How to Learn a New Language and Sound Like an Idiot

You read that right. You WILL sound like an idiot.

You’ve heard what they say: learning a second language, especially early in life, has all kinds of benefits. It makes us smarter, can help stave off dementia, and is great for showing off in bars.

The New York Times recently published an article about the “superior social skills of bilinguals.” In a nutshell, researchers showed that bilingual children as young as 14 months demonstrated more empathy and awareness of others than their monolingual peers.

But what about people who weren’t exposed to another language as children? Is it too late for them? Are they doomed to low intelligence and poor social skills?

Not at all. It just depends on your approach. Here are 5 tips to help you learn a new language without worrying about the fact that you’re going to sound like an idiot.

1. Forget about perfection.

First things first: If you’re learning a language as an adult, you are probably never going to speak it perfectly. You will always have an accent. You will always make grammatical mistakes. You will probably do as I do, and make embarrassingly hilarious vocabulary mix-ups (like the time I mixed up “arbusto” and “buitre” in Spanish. Look those words up.)

Just accept that and move on. It will take the pressure out of learning a new language.

2. Fluency is about perception.

A friend once asked me if I was fluent in Spanish. I said I definitely wasn’t. Then he asked if I could be dropped onto a street in Spain and ask someone the way to the train station. I said, “Yes, of course I could!” “Well, then,” he said. “You’re fluent.”

My perception then of fluency was speaking fluidly, without making any grammatical mistakes or searching for words. But actually, my friend was right.

Language is about communication. If you are able to communicate what you need, and make yourself understood, and understand with relative ease, then you have achieved fluency.

3. You won’t learn a new language until you’re forced to.

If we’re honest, most of us are too lazy to work on learning a language until we’re in a situation where we’ll be forced to use it.

Despite being born in Switzerland, I didn’t really learn French until I was thrown in at the deep end and started in public school at age nine. Same with Spanish. I didn’t really improve until I lived in Spain for a month, and I wouldn’t have said I was fluent until a few months after meeting Chico.

This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t study language in a course setting, work on vocab, or anything like that. You definitely should.

But you will probably find that you won’t be able to do much with it until you’re thrown from the frying pan into the fire, and you’ve got to find your way to the train station in a foreign city.

4. Train your brain to think in the new language.

People say I have a gift for languages. The one thing that might be considered a gift, though, is the ability to think in the language in which I’m speaking. Even if I don’t really speak the language.

It wasn’t until I started an intensive German course in January, that I realized just how valuable this is. Even though I stumbled through sentences, and searched for my words, I found that I was actually thinking in limited German in my head.

Thinking in the language you’re studying will help you to practice using the vocabulary you know. It will also help you to speak without worrying about producing perfect, complete sentences. And that leads me to:

5. Just go for it.

Seriously, don’t try and come up with the perfect sentence in your head before speaking. By the time you’re ready, the conversation will have totally changed course, and you’ll be that awkward dude harping back on a topic that’s been over for ten minutes.

Yes, you are going to sound like an idiot sometimes.

No, no one cares.

Have a sense of humor about it, and be ready to laugh at yourself as heartily as the next guy. If you are timid and hold back from throwing yourself into a conversation, you’ll never get far.