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Teaching House Nomads Blog | April 15, 2021

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4 Tips for Learning a Language Outside the Classroom

4 Tips for Learning a Language Outside the Classroom

By | On 01 Mar, 2014

I arrived in Shanghai with two bags, one Chinese course book, and a lot of hopes for communicating in my new country. Riding along a dusty highway bound for the city, I looked out at dozens of inscrutable signs and billboards whizzing by.  A fellow teacher was casually chatting with the cab driver in some impressively functional Chinese. The language gap was palpable. He turned to me and asked, “How’s your Chinese?” (A question I would be asked constantly for the next three months).

“Not great,” I admitted honestly.

His face lit up, “Okay, then! Let’s start now. What do you want to know?” And thus began a journey of learning Chinese outside the classroom.

Most of my learning since then has been non-traditional, and I’ve found that I learn quicker and more easily outside the classroom than in any formal class I’ve taken. And the advantages of this are I’m able to engage with my surroundings better, it saves me money, and I can control how and when I learn.

However, learning a new language “on the streets,” as they say, doesn’t come without effort, and it doesn’t mean you won’t have teachers. It’s just you will find your teachers in unexpected forms: the newspaper saleswoman, the corner restaurant, other expats, newfound local friends, popular culture, and a whole host of technology. And you will have to put yourself out there to get help with your communication.

But not to worry. Here are four tricks I’ve learned that could help you hack your way to being fluent in any language in no time.

1. Start where you are.

Going from zero to hero in a new language takes time. It’s overwhelming when cashiers are yelling at you with the impatience of a thousand suns, or you’re dying to know what your new local friends are chatting about, but take comfort in knowing you’ll be right there with them in due time. For now, focus learning a language outside the classroomon the few words you need at this beginning stage of your learning.

For example, learn the words for “I’d like [insert delicacy]”,  “Can you [do this incredibly helpful thing for me]?” and “Where can I find [the gosh-darned grocery store in this neighborhood]?”

Get confident in the fundamentals and build from there.

The basics that helped me adjust to my surroundings were: directions, food, shopping, money, numbers, and niceties (hello, how are you, sorry, thank you). Check with your coworkers and see what they recommend.

2. Buddy up.

Some of my best Chinese learning moments happened in Beijing. I explored the city with an American student studying Chinese who spoke slightly better Chinese than I did. This meant I could understand most of what she was saying, and knew about half of her vocabulary and could decipher the rest from context. It was a stark difference to the low hum of indiscernible language I heard on a daily basis in Shanghai. I could hear how she pronounced phrases that baffled me in print, and picked up a few useful phrases of my own, including methods for bargaining boldly with a smile and some respectful gestures.

I also helps to find other coworkers or expats who are interested in learning and cobble together an informal study group. Instead of meeting in a coffee shop, choose street food stalls, grocery stores, parties and really anywhere you’ll be pushed to use your newfound language.

3. Ask ALL the questions.

Hear your local friend or coworker say something you don’t quite understand? Ask them the meaning! Catch another expat giving directions to your cab driver without a struggle? Get them to teach you (this was how I learned a softer way to say “yes” that I now use all the time).  In my experience, locals love to teach you little bits of their language, and expats are proud that they can finally teach someone else the ropes. Just remember to say “thank you” — it’s by far the most useful phrase to know during these beginning stages.

4. “There’s an app for that.”

I’m all for in-person connections when it comes to learning, but sometimes it’s great to kill time during your commute with some studying. If you have an iPhone or other app-capable device, there are some great tools available for learning your new chosen tongue.

My favorite digital teacher is Memrise. The idea behind their iPhone/Android app and website based learning a language outside the classroom appscourses (all free) is that you establish mnemonic devices (pictures, animations, word associations, which are user- or community-created) to first learn a word, and then Memrise will test you until it’s confident you’ve folded the new word into your memory bank.

In the days and weeks to follow, the app will remind you to review certain words or phrases (more frequently for new ones, less frequently for ones you know).  It works especially well for visual learners and it’s especially great if you’re learning a character-based language (how amazing to be able to read a menu after an hour of learning food characters), but I think everyone should give it a go. Since it’s easy and quick to pick up while waiting for the subway or bus, I think it’s a great addition to anyone’s study routine.  Plus, you have the ability to build your own course, which is wonderful on both the empowerment and innovation front.

It’s also a good idea to have a dictionary that specializes in your language and a basic translation app (I like iTranslate). I say try a few apps out and filter from there.

That should be enough to get you started. Just remember, when you’re out there exploring your new country, ask yourself each day, “Who will be my teacher today and what can I learn from them?” And chase the answer. Good luck!

What language learning tips have you learned along the way? Share your ideas in the comments below!

itchyfeet learning a language outside the classroom

(Cartoon credit: Itchy Feet)

Lauren Ringdahl

Lauren Ringdahl

Lauren’s passion is education and intercultural learning. Originally from Massachusetts, she lived and taught in New York City for several years before doing her CELTA with Teaching House. She now teaches English to adults in Shanghai, China and writes about her experiences on her blog, An American in Shanghai. She lives for bike rides, ice cream, and learning languages.
Lauren Ringdahl


  1. Rosie Dodd

    Great post. If you’re interested in learning new languages, learning in the country itself is obviously your best bet. Though I’ve noticed in my travels, especially in Europe, speaking English is very common (thanks to us teachers!). For example, Though I have studied German for years, I still struggle with fluency. I know that the only way I can perfect my German is to live there for a few months to practice, though the problem is that the Germans also want to practice their English! Thus, in my travels to Germany my German hasn’t become much better as I regretfully relied on English. However, in my short time in CEntral America, my very basic Spanish became unbelievably better because I was un able to fall back on English at all. So despite the potential ease of relying on English in some countries, challenge yourself! You’re in the best possible place to learn and practice your country’s language – so do it (outside the classroom, of course)!

    • Lauren Ringdahl

      Hi Rosie! Thanks for weighing in. I’ve faced the same struggle at times in Shanghai. Many people are proud of their English and want to practice with foreigners any chance they get. I found that it was a little easier to speak fully in Chinese when I left the big cities, but of course cherish those moments when I meet an enthusiastic local who doesn’t speak any English (especially since they kindly compliment me on my Chinese, even if I don’t think it’s that wonderful just yet).

  2. Amy

    Great advice, Lauren! On a recent trip to Latin America, my travel buddy and I tried to use our terrible and long-forgotten Spanish as much as possible. It was great to actually be able to communicate and the locals were very gracious in humoring our limited language.

    • Lauren Ringdahl

      Hi Amy! I think you and your friend were spot on here. It really helps to push yourself to speak your new language in all situations. I find I’m often surprised by how much I can express! People do appreciate when you try, and I think it goes a long way to build respect between your two cultures.

  3. Kelly

    Hi Lauren,

    I love your blog posts, they are so insightful and helpful! Already have the Memrise app on my iphone! I was wondering if you could share some insight on teaching in China, job opportunities as well as pay expectations. I too have taught in NYC but it was brief as I then moved to Malta to teach under a Fulbright grant and really enjoyed teaching abroad as I love the cultural exchange and travel aspects. I know China is a far cry from Malta but I am curious about teaching opportunities there as I am considering getting my CELTA to add to my Master’s in TESOL. Any information you can provide is much appreciated!!


  4. Zoe

    I agree, in order to truely learn a foreign language it takes more than ordinary learning. Take language learning out of the books and into your everyday life.
    Here are some more tips
    Get learning!

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