How Can I Improve My Foreign Language Skills?

This must be the most common question a conference interpreter gets from the participants they talk to. We know that there are many people of all professions in the business world, academia, law or medicine who want to improve their language skills or learn a new language. Here are some of our practical tips to facilitate this process.

Let us start with a caveat:

This blog post has no scientific basis whatsoever. We simply want to share some of the methods we developed based on our practical experience.

Set realistic goals

Who would not want to learn to speak and write fluently or even crack jokes in a new language within a week? But we’re all human and we need to be realistic. Make sure you set achievable and realistic goals; the higher the bar you set, the higher the risk of stumbling and giving up. I can almost hear you say, “Well, what kind of a goal should I set?” For example, start watching a TV show in another language with subtitles; in two weeks, watch an episode without subtitles and see how much you can follow. If you understand most things, then you’ve already started to improve your skills. We recommend that you watch TV shows and movies with subtitles in the original language; this will help you improve your understanding of both the written language and different accents.

Remind yourself often why you want to improve your foreign language skills.

Why you want to learn or improve a foreign language is key. No matter how much we want our language skills to be better, all of us start to have difficulties at some stage. In times of difficulty, think about why you are trying to improve your foreign language skills and what you have achieved so far in order to motivate yourself. For example: “In the last meeting, I was able to ask questions to the speaker in English without any difficulty. In the next meeting, I will make a presentation and I want to be able to answer questions easily.” Keep reading, writing, listening and trying to understand!

Focus on what you will use the foreign language for.

If you are in the business world and your aim is to communicate and do business with your foreign counterparts, then you should focus on speaking and comprehension. You don’t have to drown yourself in grammar and get overwhelmed. The more purpose-oriented you are, the better results you will get. In order to reach the goals you set without getting distracted or overwhelmed, be sure to clearly explain to the teachers who are with you on your foreign language journey the purpose of your journey. We should note that private lessons can be very helpful.

Read for pleasure

Read foreign language books or articles on whatever is of interest to you. You do not necessarily have to read about the subject you want to master. You can also read about your hobbies such as sports, cinema, gardening or cooking; you can find many foreign language sources about these topics. In addition, you can find many interesting and easy to read short stories and novels in a foreign language. As a result, you will be able to discover new horizons in an area that you enjoy while reaching new heights in your foreign language skills. Many birds with one stone!

Build your vocabulary organically

You can build your vocabulary by memorizing a dictionary or a word list but this would be an extremely overwhelming method. You will also notice that you forget the words you memorize in this manner more quickly. If you learn words by hearing and using them in context, you are less likely to forget them. You ask how? For example, if you are a lawyer or a doctor, find a TV show about lawyers or doctors and start watching it in a foreign language. Write down the words you understood thanks to the context, note their meanings next to them and go over the list a few times. You will be surprised at how naturally you will start using these expressions when you talk to your foreign clients or patients!

Trust us, language has no age.

Don’t think “I am too old to improve my language skills.” Adults can also learn a new language or improve their language skills. When there is a will, there is a way. Nothing can stop you! Languages have two dimensions, an organic dimension and a systematic one. While children learn languages organically, adults learn them systematically. There are so many people who have improved their language skills and learned a new language as an adult! You simply need to work at it and persevere.

Immerse yourself in the language to gain fluency

Who would want all the effort they put into improving their language skills to go to waste? As people approach their goal of speaking correctly and fluently, the same question always comes to mind: “When will I become fluent?” Although it is difficult to define fluency, we know that you have to have a holistic approach to languages. Every language is a combination of its culture, lifestyle and social norms. It will be difficult to immerse yourself in a language without engaging in these aspects. Spend time in the countries where the language you want to improve is spoken as a mother tongue as often as you can; make friends, go shopping, order a meal, make jokes! Don’t worry about making mistakes. After all, you are not speaking in your mother tongue, you will inevitably make mistakes. Ask the people you are speaking with to correct your mistakes. Nothing is more fun than learning a language by experiencing it firsthand and making friends!

So these are the hints based on our limited experience and our own methods. Of course, these tips may not be exhaustive or may have shortcomings; let’s repeat the warning we made at the beginning:

This blog post has no scientific basis!

Verda Kıvrak

Conference Interpreter