UYC’s Guide: 5 Tips To Learn A Foreign Language

I’ve always loved the idea of speaking a foreign language.  They mystery, the intrigue, not to mention the romance.  The reality of it, however–long classes, repetitive flashcards, difficult conjugations–was less than appealing.  That is until I met my foreign beau-turned-fiance from Bosnia.  I’m all about merging the cultures, and what I clearly lack in the kitchen (homemade borek? Yikes!), I’m trying to make up for on the language front.  Learning a foreign language is not something that comes naturally to me (you should have seen my beginner attempts at French!), but like anything, I firmly believe that if there’s a will, there’s a way.  Here’s my guide to learning any language, even if Rosetta Stone hasn’t picked it up yet. 


My first visit to Sarajevo!


1.)  Sign up for a class.  I was initially trying a do-it-yourself approach to learning Bosnian, when I quickly realized that my progress wasn’t where it should be.  Call it lack of structure, but I thrive in an environment that holds me accountable for my progress.  With a language as uncommon as Bosnian, it was a little tricky finding a class, but I finally came across the Cactus Language School that offers courses right here in NYC.  My teacher has buckets of patience, and the intimate learning environment of only 3 students has been a huge perk.  Or if solo learning while sitting in your pj’s is more your thing, you can find a program that offers distant learning via Skype.  I tried out the International Bosnian Language Course and loved the affordable pricing and the flexibility with scheduling.  Also check out CourseHorse’s language classes, which allows you to narrow in on the language of your choice, and then compare all different types of classes offered throughout the city.  Brilliant stuff!

2.)  400 words.  Learning a language is not about the quantity of words you know, necessarily, rather the quality of words you know to be able to communicate.  Studies have shown that there are roughly 400 words that are used most commonly in every day language…so rather than wasting your time memorizing phrases that will rarely come into practice (i.e. “Imam malu smedu psa s velikim usima”, because who really needs to know that “I have a little brown dog with big ears”?), spend your time wiser.  I started by making a list of the top 20 words I use in every day conversation in English, and translated them into Bosnian.  Get crazy with post-it notes.  Label everything in your house so you have constant visual stimulation.  Sketch pictures of the words that will help trigger your memory.  Use mnemonic devices.  Create silly jingles and record yourself singing, then add it to your playlist.  Hey, whatever works, right?  Once you have those words committed to memory, pick 20 more, and so on.  (Note to reader: When creating my first list of 20 words, dog/chihuahua actually did pop up.  Love that little guy…just saying.)


Expanding my wordlist during my visit to Croatia last summer!


3.)  Download a free program from Byki.  While Rosetta Stone may not have every language available to download quite yet, Byki sure does.  And even better…it offers a free (and quite comprehensive) sample of the program!  If you find you enjoy it, a whole program can be bought for a fraction of the cost of Rosetta Stone, and comes with audio downloads so you can learn your new language on the go.  While the structured classes at Cactus help me master the grammar and composition piece of learning a language, Byki is my best friend when it comes to expanding my vocabulary.  Bonus: I get to hear the native speaker repeating words over and over again, helping to improve my less than perfect (okay, horrendous) Bosnian accent.

4.)  Make a new friend.  There are a plethora of pen-pal services that will connect English speakers to people all over the world, such as Conversation Exchange.  Through this site, you can easily connect with native speakers, and practice both written language skills through emails, snail mail, and instant messenger services, as well as oral language skills through Skype.  Not to mention, when you finally get to visit your country of choice, you’ll have a new friend waiting to meet you!  I’ve used this opportunity to bond with my future mother-in-law by conversing back and forth via texts and emails in the mother language…she’s an excellent source of encouragement, and a little bonding never hurt!

5.)  15 minutes a day.  Like most things in life, if you push too hard, you’ll burn out quickly.  On the contrary, if you do nothing at all, you’ll learn nothing quickly.  I’ve found sticking to the practicing-for-15-minutes-a-day-rule has kept me from getting bored and frustrated, but assured that I’m picking up at least one new word a session.  As New Yorkers who spend an absurd amount of time commuting on subways and buses, this allots us the perfect piece of time to practice, without putting a dent into the rest of the day.


Cao for now, Bosnia! Vidimo se uskoro!


I’d love to hear from all you bilingual folks out there!  What tried-and-true language learning tips do you have?


By: Jessica Tiare Bowen



  • Kayla says:

    i learned to speak English, Spanish and French as a kid and still use them interchangeability but I dont think no matter how hard I tried now I could lean anything to the level I am at with those 3. Its just easier as a kid to pick things up and generally learn anything. I sometimes think the older I get the thicker I become

    • Used York City says:

      So true! I wish I had picked language up as a kid, because unless you have a natural gift for language, it does get more difficult the older you become…at least in my experience;-)

  • Really good advice to focus on the most commonly used words — though 400 seems like a lot! Also, totally agree with the 15 minutes a day. Small doses go a long way. Great tips!

    • Used York City says:

      I’m sure you are learning tons of language tips living in China! I’m very happy that at least the Bosnian alphabet is the same, so I don’t have to memorize different characters, too! Huge thumbs up to your enormous challenge!:-)

  • Andrea says:

    These are such great tips! I really need to pick up my Norwegian again. The 400 words tip was especially helpful for me. I always have a problem with listening though. I guess I expect to hear my own bad pronunciation :/

    • Used York City says:

      The hardest part for me is speaking. I find I can recognize words as I’m reading or listening to others, but am SO SLOW at speaking myself.

  • Casey says:

    I love reading about people’s learning strategies. I’ve used Byki for awhile. Transparent Language Online introduced me to a great teacher that has taught me most of my Russian. She makes it so fun. Good luck!

    • Used York City says:

      It’s SO essential to have a little fun with it…keeps the motivation and energy high! Best of luck with Russian!:-)

  • When I was learning Spanish, everyone said get a Spanish-only speaking boyfriend. I did, not intentionally, when I learned French and it worked! They key is to communicate only in the language you want to learn.

  • Li says:

    Try to sing along to foreign songs…even though I only know the English parts. You are in shower..who cares, right?

  • Michelle says:

    In New York, we’re blessed with multiple languages and cultures at nearly every turn. The best way use this blessing is to seek out the opportunities. In my neighborhood (and my friend’s in East Harlem), I use Spanish greetings and attempt to continue the conversation in Spanish.

    Language Meetup group events are a great way to immerse in the language for a happy hour or movie and discussion or to make friends for long-term conversational practice. If there isn’t one in your area, start your own. I started a language exchange group last year in which we learned basics of Spanish, French, Portuguese and Italian. The basic French I learned came in handy during flights on Air France and a quick stop in Paris. Of course, there really is nothing like travel to a place where your language is spoken to fully immerse in the language and culture.

    As you mentioned, using your transit time is important. Listen to a Pandora station featuring your language on the walk (or drive) and load language programs on your mp3 for the subway ride. Always have a book or iBook at your fingertips. You can even “rent” downloadable language books from the library and not worry about returning them by their due date. I’ve had many conversations with fellow commuters when they show interest in my books. (Granted, Spanish, French and Portuguese tend to be a bit more common than Bosnian.) Using this time well concretes your learning.

    Most importantly, remember to be brave. Making mistakes in pronunciation or grammar is so much better than not trying.

    • Used York City says:

      These are fantastic tip, Michelle! Love the idea of the language meetup and bringing the learning outside of the classroom!

      And so important to try to drop the fear of sounding silly and just speak, speak, speak! I’m trying!;-)

  • Love the pics! And I’m even more fond of your passion for picking up Bosnian.

    I speak Spanish, and my suggestions are 1) Find a Bosnian version of a soap opera. The thing about the soaps is they’re so repetitive that you’ll hear the same phrases over again. Also, b/c the acting tends towards over-the-top, it’s easy to understand the gist of the conversation. 2) Speak, speak, speak. I know it’s challenging when you’re a beginner, but the more you can practice your verbal skills, the better. I was literally forced into bilingual status as a long-term sub teacher during grad school. Back then, it wasn’t uncommon to teach entire classes in Spanish, including writing. 3) Practice every day. This is so key (as you mentioned), and I love that you have a structured system. Too many people get all gung-ho only to burn out.

    Buena suerte, chica!!

    • Used York City says:

      Love these tips, Linda! I’m going to google soap operas right now;-)

      Hvala, zena!;-) Cao!

    • I love Japanese, and as Linda said, soap operas, movies, and in my case LOTS OF ANIME help you learn a lot of Japanese. My wife is Chinese, and I tried a bit of Chinese shows, but it simply doesn’t grab my attention the way Japanese shows do.

      I use pimsleur, rosetta stone, and NDK… But I will be checking out biky.. that sounds awesome. thanks for tips guys!!

      oyasumi nesai!!!

  • you know what, I think just having a few basics really helps. Shows you are making an effort to be polite! I remember working in Belgium and the barman there complaining that people didn’t even know please and thank you in french and flemish!

  • Scarlett says:

    Great tips – especially just 15 mins a day! I really need to start this xxx

    • Used York City says:

      Set a timer, and 15 minutes later, done!:-) I do more when I can, but like exercise, I figure some is better than none.

  • Bella says:

    First of all congratulations on your will and efforts! Great article and learning tips. I will pick my third langugage using your advice and will keep you posted on my progress. The more languages we speak the more understading between people and cultures will be there.
    Wishing you best of luck on your learning process. I am sure that you are already great at it :). With this kind of dedication your success is guaranteed :).

    • Used York City says:

      Thanks Bella! I can’t wait to hear what your third language will be! So many beautiful and useful ones to choose from!

  • Pamela Morse says:

    I agree, not a big vocabulary but a useful one is needed. Good adventure!

  • Heather! says:

    Learning the words to pop songs in the target language really helps me. It reinforces not only vocabulary, but syntax and sentence structure. Only problem is that I tend to sing instead of speak! 😉 The other thing I do periodically is look for a chat room where the language is being spoken (typed). I might not understand what is being said, really, but I look for familiar words and try to pick out ANYTHING. If I’m feeling really brave, I might even introduce myself!

    • Used York City says:

      These are GREAT tips Heather, thanks so much! I’m going to add them to my repertoire:-)

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