China was the hardest place I ever traveled to. I also consider my ten-month tenure in China to be one of the most rewarding of my life. Predictably, these two things go hand-in-hand.
I spent my first six months teaching English in China, in a city of almost 9 million people: Xi’an. It was dirty and different. People awed at my white skin. And nobody—and I mean nobody—spoke a lick of English.
When I wasn’t traveling to remote regions of the country, I spent my last four months in China living and working as a cocktail bartender in Beijing. When I tell people I worked in a cocktail bar in China, they get a funny look on their face.
“HOW?” is the primary question. “You don’t speak Chinese…do you?”
They assume that, because I didn’t live in China for years on end, there’s no possible way I could have picked up this “incredibly difficult” language.
Chinese (in this case, I’m referring to Mandarin), has a reputation for being one of the most difficult languages to learn. And I’ll be the first one to admit—it’s not easy.
I spent six months living in central China and learned conversational Chinese in that much time—or less.
The reason people think Chinese is so hard is that it’s a tonal language, much like Thai and Vietnamese. But tonal languages aren’t as hard to learn as one might think.
As Jeremy Ginsburg writes on Fluent in 3 Months, “I’ve yet to hear about a language that went extinct only because it was so difficult to learn.”
He natively speaks five languages.
Ginsburg prescribes that tonal languages are actually easier to speak because there is a smaller vocabulary to learn! His reasoning makes a lot of sense.
Whether foreign or native, languages are spoken by people—just like you and me—all over the world. There is no defining reason why one language would be more difficult to speak than another.
The only difference between languages is that they’re…different. Which means they’re all equally as difficult to learn.
So, what’s the best way to learn a language? I’m glad you asked.
Our Brains Do the Hard Part—Don’t Overthink It
I’m not an expert in linguistics, but I have traveled to a few places here and there (35+ countries). And in each place, I pick up at least a few words in the local language. Never with a guidebook.
Scientifically speaking, our brains are wired to learn. We don’t simply hear words at face value—our brains are constantly analyzing what we hear, how certain words, syllables, and sounds are placed next to each other, and it learns, subconsciously, what’s right and what’s wrong.
That’s where the Rosetta Stone app really shines. It doesn’t just bombard you with vocabulary—it helps you learn in a natural way that your brain understands.
When we’re born, we’re all natural polyglots. Our brain is a blank canvas that picks up on subtle differences in language. But as we grow older, this fades, and our brains become comfortable, only honing in on the differences within our own language.
Yes, our brains are naturally lazy, but they’re efficient little powerhouses. They’re natural life-hackers, constantly optimizing every process, doing everything they can in the easiest way they know how.
Fundamentally, our lazy brains cause problems for us when trying to learn a language, because the easiest way to speak is to not speak a new language at all.
But if you motivate your brain to do the work, it will actually do the hard work for you. Your brain naturally learns things on its own, you just have to push it to put in the work.
The problem with learning a language is us. We overthink things. When we try speaking a new language, instead of saying what intuitively feels right (which is what our brain picked up on), we say what we think is right (like all those vocab words you learned from that book on German phrases).
And this brings me to my next point…
To Learn a Language, You Need A Willingness to Make Mistakes
Have you ever experienced the phenomenon where, somehow, late night at a party, you meet someone who speaks French or Spanish or whatever language you learned in school, and all of a sudden, even though you’re beyond wasted, you magically turn into a natural, fluent speaker?
(Okay, fluent is pushing it, but when you’re drunk, it feels that way!)
Alcohol strips you of your inhibitions (I know—I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know), which actually gives you the freedom to make mistakes. Or rather, it stops you from caring if you make mistakes.
When you start to learn a language, you’re not going to have all the answers or be able to speak fluently right away. You have to strip down your ego, stop trying to do everything perfectly, and just speak.
That’s the hardest part for most people.
As human beings, we want to do everything as best as we can, especially if what we’re doing is a representation of ourselves. Counterintuitively, the best you can muster is better than the best ever.
More often than not, if you’re traveling, locals will be able to figure out what you’re trying to say, and they will definitely appreciate the fact that you’re trying at all.
What’s more, as human beings, we’re all products of our mistakes. So the more mistakes you make, the closer you’ll get to never making that mistake again. So go ask for a drink in Greek, or go ask that girl out in Italian. You might be nervous, but it could be worth it 😉
Immersion is the Easiest Way to Learn a Language
If you took language classes in high school, did you walk away as a fluent speaker?
Despite four full years of language lessons, most of us walk away with only a basic knowledge of the language.
But in less than six months in China, I learned Chinese well enough to have a conversation. And I only took actual Chinese lessons for a short while!
Immersing yourself is the best way to learn a new language. When you listen to a language, your brain automatically picks up on linguistic symbols, and with a little nudge from a textbook or (good) language learning app, learning to speak a foreign tongue becomes a natural process.
But of course, you can’t immerse yourself if you’re not traveling in a country that speaks the language. So what do you do?
Language Apps and the Concept of Digital Immersion
I remember using the old Rosetta Stone software on Windows 95 (remember that!?) trying to improve my Spanish and French skills. I’ve always had an affinity for languages, and I find them to be incredibly fascinating.
But since then, language learning software has come a long way. There are some great free apps out there, especially for your smartphone, and if you’re just trying to learn a couple of phrases, like “hello,” “thank you,” and “where’s the bathroom?” these might suit you just fine. They’re the equivalent of digital flashcards.
But they aren’t going to subject your brain to the nuances of a language—the nuances that our brain picks up on without us even realizing it. Those nuances are what allow us to say what feels right rather than what we think is right.
This is how someone can know the exact grammar to use without knowing why they use that grammar. It’s instinct.
Can you fully immerse yourself in a language before traveling? No. Impossible. But you can digitally immerse yourself, and subject yourself to these nuances—with guided training—with the new Rosetta Stone app.
Note: This article is written in partnership with Rosetta Stone, but I fully stand behind their product. I only work with brands I genuinely trust.
Minimal Pair Training: It’s a Thing
Unless you studied phonetics, you’ve likely never heard of minimal pairs. A minimal pair is a pair of words that vary by only a single sound—a sound that, if switched, would alter the whole meaning of the word.
For example: van and fan, wide and wise, deck and…well, you get the idea.
As native speakers of any given language, our brains and ears are attuned to learning and picking up on minimal pairs within our own language. But hearing them in foreign languages is downright hard. It takes a very careful ear to hear the differences sometimes.
If you’re learning a new language, you don’t really need to know the science of minimal pairs, and Rosetta Stone doesn’t actually promote minimal pair training as a part of their language learning app (I’m just getting science-y on you because I feel like it).
They do include it, though—secretly—under the moniker of their patented speech recognition technology, TruAccent.
Since the app is interactive, when you repeat phrases back to it, the TrueAccent technology checks your speech a hundred times per second—minimal pairs included—to determine if your pronunciation is phonetically correct, and whether or not your minimal pairs are correct. In English, this would mean checking to make sure you’re saying “false” not “farce.”
This teaches you to speak a language more authentically and to sound more like a native speaker.
How to Digitally Immerse Yourself when Learning a Language
Honestly, skip flashcards and skip the free apps (you get what you pay for). If you’re serious and want to know the best way to learn a language, it’s to interact with it. And if you can’t do it in real life, do it on your phone or online.
In celebration of Rosetta Stone’s 25th anniversary, they’ve redesigned their software from the ground up. And if I’m being honest—it’s beautiful. There’s a new, easier to navigate course structure, and the app is compatible across all devices.
As a travel and tech nerd, this is something I greatly appreciate.
You could start a lesson on your smartphone on the airplane, then pick it up on your tablet at work and then continue with the web app when you get home. Or any computer in the world, really.
As a long-time user of Rosetta Stone, myself, and someone who finds languages fascinating, the thing I love most about their software is that they don’t actually teach you the words or grammar. They don’t explicitly tell you that “this is the word for ‘boy’” or “this is the correct grammar for the past perfect tense.”
They allow your brain to do its job, rather than forcing you to memorize words and definitions. They use visual and audible clues to teach you what’s what, without ever forcing you to go through a conscious translation process in which you learn that “garçon” is “boy” in French.
You simply learn the word “garçon” and the meaning of it. There’s no in-your-head translation required.
It’s the closest you can get to immersing yourself in a foreign language without moving abroad, and the best way to learn a language before a trip.
What have you found to be the best way to learn a language? Is there a trick you learned that made learning a foreign language easier for you? Share it in the comments below!