10 Tips for Becoming Fluent in a Second (or Third!) Language

So you want to learn a second language? Good. In my humble opinion, everyone should learn another language. But let me first say- it’s not easy. In fact, it’s really hard. But, it’s also incredibly satisfying, fun and rewarding. And not to mention useful.

What is fluency?

Fluency- spoken or written with ease.

Able to speak or write smoothly, easily, or readily.

Flowing, as a stream.

Fluent is one big step above conversational; not only can you get by, but you can also communicate easily in all verb tenses and understand others 99% of the time.

I think many people throw around “fluent” and “I speak…” too loosely. Being able to order a cappuccino in Italy doesn’t make you fluent in Italian. If you are fluent in a language you can express almost any feeling or thought without difficulty.

1. Learn as much as possible before you go abroad.

While this is contrary to most language-learning advice, I strongly think you should know as much of a language as possible before going abroad- that way you can best maximize your time spent in the foreign country actually becoming fluent and not just learning the basics. Learn boring things like verb conjugations before you leave so you can best use your time abroad conversing with native speakers and fine-tuning your grammar and vocabulary.

And once you’re abroad, take language classes if you can afford them– I really enjoy mine and it keeps me focused on French on a near-daily basis.

2. Immerse yourself.

Immersion is key- the more immersed you are in a foreign language, the faster you learn. This is why living abroad is crucial to fluency.

But this doesn’t mean you can’t have other English-speaking friends when living abroad; just make sure to have several friends with whom you do language exchanges, or even better, with whom you solely speak your target language. (Or even practice your target language with your English-speaking friends! I do that all the time.)

I would advise learning your target language outside of a metropolis– i.e. choosing a small town in France rather than Paris. This is simply because in smaller towns you will have an easier time finding native speakers who either don’t speak English or who won’t pressure you to speak English.

This is obviously dependent on the language you’re trying to learn- I had no trouble whatsoever practicing Spanish in Buenos Aires or Santiago but practicing French in Paris has been much more of a challenge.

3. Live with a host family.

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Poker night in Granada, Spain, with my host siblings and their friends.

I have done home-stays in Ecuador, Argentina, Chile, Spain and France, and they have all been incredibly rewarding, fun and helpful. Also, you learn the language in a completely different way than you would in a classroom. When was the last time your language teacher taught you to say, “I’m going all in,” or “Dude, is that the girl you made out with on Friday?”

Living with a host family reminds you that the language you want to learn is so much more than a class- it’s simply a way other people communicate.

4. Carry around a notebook and pocket dictionary.

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When I first moved to France in October, I sort of assumed that because I was living with a host family I would start to “pick up the language.” Unfortunately, past the age of seven, that’s not really how it works.

You will learn much faster by carrying around a notebook, writing words down, repeating them to yourself and then reviewing them later to further cement your vocabulary. Having a dictionary on hand at all times is great for learning new words on the fly.

And eavesdrop! Even though I’m not allowed to speak French with the girls I take care of, when they talk amongst each other I write down the words they say that I don’t know and look them up later.

5. Absorb media in your target language.

Watching TV shows and movies and in your target language can be so beneficial- plus, you also learn lots about the country’s culture.

I often watch French films in the original version, but with French subtitles on- that way, I will pick up more words as well as be able to write them down more easily.

Also, check out Spotify’s Top 50 playlists for different countries. I listen to the Colombia Top 50 to find new reggaeton songs, and the France Top 50 to find French pop and rap songs. This is one fun and easy way to become or stay fluent in another language.

Tip – read Harry Potter! I strongly recommend reading foreign language books in paperback so you can write in the margins and underline easily. I would also suggest reading Harry Potter in your target language, or another children’s book you’ve basically memorized- that way the reading level is easy and enjoyable, and you already know what’s going on.

Buy here: Harry Potter in French | Harry Potter in Spanish | Harry Potter in German

6. Try a language exchange.

Language exchanges like Franglish are so helpful for getting in-depth conversation time with native speakers. Franglish is like linguistic speed-dating– you are paired with a French-speaking partner, and together you speak English for 7 minutes and then you speak French for 7 minutes. After your session, you move to another table to chat with a new French-speaking partner.

It can be hard to meet native speakers when you’re abroad, but websites like Couchsurfing, Totalingua and Conversation Exchange can help you connect. But don’t forget to exercise caution- meet up in well-lit, public places, preferably during the day.

7. Make a serious effort to remember every word.

If you are lucky enough to have native speakers you want to help you learn, make an effort to remember everything they teach you (here’s where that little notebook will help you!). If you forget what they say, their enthusiasm for your learning will quickly wane- no one wants to instruct a slow or lazy pupil.

And push yourself to speak- even if you’re tired, even if it’s 8 a.m., even if you literally have been speaking all day, even if you know you’re messing up and it embarrasses you. Just keep trying.

8. Get a boyfriend or girlfriend who speaks your target language.

Haha. No, but really. Having a native speaker who loves you enough to serve as your pocket dictionary, will talk to you for four hours upon hours every day and feels comfortable enough with you to correct your mistakes? Super helpful. The best way to learn a foreign language ever.

Related: How to Meet the Parents in a Second Language (Without Crying)

9.  Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.

Tips for learning a second language

This isn’t your first language, remember? You’re going to make mistakes- and that’s fine. The only way to learn is to speak and have people correct you- and when they correct you, be grateful, not offended! In fact, whenever I start a conversation with a native speaker I politely ask him or her to feel free to correct me– it’s the only way to improve.

10. Don’t be afraid to be pushy when necessary.

This is a global world, meaning that everyone and their mother wants to practice their English even they don’t speak it very well.

If someone vehemently insists on speaking to you in English, gently continue responding in their language. You’re the one who made the effort to come to their country to learn their language, remember?

And this is a ruthless but effective trick I’ve learned in France- if someone refuses to stop barraging on in terrible English, I simply exaggerate my level of not understanding, complete with extraordinarily confused facial expressions.

“What did you say?” “Sorry?” “I really don’t understand you at all.”

Then they will feel so awkward and uncomfortable that they revert back to their native language. I know that’s a bitchy trick, but it really works. Don’t let politeness prevent you from reaching your goal.

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My best, Excuse me, quoi? faces. Also taking selfies is way harder than I remember from high school, sheesh.

And most importantly, don’t give up. You can do this.

Maybe the cashier at McDonald’s makes fun of your accent, or your boyfriend’s stepmother says, “Your parents are really wasting their money on having you study here because you’ve learned almost nothing.”

You know what? Haters gon’ hate. Keep working. And for the record, everyone can learn a foreign language- I promise.

What didn’t work for me:

Rosetta Stone – I really don’t like computer programs such as Rosetta Stone- it’s just too far removed from the actual language.

Duolingo – I’ve downloaded Duolingo so many times, only to abandon it and later delete it. I know it works for some people, but it just doesn’t work for me.

Apps that can help you learn:

Google Translate– I obviously use this for translations (warning- it’s not always reliable so beware!)

TuneIn radio– I use this to listen to the radio in French while in France.

 Spanish Dict – Spanishdict.com is an amazing Spanish-English dictionary website that also has a really helpful app. There should be Spanish Dict in every language!

Books that can help:

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501 Spanish Verbs This book is AMAZING. All of the words are conjugated for you, so you can reference any verb and learn exactly how to use it. This series is also available in Latin, Hebrew, Italian, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, English, and Japanese.

Larousse Pocket Dictionary I always carry French-English English-French pocket dictionary around with me. I even have a French-Spanish one!

The Essential Neruda: Selected Poems (Bilingual Edition) Along with Harry Potter, I love reading bilingual editions of poetry books- it’s wonderful to have the translation right there on the other page.

So what makes me an expert anyway?

I’m not an expert at all actually. I’m just a normal girl from Michigan who was extremely determined to become fluent in French and Spanish.

At present I would say I am fluent in Spanish and conversational in French– in Spanish I can express myself almost to the full ability I can in English, I am familiar and comfortable with all 15 verb tenses and while I lack super-specific knowledge (I don’t know for example, how to say gardening shears or windshield wipers) I can usually work around any missing vocabulary by phrasing my sentence in another way.

I am conversational in French because while I know about 7 tenses, I sometimes use them incorrectly. I make very basic mistakes and don’t always understand other people, and there are certain sounds in French that I have so much trouble pronouncing that sometimes other people misunderstand me. (The difference between tous and partout is the bane of my existence.) Nonetheless, I have no problem getting around and speak well enough to argue with the concierge at a hotel or make small-talk at a house party.

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Hanging out with my host sister in Spain back in 2007.

Have you ever learned a foreign language fluently? What are some of your tricks and tips?

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About Ashley Fleckenstein

Ashley is a travel and lifestyle blogger who lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Since college she has au paired in Paris, backpacked the world solo, and lived in Uganda. Her work has been featured by Buzzfeed, Forbes, TripAdvisor, and Glamour Magazine.

57 thoughts on “10 Tips for Becoming Fluent in a Second (or Third!) Language”

  1. I love this! I am terrible at languages while my boyfriend is obsessed with them. Hes fluent in 3 and is constantly studying different ones so I really want to try and master atleast one more. But I thought your tips were wonderful and I’m going to download that Spanish app!

  2. I agree with all these points Ashley! Harry Potter is definitely one of my language-learning-secrets too! Basically everything you enjoy in your native language can also be enjoyed in your second (or third, or seventh) one: Reading, watching TV shows, understanding song lyrics. But in the end it all comes down to hard work and daring to speak even though you’ll make a lot of mistakes…

  3. I can’t even say tricks because I suck so bad. But my offline dictionary on my phone is my best friend and I highly recommend NOT speaking English with your boyfriend. And #7 is great advice and I suck at it.

    Also, love the selfies.

  4. F thinks my butchering of French language is cute, and therefore doesn’t often correct me when I get them wrong – not. helpful. at. all. I do count on my colleagues and friends to help get things right though ;)

  5. I always feel really hesitant to label myself “fluent” in French because it seems like such a serious label (to me, at least), but if I’m being completely honest with myself I probably am pretty much fluent by this point. I mean, I’ve been studying French for, like, 10 years now. I can communicate without a problem (unless I don’t know/can’t think of the word I want, and then it’s a lot of verbal gymnastics!), I can understand spoken and written French easily, and I often find my brain getting stuck in “French mode” after being in class or doing homework or something. and all of that makes me feel pretty proud of myself.

  6. I will have to print your instructions, and hope I
    can learn something form them. They seem very helpful if you’re serious.
    I do think that you don’t really know the country unless you learn their language.
    Love, Gamma

  7. In my opinion, as long as you spend most of your time surrounded by native speakers of the language you’re trying to comprehend, you can learn it so quickly. Not easy, but definitely rewarding!

  8. wonderful tips! i completely agree that the best way to learn is to immerse yourself in the culture!

    the only one i kind of disagree on is #1. i studied norwegian and was fluent in reading and writing prior to moving to norway (i learned on my own within like two months). this was the absolute demise of me learning the language. because norway has dialects…learning to read and write (even by listening to a language CD) set me so far behind in learning the language once i arrived in the country (i had preconceived ideas of how things were actually said in my head…but they sounded much different coming out of a person’s mouth). it set me back nearly a year on learning to speak and understand. blah. my language teacher here in norway said he suggests to everyone to learn to speak and understand before read and write. obviously every language is different. but i definitely suggest people that move to countries with varying dialects to go by that advice! i still have a huge gap even today with my reading/writing vs. speaking/understanding. i guess what the teacher meant is that you should learn the language like a child does…and they learn to speak and understand first. im sure spanish and french are sooo different as learning those in the US is much easier in comparison to norwegian!!

    i love that you mention getting a friend or boyfriend that speaks the language you are trying to learn. my boyfriend and i only speak norwegian at home :) has been super helpful in my two years here! unfortunately, my friends and i all speak english. once i start a relationship with someone (aside from my boyfriend) in one language, i can not switch! hahaa!!

    • That’s interesting, I hadn’t considered a dialect problem. I guess for me, the two languages I’ve studied have dialects but there is also a standard form of French and Spanish so learning them ahead of time is a really good idea. Actually at this point I know all of the separate verb conjugations and slang of like 4 kinds of Spanish (Spain, Argentina, Chile and Central America in general) and yes, they’re very different from each other! And good for you speaking Norwegian at home, how cool :)

  9. It’s interesting that you suggested Harry Potter – it just became part of the reading curriculum for my high school ESL classes.

    And I’ve had so many experiences with people insisting on practicing English with me when I’m trying to practice their language. In Thailand, I would always insist on speaking Thai, and the Thai person would answer in English – and then we’d just continue the conversation like that – each speaking our non-native language. It was weird, but we always managed to understand each other, and I guess we both got the practice that we wanted!

    • I totally would have figured that Thai people would be helpful, that’s really interesting. And yes, I think it’s 10x harder to learn a language as a native English speaker… people should stop giving us such a hard time about being monolingual!

  10. I love languages! You’re kind of a superstar for being nearly fluent in two other than your native. I’m actually quite good at learning languages, but I rarely put in the time and effort required to improve. I started carrying a notebook around Thailand with me, but now that my time is running out, I’ve lost motivation.

    Thanks for the helpful points. Next time I’m definitely going to try and find a partner (or a boyfriend;).

    • That’s cool that you’re trying to learn Thai, I feel like it would be an extremely hard language with almost nothing on common with English! And yes, a boyfriend definitely helps…

  11. Great tips, especially number one! I moved to Shanghai from the U.S. almost two years ago and the only Mandarin words I knew at the time were hello, goodbye and thank you. I wish I’d learned more beforehand because it’s really difficult to learn Mandarin once you’re already here. The locals speak Shanghainese which incomprehensible to Mandarin speakers. Plus everyone wants to practice their English! Even when I’m shopping at the local market and ask questions in Mandarin, I’m often answered in English. I’ve learned enough to get by, and I’m studying the characters, but it’s hard to stay motivated, especially when I know I won’t be here forever.

  12. Excellent and complete article. As an expat I agree on what you wrote. You also confirmed once again to me that I’m not currently following enough your/my-own tips to learn the local official language–German. Shame on me

  13. Definitely agree with points #2 and #6 – although they’re all good. I found immersion to be the biggest help when learning Chinese in Taiwan. I did have a local boyfriend but he always wanted to speak in English! Something to consider.

  14. Great post! I like what you say about learning as much of the language before going to the country. People often assume just being in another country is enough to pick up the language, but that is far from the case. As an expat in China, I could have benefitted from knowing a lot more of the language beforehand.

  15. oh great tips!!! Although I’m just curious – were you playing strip poker? Why aren’t those boys wearing shirts!?

    What’s your next language?

    • Haha no we weren’t actually! I think it was just hot out :). And I’m not sure about learning another language (I think I’m running out of brain space, haha). But I would love to learn German and Portuguese if I have the time or opportunity!

  16. Fluency, or at least near fluency, is a goal of mine when I teach in Spain for a year. All of your tips were incredibly helpful as I venture towards this lofty goal. When I studied abroad in Spain, I didn’t go out of my way to speak Spanish enough, which was my largest regret. This time around I will be definitely going out of my way to speak as much Spanish as possible.

  17. Great advice. I can certainly vouch for the girlfriend / boyfriend tip. The only problem is that it isn’t always easy to find the right match.

    For people who are interested in really speaking French well, I’d like to suggest my blog http://www.fluentfrenchnow.com of which I’m pretty proud. Have a look

  18. I love your tips and they are on the money! I also learned a lot of French from reading Harry Potter in it!!! :) I like what you said about standing your ground on speaking in French… it can be really difficult at times and you do have to get kinda pushy!

  19. Hi! I just discovered your blog last week and I’m loving it. As long as you keep writing, I’ll keep reading! I love all your descriptions, photos, etc. I visited Paris last month and I minored in French in college (so at this point I am somewhat conversational French and interested in improving). I’ve always had an affinity for the French culture. I am also fluent in Spanish.

    P.S. Windshield wipers are parabrisas in Spanish! :-)

  20. Great post, really useful :) Trying to read as much as I can about language learning. I’ve been around French all of my life, studied it in school…but need to make that jump from intermediate conversational to fluent. I’m finding it tricky!
    I find watching French TV series really good. Engrenages is my favourite and it’s a bit gruesome/violent, so I learn some interesting vocab that I may not have learnt otherwise!
    Even quite small newsagents in London often sell copies of Le Monde or French Glamour, so I read those too.
    I guess I’ve just got to keep powering on!
    And this post has helped :D

  21. Hi Ashley, your blog is very interesting. I hope you keep up with your French ;-)

    I am a native French speaker ( born in Cambodia, I can speak Khmer as well but I am unable to read or write, too complicated ) . I have lived in the Uk the past 6 years. I am fluent in French, English (studied 8 years at school but was not good at all, don’t know why didn’t like the language) and Spanish (studied 5 years and lived 2 months in Sevilla, travel a lot in Spain).
    I can also speak Italian ( studied 3 years and travel 4 times over there) but need to improve it.

    My boyfriend is from Lithuania, I tried to learn his language but it was very hard. I can say a couple sentences and understand more or less. I have a couple of books to learn Lithuanian, German and Russian. I might go to work and live in Germany for one year, it would be a good opportunity to learn the language then.

    I like travelling and notice it s always rewarding when you can speak the language of the country you visit,. The inhabitants appreciate a lot and you can have a better relationship. I don’t know, they are more friendly and helpful.

    Actually I learned English in England with children books, magazines, newspapers, songs. Watched a lot the movies with the English subtitles.
    I also do that with my Spanish and Italian (very similar to French). For me when you can speak 2 languages, it s easier to learn others. Good luck with your languages.

    Now time to study my Lithuanian with my boyfriend ;-)

    Take care, Kim

    • Wow, thanks so much for this thoughtful comment Kim! I will definitely try to keep up with my French. It’s amazing that you’re able to speak so many languages- I would love to speak so many! Good luck with your Lithuanian :)

  22. This is so funny! I was looking at how to go from conversational to fluent and Ive been reading harry potter and listening to it on tape in my language (italian) so funny!

  23. Regarding point 1 which is by the way a really good point. If you are currently thinking about going to take language classes abroad I suggest looking for smaller companies. For example I have taken language classes at OnSpain School for about 2 months and could improve my Spanish to a good conversational level, started pretty much with only the basics.

    Um and one more hint – try to hang out with native speakers as much as possible. It might sound scary at first but it is definitely worth it.

    Cheers

  24. We’re also a small grouping of volunteers along with establishing a fresh program in the community. Your website made available us with handy data to be effective for. You have done the strong occupation and also the entire group is usually happy for your requirements.

  25. Your tips are all so great, Ashley! I agree about Google Translate (both the convenience & the unreliability lol) but it’s great to have in a pinch when ordering food & other simple stuff.

    I’ve been blessed to know 5 languages myself (English, Fukien [Chinese dialect], Filipino, & Visayan [Filipino dialect] fluently & conversational Mandarin) but I want to learn at least one more. This will be an awesome resource I’ll look back at again & again.

    Will be tweeting & pinning this too! Thanks again!

  26. This was a great read for me! Like you, I was born in a plain ol’ English-only speaking household, but have always been extremely determined to learn as many others as I can. Spanish is currently my main focus. I’m in college now, and will spend Spring 2017 doing a study abroad program in Santiago, Chile. I’m going to live with a host family, which I’m super excited for, and try to immerse myself as much as possible. I’ve been studying Spanish for a long time (4 years in high school and 1 into the minor in college), and have really tried to do everything you recommend here: listen to Spanish podcasts and music, watch Spanish movies and TV, write down new things I hear and quiz myself on them (SpanishDict is life), chat with native speakers through Facebook and Skype and not be afraid of making mistakes, all that. But it’s still pretty discouraging sometimes — it feels like you’ll never learn the damn language! I’m curious to know a little more about what your arrival at Spanish fluency felt like. How much Spanish had you taken before you did your homestays? After how much immersion did you really feel fluent? What did it “feel” like, I guess, to go from struggling for words to speaking naturally? I would love to know more about your experience. (Especially in Santiago!) Thanks again for your post, it was really inspiring for me!

    • Glad you liked the post! SpanishDict is the best. I had taken a lot of Spanish – from 1st grade through high school. And I felt I became pretty fluent when I was 16 and spend 3 weeks in Andalucia speaking only Spanish – you learn so quickly at that age.

  27. Hey!!!

    The post is quite interesting..

    I must say that These ways are indeed good and I’m delighted to learn these ways.

    To encourage others I’ll certainly utilize these ways and thanks a lot for great contribution.

    I whole-heartedly agree with.

    Additionally, I want to say that learning the foreign language, even if you cannot speak it fluently, is just such a great way to learn more about a country and the people who live there.

    Thank you so much for sharing your great ideas..
    Keep doing good work.
    God bless U!!

  28. Hi Ashley, couldn’t agree more with these wonderful points. Personally, I think that learning as much as you can before leaving for abroad is a good strategy, but learning when you reach is very joyful and an experience worth trying too.

  29. Great tips! I’m so awkward when it comes to speaking a new language for fear of making mistakes and sounding insane. Watching a movie in a foreign language with English subtitles help me learn new words.

  30. Thanks for the great tips! Something that helped me was when I changed the language on my phone to Spanish. It really forced me to focus on understanding sentences and to use context clues to figure out words I didn’t know. I found myself thinking is Spanish more than translating in my head.

  31. A wonderful post. I have learned French and I’m currently “trying” to learn Mandarin Chinese. I think your point on immersion into the language is the best way to learn. I was corrected once on my pronunciation in France – I never forgot that lesson to this day.

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