeded to chop the head and tail off with his gigantic knife, de-bone it, and dress it (with a homemade dressing mixed right in front of me).

I was in shock. I didn’t know whether to cry or laugh. This was the most interesting glass of wine I’d ever ordered. I ate it, I didn’t know what else to do but eat it. I could have just said no, surely he would have understood ‘no’, but at this point I was so embarrassed that the glass of wine turned into dinner and a show, that I just ate it. And actually, it wasn’t bad.

The bill wasn’t so bad either, about 45 euros. Better than I had originally thought for such an experience. And when I told my friends, they couldn’t believe it. I still haven’t lived that one down. I’m now forever know as the person who orders a side of fish with my glass of wine.

So just remember, learning a language isn’t a walk in the park, but oh so rewarding when you do finally see results!

First Cappuccino I successfully ordered in German when I was just beginning to learn

And always remeber ~ Las cosas grandes empiezan siendo pequeñas ~

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