Adjusting to a new culture

How To Learn the Local Language Quickly In a Foreign Country

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by Cyrus Kioko


Picture this: you’ve landed in a foreign land, ready for adventure. The allure of new tastes, captivating sights, and rich cultural experiences has your senses tingling with excitement, but there’s just one little hiccup — you can’t speak the local language, at least not yet. Whether you’re a traveler seeking smoother journeys or an expat looking to fit right in, fast-tracking your way to fluency is the only ticket to unlocking the full potential of your adventure in such a scenario.

The question is, how do you hop on the fast lane?

Here’s the quickest way to learn the local language in a foreign country:

  1. Set clear, measurable goals to map out and track your learning journey. 
  2. Learn the basics to lay a solid linguistic foundation.
  3. Seek formal tutoring to speed up your progress.
  4. Practice regularly to reinforce and improve your skills.

Let’s zoom in on these steps to help you understand what you must do at each stage to speed up your learning process. 

1. Set Clear, Measurable Goals

I get it: setting goals for any endeavor sounds about as exciting as watching paint dry, and way too many people throw that phrase around without realizing its true power. But bear with me here because when it comes to learning a language in a foreign land, setting clear and measurable goals can make a huge difference in your speed, motivation, and efficiency. 

Measurable goals not only give you a sense of direction but also allow you to track your progress. You’ll know when you’ve reached your milestones, which can be incredibly motivating. Plus, it makes it easier to adjust your approach if you find yourself falling behind or progressing faster than expected.

Don’t know how to set measurable goals?

Start by asking yourself: What do I want to achieve, and when? Your goals could range from mastering basic survival phrases so you don’t accidentally order a plate of snails when you’re actually craving pasta to achieving fluency. Like many things in Western society, it’s a spectrum!

Once you’ve figured out your goals, you’ll want to break them into bite-sized, easy-to-chew milestones. For example, if your goal is to be able to have a basic conversation with locals in three months, your milestones could be learning common greetings, essential vocabulary, and basic sentence structures in the first month, progressing to more complex topics in the following months.

One of the best ways to break down your goals into more manageable milestones is to use language proficiency levels. Think of these as checkpoints on your way to achieving full-blown proficiency. There are different systems out there, but let’s keep things simple and use the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) levels:

  • A1 – Absolute Beginner. You’re starting from scratch, and your goal is to grasp basic stuff like greetings, numbers, and essential survival phrases.
  • A2 – Elementary. You’re moving up the ladder. Your mission is to handle simple conversations, like ordering food or asking for directions.
  • B1 – Intermediate. This is where things get exciting. You aim to have daily chats with locals, understand the gist of news, and express your thoughts on familiar topics.
  • B2 – Upper Intermediate. Now you’re cooking with gas! Your goal is to dive into more complex discussions, read newspapers with ease, and write coherent messages.
  • C1 – Advanced. Fancy yourself a conversational ninja? Your mission is to engage in in-depth conversations, understand complex texts, and write essays that make people nod in admiration.
  • C2 – Proficient. This is the holy grail. You aim to speak like a native, understand intricate nuances, and write like a poet.

Once you’ve set your proficiency level goal, chop it into smaller bits. Let’s say you’re aiming for B1 in six months. That means focusing on A1 in the first month, A2 in the second, and so on. You can even break these months down into weeks or days, depending on your learning schedule and circumstances.

Set goals for everyday application, too. This could be anything from ordering your favorite local dish to chatting up a friendly neighbor. These mini-missions are a nifty way to keep things interesting and help you put your skills to good use.

2. Learn the Basics

With your goals figured out and broken down into manageable milestones, you can start laying the groundwork for the active learning you’ll be doing soon. One way to do this is to learn basic vocabulary and common phrases.

Don’t skip this step because you’re planning to take language classes and think you’ll end up having to repeat what you’ve already learned on your own. On the contrary, building a strong foundation by learning the basics allows you to hit the ground running when you start formal instruction. 

There’s a long list of ways to learn any language’s basics, but my go-to would be a language app. I’ve actually used Duolingo, and it’s a pretty solid choice. Here’s what I liked most about it:

  • It has a user-friendly interface. I’m a big fan of clean, no-fuss designs that allow me to weave my way through an app without clutter and distractions. That’s exactly how I’d describe Duolingo’s interface. The layout is intuitive, with easily accessible menus and buttons. Every important feature is just a tap away, which is great for not-so-tech-savvy learners. 
  • It “gamifies” the learning experience. You don’t have to be a gamer to appreciate how much difference this makes to a learning experience. Integrating elements typically found in games into an educational or training context undoubtedly makes learning more engaging, interactive, and enjoyable. Duolingo does plenty of that, with points, levels, and rewards to keep users engaged and motivated.
  • The lessons are well structured. There are tons of studies indicating that structured tutoring can improve how effectively one learns a new language. One such study found that structured instruction makes it easier to learn a language by helping form and reinforce the neural connections (in the brain, of course) that facilitate reading and the comprehension of written language. Duolingo developers must have caught wind of these studies because the app neatly organizes lessons into units covering various topics and skills, allowing learners to progress systematically.
  • It was designed with interactive learning in mind. Duolingo offers a variety of interactive exercises, including vocabulary matching, listening comprehension, speaking practice, and writing exercises. It also provides immediate feedback on your answers, helping you understand and correct mistakes.

Obviously, there’s a bit of personal bias to my recommendation, but a quick Google search is all it takes to see that pretty much everyone who’s used it agrees on one thing: While it might not get your language skills to C2 on the CEFR levels, it’s an excellent way to learn the basics.

3. Seek Formal Tutoring

Learning apps like Duolingo are fantastic for getting started and understanding the fundamentals, but they can only take you so far. That’s where formal tutoring swoops in to save the day.

One of the absolute best things about formal instruction is that it allows you to enjoy the benefits of structured learning fully (I mentioned those earlier, remember?). Don’t get me wrong; language apps offer structured lessons. They just can’t quite replicate the personalized guidance and real-time interaction you’d get in a classroom setting. 

In a classroom, you’ve got a real-life language guru by your side, ready to answer your burning questions and provide instant feedback. That’s the kind of support that can propel your language skills forward at warp speed.

There’s also the fact that there’s more than words and phrases on the menu when you’re learning a language in a classroom setting. Course instructors know that understanding local customs and social etiquette is just as important as learning things like grammar, vocabulary, comprehension, and pronunciation, so they throw in cultural nuggets to give students a taste of how people live, interact, and express themselves in that particular culture.

So, while apps are a great way to lay the foundation, they’re merely the appetizer in a multi-course meal. The main course is the structured and comprehensive learning experience you get with formal tutoring.

You don’t want to spend too much time “laying the groundwork” on your favorite language-learning app. A month or so should be enough to learn the basics, especially since your goal is to learn the local language as quickly as possible.

Once you’ve got those essentials down, it’s time to level up with formal tutoring. The easiest way to do that would be to hire a tutor or enroll in a local language school or institute that offers intensive language courses. 

If you don’t have the money for either, you can always try these quirky ways of learning a new language for next to nothing:

Take Advantage of Your School’s Language Courses

If you’re traveling for studies, check if your new school offers free or subsidized language courses. Many schools offer these to help international students improve their language proficiency as part of concerted efforts to make navigating coursework and daily life easier. 

For instance, the University of Tokyo in Japan provides “Japanese Language Courses for International Students” to help non-native speakers improve their Japanese proficiency, adapt quickly to life in their new country, and excel in their studies. 

Similarly, the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands offers “Dutch Language Courses for International Students” for the same reasons. Elsewhere, the University of Sydney in Australia has the “English Language Centre,” which offers a range of English language programs to support international students.

These are just a few examples of the many international schools worldwide that offer language courses to foreign students, but I believe this short list does enough to convince you that inquiring about a language course at your new school is worth a shot. 

Look Up Government-Sponsored Language Proficiency Programs in Your Host Country

In most developed countries, the government offers language courses to immigrants and refugees for free or on the cheap to help them integrate into society. Here are a few examples of countries with such programs:

  • United States. The U.S. offers English as a Second Language (ESL) classes through various government agencies and nonprofit organizations. Programs like the U.S. Department of Education’s Adult Education and Family Literacy Act (AEFLA) fund adult education programs, including ESL courses, in many states. There are also local community colleges and adult education centers that provide free or low-cost ESL classes.
  • Canada. Canada offers language programs for newcomers through Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada (IRCC). The Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada (LINC) program provides free basic language training to eligible immigrants and refugees. Similar programs exist at the provincial and territorial levels as well.
  • United Kingdom. The UK government supports programs such as English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL). These courses are available through further education colleges and community centers and are often free or subsidized for refugees and immigrants.
  • Germany. Germany offers integration courses (locally known as “Integrationskurse”) for immigrants and refugees. These courses include language instruction as well as orientation classes on German culture, history, and legal systems. The costs are subsidized for those who meet eligibility criteria.
  • Sweden. The Swedish government provides Swedish for Immigrants (SFI) courses for newcomers. These courses are often free of charge and are designed to help immigrants learn Swedish and integrate into Swedish society.
  • France. The French government offers language courses to refugees, asylum seekers, and other eligible newcomers. These courses, known as “Cours de Français Langue Étrangère (FLE),” are provided via various institutions and are often low-cost or free.

Ask Your Employer to Sponsor Your Course

Multinational corporations, international organizations, and companies with a global presence often sponsor language learning for employees they send for international assignments. This is particularly common in cases where the assignment requires the employee to work closely with colleagues, clients, or partners in a foreign country. 

If this sounds all too familiar, you might want to check with your employer to see if they can fund your training. Even if they don’t typically fund training for similar assignments, you can always make a case for yourself by explaining how the training will make you more efficient at your job. They’ll likely sponsor your language course if your work requires effective communication and cultural competence.

4. Practice Your Newfound Language Skills

You should be fluent enough in the local language to hold a conversation at this stage if you took your classes seriously. You’ve nailed the grammar, perfected your accent, and your vocabulary is on point.

But you’re not done just yet; you still need to put your newfound language skills into practice. 

Why, you ask?

For starters, practicing what you’ve learned in class is a great way to give your skills a whirl to see how they hold up in the real world. Classroom settings often provide controlled environments for language learning, but the real is a wild jumble of various accents, dialects, and slang words. Putting your newfound language skills to use in everyday situations allows you to see how they hold up when things get unpredictable.

Regular practice also helps with vocabulary expansion, an area formal tutoring often leaves a lot to be desired. Language is always evolving, with new expressions and words getting coined regularly to keep up with cultural changes, technological advancements, generational shifts, and social influences. This constant evolution is what keeps every language vibrant and adaptable to the changing needs and circumstances of its speakers.

While you might have laid a solid vocabulary foundation in class, chances are you didn’t tackle linguistic innovations that may have cropped up recently or may be coming up in the near future. Regular practice is a great way to seal both vocabulary loopholes. It exposes you to words or phrases you might not have covered in class and sets you up nicely to keep up with your new language’s natural evolution.

Now that we’ve discussed how regular practice can help keep your language skills in tip-top shape, let’s take a look at the most effective ways to hone those newly acquired skills.

Join a Local Language Exchange Group

Language exchange groups pair you up with a resident who wants to learn your language in exchange for teaching you their language. They’re the perfect environment for not just improving your language skills, but also getting to grips with your new cultural landscape and possibly making friends and building a support network abroad.

Watch Local Movies and TV Shows

Local movies and TV shows can be a great way to peek into the heart and soul of your new society’s cultural and social setup. They’re a window into how people talk, express themselves, and, well, just be themselves in everyday life. And that’s pure gold for language learners!

First off, you get to hear authentic accents and colloquial expressions in action. You know, the stuff that doesn’t always make it into formal language classes 一 like the way people chat with their pals, argue with their neighbors, and sweet-talk their love interests. Building familiarity with these small, everyday details can level up your language skills, give you a deeper cultural insight, and help you navigate those real-life convos where folks don’t always follow the textbook rules.

Watching TV shows can also help you communicate more effectively in the local language. Effective communication isn’t all about what you hear; it’s what you see too. Body language, gestures, and facial expressions play a massive part in how we communicate. Watching local actors in action gives you a front-row seat to this non-verbal language, making your conversations more natural and authentic.

And let’s not forget the pure joy of getting wrapped up in a gripping storyline or laughing out loud at local humor. It’s not just language practice; it’s a cultural adventure. You’ll start to understand the local sense of humor, the things that tickle their funny bone, and maybe even the locals’ inside jokes.

So next time you’ve got a few hours to kill, grab some popcorn and watch a local movie or a few episodes of your favorite local TV show. It’s a super fun and effective way to go on a mini cultural adventure without ever having to leave your living room.

Read Books and Magazines Written in the Local Language

Reading local books and magazines is a great way to add to the skills you pick up from learning with a language exchange buddy and binge-watching local flicks and TV. It’ll give you a boost to two crucial areas that often get glossed over in spoken practice: your vocab and grammar.

Books, especially novels and literature, often contain a broader and more diverse vocabulary than you’d encounter in day-to-day conversations. This exposure to a wide range of words and expressions can expand your language repertoire significantly. Written materials also tend to adhere to language structures more strictly than spoken language, making them a great tool for polishing your grammar. 

Another perk of this way of refining your language skills is that it doesn’t come with the pressure of real-time conversation. If you’ve ever felt like your brain is a pop-up dictionary in those face-to-face chats, frantically flipping through mental pages trying to translate words and phrases before you speak, you know what I’m talking about. Anyone who’s had to hold a conversation in a language they’ve just learned has been there, stumbling through sentences like they’re auditioning for a role in a comedy show.

Practicing by reading takes away all that stress. There’s no audience waiting for your one-liners, and you don’t have to worry about the awkward silence that follows when you can’t remember that one word you need. You can savor each page at your own pace, underline unknown words, and even whip out a dictionary without feeling like you’re stalling a live conversation.

Now, the way you approach practicing your language skills through reading can impact how quickly you learn. There’s no one “right” or “best” way to do it, but there are a couple of things you can do to pick up the pace:

Start with Materials that Match Your Language Proficiency Level

Children’s books are a great starting point. They’re often written in simple language, with repetitive sentence patterns and engaging illustrations that provide context. 

If you’d rather not read kids’ books, look for reading materials labeled “easy readers” or “graded readers” at your local magazine shop or bookstore. These reads come tailor-made for language learners, featuring simplified language that gradually becomes more challenging. They also come in various proficiency levels, allowing everyone to progress at their own pace. 

Use Context Clues to Understand Unfamiliar Terms

Context clues are pieces of information that surround an unfamiliar word or phrase within a sentence or passage, helping readers understand its meaning. These clues can be found in the words, phrases, or sentences before or after the unfamiliar term.

Using context clues to understand unfamiliar words and phrases you encounter when reading can improve your ability to infer meaning, an invaluable skill in real-life interactions. You won’t always have a dictionary at hand. If you don’t know how to infer meaning, you’ll be at a loss when faced with unfamiliar terms, which can hinder effective communication and understanding in everyday interactions.

Even in our digital age, where dictionaries are just a few taps away on our phones, mastering the art of inferring meaning from context remains valuable because words and phrases can mean something entirely different from their dictionary definition depending on how they’re used. 

For instance, in the novel “1984”, George Orwell wrote, “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” In this dystopian novel, the words “war,” “freedom,” and “ignorance” are used ironically to convey the oppressive and manipulative nature of the society depicted in the book. Without the use of contextual clues, their meanings can be easily misunderstood, even with the help of a dictionary. 

So next time you come across unfamiliar words or phrases while reading, make a genuine effort to deduce their meanings from the surrounding context before reaching for a dictionary. It’s one of the best things you can do to expedite your journey towards achieving full fluency. 

Read Regularly

You probably know that consistency is key to perfecting any skill, so I won’t dwell on its importance to your language learning journey too much. What I’d like to clarify is what amounts to “regular-enough” reading because this is where people often get things wrong. 

About half an hour or so should be enough when you’re getting started with things like kids’ books and “easy readers.” But as you work your way up the proficiency ladder, you’ll want to gradually increase your reading time to the point where you’re reading an hour or two per day.

Don’t go overboard with longer reading sessions, though. Overcommitting to language learning activities, including extended reading sessions, can be counterproductive. You’ll either not retain as much information as you’ve wanted or lose the motivation to keep going. Know your limits and maintain a healthy balance.

Jot Down New Words and Phrases You Come Across When Reading

This is a great move for vocabulary building. You can use flashcards or a vocab notebook for this purpose. Either option will do just fine, but I’d be leaning more toward flashcards if I had to choose for one key reason: Many flashcard apps and systems incorporate spaced repetition, which optimizes the timing of reviewing words for better retention.

Spaced repetition is a popular learning technique that involves reviewing and revisiting information at increasing intervals over time to enhance long-term retention. It’s one of the most widely studied learning methods, with plenty of science-backed evidence showing that it promotes learning efficiency and effectiveness.  

Using flashcards is pretty simple, but there are a couple of things you can do to boost your learning speed and information retention: 

  • Create flashcards with the local language’s word on one side and its translation or a relevant image on the other side.
  • Include pronunciation if applicable, especially for languages with different writing systems.
  • Group flashcards by themes or topics. For example, you can have flashcards for food, clothing, transportation, and more.
  • Color-code or label your flashcards to make it easy to identify different categories.
  • Review your flashcards daily. Consistency is key to retaining vocabulary.
  • Engage actively with your flashcards. Don’t just memorize; try to use the words or phrases in sentences or conversations.
  • Quiz yourself or have someone else quiz you to reinforce your memory.

Read Different Genres

It’s okay to start simple when you’re fresh out of school or any other form of formal tutoring. But as you work your way up the proficiency ladder, you’ll want to mix things up with different types of texts, including fiction, non-fiction, magazines, and newspapers. Doing this exposes you to different writing styles and vocabulary, reinforcing your language skills.

Adapting to different genres also challenges you to think and communicate in various ways. This flexibility comes in handy in real-life situations where you might need to switch between formal and informal language or adapt to specific communication styles.

Last but not least, exploring different genres allows you to align your language learning with your interests and hobbies. This makes the whole learning process more fun, which is great for motivation. 

Read Out Loud

This can help you practice the correct pronunciation of words and phrases. It allows you to hear how the local language sounds and refines your ability to mimic native speakers’ intonation and rhythm, which can help you tone down that persistent accent.

Reading out loud is also great for fluency and learning speed. Fluency in a language involves both understanding and speaking quickly. Reading aloud encourages you to process language and talk at a fast enough pace, an essential skill for natural, flowing conversations.

Interact With Native Speakers Regularly

Rounding up our list of ways to practice your newfound language skills is one of the oldest tricks in the book: using the local language as much as possible in your daily life. It sounds simple, but it works a treat. 

There are a couple of ways to go about this, from hosting or visiting your native friends regularly to living with a native speaker under the same roof. If you choose the latter, be sure to do some form of background check on your roommate.

Whichever way you do it, go out of your way to make sure that the native speakers you surround yourself with don’t speak English or any other language you may be fluent in. This is a nifty way to force yourself to practice the local language consistently, even on days when you don’t feel like working on your linguistic skills. 

Cyrus Kioko
Cyrus is a seasoned blog post writer with over five years of experience in crafting and editing articles spanning technology, lifestyle, and finance niches. Fueled by an authentic passion to contribute valuable insights, he has invested thousands of Netflix-less hours in research for this site. Each piece he writes is aimed at empowering readers to make well-informed, real-life decisions. Holding a degree in commerce and armed with ample copywriting courses, he brings both expertise and a touch of nerdy flair to the table.
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