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6 Things you need to learn any foreign language

FullSizeRender 8Aside from a good dictionary and daily consumption of excellent coffee, there are 6 things I believe anyone who wants to learn a foreign language needs throughout the entire language learning process. No, it is not memorizing 100 words a day, spending hours on pronunciation, or listening to the foreign language in your sleep (although that doesn’t sound like a bad idea!).

So, what are these six things you ask?

  • Motivation
  • Patience
  • Grace
  • Willpower
  • Purpose
  • Community

As someone who learned Turkish starting at the age of 22 and can now speak it fluently, let me explain.

I first moved to Turkey in 2013 when I was fresh out of college. I studied Psychology and I wanted to be a clinical psychologist. However, I also had an itch to learn a new world. I am not talking about vacation for a summer- I wanted to immerse myself in the culture of a people completely different than my own and see how they lived. So, I did a crazy thing. I moved overseas to Turkey with a few close friends and spent most of my time hanging out with college students, helping at local English clubs, volunteering at church, mentoring students and just absorbing all I could learn about this people. I didn’t expect that decision to change the rest of my life. So let’s start with maybe the most important one.


What drives you to learn a foreign language? Maybe you are a student studying Spanish at your university and you really need that A. Maybe you will do a semester abroad or vacation in Italy and want to be able to communicate with the locals. Perhaps you are in business and want to know how to interact in a professional and appropriate manner so you can build strong business relationships.

I believe learning the language of any people is the key to unlocking their culture and identity. How can you really understand a people without talking to them? My motivation was my desire to be able to speak to locals without being limited by my lack of language. I knew I needed to improve my Turkish to do this. I took one month of language school then stopped because it was too expensive and not a great use of my time. Instead, a Turkish friend I made at English club would meet me every week and teach me essential grammar that I then just practiced on my own. In exchange, I helped her with her English. My motivation was my desire to speak without limitation


Don’t believe any ad that tries to tell you that you will be fluent in 30 days. At best, you can teach yourself a few pieces of dialogue to get by in special circumstances, like grocery shopping or eating out. But if you really want to connect with people in their heart language and form real relationships, you will need to learn a lot more than “How much does this cost? Do you have it in blue?”

Learning a language takes an incredible amount of time, and it requires patience. You will experience frustration and wonder why things are not moving along more quickly. You will be mad when you have taught yourself the same word 5 times and still can’t remember it when you need it.

Have patience my friend, you WILL make it through.


Why do I say grace? Grace has to do with freely forgiving yourself when you are so upset with yourself for not being where you think you should be. Let’s just throw the word ‘should’ out the window. There is no should in language learning, only what is. You are a unique person. Some things will be hard for you that are easy for others and vice versa. Have grace with yourself when you do not meet your expectations. Have grace with yourself when you publicly make a mistake and people don’t know what you are saying, or you’ve just made a terrible social faux pas. Have grace with yourself, because you are putting your brain through incredible trauma by learning an entirely new language- thousands of words, sentence structures that may be completely opposite of your native language, rules that don’t feel natural, and people who speak a thousand miles an hour and don’t clearly pronounce their words. It isn’t easy, so have grace with yourself!


You will want to give up on this venture or settle for a lot less than you are capable of many times. You have to fight that urge and keep going. You have to demonstrate willpower to learn any language. What is willpower? Continuing to do something, even when you don’t want to, and doing it diligently. Keep engaging with the language even when you don’t want to. It is absolutely OKAY to disengage for a time, but at most you should disengage for 10%-15% of the time and push yourself to engage the rest of the time.

What do I mean by engage? Speak the language. Actively listen to the language. Ask yourself, “what do they mean by that?” whenever you hear native speakers say something that you don’t quite grasp. Engage with the spoken language as much as you can. One day, it just clicks.


Purpose is similar to motivation, but it is much more broad and lasts even when your motivation wanes. I had an initial desire to speak, and that motivated me. But my real purpose was to connect with women, build relationships, mentor students and share our lives. To me, learning the language was not just about acquiring knowledge, it was about connecting with people who I would otherwise never have been able to. I wanted to know them deeply. Remember my friend who tutored me? She became one of my best friends, and she was a bridesmaid in my wedding. My purpose was to build meaningful relationships, and that is exactly what happened.


What I mean by community is twofold here. First, if you are an expat abroad, I highly recommend having a small pocket of friends who are the same nationality as you and share your native language. Why? Because these friends can function as a place of rest and safe haven for you. Whenever I grew tired of speaking and failing at Turkish every day, I would meet up with some American friends for coffee and just feel this immense relief to be able to finally express myself to someone who understood! It is a needed retreat from language learning.

Second, you will need a community of native speakers who you regularly engage with in different settings. Are you a student abroad? Hang out with your classmates! Do you have any hobbies, like photography or writing? Join clubs where you can meet native speakers in another context. Do you practice any religion? Find others who share your beliefs. Having a more diverse community of native speakers will give you the opportunity to learn and speak your foreign language more diversely. You will learn way more from 20 people than you would from 2.

In sum, while apps like Duolingo, Babbel, and Busuu are great for learning vocabulary words and short dialogues, they will never be enough to teach you everything you need to know. There are many great resources and teachers out there; but if you can nurture these aforementioned qualities, you can persevere through the language learning process to fluency and even make some really great friends along the way!

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I hope you enjoyed this post! Let me know if you found any of my tips helpful, I’d love to hear feedback from you!

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Foreign Language Learning Expat Tips


9 thoughts on “6 Things you need to learn any foreign language”

  1. This is marvelous, Kelsey!!! Just what I needed to hear right now as I am enrolling in a Spanish I class this fall…these “tools” are just what I needed to focus on my reasons for attempting to learn another language at this late time in my life! Is there such a thing as being too old to learn?

    1. There is definitely no such thing as being too old to learn! Way to go, Nell. I am so impressed and I wish you the best as you learn Spanish. I do hope my tools are of great help to you! I learned them by experience!


  2. Love it!! I’m currently trying to learn Japanese and feeling kind of overwhelmed by the amount of things to learn! Your post motivates me to really push myself into this learning habit 🙂 Thank you!

    1. That makes me so happy to hear! Stick with it and you’ll be so encouraged by your progress over time. If you can find a Japanese pen-pal who you can chat with who may want to practice their english with you, then that would be such a great trade-off for both of you. I have always wanted to visit Japan! I hope I can go in the near future. 🙂

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