What are the most effective ways to learn a foreign language?

Developing successful working relationships with clients. Fostering a sense of openness and intimacy. Being able to confidently get your point across when contributing to group discussions. No one would disagree that these are all core skills for running a successful business.

But to do them effectively, you really need to be speaking the same language. And by that I don’t just mean being aligned in your thinking, I mean actually speaking the same language.

In this day and age, where business interactions transcend geographical borders, just speaking one (or even two) languages is often not sufficient.

But embarking on the task of learning a new language as an adult can seem a bit overwhelming. Yes, there are many courses available, and even online apps that you can download, but what is the best way to learn a new foreign language?

Well, of course, the most obvious answer is to spend some time in a country which speaks the language – the immersive experience. But that is often not a practical option in an age where time is such a precious commodity.

So what else can you do?

Growing your Brain.

Learning a new language is all about making new connections in the brain. Encoding new memories and wiring together the newly learned words with their native translation.

In fact, you can see these new connections being made. By measuring the size of the brain regions involved in language processing and memory before, and then after, someone learns a new language, scientists like Johan Mårtensson from Lund University in Sweden have shown that the regions actually grow in size.  More connections. More brain volume.

It, therefore, makes sense that studies from neuroscience and psychology can also tell us something useful about how to learn a new language.

7 Secrets of Effective Foreign Language Learning 

Number 1. Alternate between active and passive learning.

One thing that helps with learning a new language is classroom based training. But one or two hours a week is not usually enough to fast-track your way to fluency. Combining this with other “incidental” forms of learning can help.

But this doesn’t mean that you have to spend hours studying the language. In fact, one of the best ways to complement classroom-based training is alternating between both active practice and passive listening, in other words, practice-plus-exposure.

Beverly Wright from Northwestern University showed that alternating between active practice (where you have to make a response) and passive listening (i.e. in the background when you are performing some other task) is one of the most effective ways to learn a new language – better than if you were just filling the time with active practice. In addition, this kind of dual approach is also much more practical to fit into a busy schedule!

Number 2. Multisensory methods are best 

What is the best format for language learning? Reading? Listening? Using picture cues? Well, the answer is: all of them, combined. In other words a “multi-modal” approach.

Learning can occur via multiple pathways in the brain, strengthening the memory for the newly learned phrase. So reading the word together with hearing it, is better than simply seeing it or listening to it on its own. In addition, viewing a picture which reflects the word or phrase that you are trying to learn, at the same time, can help reinforce the memory in the long-term as shown by Marie-Josée Bisson and colleagues from Nottingham University. 

Number 3. Use gestures. 

Although this might be the kind of learning you prefer to do in the privacy of your own home, rather than in public(!), inventing a series of gestures to reflect the various words or phrases you are learning can help you remember them more effectively. These gestures could be something which reflects the meaning of the phrase or even drawing a picture of the concept in the air. Whatever makes the most sense to you.

It might sound strange but it does help, or so say Manuela Macedonia and Thomas Knösche from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences. They showed that when foreign language phrases were listened to and read, then the memory for the phrases was further enhanced if the participant also self-performed gestures to complement their meaning as part of the training. 

Number 4. Respond don’t just repeat. 

Repetition reinforces connections in the brain. Listening to the same phrase over multiple occasions will help you learn it.  But repetition isn’t always a good thing. It can sometimes be the easy option. And easy isn’t always best when the brain is learning something new.

Researchers from the University of California showed that people actually remember the language better if, after they are presented with a visual cue for the word (either the word itself or a picture depicting the word), they are asked to come up with the equivalent verbal response, rather than just listening and repeating someone else speaking that word.

In other words, it should look, respond, listen, rather than look, listen, respond.

Although it may seem like a subtle difference, the act of engaging your brain’s “recall” systems, rather than just your “imitate” systems helps to strengthen the new language connections. 

Number 5. There is an optimum presentation rate for learning new words. 

It might seem simple but René Zeelenberg and colleagues from the Erasmus University Rotterdam suggest that 4 seconds is the optimum presentation for learning words. Although this may vary according to the particular language being learned (their study looked at English speakers learning Dutch), or even personal preference, what is does emphasise is that presentation rate matters.

In other words, when phrases in a continuous listening loop are presented too slowly, or too quickly, it can negatively affect how effectively you learn them. 

Number 6. Listen while you are asleep. 

Yes, it’s true that your brain needs sleep to rest. But it also needs sleep to sort out or “consolidate” everything new you have experienced that day – a kind of mental organisation to tidy up all your thinking, planning and mind wandering from the previous 15 or so hours.

The really powerful part is that you can actually use this to boost your memory and learning. Thomas Schreiner and Björn Rasch from the University of Zurich showed that “listening” to the words and phrases that you newly learned that day, whilst you are asleep that night, can improve what you remember the following day.

Finding yourself a comfy pair of sleep headphones and playing back that day’s audio is an effortless learning opportunity not to be missed! 

Number 7. Listen to songs. Watch movies. 

Watching a movie, or listening to music are leisure time pursuits which you can build into your free-time or evening routine. And researchers like Joan Birulés-Muntané and Salvador Soto-Faraco from the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona have shown that watching a foreign language movie with foreign language subtitles can be an effective way to support your learning.

If that sounds like too much work at the end of a busy day, why don’t you try the easier option of putting on native language subtitles instead or even watching your favourite film in your native language with foreign language subtitles? Not quite as good, but better than nothing!

Alternatively, find yourself a foreign music band that you like, and listen to them. Karen Ludke from the University of Edinburgh showed how listening to words and phrases which are sung, rather than spoken, can help you remember them better. 

These are just some of the ways that can help language learning – one of the many different learning experiences that you may encounter in both your personal and professional life. 

Want to know more? 

Learning is personal. You have to find what works for you. What suits your lifestyle, your business. It is a process of continual improvement. It helps you to progress as a company, to show superior expertise, to explore new opportunities.


So please just get in touch with us if you want to learn more about how neuroscience can help you fulfil your organisation’s learning potential.

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