How to Learn a Language (When You’re an Adult)

you can never understand one language until you understand at least two

As you guys know, I’ve been taking French since early last fall. A few weeks ago, the Level 4 class began. Even after being exposed to the language for weeks and months on end, this class has been a whole new ball game. At Fluent City, where I’m taking the courses, only native speakers are allowed to teach this class, and I’ve found the students in it are way more advanced. I think that’s because in earlier levels, the types of people taking classes were those who had maybe done Rosetta Stone on their own, or had taken French in high school years and years ago. In this class? There are people who have lived in France. Or speak it regularly with their (French) spouse and (French) friends. Or majored in it in college. Totally intimidating, right?

But, I’m not getting discouraged — which, I’ll admit, was my first instinct. Instead, I’ve been trying to hone in on the lessons I’ve learned after trying to learn a language as an adult over the last half year. I know that learning a new language is a goal/dream for so many people, so I thought I’d share some tips on what I’ve discovered with you today. Hopefully, these will encourage and inspire you to start learning and not give up!

STOP TRANSLATING WEB PAGES: Whenever I used to land on pages like Sézane and Garance Doré, the first thing I would do would be to either switch to the site’s English version, or have Google translate it for me within Chrome. Now? I really, really try not to do that. It’s like a pop quiz — out of nowhere, I have to take a minute and try and think about what I’m reading. Two things happen when you do this: one, you realize how much you actually can read and interpret in another language, and two, you end up being exposed to colloquialisms (which is a good thing). There have been a few times I’ve read a Garance essay and not known what a phrase meant, but when I Googled it, realized it was a French idiom. Knowing these little phrases is what makes your language skills sound more legit!

SPLURGE ON THE INTERNATIONAL GLOSSIES: The first time I ever splurged on a copy of Vogue Paris, I had serious doubt. The magazine stand I found it at was charging $15 for a single issue. Ouch! But, after a while, I realized it was a good value. For one thing, I can’t plow through a magazine written entirely in French at the same speed as an English one — it takes me months (yes, months). But the other thing is that a French magazine provides a lot of learning benefits because of the contextual clues it provides. A fashion mag like Vogue Paris isn’t so different from its American counterpart, or other style magazines. The way the book is laid out, and the types of topics it covers are all really similar, so you have a ton of context to help you through vocab words you don’t know. Plus, magazines inherently give you some choices of what to tackle — front of book pieces (like a short piece on a new skin cream) are easy to digest and can be read in a few minutes; longer features can be tackled when you have more time to sit, study and look up words. And, magazines give you pretty pictures to look at while you’re learning. What’s not to love?!  

paris buildings

EXPOSE YOURSELF EVERYDAY — EVEN IN THE DOWNTIME: I paid for a couple flashcard apps to load on my phone — this one and this one. I try and use these on the subway. They’re somewhat effective. Sometimes, I find it’s kind of hard to concentrate and really make connections between the words I’m seeing on a phone and translating them to something meaningful that will help me remember — but I also think this is a function of sitting next to strangers and getting jostled around while on a train (when you’re learning a language, location really can be everything). But I’ve definitely picked up a few new verbs and random vocab words, and again, the frequent exposure helps.

TALK IS DEFINITELY NOT CHEAP: A student in my last class recommended this website called SharedTalk, where you can connect to people who speak the language you’re trying to learn and chat online, in person. I’ve found most people end up connecting there, then want to talk to you on Skype — I had to scramble to create a new account NOT associated with my name or work, for obvious privacy reasons! If you’re old enough to remember chatting with total strangers in chat rooms, or chatting up strangers on programs like ICQ way back in the day, this is basically the same. It’s brought about all kinds of awkward moments and situations that I have not experienced since I was a teen. Not on the A/S/L level (ha!!), but more people wanting to know about you or video chat with you and you’re just not sure if you want to. I think I need to find a real, live language partner here in NY. Preferably female. As a heads up, along with SharedTalk, iTalki is another super popular language networking site, that’s a lot prettier than SharedTalk. I like these things in theory, but I get kind of creeped out by all the dudes wanting to friend me. Regardless though, having more opportunities to speak the language you’re trying to learn is absolutely critical to getting anywhere. I might just have to suck it up!

Update: Since I wrote this post, I invested in the professional tutoring on iTalki and really loved it! In addition to the language partner chats I mentioned above, iTalki is a great resource to find certified language instructors. You can search by location, and see how fluent they are in your native language and the one you’re trying to learn. I worked with two different tutors, and both were fantastic. We met over Skype! With the first tutor we did a lot of conversation practice; the second one I hired created more structured one-on-one classes, with exercises and even a little homework. I ended up really liking this aspect of iTalki.

paris sunset from the louvre

BE AGGRESSIVE, B-E AGGRESSIVE: Sometimes in class, I literally have no idea what’s being said, or I’m confused when it seems like one grammar point seems to contradict another. I’ve mastered two important phrases: J’ai une question!! (I have a question!!) and Comment dit on…? (How do you/we say…?). The other thing is that when an instructor asks for volunteers, it can feel like you’re back in grade school — total crickets and no one wants to go first. I’ve learned that raising my hand and offering myself as a sacrifice is really beneficial. It’s in these one-on-one exchanges with the instructor that I learn the most, get corrected, and can ask questions. You’re not in high school anymore — it’s okay to be that annoying person who seems like they’re bucking for an A+. Actually, I think your classsmates appreciate it, and benefit from all the questions, too.

GET COMFORTABLE WITH DISCOMFORT : It can be slow going, especially when you can’t immerse yourself in the language 24/7, like you would if you were living in a country that spoke it. That’s ok. Just keep going! The biggest key I’ve found to learning a new language as an adult is to learn to be okay with being uncomfortable. You’re going to make a ton of mistakes, probably feel embarrassed, and have no idea what you’re doing. Get over it, and keep trying. And that’s probably a good lesson for many other things in life, anyway! Trust me when I say, if you’re serious about picking up a language and can’t immerse yourself in it, settle into how awkward it is. It’s the only way you’ll learn. Sometimes when I hear people speaking French on the subway, I’ll randomly try and speak to them. Sometimes they think I’m nuts. Other times, they smile and say something back. Having those types of (short) conversations in the real world gives you so much confidence. And let’s be honest, French tourists in New York are super appreciative of the help!

Here are a ton of resources that I’ve learned about on my own and through my classes:
Word Reference (the forums here are amazing)
Fluent in 3 Months
IE Languages
Conversation Exchange
Tex’s French Grammar
Ma France (this really cool series that BBC put together to learn French)
BBC Languages
Quizlet (this verb flashcard set is great)

Have you tried learning a language as an adult? What helped you become successful?


Images: ‘Paris Ferris Wheel’ by Derek Key; ‘Paris-buildings’ by JPhilPG; ‘Paris Sunset from the Louvre Window’, Dimitry B. All licensed/used under Creative Commons; some graphics and photo edits added by me.


  1. 4.30.14

    This post is so on point when it comes to learning a second language. One day, you will wake up and realize you just dreamt in French…or in my case, Italian.

  2. 4.30.14
    Alicia said:

    My fiance speaks French fluently and he tries to teach me little phrases or words but I get so embarrassed. The only terms I know are from ballet or I Love Lucy. But this article is so helpful in making me want to start from the very beginning and not be embarrassed or ashamed! I’m going to have to check out where you take classes since I’m also in New York!

  3. 4.30.14
    Mrs Type A said:

    I’ve always wanted to learn Italian and Hebrew, but I’m afraid I don’t have enough time to commit to actually make it happen. How much time do you spend daily/weekly with this?

    • 4.30.14
      Victoria McGinley said:

      Hi Mrs Type A! You know, I think it’s one of those things that the more you put into it, the more you get. If you started taking a class once a week, you’re likely to learn something… but if you wanted to become truly fluent, you have to spend a lot more time with the language. In my classes, there are people who approach the language casually, and are just looking to brush up a bit, so they’re fine with only coming to the class weekly and not practicing outside of it. I think it’s all about what your goals are! Me personally, I have a reminder in my ToDoist to study at least 15 minutes a day. Some days it doesn’t happen; some days I can do lots more! If anything, I try and listen to music in French and read an article once a day!

      • 4.30.14
        Mrs Type A said:

        That’s really helpful, thanks!!

  4. 4.30.14
    Corinne said:

    Those are all great tips! The foreign magazines and websites are always a great resource. I’ve been working to learn German the past few years and blogging as I go. I’ve found online TV and videos are also a great resource, too.

  5. 4.30.14

    This is a great post! Thank you for sharing your tips. I only really knew about DuoLingo but definitely want to check out these other sites…it’s great how much effort you’ve put into this little endeavor! Perhaps actually getting better at French can be added to my list of goals :)

  6. 4.30.14
    Heidi said:

    When I was on study abroad in Cannes in college, I was placed into a higher-lever French class because my French grammar skills were quite good, but when I got to the class I had no idea that my conversational comprehension was so behind. I sat there as people chatted in French all around me and felt so lost and intimidated. It took me basically the whole semester to keep up with them, but it really is the only way to learn. Immersion truly is the best way to become fluent. Keep at it and remember that every sentence you speak makes you better!

  7. 4.30.14
    Elise said:

    Love this post! Reading about you learning French made me (FINALLY) sign up for Italian language classes. I have been taking it for the past couple months and love it! What you’re saying here is SO right on point – awesome advice – and thanks for all of the great list of resources! My Italian instructor told us to watch movies/TV/listen to radio in Italian just to absorb it while we’re doing other things – she recommended – it’s pretty cool. That website also has French, so maybe that will help you too!

  8. 4.30.14

    I absolutely LOVE that you’re doing this! I actually went to french school until I was 17. Most of my peers (now friends) hailed from France or french speaking regions in Africa. I came from a family who knew very little, if any, french. It was definitely difficult but I’m so, so glad I stuck it out! And I can’t agree more with your tips and tricks. I found that reading french books, listening to french radio or watching french movies really, really helped!

  9. 4.30.14
    jamie said:

    I also love that you are doing this! You are spot on on all of these tips..and to me the key would be exposing yourself to it every day, especially if you aren’t totally immersed in it. That top photo is especially great. :)

  10. 4.30.14
    Nnenna said:

    I studied Spanish and French in high school and college, but over the last few years my skills have really gone down (which makes me so sad) because I haven’t been speaking/practicing at all! I really want to get back into and I find these tips really helpful. I’m definitely going to check out the resources you listed above!

  11. 4.30.14
    jillian said:

    very interesting! i’d like to learn how to speak farsi since my husband and his family speak it but i should to wrap my head around how hard/expensive it might be! xo jillian – cornflake dreams

  12. 4.30.14

    Hi, I only just discovered your blog a little while ago and am enjoying all of your different posts. I have even gone back into archives to read some old ones! I just started my blog around a month ago so your articles on blogging hints have been very interesting and helpful, in particular. Anyway, I did try learning Italian a couple of years ago. I went to a class at a junior (2 year) college nearby and it was a complete failure. I probably learned two phrases and that’s it! Anyway, reading your post makes me want to take it up again! Thanks for your great blog!

    Sheila Irwin

  13. 4.30.14
    Rebecca said:

    This was very motivating.
    My dad has been trying to teach me French since I was a child, but I always find myself getting discouraged and feeling like it is a waste of time. But your right I should get comfortable with discomfort, not everything comes easy.

  14. 4.30.14

    My mom has a degree in French, is fluent in Italian, & at one point was also fluent in German. I totally missed the language gene! I struggled in French but hope at one point to take a class or do something to learn it because it’s such a disappointment to only be able to speak English.

    Put it on my bucket list!

  15. 4.30.14

    Great tips! I keep meaning to start learning Italian since my boyfriend’s family all speaks it.

  16. 4.30.14

    love the stop translating webpages tip! my mom and I are headed to Cannes in less than 2 weeks — I was a Spanish minor in college, but am excited to be immersed in another language for a little over a week! good luck with the french classes. xxo

  17. 4.30.14
    Maria said:

    Fellow New Yorker here (well, actually, I just moved to Jersey City but I work in Midtown). I’ve taken about 10 years of French (including a semester abroad during law school) but for several years in a row now have had 0 opportunities to practice. How about starting a conversation club or a book club in French?

    • 4.30.14
      Victoria McGinley said:

      That would be so fun!! Conversation club for me (a book club? I can barely talk about my job in French, ha!). It’d be fun to meet up twice a month or something!

  18. 5.1.14
    Rose said:

    Love these posts, Victoria!! I’m seriously looking at Fluent City right now…I studied French for 9 years (and even have part of my degree in it) but it’s likely pretty pitiful where I am with it right now! Duolingo is AMAZING, though, and I’ve definitely brushed up a little with it and also on my Spanish (I’ve always been at basic conversational level with it since it’s so similar to French) and even started learning a little Italian. Regardless, I need to get serious and get back into a class for now! If we cross paths in the city maybe we’ll be able to converse in French, ha :)

  19. 5.3.14
    Oliver said:

    During my adult time I learned different language totally following different way. I’m a Bengali and learned English as a second language through watching Hollywood movies and English news a lot. It’s interesting way to learn English for me. Thanks.

  20. 5.4.14
    Deirdre said:

    This was on my list of 14 things to do in 2014. I haven’t started it yet, but I might just invest in a few French classes at Fluent City. Funny enough, my friend is in the video talking about the classes on the website. Such a small world!

  21. 5.6.14
    Bekah said:

    Great tips, Victoria! Thank you! I’m really stoked that you’re accomplishing a dream (one verb at a time) and are willing to share insight on it.

  22. 5.9.14
    Giulia said:

    I found TV to be really helpful. If you can find some of the French channels online or the French news channel with your cable provider turn it on. Just having it run will really help you. Also watch French movies with subtitles off or American TV shows in French – the translation has to be simplified to match the speaking pattern. ER in French really, really helped me ;)
    I grew up in a bi-lingual house and then learned 3 languages over the years. Keep it up!

  23. 5.11.14
    Sylvia said:

    It’s amazing that you try and learn french ( I am french) and still think it’s one of the most difficult language to learn. My husband is British and we live in London and he struggles to speak french :) Good luck! Don’t hesitate if you need any help!
    Love your blog always have!
    xo S.

  24. 5.12.14
    Juliette said:

    I’ve been teaching English (and learning German) for almost 7yrs now. The German-learning actually started back in high school, but I never got stellar grades, despite having a tutor (total payback now, let me tell you!).

    The things I do -and tell my students to do- is to let yourself be continuously be exposed to the language, and engage with it yourself. Listen to online radio/news stations, read blogs, follow people/orgs on social media so you’ll be tempted to click & read things in that language, and definitely try to find some kind of tandem partner to speak with (and who will correct/highlight your most common mistakes).

    The speaking thing (as you’ve mentioned) is huge, and can be hard to do. Attending a German church was a huge help for me. I know that the French Embassy in NYC is connected to a few French cultural centers, so you can see plays and be part of discussion groups/classes that are all in French for free, or a nominal fee. Might be another fun option to explore!

  25. 5.28.15
    Kelly Williams said:

    I’m totally late to the game, but found this post on the side of your website. I was so relieved to read it since I am currently trying to learn French myself. I have taken classes, used Duolingo, flashcards, etc. I am using the BrainScape app now, but I still worry about whether it’s working. Since I’m traveling to France in September, I guess i’ll find out!

  26. 1.23.16
    Monika said:

    Great tips! I learnt French as a teenager/young adult and I would add not to be embarrassed/intimidated by French making fun of your “cute” accent or being afraid you are going to say something wrongly, just go for it and everybody will make fun at first but then they will admire you for how great you speak! Good luck!

  27. 8.9.17
    Oliver said:

    SharedTalk doesn’t exist anymore, but can add, excellent site! :)

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