‘I’m an Interpreter, and This Is My Secret Trick to Learning Languages Fast’

Photo: Getty Images/Halfpoint Images
Mild Emily in Paris spoiler: Emily's struggle to speak French is maybe one of the only (sort of) relatable things on the show—learning a new language as an adult is difficult! But it can be done. "Everyone’s heard at least once in their life that it’s best to learn a new language when you’re young. To become completely fluent like a native speaker, especially when it comes to mastering grammar and accents, some people even say that you should start learning before the age of 10," says Mike Shangkuan, CEO of Lingoda, Europe's leading online language school. But, he adds, this may not be true. So how can you learn a new language as an adult?

Experts In This Article
  • Artemisa Valle, Artemisa Valle manages the Volunteer Interpreters and Translators (VIT) Program at Casa Cornelia Law Center.
  • Mike Shangkuan, Mike Shangkuan is the CEO of Lingoda.

Esteban Touma, teacher and content producer for the language-learning app Babbel, explains adults’ brains struggle to form new thought patterns. “We’ve spent years developing a mind system that’s great at organizing information,” he says. “This makes us really, really effective at learning new things—except for languages. It’s hard to break with the rules of that system, and that’s exactly what you need to do, because you’re literally learning another system." Shangkuan adds that the best way to learn languages as an adult is to have fun.

Artemisa Valle, who manages the Volunteer Interpreters and Translators (VIT) Program at Casa Cornelia Law Center, says her trick is to watch children's movies and cartoons that you're already familiar with in the language you are trying to learn or brush up on. They offer simple storylines and vocabulary. "Practicing is easier because you can shadow (voice along) the memorized dialogue. Disney cartoon movies are the best—all that singing and dancing allows for plenty of breaks," she says.

Valle also recommends watching telenovelas for Spanish learners who are ready for more advanced practice. "This format offers the clever turn of the phrase, multiple register levels, and the nuance of the word," she says. "No boring study time here!"

Touma is all for this—as long as that's something that's pleasurable for you. "This plan has worked for hundreds of my students, but don't watch kid’s movies unless you actually enjoy kid’s movies. The trick is to watch something that you would enjoy watching in any case," he says. "The added benefit is that foreign language productions can give you cultural and regional insights too, and there’s a lot of great stuff out there. But the main thing is being exposed to the language and having fun. Don’t worry about understanding it all. Just watch, enjoy, and try to absorb what you can."

When using this tip, Shangkuan brings up a good point to keep in mind: “The question is whether you’re learning vocabulary that you can use in your everyday life." That's where also taking a language curriculum can be beneficial. "Remember that learning a language is not really about learning a language," Touma says. "What you’re actually learning is how to communicate in a new way with other human beings, so don’t separate that from your learning process!" He adds that ways to do this include connecting with people you may know who speak the language, listening to podcasts and music in your target language, or reading about the country's history.

One last note: "Remember that you have to be ready to share your own unique human experience with others in that language, so make sure what you’re learning is related to you," Touma says. "If I’m learning, say, Italian, I would never remember how to say “dove è la biblioteca?” or “where is the library?” But I will for sure remember how to say “Dov’è la pizza e il vino? Subito!” Priorities." That’s where is the pizza and wine, now! FWI.

Oh hi! You look like someone who loves free workouts, discounts for cutting-edge wellness brands, and exclusive Well+Good content. Sign up for Well+, our online community of wellness insiders, and unlock your rewards instantly.

Loading More Posts...