How To Start Teaching Yourself a Language: 10 Simple Tips For Success in Language Learning

Do you dream of learning another language, but you’re not quite sure how to start?

Maybe you’ve recently downloaded your first language learning app, but you’re not quite sure how to go from screen to reality.

Or if you learnt a language in the past and want to refresh your skills, you’re wondering if the world has anything new to offer besides weekly evening classes at the community centre.

Congratulations to you! This is an exciting time. If you’re feeling curious but confused about how to teach yourself a language, this is the right article for you.

Today I have 10 simple tips that will make starting your new language a total success and help you stay motivated for many months and maybe even years. They’re perfect for beginners, or learners who need a fresh burst of inspiration.

Let’s get started:

1. Tidy Up Your Mind

Have you heard about the life changing magic of tidying up? I mean that Marie Kondo book and Netflix show. In Marie Kondo’s world, the simple act of letting go of your less exciting stuff is a way to improve ALL of your life. And that advice works for language learning too!

Before you saddle yourself with the new project of learning another language, it pays to tidy up your mind.

Start with a simple list, asking yourself: “What do I believe about my language learning abilities right now?”

Once all the beliefs are out on paper or screen, examine each one to find out which ones are actually useful to you. In Marie Kondo terms, find the ones that spark joy and throw out all the others. Your brain will be clutter-free and ready for a positive new start!

2. Write a Note for Future You

As you’re currently reading this article, you are probably excited and keen to jump into learning your new language. This is awesome! Let me ask you one more question:

What are your reasons for learning this language?

You have got to know your reasons and hold on to them, because the world is going to start getting distracting. Textbooks and evening classes make lots of assumptions about why you’re learning.

For example, if you’re truly in Japanese class because you love manga, you’ll soon get bored of a textbook for busy travellers. When that happens, it’s easy to assume that you have lost your love for everything in the language.

So make sure you are prepared and do write down what motivates you, and once you get bored you’ll have a letter to open and remember where your true North is pointing.

3. Get Great Gear

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Every new project deserves some gear. Runners buy shoes, knitters buy wool, and language learners buy notebooks, dictionaries, textbooks and other delightful things.

If you’re someone who loves to start a new project with an optimistic shopping excursion, go ahead and indulge! For tips on what and how to buy, read No More Hoarding! How to Organize All Your Language Learning Resources.

And to save a bit of money, don’t forget that libraries and second-hand shops always stock a few shelves of language resources that you can use.

4. Get More Than One App

Beyond your paper resources, your smartphone is an amazing language learning tool. The most famous language learning app you might know is Duolingo, but don’t stop there. Download three, four, seven apps to help you learn. Why not!

Every language learning app uses a slightly different system. Get yourself a whole range of different apps to test drive and make it your goal to find out which one’s the most enjoyable.

It’s easy to start ignoring one app’s notifications when you’ve broken the streak. In fact, my advice is to switch notifications off completely as they can easily make you feel bad about your progress when you’re actually doing well.

For a few tips on how to select a good app, see How to Find a Great Language App.

5. Read a Story

Research has shown that learners who learn by reading and listening to lots of interesting input at the right level can learn languages up to six times faster than those who study rules and textbook dialogues.

The trick here is to find something you’re interested in: perhaps a fun short story (like in my German Uncovered course), a video game, comic book, or a song.

Don’t be afraid to immerse yourself in something you only half understand, see if your brain can start seeing any patterns, and make best friends with your dictionary.

It’s surely challenging, but you’ll be amazed at just how much you can learn just from enjoying something you love.

6. Research Music

There are so many cool ways of using music for learning a language that it deserves its own place in this list. You can start by searching online for artists that make your favourite style of music in their language (rap and hip hop are amazing for this), or by investigating local music styles.

Then just hit play and enjoy. To go a little further, you can start reading the lyrics or researching artist interviews. Feeling more ambitious? Attend a concert!

7. Express Yourself NOW

Most people think that they have to wait until they have studied for 50+ hours before they can start expressing anything meaningful in another language. But what if you could flip the script and START by expressing yourself right away?

The trick here is to realise that you don’t have to do this by writing a perfect essay. Expressing how you’re feeling can start with something as simple as one word (“hungry” - “tired” - “headache” - “curious” and so on) and it will help you learn the most relevant and important vocabulary you could ever wish for.

Your act of self-expression can be long like a diary entry or short like a tweet. You can make it by creating a colourful art collage, or by writing the same word in 20 different pens. If you’re feeling brave, you can even share your creation online or record an audio diary.

What matters is that you signal to yourself that you’re ready right now, instead of having to wait for some kind of future level.

8. Make Daily Contact

While I’m on the subject of avoiding anything that makes you feel like you’re “not good enough yet”, I have another tip that has served me fantastically well with every language I’ve taught myself since I left full-time education:

Make daily contact with the language.

That’s all. No need to study 200 flashcards every day or go through four Duolingo levels. What you want is contact. Switch the radio on, watch a video, say hi to a friend, read a page in a book, do a grammar exercise, it does not matter.

Daily contact is the foundation on which you can build a solid language routine without feeling like it’s driving you around the bend.

9. Use Social Media for Language Learning

Most of the time, we think of social media as a distraction and a waste of time. But there’s another way of looking at it.

Follow accounts that share content in your target language, and you’ll instantly have a cool and relevant library of interesting stuff to study. As you get better and feel confident, start making comments in your target language and creating your own posts.

For more specific tips and a list of the best social networks for language learning, check out this list of 17 tips.

10. Try It All

Last year, I interviewed listening expert Cara Leopold for the Fluent Show, who shared this simple lesson on what works well in language learning:

Everything works.

No matter which product you buy or which blog you read, they all have something that will work. The key is finding out whether it will work for you. (“The Miracle Morning” is certainly NEVER gonna do it for me, for example.)

Try Flashcards, try vocab lists, try immersion, try podcasts, try everything that looks interesting in your target language.

Even if you find that it doesn’t work so well for you, it’s unlikely to break your language skills completely.

What Works for You?

Have you tried any of these 10 tips for learning another language? Are you just feeling inspired to add these to your routine?

Leave a comment below to join the discussion - I’d love to hear what works best for you.

build language habit

Bonus Tip: Build a Language Habit

Habits are the key to building a lasting change and long-term achievement into your life. For language learners, making your study into a habit is just the best. It means you no longer question everything you do and clear the path to just getting on with what you want to accomplish.

I’ve written a short guide taking you step by step through establishing your own healthy language habit, which you can get for free by joining the Fluent Language email newsletter below.

#clearthelist May 2019: Learning 2 Languages at Once (Plus: Lots of Resources for Chinese and Welsh!)

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Hello and welcome to Clear The List, the monthly language learning round-up about language learning goals and progress. This blog round-up is hosted by my friends Lindsay Williams and Shannon Kennedy, and April marks a full year of my language goal-setting using this process.

Andiamo!

What Happened in April 2019?

The month of April started off very intense and ended a lot more relaxed. That’s how I like it!

In the first week, I was finally lifting the curtain on my new German course, German Uncovered. It’s an incredible feeling when that first student enrols and all the work translates into their language progress. I held a welcome call with co-creator Olly Richards for our first gang.

This month, I was also busy preparing for the next German retreat. These retreats are an amazing opportunity for intermediate and advanced students to visit another country, discover more about culture, and practice their language through immersion. The June edition is now fully booked for German, and you can get on that waiting list for the next event if you like.

Sign up here for news about the next German retreat.

The Fluent Show

What a month! I was so proud to release my interview with one of my favourite language authors, Dr Roger Kreuz who wrote Becoming Fluent. Roger is a psychology professor and associate dean at the University of Memphis, and our conversation about language learning was wonderful and inspiring.

If you follow the Fluent Show, you’ll know that I have a soft spot for the psychology of the language learner, so this interview was definitely a highlight of the year.

Listen to the podcast episode with Dr Roger Kreuz here

Language Goals and Progress

I’m currently working on two target languages as a learner: intermediate Welsh and very early beginner’s Chinese.

Welsh Progress

In the Welsh language, my level is now pretty functional as long as I maintain a lot of contact and produce a lot of my target language on a regular basis. And I do mean every day when possible.

In the month of April, I found it most difficult to get speaking opportunities. I didn’t arrange any meet-ups with my local conversation partner, my tutor was busy, and when I spoke to my friend Nicky it was in English because he was a guest on the Fluent Show.

Instagram yn y gymraeg

Instagram yn y gymraeg

In the first half of the month, I was also struggling to find time and mental energy to learn Welsh. But once Easter came around and my workload eased up with Fluent, I feel like everything got better! I started by switching on Radio Cymru for a few mornings, then added a bit of S4C.

But the best part was creating my new Instagram account, @kersydysgu. Inspired by some wonderful Fluent Show listeners who have done this, I decided to try out the idea of a fully separate, and ONLY IN WELSH insta account. And my daily contact is through the roof because I’m already spending way too much time on the app. What a fantastic way to get more contact and write in Welsh on a regular basis.

Chinese Progress

My other language is Mandarin Chinese. I had set myself structured goals for this language for the first time last month.

Listening

My goal was to watch a bit of Easy Mandarin on Youtube, but I did nothing. Listening fell flat in April. I don’t enjoy many language instruction podcasts and I’m too low level for any natural input that I know.

Speaking

My very tentative goal of an italki lesson was realised last week. Hooray! My first tutor listened to me counting to 10 and saying “living room” and “desk” at random, then declared my pronunciation very good and my learning “a mess”.

And fair point! I had not even noticed how little I had spoken apart from sounding out the words in my apps, and how little I could say in the way of dialogue. I was incredibly motivated after that and greeted her the next time with a full introduction, including where I live, my age, and my family. Take that, language mess!

I’m very pleased that I got my head around tones and basic pronunciation before the lesson, and I’m now hoping to take some regular classes. Good reminder: It isn’t really ever too early to work with a good tutor. They know what they’re doing!

Reading

Most of my learning is still reading-based, so I kinda met my goal by default.

Writing

I think I did quite well! My notebook is in regular use at the moment, and following up the lessons has made a big difference here.

At the moment my approach is to write in pinyin and also Chinese characters, but I’m not trying to memorize any of the characters. I’m thinking stuff like 我 and 你 will start sinking in automatically.

I’m using Google Translate and the Pleco app a lot for writing at the moment.

Daily Contact Goal

Every month, I log my “daily contact” with the Welsh language. In April, it was difficult to keep anything going during the launch of German Uncovered. But once Easter rolled around and I took some time to rest, Welsh returned to my life. In the last week, my Welsh instagram account made it easier than ever and I’m on a streak.

Total: 17 day out of 30.

I also track how many times I’ve spent 10+ minutes on Chinese, mostly for fun. In April, I checked this box 7 times. Often, this signals way over 10 minutes but it’s not about the minutes. It’s about the habit.

Goals for May 2019

This month is an unusual one. I’m travelling for the first 2 weeks, to Machynlleth in Wales and Amsterdam in the Netherlands. In the last 2 weeks, I’ve got a full-time responsibility away from Fluent, so I’ll have to see how work fits around it.

Welsh Language Goals

Again, I don’t feel I need to actively split my goals into listening, speaking, reading and writing at this intermediate stage. I just want to feel like I’m as good or better, and that will be about contact and speaking.

Spending the first few days of May in Machynlleth is a good start, and in the second half of the month I hope to get started on Say Something in Welsh Level 3 and get back into meeting my speaking partner.

Chinese Language Goals

In this language I’m a total beginner (很高兴认识你) and will benefit from the goal structure. So let’s go!

Listening

Ready to try again with YouTube for Chinese beginners. I’m looking for dialogue-based or story-based input here, rather than someone explaining greetings to me in detail.

If you want to recommend a channel or listening resource, leave me a comment below.

Reading

This is the easy one for any beginner, all my apps and my textbook are reading practice. No specific goals.

Speaking

I’ve already booked one Skype lesson and hope to complete 3 by the end of the month.

(By the way, this month on the blog I have a brand new italki review - check it out if you have not tried out italki before.)

Writing

Three goals:

  • to follow up each language lesson with a page or revision notes,
  • to write 4 notebook pages about myself or my family (these pages are full really quickly when I write in English + pinyin + characters),
  • and to figure out how to type pinyin.

That’s it! Plenty to be getting on with.

Resources

Many people have been asking me to list the resources I use for learning my languages this month. Here they are:

Chinese Resources

Welsh Resources

What are Your Language Goals for May 2019?

Have you ever studied Welsh? Are you a Chinese beginner? Juggling 2 languages like me?

Leave a comment below to tell me all about how you’re getting on, and what you are planning to study next.

Be sure to check out the Clear the List linkup full of inspiring language goals and reports, hosted by Lindsay Williams and Shannon Kennedy.

On The Need For Fun And Creativity In Languages

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What do you think of when you see the word “creativity”?

For me, creativity used to mean being particularly gifted in visual arts. Painters and sculptors were creative. In school, it was clear that being creative was how you got good grades in art classes.

I was a pretty terrible artist, and so I always assumed that I’m not creative at all.

But then I got a job and started noticing things. In work meetings, ideas for alternative solutions to problems would bubble out of me. When I started teaching and learning languages on my own, I felt constrained by the ideas of learning with a textbook and classroom structure.

Instead of putting off my ideas as delusions, I started to listen to them and put a few into action. And slowly I realised…I’m creative after all!

You Have The Tools to Be a Creative Language Learner

My own discovery encouraged me to start looking differently at language learning. I quickly discovered that adults learn best when creativity and fun come along for the ride. So I started to seek out creative ideas of learning.

If you are a first-time solo language learner who’s busy in her life and wants to know how to become fluent without sacrificing all your leisure time, creativity is what will get you to your goals.

I know lots of people who start off and and think “learning is the books and the app”, and when you box your language learning in like that, your motivation suffers as a result.

Creative Ideas For Language Learning

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In this episode of the Fluent Show, Lindsay and I discussed the easiest ways to start building a fun and creative language routine.

Listen to the show here to get our full discussion:

Warning: These may not feel like study, but you’ll learn a lot anyway.

Language Learning With Music

Research and discover songs in your target language and music from the target country. Learn new words and expressions by understanding the lyrics of the songs you listen to.

Playing Games

It’s a common theme on this blog: We learn best when we’re having fun. Playing word games like Taboo, or even classic board games in your target language gives you a subtle way of creating a space where you learn a few new words free from pressure.

When you’re on your own, video games create another interesting option for language learning, and some of them are even [developed with language learners in mind.]

Games are especially handy when you want to share your language with kids.

Poetry and Literature

You might think you have to be an advanced level language wizard before you can even touch a book of poems in your target language, but that is not true! Enjoy a story with tools like [Interlinear books], try your first ever haiku, or lose yourself in a rhyming dictionary.

The key here is to express yourself freely and have fun in the process, getting out of your head and into the feeling that you want to have.

Technology

It’s the 21st century, which means you’re more likely to be reading this on a phone than on a desktop computer right now. And that means it’s time to get creative with tech in your new language.

Lindsay recommends creating a language space in social media that’s dedicated to learning your target language, for example a “Norwegian only Instagram”. I’ve tried this too through Twitter lists. The result is fabulous: it’s instant mini lessons, whenever and wherever you want them.

Exercise

Movement boosts memory! Have you ever thought about combining a language workout with a body workout? We had lots of ideas in the podcast, like example looking for exercise videos in your target language, and taking a language podcast out on a jog.

This one’s great for teachers of any age group, too, as you can create a whole new lesson plan when you think about different ways of moving around your classroom (or outside!).

Bricolage / Crafts

For thousands of people, getting creative means creating cool craft projects like woodwork, scrapbooks, or small art. With craft projects, you have so many options of incorporating language.

Of course you can search online for videos and instructions in another language.

Or you could take printed items from the target country and use them to decorate your home. Or make special art pieces celebrating the words you love the most. Or create a photo essay based on inspiring expressions.

Listen to the podcast to hear more about the special things I created as a teenager (Lindsay calls them ransom notes!).

Cooking

Everybody’s got to eat, and most people have to cook. So what could be more practical than cooking yourself a meal in your target language? From seaweed scones to the secret cuisines of Paraguay, we’ve tried this out and recommend it whole-heartedly.

It’s SO Easy To Get Creative in Language

When it comes down to it, we found that it’s almost impossible to be anything BUT creative in language learning. Yet…many learners avoid getting involved.

Or when we do play and enjoy in our target language, we feel guilty as if this isn’t “proper learning”.

So this made Lindsay and me wonder: why the heck did school teach us that language learning has to look like classroom-exam-teacher-class-snoozefest?

STUDY and LEARNING are concepts that feel like they should look a certain way, when in reality they are not.

Creativity is about permission!

In the podcast, Lindsay and I looked deeper into this idea of permission and allowing ourselves to let go of language learning guilt. Guilt does not do us any favours at all so we should learn to let it go.

Whenever you feel like your activity is not “real learning”, it might be time to reconsider and remind yourself to:

  1. Accept our mistakes (both in language and process and habits and study)
  2. Be kinder to ourselves (does it really matter if we break a streak?)
  3. Impress NOBODY but ourselves

How do YOU get Creative in Language Learning?

Do you cook, craft, run, or rhyme with your target language? Or are you worried that these activities mean you won't learn anything?

Leave a comment below and hare your thoughts!

Seven Questions Any Language Learner Needs To Answer

My friend Daniela wants to learn German, so she got in touch to ask me:

  • How to find resources that will be right for her

  • Which goals she should set to make sure she makes progress and stays motivated

  • How to ensure she stays motivated

Click “Learn More” to discover my 7 coaching questions that you can use to boost your language success, too!

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7 Tips For Learning A Language From Your Girlfriend or Boyfriend

If I had 5p every time I read someone telling someone else that the best way to learn a language is to "get a native speaking girlfriend", I think I could retire at 35. But don't get me wrong: having a native speaker on hand at any time of day certainly has its advantages.

Today, you'll hear from English teacher Nick Vance, who is in the lucky position of having that girlfriend. So, how's it working out?

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