Speeding up the language-learning process

Employees' ability to speak more than one language can spell success for themselves and their employer. Here are tools to develop fluency.
Speeding up the language-learning process

Your customer base, supply chain, and even individual contractors can be anywhere in the world in today's global society. This trend has brought the need to speak more than just one language to the forefront for employees and companies.

Companies with staff who speak more than one language will see multiple benefits, including the capacity to open up new markets in other countries. Multilingual employees will better understand different cultures, customs, and etiquette, which could be crucial to the success of any new venture.

Angel Melo, who founded her Brazil-based production company Maruti Blue ten years ago, knows the difference speaking more than one language can make. Thanks to the investment she made in expanding her language skills, she is fluent in English and Portuguese, can read and understand French and Spanish, and has been able to work with clients around the globe.

"It opened up the world for me. I have this business today because of my languages," she said. Beyond basic communication skills, Melo said she has learned to consider new approaches and perspectives through her understanding of different cultures. "I can read people, which is essential in my line of work."

Shortcuts to language learning

While the benefits may be clear, one of the challenges for most individuals is the length of time — usually years rather than months — it can take to learn a new language, according to language consultant Gabriel Silva, who was born in Brazil but is now a Canadian citizen whose first language is Portuguese. Because it took him eight years of study to become fluent in English, he assumed he was "terrible" at learning languages, but now he also speaks Afrikaans, Catalan, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Mandarin, Russian, and Spanish. He works online with students in 117 countries to help them reach their language goals.

"A lot of resources focus, initially, on content that is outdated or boring, or irrelevant to most people. The key is to focus on content that is highly relevant and interesting to you right from the beginning," Silva said.

Students with limited time are more likely to stay motivated when they are engrossed in stimulating materials that are meaningful and when they can see results quickly, he said.

Silva keeps business clients interested by setting specific goals and deadlines for them, such as being able to deliver a three-minute presentation in Russian in three weeks' time, rather than the relatively vague aim of becoming fluent eventually. The definition of "fluent" can vary, sometimes describing someone who can manage basic conversations and, at other times, referring to someone who makes almost no mistakes at all.

Online tools

Now that technology has brought learning out of the classroom, rigid grammar exercises have been superseded by an array of apps and websites and their alternative methods, such as Duolingo and its game-based model. Technology also means that learners can connect with native speakers in other countries more easily, having lessons via Skype, for example. When Melo set out to learn French, she joined a WhatsApp group dedicated to practising the language, where members posted music, news articles, or learning tips and chatted in French. "I used that alongside Duolingo and had a French friend who I spoke to online regularly," she said.

Apps and online tools have an advantage over formal classes: They can be employed at your convenience and adapted to your routine. If you do take formal classes, you can still supplement them with online learning. To decide which method of learning suits you best, consider the amount of time you have available each week, and whether you could commit to formal classes. You can also try an online quiz to see what kind of learner you are before you choose an app. For example, visual learners may prefer a game-based app such as Memrise or Duolingo. Those who prefer formal classes have several options, including dedicated language schools. Some universities offer language courses in the summer or after-hours study to non-students. An alternative for those who are more advanced is to seek out native speakers or private tutors living nearby for private lessons.

Thanks to technology, Silva has incorporated language learning into his life. "I've developed the habit of listening to a language podcast in the morning during breakfast, and I review vocabulary flashcards before going to bed. I always have language audio in my car for my daily commute — so language learning is integrated in my daily routine," he said.

One program he regularly uses is LingQ, a platform containing a large library of audio and text content, including transcripts of audio files that make it easy for users to find relevant translations. Through LingQ, users can connect to a range of dictionaries every time they encounter a word or phrase they don't know.

LingQ co-founder Steve Kaufmann explained: "When you have looked up a word before, it changes colour, and LingQ saves all these words as flashcards. It can show you phrases using those words. You can download those words and phrases to create a playlist, and the program will tell you how many times you have listened to it. As well as choosing from existing material, users can import their own articles or ebooks."

LingQ also connects learners to native-speaking teachers, who will chat with them and send feedback afterward on the words, grammatical structures, or phrases they need to practise. Kaufmann stresses the value of reading for maintaining language skills and expanding your vocabulary.

Many apps and programs offer as much opportunity to practise active skills, such as writing and speaking, as passive ones, such as reading and listening. One app that connects learners with native speakers for conversation is HelloTalk. This app has a built-in correction tool that enables users to point out each other's errors, and an automatic translation tool if everyone gets stuck. As research such as a 2016 study published in the journal Language Learning has shown, your inhibitions can stand in the way of progress when you try to learn a new language. Facing your fears and being unafraid of making mistakes ultimately could be just as important as setting up the right tools and habits in the beginning.

If you can convince your employer that your new language skills will bring benefits to the company, it may agree to pay for you to take a language course, which will be useful as classes can range from $500 to thousands of dollars per term, depending on the course. Agreeing to study at night or at the weekend will counter any fears about time you will have to spend away from work, but be aware your company may ask you to commit to certain conditions, such as staying with the company for a period of time once the course has finished. As new skills often come with a higher salary, both you and your employer could gain much from your language lessons in the long run.

Beth McLoughlin is a freelance writer based in the UK. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, an FM magazine associate director, at

How to keep your language skills sharp

By Samantha White

For companies with an international focus, broad language skills can open new opportunities. But if you’re still learning a language, it can be difficult to get the practice you need to improve. An article published earlier this year (“How to Keep Your Language Skills Sharp”, 22 March 2018), offered a number of easy, low-cost ways to practise your language skills. They include:

Newspapers, magazines, and blogs: Reading articles and blogposts of interest in your chosen language will give you some practice as well as valuable or entertaining information.

Audio: Listening to radio shows and podcasts provides an opportunity to practise your listening skills or familiarise yourself with an accent from a particular region.

Music: Search Spotify for the songs that are filling the dance floors in your country of interest, or check YouTube for versions of your favourite songs sung in different languages.

Films and TV: Streaming services such as Netflix offer movies and television programmes from around the world, with handy subtitles.

Conversation exchange: To find a native speaker to practise with in your local area, try Numerous groups match native English speakers with speakers of other languages who are keen to chat and improve their fluency.

Cultural events: For those with more advanced language skills, the embassy or cultural institute of a country where the language is primary can connect you to a range of opportunities to immerse yourself in the language and culture, from film screenings and author Q&As to theatre festivals.

— Samantha White is a writer, editor, and translator based in the UK