Learning to speak a new language as an adult (experiences, struggles, tips, stories)

I figured this would be a cool thread to start as there are probably others who share my passion for learning new languages. I’m 36 now, and up until the age of 28 I spoke only English, but now I’ve added Spanish and French (both to a conversational level) and am hoping to expand in the future.

It mostly happened randomly. Back in 2012 I was just returning to the USA from a year stint in New Zealand. I was wondering where I would live next as I was an online poker pro looking to live abroad for the increased poker site options. Suddenly, Montreal came on my radar and as I researched it more and more I thought it might be cool to try living in a city where English is not the first option (albeit a widely available option if needed).

So I started learning French on Duolingo (and similar sites/apps) and realized I really enjoyed the process and it has been part of my routine ever since. Of course, before getting started I told myself “ok, I’ll start studying 6 months before moving to Montreal, an hour or two a day, and I’ll be fluent when I arrive!”. Of course, I was dead wrong and it’s a far more lengthy and challenging process than that, I could barely get beyond greetings when I arrived, but a process I found to be very rewarding and fun.

My new languages have opened up a world of opportunities in terms of travel, dating, social networking, consuming media, etc. and I’m sure many of us have intriguing anecdotes or helpful tips to share.

One tip I would share is that I think it’s extremely important to start listening to whatever you can in your target language as often as you can. Radio, podcasts, music, movies, series, etc. Even if you barely understand anything, just the process of listening can start to acclimate your brain to the new sounds you’re hearing. It’s also important to get out there and start speaking ASAP. You’ll make tons of mistakes, and everyone makes mistakes and thinks it’s the end of the world, but people tend to be patient and will be understanding and helpful.

I started with French, and for 6 months studied a ton of grammar. As such, I could read and write decently well, but couldn’t say or understand much at all. If I could go back in time, I would’ve devoted probably 60% of that time to listening and hiring teachers online to practice speaking. At the end of 2017, I learned from my mistakes with French and started learning Spanish. After about a year of Spanish I realized I’d probably already achieved the same level that took me about 2.5x as long to achieve in French. That being said, I think part of that is also that the brain is flexible, and tends to learn each successive language a bit faster as it gets used to the process.

Finally, I’ll leave with you an amusing tip/anecdote I used to really motivate me to learn my languages faster. I’m a pretty seasoned traveler, and after 2 years in Montreal, I wanted to keep traveling and keep going with my French language learning. So I decided I would sign up for an intensive French language learning course at a university in Lyon, France.

To get ready, I wanted to arrive in France with a level of French that was already fairly advanced. So I continued my grammar studies and also hired a few teachers on italki for an hour of conversation practice a couple hours a week. But I also discovered another solid resource: language partners. Of course there are millions and millions of people out there wanting to learn English, and instead of paying someone to talk to me, it’s possible to use a few sites/apps to find people to chat/write to half in English and half in my target language.

Once I realized that it was fairly easy to filter by age/gender/location, I had a brilliant idea. I would search for French speakers wanting to learn English who happened to be cute girls, roughly my age, living in Lyon! I spent roughly 6 months practicing with different lyonnaises, I think I probably had at least 1 Skype language exchange with 30 different girls. Eventually I narrowed it down to a handful of girls that were cute and (to the best of my knowledge) single. A couple of them the convos started turning flirty and we grew pretty close.

So eventually, the day came when I was set to arrive in Lyon. I already had 3 dates/language meetups set up before I was even on French soil! One of the girls I ended up dating for a couple months. Another became a great friend who I would eventually go on a week-long trip to Vienna, Austria with. A third girl had moved from Lyon to Mulhouse, France by the time I’d arrived. However, a couple months later I would pass through Mulhouse on an extensive trip through France/Germany and the girl offered to let me stay in a room in her apartment for 2 nights! This was without ever having even met, just a half dozen convos via Skype.

So I’d say my kill 2 birds with 1 stone plan of learning a new language, but at the same time using it as an opportunity for meeting girls/social networking was a rousing success! I would eventually use the same plan to set up a network of Mexican girls before my move to Mexico City and to a lesser degree in Colombia, for a 2 month visit there.


I learned French as an adult and got to be reasonably fluent.
Definitely agree to idea of listening to podcasts, radio etc ASAP even if you don’t understand much in the beginning. I found listening to the news a great way I’d quickly get the gist of it just from having already heard the news that day in English.
Also try and listen/watch stuff on topics you’re actually interested in - much easier to stay focused.
Another thing I found useful was reading kids/teen books as the language is usually much more basic.

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Yah, I think this is a key point. If it feels like learning a language is a chore, then you’ll be less likely to stick with it. I try to do lots of stuff in Spanish/French that I enjoy doing anyway in English.

For example, I’m a big soccer fan, so I will keep up with Lyon’s team, Olympique Lyonnais, and it’s a great excuse to watch matches in French, read transfer news, etc. Stuff I’d be doing anyway, just in a new language.

I also love listening to music and found that there is an enormous catalog of amazing musicians and new genres I never knew before in Spanish. So I enjoy listening to songs and occasionally watching lyric videos to see all the words I’m missing.

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I’ve been watching telenovelas on Telemundo w/ Spanish subtitles,
entounces se muchas malas palabras. I can swear in Spanish fluently.
(I also have a 100 day lesson streak on Duolingo).

Anyone that knows French should try to pick up American Sign Language. It’s based off French syntax.

Oh and everyone else should learn ASL as well. I forget the stats but infants learn something like 150 words in ASL before learning mommy or daddy in English. It’s insane.

If you learn how to finger spell the alphabet, you can legit have a fluent conversation with a deaf person in ASL.


Subscribing. I took a few years of Spanish in middle school, stopping after 9th grade. I was able to pick things up much faster than my peers and was quite good (relatively), but quit once I’d hit the requirement for HS graduation. I’ve regretted that since, and as an adult learning new languages is one of the things I’ve wanted to do but have never found time for. Hopefully I can find some inspiration here. Great story, FK.

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I convinced my girlfriend to try teaching Spanish on italki.com about a month ago. It’s a slow process but she seems to be slowly building a student base. The timing might be just right with everyone stuck at home and looking for something to do, but I’d imagine there will also be an influx in teachers as well on these sites for people looking for something to do.

Since I’m an online poker player and have tons of freedom to travel, my goal would be that my girlfriend can make it work teaching online and we’d be able to travel all over while both working on the road. Fingers crossed.

We also speak like 90% Spanish which has done wonders for my Spanish level, but I’d like to get her English up to a solid level as well so might have to move that ratio closer to 50/50.

During my PhD I had a language requirement. I had to show verbal and reading literacy in one language other then English. At the time I spoke only English. I choose Spanish and began taking classes.

Brag coming that provides context.

Throughout school from K to my PhD classes were easy. I never studied really or took notes. I had a 4.0 GPA through all of university.

Brag over.

That being said taking Spanish was the single toughest thing I have ever done. To this day it’s the hardest. I just don’t have a language brain plus learning as a adult is so difficult. I found my introduction to Spanish classes tougher than any grad level theory or stats course I ever took. The grad level Spanish nearly killed me.

I passed though.

I actually minored in Spanish in college. I can still read it nearly fluently, and it only takes me a week or so of immersion to begin thinking in Spanish again. Unfortunately, I struggle to actually speak it, mainly, I think, due to a lack of vocabulary.

To me, just learning a language itself is a struggle, but oddly enough, the air force academy’s language department actually did an excellent job forming a curriculum that emphasized the history, culture and literature of Spanish-speaking countries, which made learning the language itself a sort of adjunct to things I found much more interesting.

That’s a long way to say…doing your dailies on duolingo is one thing, but for me, that can’t replace learning about the history and culture of the language I’m studying. Listening to podcasts or watching movies are a great suggestion.

For me, I always had a goal, and that was to be able to read great works in their original Spanish.

Interesting story clovis. I find it fascinating how some people are just language savants and some can’t learn for the life of them, and it rarely has much correlation with raw intelligence. I’d say I’m somewhere in the 65th %ile in terms of language learning. It doesn’t come easy, but I enjoy it and seem to progress fairly well compared to others given the time put in.

Totally agree skydiver that it helps immensely when there’s an end goal in sight. For me, it was living in France and now Mexico and being able to maximize the cultural experience by chatting up locals in their own language. It helps that they’re 2 of the more culturally rich countries on the planet imo.

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This thread is very relevant to me! I started learning Spanish last year kind of as a lark; partially I wanted to challenge myself and keep my brain flexible as I slide into my middle-ages, but also it’s because I never got anywhere with any foreign language as a young person and I’m kind of disappointed with myself for that. I did take a bit of Japanese in high school and college, but only enough to get by and pass my exams. imho it’s a tough language to learn unless you have a strong motivation to stick with it and my young stoner ass was way too invested in videogames and thermodynamics classes and shit like that. I’m not sure why I even started it in the first place. Probably because 80’s-90’s sci-fi taught us that Japanese would be the language of the future and when I was a teenager I wanted to be a cool guy like Harrison Ford ordering soba from a street vendor in Blade Runner.

Mostly I’ve been hitting up Duolingo for a little bit every single day. I’ve been in the pearl league for the past few months --I’m just doing this enough so that it’s a fun game for me and not a chore. Mixing in a little Italian just for fun. I’m also supplementing this with podcasts, youtubes, and trashy telenovellas on Netflix. Overall I think this is way less effective than formal classwork and immersion learning, but I’m still gradually learning and having fun.

Your English is non-idiomatic, but I can always understand what you intend to say. I would say you’re basically trilingual for all intents and purposes.

If you have Netflix, there are some incredible trash telenovellas, it’s basically all I watch nowadays. Some of the seasons are 60-90 episodes long, it’s nuts.

Amazon Fire has a Telemundo app. I also have Netflix and Hulu both of which have dozens of multi-season telenovelas many with over a hundred episodes per season. El Senor de los Cielos is in the 7th season on Telemundo. Which telenovelas do you like?

Ah man, I’ve been watching La Reina del Sur, which is so gloriously trashy. I’m only on episode 20 out of 60 in season one and then I want to watch Sin Senos sí Hay Paraíso, which has like 90 episodes in season one. I’m a huge noob when it comes to telenovellas, there’s just so much content out there, and it’s so much fun to watch.

Lady, La Vendedora de Rosas is pretty much the GOAT telenovela style series. Actually it’s probably my fave series of all time in any language. It’s no longer on Netflix Mexico but I think it might be available on Netflix USA.

La Reina del Flow is also quite good. Both take place in Medellin though, which can be a pretty rough accent.

I’m not sure on Mexican telenovelas as I’m not really a fan of the telenovela format.

There’s a ton of higher quality stuff on Netflix, so I’ve mostly stuck with that. Really enjoyed Club de Cuervos, Casa de Las Flores, and Ingobernable for Mexican stuff. Élite and La Casa de Papel are solid for Spain content. Of course there’s Narcos and Narcos:Mexico also.

Sin Senos and the Rose seller are Colombian as well as Flow. Catalina is fabulous in Sin Senos. The second season was filmed about 10 years after the first. The third season is on Telemundo now. The rose seller is based on a true story and is a remake of the story starring the real Lady Tabares. Queen of the South has 2 versions. The absolute trashiest telenovela is on Hulu, Perro Amor. Lots of sick sex, violence, betrayal and other good stuff. I also liked Senora Acero, La Dona, Rubi, Rose Diamonte, El Chema, Lo Que La Vida Me Robo

I speak Dutch and English and learned Spanish as an adult to a reasonable level where I could hold a conversation and then stopped using it and now I struggle to understand it and can’t form proper sentences anymore. So make sure to keep practicing as unlike languages you learn young the ones you learn later in life seem to fade with time. Also tried Chines but gave up. Funniest moment trying Chinese was insulting the waitress when trying to order a sprite.

I do think it’s ironic a lot of Americans angrly say “Speak English!” while most of the developed world learns English because Americans refuse to learn a foreign language.


I developed my Spanish to an intermediate level while in Spain. Was able to have basic conversations with people without any trouble. I think if I was more active in learning the language that I would have done a lot better.

I’ve been way behind on learning Czech now. Most people in Prague speak at minimum enough English to do their job. That said, I still initiate conversations in Czech. I’ll hit a dead end pretty quickly and people then become more willing to speak English or find somebody who does. If I just went in with straight English, then I’d probably be told to go fuck myself by most people here.

This isn’t really true, English is just the lingua franca in the west at the moment. Obviously that’s in part due to the cultural and economic impact of the US, but people learn it so that they can speak to everyone (within reason). Walking round a city like Paris you hear English conversations all the time where it’s clear it is no one’s first language, and the world needs a language like that.

(Which isn’t to defend us anglophones and our grasp of other languages, it’s shameful. I learnt French in my 30s only out of necessity.)

I’m currently trying to learn chinese (simplified mandarin), but it’s been a lot tougher than other language I’ve tried. Growing up I learned dutch/english and the basics of french/german. Then learned spanish decently (but forgotten a fair amount at this point).

I have to say that Chinese is in a completely different league, I’ve been trying to learn it for over a year now and still can barely hold a conversation. Especially understanding someone speak chinese has been terribly difficult. One of the things I didn’t realize is that there are only a few hundred pronunciations in the chinese language and it all comes down to context. Many characters can mean different things based on context and many characters are pronounced similarly.

For example all the following characters are pronounced ‘chu’ (with different tones)

And then even if you know some characters, their meaning becomes completely different when it’s matched with another character, making this all even more difficult. And on top of that, some characters will have a different pronunciation if they are paired with another character.

Small rant below

the character 行 :
when it’s pronounced as ‘xíng’ can have the following meanings:
to walk
to go
to travel
a visit
in circulation
to do
to perform
all right
will do

行 pronounced as xìng (4th tone instead of second tone), meanings:

行 pronounced as háng can have the following meanings:
a row
age order (of brothers)
relating to company

And on top of all this nonsense for just one character there are over 20 characters that 行 can be paired with to give it more/other meanings. (Seen in the link above).

This makes it just godawful trying to understand what someone is saying. I really haven’t figured out how to tackle this problem yet :/

Anyway, I will keep on struggling my way through this language for now.