August 24, 2015
3 min read

Speaking in Tongues: Learning a Foreign Language. . .Fast

By Elizabeth Woodson

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Whether you're planning a trip to France for a CME event or a family vacation in China, you can learn at least a little bit of the lingo to speak with the natives, no matter how busy you are.


It’s one of those desires generally filed away in the pipe dreams drawer: sure, you’d love to brush up on your French, or become fluent in Spanish, or try your hand at Mandarin, but between appointments, rounds, and patient files, who has the time? Turns out, you do. Language learning has progressed significantly from the days of daily, time-consuming grammar exercises. The past several decades have seen a wealth of studies conducted to better understand how people cognitively learn new languages. And the general consensus: the forced march through the grammatical syllabus is no longer the best path. “We first learn how to speak by absorbing our native tongue,” explains Marty Abbott, executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. “The same thing applies to learning a second language. You hear it in contextual situations and take it in before you can produce it.” 

Immersion programs involving frequent interaction between students and instructors are still the best way to go about the process. “You’re able to experience an organic trial-and-error period,” says Abbott. “You make mistakes. Eventually, you understand those mistakes, correct them, and become more accurate.” But lucky for wannabe polyglots short on time, a host of modern-day learning devices, from game-filled apps and podcasts, to local groups and online social networks, are attempting to recreate the process while helping students pick up foreign languages in fun, time-sensitive fashion. 

Just need a quick foreign language refresher? Time to whip out those trusty flash cards. . .or rather, the 21st century version of them. ANKIAPP puts a decidedly modern spin on the concept with its library of 80 million-plus flashcards accessible from your computer or mobile device. The app tests your comprehension during minute-or-less sessions, and then provides immediate feedback. Progress and feedback are tracked in the cloud so you can access your program across devices. AnkiApp also prioritizes flash cards based upon past results–which means you spend more time bolstering your weak spots and don’t waste energy on material you’ve already mastered. 

Research shows that one of the best ways to learn a new language is to listen to it–but not in the way you’re used to. Podcasts replace your monotone high school French teacher, who spent all class spouting infinite verb constructions, with engaging hosts who take you through culturally-relevant contextual situations and use them to connect you with a foreign language and help you better understand its grammar rules and tonal nuances—all in 30 minutes or less. We love LANGUAGEPOD101. COM, which offers podcast-based programs for 31 different languages (and includes PDFs of lesson notes and virtual flash cards with its subscriptions), SLOW CHINESE, which unhurriedly reads short personal narratives of real Chinese people in Mandarin, and NEWS IN SLOW, a language-learning program built around hearing the news presented slowly in Spanish, French, or Italian. 

The latest versions of language learning apps and programs allow you to bring structure to your linguistic pursuits while also having fun. ROCKET LANGUAGES, LIVING LANGUAGE, and ROSETTA STONE remain favorites for their pitch-perfect mix of audio and video tutorials, games, interactive discussion boards, and online tutors and speaking coaches. But a number of younger contenders are also innovating in the space. DUOLINGO is a free app that's got science backing up its effectiveness. A recent independent study conducted by the City University of New York and the University of South Carolina found that, on average, 34 hours spent enjoying Duolingo’s game-heavy lessons are equivalent to one university semester of language study. Supplement these programs with WESPEKE, a free online social networking service that connects people looking to practice a language with native speakers. 

Immersion remains the best way to learn a new language. Many universities, adult learning centers, and public libraries offer immersive language classes. Also consider joining a group of your peers. Visit MEETUP. COM to find social conversation groups near you. For the virtually-inclined, THE POLYGLOT CLUB is a social network that connects people–online and off– who want to practice speaking a foreign tongue.