Learning a language is by far one of the best things a parent can encourage their teen to do during summer break. It keeps their minds active, but it doesn’t have to feel like hard work. To be honest with you, I am a language-learning addict. Even though I’m not in school anymore, I’m teaching myself Japanese and improving my Spanish. Despite its challenges, learning these new languages has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. And really… it’s not as hard as it sounds. I want to share the tips and tricks I use to make language learning outside of school a fun and rewarding experience that actually works to improve fluency in the long-term—with potentially better results than classroom learning. Along the way, I’ll show you how learning these languages has changed my life and shaped how I view the world.
Quite frankly, there are lots of reasons people tell you to learn a new language. It helps you keep an active mind during your down time, it can help you maintain your mind as you age, it can improve your scores on standardized tests*, and it can even improve your ability to use and understand your native language. But these aren’t the reasons I work on learning other languages; I do it because it opens the world to me and helps me understand others better. Yeah, I know how cheesy that sounds, but it’s true, and I think you’ll see what I mean once you read my story.
(*Side note, learning a language is certainly not the only thing you should do to prepare for standardized tests! If you’re looking to improve SAT scores or prepare with purpose, you should look into SAT Bootcamp Colorado. I know the coaches and they are absolutely wonderful at what they do, not to mention fun.)
I started learning Spanish during my sophomore year of high school. There was a graduation requirement for foreign language classes, and I thought I would be able to use it more often than French. I ended up loving the classes, and took more than I needed for graduation. When I began studying biology at Colorado State University, I added a Spanish minor because I didn’t want to lose the skills I’d gained. I also felt that scientists needed to be able to communicate effectively in more than one language, especially if they wanted to collaborate internationally.
The summer after my freshman year of college, I studied abroad in Ecuador for a month through a CSU class. We traveled all around the country, staying in field stations, learning about ecosystems and conservation while partnering with Ecuadorian university students and professors.
At this point, I hadn’t had much practice actually speaking Spanish conversationally. Thankfully, my course was in English. Despite my struggles speaking, I understood a lot— which this resulted in some funny moments. I remember laughing hysterically every time one of the Ecuadorians made a joke, but being totally unable to respond. The Ecuadorian students got a kick out of that, though. We ended up forming some nice friendships, and I got a more inside perspective into their culture because I could understand their native language.
After this trip, my thirst for learning Spanish intensified. I became more passionate about communicating science in Spanish, because I had a better idea of how many important biological research projects happen in Latin and South America. I took more culture and communication classes and studied science vocabulary with the guidance of one of my professors. After graduating, I continued learning by using language exchange apps (like HelloTalk) and by attending the Fort Collins Spanish conversation group.
And then… I did something a little crazy: I went to Peru for a month. I designed and organized my own research project at El Centro ReVerde, a farm in the southern Peruvian Amazon that seeks to find ways to help livestock ranchers coexist with a healthy forest while improving reforestation efforts.
During my time at the farm, I spoke a lot of Spanish. There were only a few people who could speak English, and I wanted to be self-sufficient, so I learned as much as I could. I kept a notebook for writing down new vocabulary and journaled everyday about my experiences with the culture.
Because I could speak Spanish well, I could live in Peru rather that being a tourist. I learned how to train dogs in Spanish, navigate the city and markets, and cook traditional foods while forming warm friendships with the Peruvians I met. I even learned how plantain and banana trees are maintained because I could speak with the man who worked on them.
By the time I left, I had come to understand Peruvian culture in a way I couldn’t have from reading books or visiting tourist spots. Although I no longer feel the heat of the rainforest, I can still feel the warmth of the people I met and worked with. I had so many authentic, thoughtful conversations with everyday people, and I’ve come home with a more nuanced perspective about conservation, coexistence, and what true happiness looks like.
Following graduation from CSU, I was looking to learn another language because I (finally) had more free time. Japanese was my first choice for a lot of reasons. Not only could I pronounce it well because the vowel sounds were the same as in Spanish, but I had plenty of time to invest in learning a new writing system. After all, nothing I did would be graded or needed to be finished by the end of a semester. Most importantly though, I had a strong personal connection to Japan that formed in my childhood.
When I was still a toddler, my mom was working as the Vice President of Universal Cartoon Studio. She regularly traveled to Asia to check in with animation studios and note their progress. Out of all the countries she visited, Japan was her favorite. She worked closely with Tokunaga-san, the head of Disney TV Animation Japan. He sent me envelopes full of postcards depicting the compelling landscape and architecture of the country. He also had my mom try every type of sushi he could find, and back home she passed on that culinary experience to me. She also taught me basic words and phrases, like ohayōgozaimasu (good morning) and moshimoshi (“hello” over the phone).
There was just one obstacle standing in the way of me learning Japanese: I needed to learn by myself. Because I was no longer in school, I couldn’t afford to take classes. Additionally, because I already knew Spanish, it would be best for me to learn my third language using my second language. That meant finding a way to teach myself Japanese using only Spanish-language resources. Yikes, right?
Well, one thing that made it easier was learning how to read and write before learning words. You don’t need to know a language to read stroke diagrams and practice writing! I would practice writing the symbols by quizzing myself to see how many I could do without looking at the key. Taking time to slow down and work on handwriting was really relaxing, too!
It turned out that learning a new writing system was really fun; it was almost like learning a secret code! As I continued to work on the characters, I practiced speaking the syllables that matched them. This helped me associate the two quickly, so within a couple months, I could read without needing Roman letters. Once I knew enough of the basic symbols, I started checking out Japanese children’s books from the local library and using them to continue practicing symbol recognition and reading aloud. Any time I saw a familiar symbol, I said the corresponding syllable.
Some other tools came in handy, too. I found some amazing YouTube channels for Spanish speakers wanting to learn Japanese at home and took notes on their lectures just like I would have in one of my Spanish classes. This actually helped improve my Spanish skills,too. Because I wanted something similar to the structured, progressive homeworks I had in Spanish classes, I bought a Spanish at-home workbook for learning Japanese called ¡Japonés desde cero! (Japanese from Zero!). I also tried a different approach to learning vocabulary, which involved labeling parts of my house with little pieces of tape. This way, I didn’t do any translating; rather, I learned the same way a child would, by associating words with objects. For things I couldn’t label easily, I used flashcards with photos.
While I am by no means conversational in Japanese after 9 months of self-teaching, I know a lot more than I used to. I’ve continued to make progress, too. Whenever I hear Japanese now, I can pick out key words and verb tenses, which feels like huge progress. The challenge has been totally worth it!
My Tips for You (So You Can Actually Learn on Your Own!)
I hope my experiences have shown you that you really CAN learn any language on your own. You’ve probably already noticed some of the cool tools that I’ve used to learn languages, but here’s a summary of the 9 big ones that you should consider using in your own strategy:
1. Keep a notebook for each language.
This was super helpful for both Spanish and Japanese. Just like the notebooks I had for language classes in school, I could use each notebook to keep track of vocabulary and write down notes about lectures and videos that I watched.
2. Learn like a child.
This means learning without translation. Label all the things you can with their name in the language you’re learning. Once you learn a basic sentence structure, try to use it to talk about the objects you’ve labeled. For example, when you enter the room and see your clock, and it’s label, practice saying “that is a clock,” in the language you’re learning.
3. Quiz yourself often.
Just like you’d have tests in school, it’s important to test your knowledge without looking at notes. Practice writing about or talking about life experiences without using any dictionaries or online translators. If you’re learning a new writing system, challenge yourself to see how many characters you can remember without looking at the key.
4. Utilize free literature and media.
We are fortunate to live in a country that has over 9,000 public libraries. That’s wild, right?! What’s even cooler is that these libraries usually have a section of foreign language books that can range in difficulty from picture books to adult literature. There’s a good chance that the language you’re learning is represented in that section in your local library! Libraries also give you free access to the internet, which is full of tons of resources for language learners.
5. Find instruction online.
Going along with my last tip, use the internet. I recommend finding some entertaining YouTubers or websites with practice activities to help teach you your language of choice. There are tons of channels and sites out there, including ones where you can have native speakers correct your writing in exchange for you correcting theirs. What a world we live in!
6. If you can, invest in a workbook.
Workbooks shouldn’t be your only way of learning a language, but they can create structure for your learning process. They can also teach you basic things in a way that will prepare you to understand advanced material more quickly.
7. Find ways to practice with others.
If you live in a big city, you can probably find groups who meet regularly to practice a language. If you don’t have access to any of these groups, the internet can help (again)! There are a lot of language exchange apps and websites that connect you with native speakers who are trying to learn your native language(s). You can take turns helping each other write and speak better. If you are still a young learner, be aware that many sites only let you participate if you are over 18. Even if you can’t use the apps, there are still other ways to practice, so don’t worry!
8. Get excited about the cultures associated with the languages you learn.
Language and culture are closely connected. They influence each other so much, it’s impossible to learn a language without learning about the cultures surrounding it. Learn which countries speak the language you’re learning, and have fun watching vlogs, listening to music, and browsing Wikipedia pages or blogs about those parts of the world. The world is a big place, but the more you understand other cultures and languages, the smaller it feels. Soon, you’ll be able to understand and relate to people who live differently, which is an amazing asset to have.
9. Don’t be afraid of failure!
It’s really hard to go easy on yourself when you’re learning a language and making mistakes. Sometimes you’ll say something embarrassing or someone will get confused by what you’re saying. It’s important to remember that the more mistakes you make, the faster you can learn. It’s good if someone corrects you or if you notice you did something wrong. Kids don’t speak perfectly when they’re learning their native language, right? Same goes for you. Throw your fears out the window and dive in to a world of making mistakes. Take the risk of saying something more complicated or using a new word. Even if you mess up, it pays off.
Good luck, and do your best! I’d love to hear from you about which of these tips work for you. Tell me how your language-learning adventure goes in the comments!
Edit: The was a previous version of this blog where I said my mom was an Executive Producer at Universal Studios, and Tokunaga-san was her translator. I have since edited that statement to be factually accurate.