Posted on by Peter Rettig

My 5 Best Tips for Learning a Foreign Language Online and Offline

Helpful tips - As readers of a previous post know, I am currently learning Dutch, while continuing to improve and practice my Spanish.

As German is my native language, Dutch shouldn't be that difficult for me. And indeed, the many similarities between both languages make it much easier both to listen/understand and even to read Dutch.

However, speaking and writing continue to be quite challenging. There are several sounds that don't exist in German and that I have difficulties in reproducing. Then there are words that sound similar to German but are spelled quite differently in Dutch.

My Spanish is better and more fluent than my Dutch and that has led me to use different learning tools for each.

My Tools for Learning and Practicing

learning tools - Gamesforlanguage.comFor Dutch, I am currently using Duolingo and Babbel (with a 3-month subscription). For about a month, I did two Duolingo lessons per day. Now I am down to one Duolingo lesson per day, plus 1 to 2 daily Babbel lessons.

And I have just started with "First Dutch Reader for beginners: Bilingual for speakers of English" (by Aart Rembrandt), which exists in a paperback and a Kindle edition on Amazon.

For Spanish, I am currently using our Gamesforlanguage Spanish 1 course and Quick Games, Duolingo, Babbel (with a 1-year subscription), and the Drops app.

In the evening, I reread a couple of pages of Isabelle Allende's original Spanish edition of “Zorro.” Last year when I first read the Spanish edition of Zorro, I used the English translation along with the Spanish original. I reported about my experience in this post

In addition, my wife and I listen to Spanish news and, once or twice a week, we watch a soap or movie in Spanish.

For Dutch, I'll practice speaking with my wife (who is fluent in Dutch), but I still need to increase my vocabulary for a real conversation. Right now, short sentences about daily life is all I can manage.

My 5 Language Learning Tips

Maximizing your exposure to the language you are learning is clearly key for making progress. If you observe how much time young children spend daily on listening, repeating, and trying out their first language, you realize that for an adult 1 to 2 hours per week of learning a new language will not be enough.

The trick is to find ways to build language learning into your daily life, in the morning, on your commute, during a lunch or coffee break at work, or in the evening at home. There are so many ways you can do that and for each person it will be somewhat different. Sometimes it's just a matter of getting a little creative.

Here are the five learning tips that are working for me:

1. Limit the number of NEW Foreign Words per Day

20 words limit - I have found that I can't handle more than about 20 NEW words per day. The key here is “new.” It's very tempting, once you are on “a roll,” to do several lessons a day with an online course. This is especially the case when you did well in a particular lesson.

However, rather than continuing with new lessons, I have found it more effective to redo a previous lessons or to review my errors. With Duolingo, after 2 to 3 lessons (with 3 to 8 new words per lesson), I reach my limit and then choose to “Practice Weak Skills.”

Similarly, with Babbel (where you learn 3 to 6 new words per lesson), you can review your errors or redo a previous lesson.
With Gamesforlanguage (which teaches 16 to 18 new words per lesson), you can redo any of the games, starting with the ones in which you score less than 100%.

I'm using the new iOS app “Drops” for Spanish every day. Five minutes are free, and while I know many of the words, I like the fun app. It provides a great way to recall words.

2. Don't be Afraid of Making Mistakes

right or wrong - Gamesforlanguage.comI have found that making mistakes helps me remember better. Duolingo has recently changed the “penalty” for mistakes. You do not have to redo a lesson if you make more than three mistakes. You just have to get 20 correct answers. Sentences in which you made mistakes, reappear later in the lesson so that you can get it right.

Babbel's Review Manager lets you review your vocabulary with writing, speaking, or with flashcards. In the PC version, you can also replay the errors of your lesson (but not in the iPad app). With Gamesforlanguage, you can just replay each game, until you get a perfect score.

3. Repeat Words and Sentences Aloud

Talk aloud - With all three online programs, I often find myself forgetting to repeat a word or sentence aloud. Trying to emulate the native speaker is essential both for pronunciation and intonation. So, it's worth making the effort.

GamesforLanguage has a “Say it” game, in which the learner is asked to repeat a word or phrase before it appears. With Duolingo you really have to remember to repeat sentences aloud. Babbel, on the other hand, has a “Listening and Speaking” section in the full Spanish course, which lets you practice both skills.

(A "Listening and Speaking" section is not yet available in the Dutch Beginner's course.) When reading Zorro, or now my Dutch reader, I read aloud whenever I can.

I find the voice recognition option of both Duolingo and Babbel often more frustrating than helpful. When after a third or fourth attempt my voice still gets rejected, I turn it off.

4. Learn and Practice Daily

Daily practice - Gamesforlanguage.comThis may be the hardest task to accomplish in our busy everyday lives. However, if practicing becomes a daily routine like brushing your teeth, you've got it made!

I have to give credit to Duolingo for keeping me motivated with its “streak” concept. I am now on a 214-day streak for Spanish and Dutch. And, as I hate losing my streak, I am likely to continue practicing every day until I've aced the programs.

I know that the prospect of losing my streak motivated me several times to complete at least one Duolingo lesson late at night. You obviously can set yourself reminders on your phone or tablet. With Babbel you have the option for daily progress reminders.

Yes, my goal for September - to understand Dutch conversations during a family reunion in The Netherlands - is a motivator as well. However, it would not be enough to keep me practicing daily. The threat of losing my “Streak” however, does! (With Duolingo you can also choose to compete with others for a weekly point score, but my competitive spirit has not gotten excited about this one.)

5. Use Different programs and Tools

program and app options - I find it very important to use various modes to learn and practice. Different online courses teach different words and sentences. Or, the same words appear in different contexts. All of this goes to reinforce your understanding and retention.

There are lots of language apps to add to your toolbox, such as the new iOS app “Drops” that I mentioned above. Others that have been around for a while are Mindsnacks, Word Dive, or Memrise. Old or new, use these apps to add fun and variety to your practice. Recently, I've been hooked on a fun Android app called “Spanish Injection.”

Once you've got a basic understanding of your new language, start to read things you enjoy, such as stories, novels, news articles, blogs, Twitter or Facebook feeds. For reading online articles, a browser extension is an excellent tool.

And obviously, listening to radio and watching TV not only helps your listening skills, but can keep you learning while hearing things that interest you.

To become fluent in any language you have to start speaking it. If a friend or lover cannot give you foreign language practice, or if a teacher or tutor is not in your budget - then language exchange sites provide another free or low-cost alternative. 

In any event, before you're really able to participate in a conversation in your new language, you'll have to start learning and practicing.
There are many online and offline opportunities to do that. By using those that work best for you and by heeding the Nike slogan "Just do it" - you can DO IT as well!

Disclosure: has no business relationship with other than for its founders having purchased a 1-year subscription to the Spanish course and a 3-month subscription to the Dutch course.  No business relationship exists either with the other language learning apps mentioned, including Duolingo, except GamesforLanguage's founders are learning several languages with its free courses. See our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use for further details.