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Your biggest language-learning questions answered by the linguists at Babbel

We’ve all been there. You’re planning a trip to a foreign country, watching a foreign movie or overhearing a multilingual friend on the phone and think, “I want to learn another language!” Whatever your reason, it’s a great — and incredibly useful — goal to set for yourself. And since most of us have recently found ourselves with a bit more free time on our hands, there’s no time like the present to pick up a new skill.

But where do you start? What language do you choose? How do you find the best learning method for you? Questions like these can sometimes feel a bit overwhelming, and sometimes even deter us from taking those important first steps. That’s why Skyscanner has partnered with the team at Babbel to answer all of your biggest language-learning questions — so you can rest assured that learning a new language is something that you can (and should) do. And to make it all just a little bit easier, Babbel is offering Skyscanner users in the UK up to 20% off a subscription to its top-rated language app! Further details can be found at the bottom of this post.

So read on for tips, tricks and best language-learning practises, as well as a short video featuring common phrases (in multiple languages) that will surely come in handy in today’s virtual workplace. 

Your biggest language-learning questions answered

We sat down with Elin Asklöv, a learning content project manager at Babbel, to find out what it really takes to learn a new language. Originally from Linköping, Sweden, Elin speaks Swedish, German and English. She’s also an aspiring Italian speaker and brushing up on her Spanish while working in the Babbel NYC office.

How do I choose a new language to learn?

The most important factor here is going to be your motivation: which language are you most motivated to learn? That looks different for each person, but it goes without saying that most people choose a language that they see themselves speaking in the future. Maybe it’s Spanish for talking to your neighbours, Russian for connecting with your grandparents or Chinese for business relations. Usefulness isn’t always a factor for motivation though — I know plenty of people who have learned languages that only a couple of million people speak and they have absolutely thrived doing so. If a particular language speaks to you for whatever reason — you often travel to places where it’s spoken, you like the sound of it, or you have a deep interest in a culture that speaks it — then that’s the language you should focus on! Some languages are easier to learn, for sure. But if you lack real intrinsic motivation, even they will become difficult, whereas a true burning passion for a language will make everything along the way more manageable.

How long does it usually take to learn the basics? And to become fluent?

The boring answer is, unfortunately, it depends. How typologically close the new language is to your native — i.e., if it shares the same alphabet, is in the same language family, etc. — is one factor. Another is your individual learning style and how used you are to learning. And, again, how motivated you are makes a big difference. All that said, many learners will be able to have a basic small-talk conversation, tell people a bit about themselves and ask simple questions (if the other person speaks slowly and clearly) after just a few weeks of regular study. In one study by the City University of New York (CUNY), beginners only needed about 15 hours of studying (using Babbel) to gain a college semester’s worth of Spanish.

Fluency is trickier. First, we have to define what we mean by fluency. Do we mean sounding like a native speaker and never making mistakes? Many people, myself included, aren’t there even after decades of immersion and speaking the language every day — but, in my opinion, that’s also not a meaningful goal to set for yourself. I prefer the definition of fluency that says you should be able to go about your everyday life without feeling that your language skills inhibit you in doing so. Getting that far does take a bit of time and practice. The U.S. Foreign Service Institute has standards for how long it takes to reach working proficiency in each language. They estimate Category I languages like Spanish, French and Danish are the easiest for an English speaker to learn, and they will require about 600 to 750 hours of study to master. Category IV languages like Mandarin and Japanese are the most difficult, requiring 2,200 hours for relative fluency.

While these estimates can help you compare the effort needed to pick up specific languages, again, how long it will take you really depends on your time and devotion. 

What are the most effective study methods?

At Babbel, we believe the method of learning, reviewing and practising are equally important! You can learn a lot on your own, especially with an app or program that provides guidance, explains difficult topics and nudges you to learn and review at specific times. But ultimately, we are usually learning languages to be able to talk to others, so it’s important to practice speaking, too. Even talking to yourself (or a pet) is a suitable method, and it helps to hear how your voice sounds in your new language.

I also believe in trying to immerse yourself in the language as much as possible. Listen to music and look up the lyrics, stream movies or TV shows with subtitles or read children’s books. It’s not only a fun and varied way to learn, but also incredibly helpful with connecting the dots from your grammar lessons or pronunciation practice.

How much time do I need to spend studying?

The most important thing is to follow a learning plan that you can stick to, so don’t overcommit! At Babbel, we actually recommend just 15 minutes a day to avoid cognitive overload. Your brain needs time between study sessions to process everything you’ve learned. If you have more time, go ahead and ramp up your schedule a bit — just make sure you’re leaving enough time to digest and review.

What are some hacks or brain training tips I can use to learn more quickly?

For a lot of people, it’s beneficial to combine learning with some form of exercise. Studies have shown that aerobic exercise can help the brain build the neural networks needed for learning. Other learners tend to learn and retain concepts more effectively by teaching them to others, even if it’s just their imaginary classmates or a pet. Others benefit from doodling or writing down information in a language-learning journal. Go ahead and try out some useful hacks and tips, but don’t stress too much about finding exactly what’s perfect for you right from the start. Human minds are built for learning, and often, we just need to be patient and mindful of the process and to remember to celebrate the little wins every day.

What are some good ways to stay motivated when it gets tough?

Most of us reach a point when the honeymoon is over and we’ve hit a learning plateau. This often happens when we struggle to express more complex topics, grammar gets daunting and there are fewer quick wins than in the early stages of learning. 

That’s when you need to remember why you’re doing this in the first place! Having a clearly formulated motivation and goal will help a lot. Also, you have to look back at everything you’ve learned so far and be proud of it. You started with just “hola” or “bonjour” — look at you now! I also think it’s essential to take a little break from the active learning process and find your interest in the language again. Use things like music, movies, pictures of places you want to go, or even just translate a song you like — just try to rekindle the love!

What do you feel is the single most important thing to always do/remember when learning a new language?

I always try to remember the sheer magic of languages. That might sound a bit silly, but think about it. There are 7,000 languages in the world, and you — YOU — can pick one, learn it and communicate with someone who wouldn’t have understood you otherwise. 

Also, bilingualism is, in fact, more common worldwide than monolingualism. We are wired to learn new things all the time. The fact that our brains can process and produce something that seemed utterly alien only a short time ago is fantastic and something worth remembering and feeling happy about. 

Why do most people want to learn new languages? 

There are probably almost as many individual motivations as there are learners. But at Babbel, we see a handful of common reasons people want to learn: for travelling and spending time abroad, for a partner or family member who speaks the language, for career opportunities, and just out of general interest and as a meaningful hobby. 

Which is the most popular language to learn?

Unsurprisingly, English is by far the most popular language to learn worldwide. For English speakers, Spanish, Mandarin and French are popular second languages. At Babbel, Spanish is the most-studied language in all of the English-speaking world.

Language tips for the virtual workplace 

Many of us have had to acclimate to a much more virtual work environment than in the past. And whether or not remote working is brand new or the norm for you, there are probably a few key phrases you’ve heard on repeat — perhaps a few too many times! To ensure you’re well-equipped for those Zoom calls with your colleagues abroad, here are three key phrases — in multiple languages — you need to know to smoothly navigate the digital workplace. 

It’s a great time to learn a new language 

With your language-learning questions answered and some extra time on your hands, there’s no excuse to put off learning a new language any longer. The best part? If you decide to dive in, Babbel is here to help. Skyscanner users in the UK will receive 20% off a 12-month subscription to its top-rated language app! Click here for more details, and take the first step on your language-learning journey.

About Babbel: Babbel is the best-selling language learning app with millions of active subscribers across the world. Courses designed by language experts — not machines — guarantee that you quickly pick up language skills that are useful from the start. With over 10,000 hours of content in 14 languages, there’s something for everyone, at every skill level.

A quick note: Skyscanner may receive commissions when you click our links and make purchases. However, this does not impact our reviews and comparisons. We try our best to keep things fair and balanced to help you make the best choice for you!

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