IUNIA #HowTo Series: Improving Foreign Language Skills

Hello Friends of IUNIA!

Recently I did a live Instagram session in how to improve foreign language skills. Here’s the summary.

1. There is no single method that is the best for learning a language. Everyone’s brains work differently. What I used to do was to label every single corner of my house– I labeled the toilet, la toilette; I labeled the wall, le mur; I labelled the door, la porte, and so on, until my mum thought I was insane. The only thing I didn’t label were the cats, or les chats. My mum speaks seven languages, and she never did that when she was learning languages… but hey, it worked for me! I even colour-coded the feminine and masculine words. It helped me a lot. So… know yourself! How do you normally learn? Incorporate that to your study strategy. I’m a bit visual, hence the colours.

2. How important is accent? Not at all! What’s more important is to get the correct pronunciation and grammar structure, so people understand you! If you go on online dictionaries, normally they have a button that pronounces the words for you. It lets you know where to stress the word, how to say the vowels, etc.

Not to be discouraging, but unless you want to spend an insane amount of money to work with a very expensive accent coach for years as though you were an actor in Hollywood, I assure you, you will never sound like a native speaker. But you don’t need to. Look at Ban Ki Moon and Antonio Guterres! They speak with a foreign accent, but we can understand them perfectly, also, they are very well respected and they’re on top of their careers! You don’t have to sound like Barack Obama. Don’t be self-conscious about how you sound :) As long as you don’t try to fake an accent (which normally just end up sounding weird and frankly, annoying because it’s confusing), you sound wonderful. I mean it.

3. Getting used to thinking in a certain language is never easy– it takes a fair amount of time, but it's crucial. Invest in a same-language dictionary i.e. English-English, French-French (I recommend Larousse), and so on, so that you become accustomed to thinking in that language. My late grandfather used to say, if you start dreaming in a certain language, then you know you’re improving! Fall asleep watching a film in a foreign language with the subtitles in said language. It helps you learn how to pronounce certain words and you gradually become independent from direct translation!

4. Read. A lot. Children’s books are your best friend. Specifically for the UN/government context, read plenty of newspapers: New York Times, Washington Post, Le Monde, The Economist, etc. While children’s books helps your train of thought, perfect for beginners, reading newspapers adds to your vocabulary! These are what the officials read. These are words that are used on a daily basis in (more) formal settings. Get used to it and get on top of it! Highlight the words you don’t know. Note them down and use them!

If you’re at a higher level and want to read a book with more advanced language, I always recommend buying books that are meant for students. Whether it’s English, French or Spanish, they normally have those where they have a dossier at the back. For French, go for FolioPlus. What it does is it gives you a crash course and provides you with context of the situation in the period when the book was written. Sometimes literature uses words that are archaic, and we need extra help in comprehending them.

5. Practice makes perfect. Whether you’re a self-learner or you’re in a classroom, at one point, you need to speak to a counterpart. If you can’t translate what you know into verbal communication, then you don’t really speak the language. You’ll also miss out on many things, like interviews and networking. Then it doesn’t really make it an additional skill, does it?

In simpler terms: I speak Indonesian. It’s my first language. Doesn’t mean that I know how to speak Malay only because I understand it perfectly and know how to read it, does it? The only phrase I know is probably "jom makan” because nasi lemak is bomb, but that doesn’t count as me knowing Malay…

You can find foreign language communities like Polyglot Indonesia, or even go to cultural events held by embassies or culture centres, i.e. Institut Français, Erasmus Huis, Goethe Haus, etc. and meet people! Network. Treat it as a practice for what you need to do at the UN!

6. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, learn from it. Don’t get discouraged when people point out your mistakes. In this case, I would like to use my boyfriend Dennis as a case. I met him when he was in Manchester doing a Foundation course to do his Master’s. He had to do this course because his English level at the time wasn’t sufficient enough to do a Master’s course. I remember him asking me to correct his mini-thesis, and I found an insane amount of mistakes, mostly the use of informal words and a messy grammar structure.

One and a half year later, he graduated from his Master’s, with Merit. A few days after his graduation ceremony, I had to go back to Indonesia. He took me to the airport, we were in a cab. The cab driver, who we chatted with for half an hour, asked him, “were you born here?”. The cab driver thought Dennis was born to immigrant parents in the UK, or maybe moved to the country when he was a toddler. This is probably my proudest moments, because it shows that his hard work paid off :’)

Throughout his studies, he always asked me to correct him when he made mistakes in his pronunciation or grammar. I did. Even if his friends would think that I was being controlling, he didn’t care. He wanted to learn and he wasn’t embarrassed when he made the mistakes, he learned from them!

Even after his studies, we had "English Day”, where we would speak English to one another. Learning a language takes commitment, at least a few hours a day. I think Dennis’s story shows that learning a language isn’t instant, it’s a process. Also, asserting the previous point, having a speaking partner is essential for your improvement!

I don’t mean to be negative. But personally, I noticed that us Indonesians don’t like being corrected; we become defensive. When someone corrects us, it’s better to say thank you and learn and do not become discouraged. Don’t say, “tau deh yang udah jago…”. After all, we only want to get better!

7. Never stop learning. As someone who speaks English as a first language, I still have to improve my vocabulary. I listen to podcasts from Harvard Kennedy School, The Economist and the likes on a daily basis. I learn words like dichotomy (Indonesian: dikotomi), which isn’t commonly used colloquially, but always… always appears in academic texts and formal settings. The words I learn, I incorporate in my essays at university!


If you keep a diary, start writing it in the foreign language you’re learning! :)

My laptop, phone, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram are set in French! Not sure if it helps you, but it gets you used to the language.

Use apps like Duolingo, Rosetta Stone. Rather than playing games on your phone, practice instead!

Those are my tips on how to improve your foreign language skills. Contact me through my Instagram @gustika___ if you want to discuss a little more :) Bon courage, good luck, buena suerte !


The article was written by Gustika Jusuf Hatta, IUNIA Mentor. Feel free to drop your comment and questions to

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