Expat Essentials

Mary Porcella: 10 ways to improve your European language skills

Most Europeans are multi-lingual, especially in countries such as Switzerland and Belgium with more than one national language. If you’re an English-speaking expat here in Europe, you’ll find that English is the lingua franca in major cities. But if you really want to live expat life to the fullest, do what so many Europeans do … master multiple languages.

Here are 10 ways to improve your European language skills.

I’ve first highlighted the tips that I’ve gained from studying six European languages including English, and then have expanded on the details below.

Let’s get started:

• Take a class
• Sign up for private lessons 
• Work with a tutor
• Do a language app or online program 
• Use language material from well-known publishers
• Watch movies with lots of dialogue 
• Watch a soap opera or detective show 
• Focus on your end goal 
• Proceed slowly and surely 
• Go full immersion 

A lot of these tips can be applied to studying other languages.

• Take a formal class in person or online 

You can take a formal class at a university; institute, such as Alliance Française, Goethe Institute, Dante Alighieri; language school, such as Berlitz or Oxford [For English, try an Oxford International English School; or at a community college, such as at a Volkshochschule in Austria and Germany.

Classes are nice because then you also meet other students and have someone else to practice with.

• Sign up for private lessons in person or online

This can be officially at an institute or a language school, where they test your skills and design a lesson plan for you based on your skill level. It could also be where you engage a private instructor who comes up with lesson plans for you and you meet in person or online.

Private lessons are wonderful if you don’t have the time in your schedule for a class or the patience to deal with other students, but then you are the one always in the hot seat.

Work with a tutor on your own customized plan

If you know what you want to achieve, you can engage a private tutor and devise your own game plan, telling them what topics or aspects of the language you want to work on. I’ve done this several times. I’ve found it safer to meet in a public place — this is from my experience as a tutor – such as a coffee shop, where I bought them a cup of coffee as well as paid them an hourly rate.

I did that both as a student of Italian and German and teacher of Italian.

Download an app or use an online training program 

One positive thing about using an app or a web-based program, such as those offered by Duolingo or Rosetta Stone, is that you can do them from the comfort of your own home or as you commute by train. You can also go at your own pace. However, you will miss out on the cultural aspect of studying with a
real, live, teacher, ideally a native speaker.

It can be frustrating or annoying to use apps, etc., because of the generic interfaces. You may have a character called Bob no matter what language you are studying. You won’t get any personal stories from an app or learn hand gestures, for example.

* Use language material from well-known publishers or programs

I’ve used foreign language material from Barron’s, Langenscheidt and others, all with good success. I know people who like Pimsleur, so if Danish or Greek or 50 other languages is your thing, try them out.

Other people like Babbel for Portuguese or 12 other languages.

In the past, I have had good results with Penguin Random House. For Dutch or five other European languages, check out their DK Hugo 3-month courses.

Watch movies with lots of dialogue

If you are going to watch a movie for language practice, you want a movie with a lot of dialogue. When I was studying Italian, watching Antonioni and Fellini movies, which were visual masterpieces with limited dialog, was fabulous from a cinematographic perspective, but not from a language-learning perspective.

So, look for comedies, dramas, romances or anything with lots of interpersonal communication in the language of your choice.

Watch a soap opera or a detective show

Many years ago, I asked my German teacher, who had amazing English, “How did you perfect, your English?” She responded, “By watching soap operas.” I thought, that is brilliant because soap operas are all about dialogue and interaction. And yes, they can be over the top and highly dramatic, but they tend to address a variety of topics, too, which is good for language learning. Additionally, with the repetitive situations and recurrent actors, that will be helpful, too.

Focus on your end goal

If you are going to a country for tourism, I would take a course for travelers. Otherwise, it won’t be as focused on what you need. If you are studying in preparation for an exam, such as an entrance exam for your university or a citizenship test, then focus predominately on that.

Proceed slowly and surely

You can do language learning in a slow and steady fashion. Some people only have 10 or 15 minutes a day and that is better than nothing. If you are doing more than that, say an hour or two a day, you will improve a lot faster. That is why my French is so much better than my German. I spent a lot more time studying it.

Imagine if you study for a quarter of an hour a day, after a year you will have studied for 91 hours, which isn’t a lot. But if you read the newspaper or listen to the radio in your foreign language for an hour
a day, after a year, you will have 365 hours under your belt. If you keep at it, you will improve.

Go full immersion

Depending on your time availability, you can do an intensive course or an immersion. I’ve done a few two-week refresher courses in Italian including one in Switzerland and one in Milan. I have also done six-week immersion programs. You can only learn so much in two weeks. You can learn a lot more in six weeks.

The longer, the better.

My sister and her husband did a two-week immersion in France. Part of the program was interacting with villagers at night in French, which made it more comprehensive. I know someone who studied German intensively at the Goethe Institute in Germany for a year and a half and she became immensely accomplished.

I hope some of these tips have been helpful. But most of all, the key is to stay motivated and have fun with your language learning.


See more about learning languages here in Dispatches archives.

Read more from Mary here.

 | Website

Mary Porcella is a Europhile who has lived in Germany, Norway, Italy, and the U.S.  She is a writer, editor, and photographer. She loves seeing new places, returning to old haunts, and meeting up with family and friends.  As of today, her travels have taken her to 20 European countries, and she hopes to visit the rest.

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