Starting Fresh: Learning Languages From Afar

Most of us pick up our first language(s) as kids: we soak up our surroundings, and then stumble through making ourselves understood until we are as fluent as the grown-ups we learned from. It’s the most natural, almost painless way to learn, reliant on both instincts and necessity.

So what happens if you want to learn a language, but don’t live in a country or community where it’s widely spoken? Where do you even start?

Language learning apps like Duolingo are becoming more and more popular, and although I think it’s great that people are getting motivated and excited about new languages…how helpful are these apps for people to attain fluency? Is a 50-day Duolingo streak going to give you enough vocabulary, listening experience, and confidence in building your own sentences to get you through a real-life interaction in your target language? I have my doubts.

But if these online tools aren’t the answer, what is? How can people study languages from afar without breaking the bank? I have a few ideas.

Starting out

  1. Find a good tutor. A good tutor will be just warm enough to make you feel comfortable making mistakes and help you stumble through your sentences, and just scary enough to motivate you to keep studying! This person might be a professional teacher, or a particularly gifted and patient friend. Either way, make sure you choose someone that you think will be able to push you, and support you to work through material at a good pace for you.
  2. Language Apps. Despite everything I said before…I have used platforms like Duolingo, Busuu, Drops, FluentU, and LingoDeer, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with using them, as long as you are also supplementing them with other, more varied methods of language acquisition. These apps are colourful and reward achievements, which can be a really helpful motivation! They’ll get you started with basic vocabulary, greetings, and basic sentence building.
  3. YouTube lessons. Every major language will have keen online teachers offering free lessons on YouTube. It may not be a complete course, but it can’t hurt! They might teach slightly different vocabulary or use methods that suit your learning style better. Either way, it’s a good way to learn or revise content in a different context.
  4. Memorise vocabulary. Your brain isn’t used to this new language yet, so it might take some work to make your first foundation of vocabulary stick! Drill it into your brain with flashcards, by writing out lines, or by leaving little reminders to yourself around the house. Find a way that works for you. This is probably the dullest part of language learning, but the effort and drudgery will be worth it!
  5. Watch children’s TV. Find something on YouTube or Netflix in your target language, and see how much you can follow! Kids’ shows tend to be very visual and clearly-spoken, so they’re perfect for beginners to practice with. It’s a good idea to start listening to different people speaking as early as possible, so you can get a sense of how words should be pronounced, and how they might sound in different peoples’ voices and accents.
  6. Find a native speaker to practice on. No one is expecting a beginner to be able to rattle off monologues at this stage, but why not try your newly acquired sentences on a native speaker? Ask them their favourite food, where they’re from, and what they’re hobbies are. They’ll probably help you with your pronunciation and confidence, but if not, getting laughed at will be good for your humility!


So you’ve completed your language app? You have a good basic understanding, and could throw together some simple sentences? Great! It might be time to amp up your study schedule. Here are my tips for pushing your language ability from beginner towards fluency.

  1. Read a book. Start out with children’s books, and work your way up! I usually start by having a quick read over, getting the gist of the story and simply underlining the parts I don’t understand. Only after finishing the story or chapter would I whip out the dictionary – it’s good practice to see if you can glean meaning from context. After all, that’s what you’d have to do if someone was speaking to you in your target language! This is such a good way to introduce yourself to new grammar patterns and vocabulary, and it’s an amazing feeling to finish your first foreign-language book!
  2. Find a TV show or drama you enjoy. Even a dubbed animated show would work. Start out with English subtitles, but as you gain confidence, try it with subtitles in the target language instead. This is such a good way to expose yourself to lots of accents, slang, and niche vocabulary – great for your listening skills! This is also about the only time when Netflix counts as studying.
  3. Find a language partner. Maybe you already have a friend you can skill-swap with, or you could use a site like Language Exchange to find someone online. The idea is to start holding conversations in your target language – work on building sentences spontaneously, and on understanding a native speaker who doesn’t stick to the vocabulary lists you might have learned! This can be such a scary thing to do, but conversing with real people is the number one best way to give your language learning a boost.
  4. Listen to your target language. Like, all the time. Can you stream a radio station, or listen to music in the language you’re learning? Do it! The more you can swamp your brain with it, the easier it will be for you to understand and reproduce natural speech patterns.
  5. Learn vocabulary and grammar in context. Languages are not secret codes, replicating your own language just with different sounds. Different languages structure sentences differently, use words differently, and conjugate verbs differently. At this stage, it’s so important for you to not only learn words or grammar patterns, but for you to see them used correctly in different contexts. For example, when I was learning the subjunctive in French, I found Celine Dion’s song ‘Pour que tu M’aimes Encore’. It’s absolutely full of verbs in the subjunctive, and because they were in a catchy form, I could always remember and use them as a structure for my own verbs.
  6. Visit the country. These tips are all helpful and will definitely help you progress with your language learning. That said…if it’s at all possible for you to get out to the country where they speak your target language – even if it’s just for a week – do it. There’s nothing quite like being immersed in the cultural and linguistic environment for a while – being surrounded by spoken and written language, as well as opportunities for practising with locals! It may be overwhelming, but it will be worth your while.

Good luck with your language learning adventures – stay strong and power through! It’s a long, frustrating process to pick up a new language, but it’s worth all of your pain and effort.

Love, Dani

  • What tips would add to this list for people who want to learn a new language?
  • What things have helped you the most in picking up languages?

Samantha: Where I Belong

Samantha was born and raised in Hong Kong, where she attended international secondary school. She studied her undergraduate degree at the University of Edinburgh, and now works with Friends International in Scotland to support international students.

Ethnically I am Chinese. But in terms of national identity, I have never felt a strong tie to my Chinese heritage. The reason for this may be due to growing up in a multicultural environment.

I lived in Hong Kong, but grew up listening to and watching American pop culture. At home, I spoke Cantonese with my parents, while at school I spoke English with my peers. I studied in an international school under the UK education system, where my classmates were the children of expats and immigrants from all over the world.

In class, our teachers referenced things from the UK which I had never seen in Hong Kong: Jaffa Cakes and scones among other things. They also shared stories about themselves from their childhood years, waiting eagerly in the mornings for the milkman to deliver glass bottles of unhomogenised milk, and how they would then fight with their siblings to be the one to sip the cream on top. They were experiences which I had never encountered and can only imagine.

Since most of my education was in English, it became my dominant language. I remember once my Chinese tutor said to me: “you are not Chinese”, because of my poor ability to communicate in the Chinese language. It stung. I held back tears, determined not to cry in front of her. Looking back now, I do know why that hurt me.

As humans, we deeply desire to belong. Our sense of belonging impacts our identity.

Living in Hong Kong, I struggled to fit in with the local Chinese people no matter where I went. I always thought it was because of my poor Chinese, but after going to the UK for university studies, I found that I could not fit in with the local British people either. Although I had the language, I did not have the culture.

We International school kids are a community of our own. We have our own culture – a product of the east meeting the west. There is nothing else quite like it.

Though quite at home in our own little circles, we were very much foreigners to the locals. So then where did I belong? And what determined this? My ethnicity? The language I spoke? The place I spent the most time in? My culture?

One summer during university break, I joined an international student outreach. It was run by Friends International, a Christian Ministry organisation that aims to reach international students in the UK with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

On our team that year, we had nine members from eight different countries. We were all from different places, with very different upbringings, and all spoke English as a second language. But as I listened to the stories of these people and shared with them mine, we connected in a way closer than I have ever felt to any community. This was very interesting to me, and as I probed at it in my mind, I slowly began to realise that it was because we are united in something bigger, something that transcends language and culture, place and time.

You see, when we believed in Jesus and gave our lives to Him, we began to share life with Him and with others in Him. We became united in His family, in wondrous fellowship with brothers and sisters of every race and age around the world, and this is a bond profoundly deeper than anything else!

I found where I belong: in God’s family.

Eleanor: Fluently

 “But inside us there is a word we cannot pronounce and that is who we are.”

Anthony Marra , A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

My name is Eleanor Chin.  I was raised in the United States, in the Bay Area in California.  Best known for its veritable traffic jams, increasingly bizarre tech unicorns, the astronomical cost of living, and extremely liberal political bent, it is also home to a significant Asian-American population. 

My father is Chinese-American, my mother is Caucasian.  Adopted from China at six months, I grew up speaking only English, and mostly spending time with other purely Caucasian families. 

From a young age, I had a natural inclination toward foreign languages and mythology traditions from other lands.  I was very good at Spanish, I taught myself French, and I played around with a few other languages.  I was a hopeless dunce at mathematics and sciences, however – a trend that would continue into my later schooling. 

At age eleven, I began attending a Chinese school with many Taiwanese immigrant families.  I was wildly in love from day one – the tones, the script, and of course, the miniature toys the teachers would bring us as homework motivators.  For the first time, I began to be conscious of my Chinese heritage, noticing that my family’s values, priorities, and habits were significantly different from other kids in school.  I used to hang out with a bunch of white girls, but I started seeking the company of other Asian-Americans.

I took my first trip out of the United States at age fourteen, to Vietnam.  It was a significant experience, and I came home with a renewed love for Asia and its languages.  I got more serious about Chinese, finding a private language tutor, reading more books about Chinese history, and actively pursuing friendships with people from China and Taiwan.  I also began to read memoirs about Chinese-American experiences.  Outstanding: Growing Up Asian, by Cynthia Meng, and Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua brought into striking relief a sneaking suspicion that I wasn’t an “authentic” Asian American. 

As I observed my family and community, I found myself to be at odds with myself in multiple directions, enhancing this belief.  First it was the academics.  There is typically a lot of pressure in an Asian-American homes to bring home excellent marks in school, particularly in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) related subjects.  I never experienced this kind of pressure, and as I was a complete dunce in maths and sciences anyway, I was extremely grateful.  But still, I felt that I was cheating somehow, that I should experience that kind of pain to legitimize my experience as “truly” Asian-American.

Then there was the violin.  I started playing of my own accord.  My parents never made me practice, and I never partook in any violin competitions, let alone win any of them.  This bothered me a lot.  A common theme in the “real” Asian-American world is the prevalence of developing inner discipline through a musical instrument.  I played the violin, like a “regular” Chinese kid, but I wasn’t very good, because I didn’t practice enough—to me, it was worse than if I didn’t play at all.  I was really ashamed of myself, as if my credibility in being Chinese-American hinged on how many violin competitions I won. 

Finally, there was Chinese.  I was very, very good at learning Chinese.  I had more fun in Chinese school learning words than I had in youth group throwing water balloons.  It might have been the drug of being so spectacularly good at something so effortlessly, but I was totally, completely in love.  I think I poured so much into learning Chinese because I desperately wanted to have a meaningful relationship with my Chinese self.  A relationship that wasn’t at odds with the cultural norms, and that would also be understandable to my non-Asian friends. 

 I went off and lived in Taiwan and China, one year in each place.  In both places, I found that I was more culturally American than I thought.  Despite my significant language abilities, and sometimes in light of them, I found myself once again estranged.  Now, I was not only a bad Asian-American, but also a bad Asian. 

Why did I ever learn Chinese? I asked myself.  The last ten years have been an extreme waste of time.

Jhumpa Laheri, author of In Altre Parole, once wrote of missing the Italian language, “that emotional distance is always more pronounced, more piercing, when, in spite of proximity, there remains an abyss.”

My Chinese had already hit a glass ceiling years ago, so I subsequently tried to define myself more fully as a linguist by pursuing Japanese and Korean, which are close cousins.  Fluency evades me though; my emotional connection to these languages is just not as deep.  Or maybe it’s because I’m still burned out from a decade-long linguistic journey that brought me right back to where I started. 

Language shapes existence, and so despite being thankless, onerous, and insanely demanding, I remain in awe of and inspired by foreign tongues.  The word I cannot pronounce may not be in Chinese, or for that matter, in any language I know.

I trust that someday though, I’ll speak it fluently.