Should you learn a new language, and how?

Have you ever found yourself on a trip overseas, taking in the sights and sounds, and wishing desperately that you could communicate with the locals and absorb more of the culture? Do you regret not holding on to the French, Italian or Indonesian that you learnt in high school? Does your resume need something a little more impressive?

You’re probably one of the 76.8 per cent of us that speak exclusively English at home, despite the fact that more than 300 languages are spoken across our diverse population.

And while English is an incredibly useful language to speak given its status in Australia, as well as soaring global speakership, native speakers often rely on everyone else learning our language, rather than us learning another.

Despite all the benefits and joys that come with knowing another language, there’s very little pushing Aussies to upgrade to bilingual status. And that’s a trend across the Anglosphere, with an EU report finding that of all member states, the two English speaking countries (Ireland and the UK) had the lowest number of bilinguals. As New Scientist puts it, “it’s not worth it”.

However, there’s a long list of reasons why you should hit the books and try learning to speak in another language. Having taught languages in Sydney since 2005 and in Mexico before then, the University of Technology Sydney’s Lorely Aponte Ortiz agrees.

Moving or travelling overseas, entering a relationship with a bilingual, advancing your career or gaining cultural awareness “are all valid reasons”, she says. “It changes your mindset, it makes you more sensitive to cultural and linguistic differences, and different cultural practices that come through language.”

Running the Spanish Language and Culture program at UTS, with three languages (Spanish, English and French) under her belt and a Masters in linguistics, Aponte knows firsthand the benefits that come from studying languages.

“It develops your cognitive skills in your first language and increases the plasticity of the brain,” she says, reporting what scientists have known for a while.


So, if you’re convinced that you should try your hand at learning to speak another language, what are some pro tips to succeeding in your quest? Aponte shared her best pointers.

1. Age is no barrier
Aponte agrees that while older students will have a different learning experience to their younger peers, they won’t necessarily take longer and find it more difficult to pick up the language.

“There’s a lot of research now that is challenging that position that if you’re younger you will learn easier,” she says. “We have 45 year olds who have all the motivation … their learning just explodes and they catch up with younger students. But it does depend on flexibility. They will have a different experience, because their reasons for learning might be completely different [to those of younger students].”

Language learning is also promoted as a tool to help fight memory loss onset in older people, so it’s never too late!

2. Accept that it’s not English
One of the difficulties that learners face is the tendency to try and translate everything directly into English when the language being learnt works in a completely different way.

“Languages may have the same purpose, but they work differently, and sometimes what works in one language doesn’t work in the other. It can make you feel quite frustrated, thinking ‘but this isn’t how it works in English’,” says Aponte.

Just accept that it’s different, and sometimes it’s important to not over-think the peculiarities of your target language. “Just embrace the language,” encourages Aponte.

3. Find a speaker
The best way to improve your language skill is to find someone to converse with who is either learning the language with you, or who already speaks it.

It’s what Aponte identifies as the biggest obstacle to Australians learning a new language. With little access or exposure to other languages in day to day exchanges, it can be difficult to find someone for that all-important conversation that will accelerate proficiency.

Apps such as HelloTalk are here to help put you in touch with someone else looking to chat, with over 100 languages and 5 million users, or find yourself a tutor on sites such as Tutor Finder.

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4. Take advantage of technology
In addition to HelloTalk, the Android and Apple app stores are well stocked with language learning apps for your phone.

One of the most popular ones is Duolingo, a free app that teaches you phrases and words with regular testing and a progress meter. Memrise, Babbel and Rosetta Stone also come recommended by users.

Beyond the phone, there’s also video call software that can put you in touch with speakers to aid the issue of not being able to practise the language. “Now that you have all this technology … find someone to talk to. Take advantage of it,” Aponte recommends.

But, there’s a catch: don’t become reliant on technology when learning. Translators such as Google Translate are great for finding single word or common phrase translations, but, as Aponte explains, “it hinders on the understanding of the function of the language, which is to make meaning and to communicate, and a computer can’t do that”.

5. Live and breathe the language
Quite possibly the only way to ever become fluent in another language is just to completely immerse yourself in it. “Be as exposed to the language as you can and embrace it,” says Aponte.

Easy ways to do this include reading in the target language, watching films and TV shows, listening to the radio (SBS broadcasts segments in 74 foreign languages), downloading podcasts and reading newspapers – all great ways to become surrounded by what you’re learning.

It’s something Aponte gets quite excited about for her students. “Just live the language: eat the food, listen to the music, see the culture, watch the artists, read literature in that language, see and feel it. Become obsessed with it. Languages give you this whole other take on how to experience the world.”

How many languages do you speak? Do you have plans to take up language lessons?

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