Traveling – it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.

Ibn Battuta

Dear Clever Expat,

Language learning and culture learning go together, like a pair of comfortable shoes. And like shoes, learning a new language through the lens of a cultural exploration can take you to unknown places.

As a lifelong language student, I know that I will never be able to speak Spanish like I was born here. I will never know what it’s like to grow up in this culture. Instead, I must learn to appreciate every conversation, every interaction that teaches me about my new home, and every celebration that helps me explore new facets of my expat lifestyle.

While immersion is a great way to learn languages at some point, most of us will struggle by being dropped into a new language where no cognitive bridges are being built using our native language. So let’s talk about how to build those bridges on the first step to fluency.

People come to language learning in many different ways. Whether it’s through speaking, listening, reading, or writing, the important part is to just get started. With the technology available now, new languages are more accessible than ever. Today, I’ll share some of the language tools that have helped me… and maybe they will help you, too!

  • Vocabulary building apps: Duolingo gamifies the learning process, turning vocabulary building and grammar exercises into points, streaks, and adorable little owl mascots (who are surprisingly strict about your daily practice!). Memrise uses spaced repetition and quirky mnemonics (think of a Viking riding a unicycle to remember the word for “bicycle”) to keep things interesting. Babbel focuses on practical conversation skills, with lessons designed to get you speaking from day one. However, each of these is fairly single-use and are best used for the initial exposure to new languages.

  • Conversation skill builders: The Pimsleur method is a fantastic approach that emphasizes listening and speaking to build fluency. This is fantastic for “tuning your ear” to the language of your host country.

  • Comprehensive learning tools: These tools are effective if you have regular time to study. Frankly, this is a little more personal. While many people like Rosetta Stone, I find that notetaking is basically impossible and tends to make my language learning more frustrating.

    Instead, I prefer, a tool that makes the most of your English skills to build cognitive connections to other languages. Every lesson introduces a few new vocabulary words in context, someone explains every word and concept in English, and the activities cement the concepts in a powerful way.

  • Online classes: I have less experience in this area, but I really like It’s a tool that combines online tutors with online resources.

  • General tools: Aside from these tools, resources like Google Translate, Quizlet, and Anki Flashcards can be used to really reinforce vocabulary and conceptual learning. If you are really dedicated to learning a new language, then a handheld flashcard and reinforcement tool will become essential.

Regardless of how you choose to use technology to learn new languages, practice and dedication to the learning process is critical. Additionally, conversation is still essential to truly learn language. None of these resources are magic wands to transform you overnight. Language learning is a process of training your brain to think differently, which takes practice and persistence.

If you haven’t visited the Expat Bookshelf yet, I’ve assembled a variety of resources to help you plan your move abroad. There’s no single path to becoming an expat. There are, however, many common experiences that expats and future expats will encounter, and the resources in the Expat Bookshelf are great starting points for a variety of questions.

Keep exploring!

The Clever Expat

Today's Bookshelf Topic

Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language Fast and Never Forget It

Gabriel Wyner

The greatest challenge to learning a foreign language is the challenge of memory; there are just too many words and too many rules. For every new word we learn, we seem to forget two old ones, and as a result, fluency can seem out of reach. Fluent Forever tackles this challenge head-on. With empathy for the language-challenged and abundant humor, Wyner deconstructs the learning process, revealing how to build a foreign language in your mind from the ground up.

Formats: PaperbackKindleAudiobookSpiral-bound

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