It is no secret that the key to learning a new foreign language is maximizing your exposure to it.
That's how children learn their first (or second) language.
And, that's why immersion programs - ideally in the country where the language is spoken - are the fastest way for adults to learn a new foreign language.
Yes, for some, total immersion can be stressful, especially at the beginning. But, once you get over the shock of not understanding and not being understood, you'll progress fast.
On the other hand, not everybody has the time or resources to spend several weeks in an immersion course. Besides, once you are out of an immersion situation, you still have to continue to learn and practice your new language by using it as much as possible. Here also applies, as with all learned skills: “If you don't use it, you'll lose it.”
Active vs. Passive – Output vs. Input
Reading and listening, so-called "passive" skills, are very important. They provide you with essential language "input."
So yes, at the beginning you should take courses, online or in-person, learn vocabulary, read in your foreign language, and listen to native speakers as much as you can. This includes audios and podcasts, and films and television programs.
Creating a web-browsing habit, for example, with a Chrome-extension such as Lingua.ly, and regularly watching a soap or series on your computer or television are great ways to absorb a language passively.
But, you also need to "do" something with all that input. In my experience, you'll make the most dramatic progress and gain confidence, if you create and maintain a few effective speaking and writing habits.
At different stages of your language journey, you'll want different activities. Here are three suggestions each, for beginner, intermediate, and advanced learners.
1. Learning the numbers, at least to a hundred, gives you a terrific tool for regular practice. Not only are numbers useful for shopping, giving phone numbers to friends or business contacts, paying in a café or restaurant, etc., they are a handy way to practice pronunciation.(You can get started with these number games French, German, Italian, and Spanish)
Use Numbers for anything countable during your day: count out loud as you do your morning exercises; count as you cut the fruit for your cereal; say telephone numbers in your foreign language before dialing. You can probably think of a dozen more ways yourself.
2. Subscribe to a Newsletter or Blog in the language you're learning, or keep an easy-reader book handy. Several times during the day, take a short break to read a few sentences aloud.
Saying phrases and sentences instead of reading them silently makes a big difference. I read a lot in French, but that doesn't make my spoken French particularly smooth. And although I can speak French quite fluently, reading aloud still works for me now:
A couple of months ago, when visiting family in French Switzerland, I read a bed-time story in French to our nephew's 6 year-old daughter. At first I felt (and sounded) awkward and Céline kept correcting my pronunciation. But after five minutes or so, I got into it. The next day, I noticed that I felt much more relaxed speaking French. The practice I had gotten with reading aloud had boosted my confidence.
3. Copy down phrases that you want to learn. Then, at various times during the day, write these phrases again from memory on a sheet of paper and check against the original for any mistakes.
When we write in a foreign language, we tend to translate first in our head. One way to break this habit, is to practice with idiomatic phrases that don't translate literally. For example,
German: "Das ist mir Wurst!" (literal: 'That's sausage to me!', but meaning: That doesn't matter to me!);
French: "faire la grasse matinée" (literal: 'to make the fat morning', but meaning: to sleep in);
Spanish: "¡A otro perro con ese hueso! " (literal: 'To another dog with that bone!', but meaning: You're kidding me!);
Italian: "In bocca al lupo!" (literal: 'In the wolf's mouth”, but meaning: Good luck!).
(A reader also pointed out the following: "The idiom has a rejoinder namely 'Crepi!', which means 'May [or 'Let'] the wolf drop dead.' It's a typical foreigner's mistake to respond to 'In bocca al lupo' by saying 'Grazie'.")
1. Whether at home or walking around outside, say (aloud) the name of any items that you can see. This seems to be an exercise for beginners, but you'll be surprised how many names of things or actions you can't remember just off the top of your head.
If you have a place where you can put words into flashcards (such as Quizlet.com), write them in and practice them. Otherwise print or write them out and hang the page on your fridge! Needless to say, whenever you practice, say the words aloud.
(With Flashsticks.com for example, you can get Post-its to stick on the various objects in your home.)
2. Several times during the day, talk to yourself for a few minutes in your foreign language. (Or even better, if you can, talk to a partner.) You can comment on what you're doing just then (organizing, running an errand, eating, cooking, cleaning, etc.), you can talk about what you did earlier, or about any upcoming plans.
Even just the effort of changing to another language and searching for words gets your brain going. And if you do this often enough, it will indeed become a habit.
3. At this stage, you're probably ready to participate in groups or forums to practice your writing. There are plenty of foreign language groups on Facebook or Google+ that you can join. Start writing comments in the language you're learning and don't worry about making mistakes. If you ask people to correct your writing, you may get that too.
1. From time to time, write and memorize a short "lecture" about something that interests you and then recite it from memory, or with the help of a card containing a few key words. Pretend that you have an audience and really make an effort to communicate, convince, or persuade.
If you're so inclined, make a video of yourself and play it back. That kind of feedback could be somewhat painful at the beginning, but also enormously helpful.
2. Suggestion #1 above could be also the preparation for speaking with an online language exchange partner or tutor. There are many to choose from.
3. Find a “live” partner or tutor to talk with. There's no substitute for having spontaneous conversations on various topics. This will rapidly increase your fluency, but you have to find a way to do this regularly.
I certainly notice that my French fluency always gets a boost when I have my bi-weekly lunches with a French-speaking friend.
Creating a habit is not always easy right away, you have to stick with it, even when sometimes you don't feel like it. Learning to speak and write a language takes time and patience because there are no dramatic results, except for a beginning learner.
Have a look at Lifehack.org's 18 tricks on how to stick with a habit. Some of these tricks may well help you.
But above all, have fun and enjoy the new confidence that you're building.
Bio: Ulrike Rettig is the co-founder of Gamesforlanguage.com. She is a lifelong language learner, growing up in Austria, the Netherlands, and Canada. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and leave any comments with contact.