Not the Same Old Language-Learning Strategies




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My whole life I thought I was bad at languages. Used to excelling in academics, I slunk out of high school Spanish classes feeling like the village idiot. Not very encouraging! Immersion-style university French classes were an improvement, but while I could read and write a bit, hearing and speaking were a disaster. With no one in my family for generations able to speak a second language, I concluded I must be missing the bilingual chip.

Then one day, a few years ago, I shipped off to Europe for a couple of months. I prepared some Italian and French in advance, and — lo and behold! — in context, I found I could communicate. I shopped at the markets in Rome, Florence, and Venice, picking up words and phrases along the way. I began to use prego in all kinds of contexts Byki never taught me. It was thrilling!

I learned to navigate Venetian markets with help from kindly stand owners.


A little Italian sure came in handy when we lost our way in Tuscany.


In France my great triumph was asking if I could order a croque-madame to go . . . and then doing so. It was the ultimate confidence-building experience. No, none of it was complex (it was rudimentary!), but it gave me vision and hope.

The vision: if even baby skills yielded huge rewards for my travel experience, how much might fluency enrich my whole life? The hope: if I could indeed communicate and acquire language in context, which was radically different from my failed academic attempts, then perhaps I might one day really speak a second language . . .

. . . if I could live in the country for a couple of years.

Buuuuuuut, since that’s not in the cards for me in the foreseeable future (did I mention we’re making a cross-country move right now???), I’m seeking alternatives. Are there ways to become fluent without years of immersion? Ways that are totally different from the academic model? Apparently, yes! I’m finding a lot of exciting resources, ideas, and strategies. Perhaps nothing can replace immersion, yet immersion is no guarantee of fluency — and there’s a lot I can accomplish from my hometown.

Custom-ordering these sandwiches in Italian (we had no other choice in tiny Pienza!) was a true test of our endurance.


For example, did you know that you can take language tutoring via Skype? Did you know that it’s infinitely more affordable than doing it in person in the US? Work with a tutor from Ecuador or Guatemala, pay them a fair wage, and you’ll still come out light years ahead of typical private tutoring. Google is your friend in finding the right fit; just be sure to work with a language school or a website that gives you your tutor’s credentials, like or

Or did you know that you can chat, email, or Skype for free with other language learners around the world? Special websites, including, offer “language exchange” options, where you work with a native speaker of your target language who wants to learn your language (and if you’re an English speaker, that’s easy). You spend half the time conversing/writing in your language, and half in theirs.

There are local clubs too, of course. A friend of ours used to find a group of native Russian speakers to help her keep up her skills. is another network of travel and language enthusiasts. (These obviously works better in large cities.)

And then–then–there are the unconventional techniques for learning promoted by people like Tim Ferriss, the aforementioned Benny, and Andrew. These techniques not only aid the learning process at home, they would allow me to optimize any future immersion experiences.

Behold, a few resources my high school Spanish teacher never dreamed of:

For Learning Any Language


German would have been a life-saver in Dresden, where we found very little help for the English-speaking tourist.

Benny the Irish Polyglot’s Fluent in 3 Months
Fluency in 3 months isn’t really the point; achieving fluency as efficiently as possible is. At 21, the Benny spoke only English and “knew” he was bad at learning languages, since even studying abroad failed to make him fluent. Then he abandoned the academic model and thrived. Eight or 9 years later, he speaks nine languages fluently. Nine! Even though I haven’t purchased his Fluent in 3 Months course, I find his blog, forum, and free videos really helpful. He writes often about optimizing immersion, as well as learning from anywhere in the world. Consider this guest article he shared with his readers on using lyrical music or rap to develop the ability to hear word boundaries in connected speech. Or this interview of Tim Ferris, which is solid gold.

Tim Ferriss’s “Language Hacks”
Best known for the 4-Hour Workweek, Ferriss is an entrepreneur, world traveler, polyglot, performance athlete, best-selling author, brilliant marketer, and who knows what else. My husband could tell you all about the “what else,” but for now I’m mainly interested in his language “hacks” and learning techniques. That interview he did with Benny is great. Next, check out it his Learn Any Language in 3 Months blog post, and then you might move on to all of his language-related blost posts (13 at present count). If you’re hooked, check out his latest book, the 4-Hour Chef, a tome devoted to how to learn anything, including a special segment on languages. (He also has lots of ideas and resources for temporarily living abroad in the 4-Hour Workweek.)
I recently found this website via the author’s guest post on Benny’s blog. Using music, he teaches you to more accurately hear and reproduce foreign words and sounds. I’m looking forward to exploring the ideas and tips on his blog!


For Learning Spanish

Cozumel Snorkeling

Next time I’m in Mexico I hope to communicate in Spanish!
The site’s title, “How to Learn Spanish (Using Free Online Resources!)” and its tagline, “I show you how I use fun and interesting Spanish media like music videos, TV shows, and movies to learn Spanish” pretty much sum it up. Andrew, the site author, shares gobs of great information both on his website (the home page alone is chock-full; just scroll all the way down) and in his free newsletter.
Recommended by’s Andrew, Synergy Spanish is an affordable (under $70), instantly downloadable Spanish course that’s light years better than any other Spanish course I’ve tried. It follows the same principle that language hackers like Tim Ferriss recommend: learn to conjugate just a few basic verbs (I need, I want, I’m going to) and a bunch of infinitives, and add some essential vocabulary, and you instantly have a disproportionately great ability to communicate in a variety of situations. This is obviously just a starting point, but I was really impressed with how much I could say after just a few lessons. Marcus, the creator, also has a free newsletter with practical tips.


That’s all this beginner’s found so far, but each of these resources is a hub for finding dozens, maybe even hundreds, more. How fabulous is that?








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About the Author

Alison & Arthur I'm a young Houstonian offering this website based on my own healing experiences over the past ten years. A wife and mother, I spend lots of time and energy caring for my home and family, but with help, I still sneak in opportunities to volunteer, read good books, cook and eat spectacular food, travel, and further my (too many!) learning projects. Read the whole story.