Practical Second Language Acquisition Strategies

People dining outside of a restaurant in Norway on a sunny day.

One of my friends journeyed across the Atlantic for a new job where he’ll need to learn a new language. As a farewell gift, I thought it’d be a good idea to share some of my practical experience in successfully learning two foreign languages while working abroad. My masters in teaching English as a second language provided me with some excellent practical strategies. These are the ones that worked for me. I hope they help you, too!

  1. Eaves-dropping: I learned this from my professor in graduate school, world-famous second language researcher, Dr. Rebecca Oxford. This learner strategy was mentioned as useful by students in a book she edited, Language Learning Strategies Around the World: Cross-cultural Perspectives (1996). This falls under Bandura’s (1977) social learning theory where learning occurs through observation of others and without formal reinforcement of learning. It’s a cognitive process where one can learn vicariously through others. And believe me when I tell you, I’ve picked up some great phrases from overhearing them on the street.
  2. Silent rehearsal (aka private speech or subvocal rehearsal): I also learned this from Dr. Oxford back in the 90s.
  3. Reading simplified text: Read your favorite children’s book in that new language. For, example, I’ve read The Little Prince in three languages—it never loses its beauty. The simplified language of a children’s book will assist you in becoming a successful reader in the second language. Your familiarity with the storyline will aid your comprehension. Reading will also help you learn academic language.
  4. Journaling: Find a tutor to exchange language journals. Meet with them regularly and informally. Write about what interests you. For example, I wrote a short form of poetry in free verse in Portuguese. I still have it to this day. Your language journals will become your memorabilia.
  5. Immersion: Immerse yourself in the everyday language communicated on their radio stations, TV channels, the local newspaper, and yes, the local pub! Try living with a host family or roommate to immerse yourself in the practical language of daily habits, norms, and cultural and religious outings. Immersing yourself in an environment with others, even through videogaming, is called situational learning. This is learning that occurs through different modes of co-participation based on situational factors (Lave & Wenger, 1991).  However, learning in one situational context may not transfer to another unless it closely mirrors it, and the learner is properly prepared; therefore, authenticity is crucial to the learning situation (Brown et al., 1989).
  6. Cognates: Learn the shared words that have crept into their language through pop culture, history, or religion. These are called friendly cognates. Also, learn the false cognates; they don’t mean the same thing and will cause confusion for the listener.
  7. Test yourself: Study, test, test, test yourself on the grammar to develop a long-term memory of it. Roediger & Karpicke (2006) found that students in the treatment group of study-test-test-test (STTT), outperformed other students in other treatment groups that focused on studying (SSST and SSSS). This is referred to as the testing effect.
  8. Practice: Become the extrovert that pushes the envelope to encounter opportunities to practice the language by in the community by yourself. If you hang out with others who speak your same language, they’ll limit your language learning for various reasons. Of course, it’s fine to do this sometimes and can be a respite when you’re not well-versed in the host country’s primary language. Try to find locations where no one speaks your language.
  9. Listen to simplified media: Watch classic children’s movies in the target language. The strategy is similar to #3 but with media, you’ll hear (and remember) the language from context. I remember watching Pinocchio in Spanish when I was in the Peace Corps in Honduras at a movie theater. Nowadays, you can simply select the language settings on your movie streaming devices.
  10. Situated learning: Change the language settings on all of your devices. Force yourself to learn the language within a situated task such as videogaming. Of course, this works best if you’re already very familiar with the environment and tasks required to function.


Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory. Prentice Hall.

Brown, J., Collins, A., & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Educational Researcher, 18(1), 32–42. doi:10.3102/0013189×018001032

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge University Press.

Oxford, R. L. (Ed.). (1996). Language learning strategies around the world: Cross-cultural perspectives (No. 13). National Foreign Language Resource Center.

Roediger, H. L. III, & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). The power of testing memory: Basic research and implications for educational practice. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1, 181-210.


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