How to learn a new language is an essential factor to consider when you’ve got plans to get a second citizenship in the EU.
But the prospect of learning another language can feel intimidating for many. I’m here to give you some tips for overcoming this mindset, based on my own experiences in multiple countries. I want to show you that learning another language, even as an adult, is actually very manageable.
To successfully become a citizen of an EU country, it’s vital to have the right language skills. Many EU countries want you to reach a certain level before they will consider awarding you the rights to citizenship. The EU measures language ability according to a standardised framework called the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR).
Countries can set whatever level they want people to reach. B1 ‘Threshold’ is the most common. It’s the level you’ll need to reach if you want to become a citizen of countries such as Germany, France, Italy, or Spain. Portugal is more accommodating than most (yet another reason why we love it). It only requires you to reach A2 level to be eligible for Portuguese citizenship. And you have a whole five years in which to get there. We think that’s pretty manageable.
If you already speak English and don’t want to learn another language, but still want to get EU citizenship, then Ireland or Cyprus are your best options.
European language levels explained
First, let’s take a look at what those levels actually mean. The CEFR starts from A1 (breakthrough) and goes all the way up to C2 (mastery). Here’s a useful diagram breaking down the exact skills needed for each level.
As you can see, A2 level comes just after absolute beginner (A1). To reach it, you’ll need to do the following:
- Understand sentences related to areas of most immediate relevance.
- Communicate in simple and routine tasks.
- Describe in simple terms aspects of your background.
For B1, you’ll need to have the skills to handle everyday situations, write simple texts on familiar topics, and describe experiences, events, dreams and ambitions.
How to learn a new language (even 普通话!)
In 2005, I set off for China without knowing a single word of Mandarin. I didn’t even know how to say hello. By 2009, I could handle every day situations (and some unusual ones too), function in a Chinese office setting, write coherent emails to my colleagues, and talk about North Korean politics with local taxi drivers.
That same year, I had my Mandarin level assessed at C1, although it’s rusty these days. My speaking and listening have always been much better than my reading and writing. But that’s more to do with the specific difficulties of Mandarin Chinese, i.e. learning thousands of characters that have no relationship to English at all.
Fortunately, you won’t have that issue in Europe. Many European languages have a lot of vocabulary that is already familiar. All you need to do is build on that.
I’ve also dabbled in Turkish and Arabic, but never made as much progress as I did in Mandarin. Nevertheless, I reached survival level in both. They stood me in good stead for navigating the Middle East. Now my focus is firmly on Portuguese, as I work my way towards A2 level for my eventual citizenship exam, which is likely to happen sometime in 2024.
Here are my top tips for how to learn a new language
Kick off with key phrases
A lot of language tutors online tell you to start speaking as soon as possible, without worrying about mistakes. I totally agree. But you need to be armed with something to say. That’s where phrasebooks come in.
I’ve got a Lonely Planet phrasebook for every country that I’ve visited for more than a few months. I start by memorising a stash of common, versatile phrases. I can then roll these out whenever I get the opportunity.
The following always get plenty of mileage:
- “How much is it?”
- “Where is… (the train station/bus station/hospital/whatever)?”
- “Do you speak English?”
- “I speak a little [target language]?”
- “I’m from…[insert country of origin]”
- “Can I have the bill, please?”
Practise on captive audiences
Every time I took a taxi in China, I opened a conversation with the driver by asking him if he spoke English. 99% of the time, the answer was no. But it signalled that I was open to converse. They would usually follow up with a flurry of questions, giving me a perfect chance to practice my Mandarin skills. Most drivers asked similar questions, some of them quite personal:
- Where are you from?
- How long have you been in China?
- How old are you?
- Are you married?
- How much do you earn?
Of course, it always helps when you’re talking to a person who can’t speak any English at all. That was really the key to my success in Mandarin.
In contrast, things have been harder in Portugal. People generally speak decent English (especially in Madeira). Often, they prefer to speak to you in English, because they think it’s helpful.
But a taxi is still a good environment to practice, because you have the luxury of being stuck for a while with a native speaker. Trying out key phrases in supermarkets, cafés, and bars can also help you gain confidence.
If you’re having trouble getting locals to speak to you in their own language, or if you just want to build some confidence, I recommend investing in a course of online conversation lessons on a platform like italki.com. At the moment, I’m taking one lesson a week with an excellent Portuguese teacher based in Lisbon.
My teacher encourages me to speak as much as possible and corrects my mistakes. She also gives me a lot of listening practice, because she speaks almost totally in Portuguese. This is perfect for developing confidence in the early stages.
Aim for consistency
It’s better to practice a little every day than do big chunks sporadically. That’s why I’m a big fan of smartphone apps, such as Memrise or Duolingo. They make the language learning process feel like a game, with fun exercises and leaderboards where you can compete against other learners.
It’s very easy to find just ten minutes every day to learn on these apps. Over time, you’ll see an increase in your comprehension and vocabulary. In particular, Memrise, with its array of native speaker video clips, has been a massive help in improving my Portuguese pronunciation.
Mix it up with English
Often, you’ll get those moments where you know most of a sentence in the target language, but you’re missing one key piece of vocabulary. My advice, insert the English word and keep speaking. Chances are, your listener will know the word anyway, especially in Europe. Never underestimate the power of Netflix and Hollywood!
This ‘bridging’ technique also functions as a useful crutch to keep you speaking for longer, which encourages fluency.
Get comfortable with discomfort
Learning a new language puts you in an uncomfortable and vulnerable position. You’ll often feel pretty self-conscious. Depending on where you are in the world, people might even treat you as an object of curiosity (that happened to me countless times in China). All of this is normal and to be expected, although people in European countries probably won’t treat you like an alien being.
To find the confidence to start speaking early on, you’ll have to get comfortable with discomfort. I learned to handle it by not taking myself too seriously. I’d tell the person that I’m trying to learn their language. I’d be ready to laugh at myself if (when!) I got something wrong. This approach kept things lighthearted and taught me not to be afraid of making a mistake. As a result, I became more comfortable with speaking and progressed more quickly.
How to learn a new language: Great tools
Having the right tools at hand can give you a major boost. Here are our favourite language learning resources, including smartphone apps, websites, YouTube channels, and podcasts. You’re sure to find a learning method that suits your lifestyle and preferences.
Of course, there’s no substitute for actually getting out on the street and using a language in real life. But that can be challenging at first. It helps to create a base of stock phrases and vocabulary to use.
First, there’s the app Memrise. I use it for doing a few minutes of daily Portuguese study to keep things ticking over. Memrise has lots of other languages and excellent video clips featuring native speakers. This really helps with pronunciation and listening skills.
I also have a weekly Skype video lesson, via iTalki, with a great teacher in Lisbon. This class is super helpful, as it forces me to speak. iTalki has teachers for a wide variety of languages, with very affordable prices. It’s perfect for continuing your language practice during the pandemic.
For those readers learning Portuguese (European version, not Brazilian), here are some of my favourite resources from my current studies.
European Portuguese language resources
I recommend joining the Practice Portuguese website for its entertaining, well-structured, lessons and clear explanations of grammar. We’ve teamed up with the nice people at Practice Portuguese to offer a 15% discount to members of Digital Émigré. You can access the discount through our private Facebook group.
YouTube Channels and Podcasts
In general, YouTube and podcasts are great resources for learning any language.
Hopefully, after reading this post, you’ve realised that learning a new language doesn’t have to be a big scary endeavour. With the right planning, tools and mindset, it can even be fun!