Little tricks for learning a new language that nobody teaches you in school

I married into an Argentine family.  My husband is a first-generation American on his mother’s side and almost everyone on that side of the family is fluent in Spanish. Hearing my grandmother-in-law downright sing her way through the language, the words mixing and trilling together as she speaks, is absolutely beautiful.

The only problem?  I have absolutely no clue what she’s saying.

I’ve been slowly learning Spanish, and I’ve picked up a few tricks to help me get there.  Whether “learn a new language” is on your to-do list this year or you’ve been struggling with learning one for a while now, here are some little, daily activities you to help you absorb another language faster:

1. Listen to the music.
You might not have a clue what they’re saying (yet), but listening to the music gives you a chance to get familiar with the pronunciations, cadences, and overall sound of the language.  When it stops feeling completely foreign, you can start translating small portions of the lyrics.  There are few things as cool as feeling like you can sing along to the music — and it’s even cooler when you feel like you actually understand what you’re singing.

2. Read the news.
Most news is written with a certain level of simplicity.  This means the biggest hurdle won’t be grammar or sentence structure, but basic vocabulary.  Web browsers like Chrome can translate a page into your native language, but show you the original text if you hover over it, making it easier to compare one language with the other.

Start small, preferably with news you might have already heard.  It can feel tedious at first, so don’t dive into any lengthy editorial pieces.  But it’ll give you a chance to put your new language to work.  It will also help you potentially learn culturally relevant vocabulary – something you usually don’t get in a traditional classroom setting.

3. Watch movies with your native language in subtitles.
I love watching movies likeY Tu Mama Tambien or Pan’s Labyrinth, brilliant movies that just happen to be in the language I’m trying to learn.  This means I won’t mind watching them multiple times.  Eventually you start picking up phrases and words.  It’s really cool when you get to a point when you hear someone say something and you don’t immediately have to reference the subtitles.

4. Swear!
There are many reasons to swear in your new language: One, the more ways you can incorporate the language into your day-to-day, the better.  Two, as much as your high school French teacher would like to deny it, the world swears, and it swears in all of its languages.  And three, I’ve learned firsthand that swearing in another language is actually a great way to dissolve the anger that caused you to swear in the first place.

5. Talk to your animals in your new language.
Oh, don’t pretend like you don’t talk to your animals!  Don’t act like you’re above chatting at them like they can actually understand what you’re saying.

But that’s the beauty of talking to animals: while they understand tone and cadence, they don’t usually understand words (outside of “sit” or “out”).  What better way to learn how to communicate than to say what you’d usually say to your pets only in another language?

Only time will tell if I ever get good enough that I could actually follow what my grandmother-in-law is saying.  I figure that’ll be the ultimate test for me: if I can understand rapid-fire Argentinian Spanish, then I’m golden. I’m working on it!

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