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.

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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.

The 5 Golden Rules of Adult Language Learning

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Ever heard that you should be language learning like a child?

"Kids are like a language sponge" is a belief continued in the media. The mantra goes like this: Little kids are like a language sponge, they pick up any word and phrase you throw at them and will learn a language very easily.

And the myth goes on to claim that adults have missed the boat. They are starting way too late to ever reach any respectable level of expertise in a foreign language, and they'll definitely never sound like a native speaker.

Why? Because science.

This myth is about as widespread as it is infuriating. For examples, see the headlines on this article about babies and sound, or this inevitable product selling you on an invented cut-off age of seven years.

Adult Learners Can Learn A Foreign Language Quickly And Easily

In this article, I won't dwell on the volumes of research that have been done on human brains, language acquisition, speech therapy, ageing, and so forth. In a very tiny nutshell: Learning anything is harder when you're an adult, and the best evidence for any critical period is in the area of accent development (27 page ref to knock yourself out with at this URL).

There's a great selection of research on the topic, and for a primer check out the sources listed in Becoming Fluent: How Cognitive Science Can Help Adults Learn a Foreign Language. The book is an awesome collection of helpful information, and was a fabulous resource for me as I was writing this article.

For today, I'd ask you to forget about anything you've ever heard about the childlike brain. Open your mind, and let's explore some realistic ways of making language learning work for you - at any age.

1. Analyse and Repeat Patterns

Adults can learn languages in a deliberate way. The structure of practicing new sentences is one of these keys - analyse, understand, apply, repeat.

There is no need to cram your way through grammar books as you learn a new language. It's totally possible to speak when you haven't even touched on any grammar yet. I did it in Icelandic last week, and I have helped my own German students to do this from the start.

But the key to using grammar to your advantage is in using it to answer your questions. Next time you hear someone say a sentence in your target language, repeat it and try saying something different with the same structure. If you're talking to a native, get them to give you more examples with that structure. If you're learning by yourself, consult a grammar book or text book.

What you are doing now is learning a pattern or chunk of language (like a child), and at the same time satisfying your curiosity by discovering the rule behind it (like an adult).

2. Set Goals and Track Your Progress

Goals! Projects! Missions! Whatever you call them, they are the lifeblood of sticking with where you are at as a language learner. Since you are a busy person, being accountable for your own time is one of the best ways of feeling both accomplished and efficient.

Tracking your progress is not only a good way of structuring how you learn. It will also help you combat the dangers of motivation loss. The longer you stick with what you've already studied, the easier it will be to keep going. In other words: It's easier to break a 2-day streak than to break a 2-month streak.

Tracking can work in many different ways. It can be as simple as keeping up with habit streaks on apps (Duolingo, Memrise, or just type "habit" into any App Store). Or it can be a flexible and thorough system like the Language Habit Toolkit..

The Language Habit Toolkit is a set of resources designed to help adult learners set meaningful goals, get motivated and stay a lot more organized than most other learners will ever be. Learn more here.

3. Move On From Setbacks

I like to tell my learners that even the brightest student won't remember a new word immediately, and instead needs to encounter it up to 15 times before it truly sticks. Anyone who has experienced that cold sweaty feeling of forgetting words mid-conversation Knows what a language setback feels like.

But there is no reason to give up at that point. Remember progress tracking? The small wall you are hitting today is a result of the long way that you have come so far. You would never have dreamed of that wall back at the beginning.

Moving on from setbacks is largely a challenge to your mindset. Remember that language learning is not a straightforward line. In fact, it doesn't even have an end point. You just go along the path every single day and become a little better with each step.

For a bit of positive thinking "in a bottle", my pre-made set of affirmations will be a great resource to check out. Remember that growth mindset - at any age, you're just getting started.

4. Know And Respond To Your Learning Style

It's impossible to predict your success based on superficial facts: Your age or your native language are practically useless in helping you figure out how to learn German vocabulary faster. Neither will your star sign, for that matter.

However, the more you understand your own preferences and habits, the easier it becomes for you to learn a language successfully.

Being aware of your social learning style can go a long way to helping you create a language learning routine that you'll enjoy for a long time. For example, the difference between extroverts and introverts shows in how they practice, read and speak languages.

Knowing the time of day when you're at your best, or recognising signs that you are tired and need to rest, are other important factors.

And don't forget the ongoing debate about learning styles. Even if the classic "visual-auditory-kinetic" styles are no longer supported in research, it's worth finding out how you best process new information. As Edutopia puts it:

It is critical to not classify students as being specific types of learners nor as having an innate or fixed type of intelligence.

Find a style that you enjoy, that doesn't zap your energy, and that helps you set habits. And if that means speaking comes on day 100, so be it.

On that note..

5. Build Great Habits

If you want to get a better handle about how to build winning habits, start with how you make habits stick in other areas of your life. For example, some people stay fit by scheduling regular workout times, while others need accountability and love tracking their runs online. I recommend you start digging into this with help from Episode 32 of the Creative Language Learning Podcast, in which we discussed habits, styles and tendencies based on the work of writer Gretchen Rubin.

Conclusion

So this article actually started out over three years ago, when I was first blogging about the many myths in language learning. I've always been bothered by this kid-language-sponge idea because it does nothing to help adult learners progress.

If you have the opportunity to expose your kids to other languages, go for it. They will do awesome.

But more importantly, do not ever believe that you are over the hill.

Here's how I finished my article in 2013.

Start thinking about this one from the other point of view: If little kids can do it, then anyone can.

I still believe the exact same thing.

What are your biggest problems as an adult language learner?

Leave me a comment below or get in touch - I'd love to hear more about what you think of the research behind this and the study methods I listed.

If you're feeling all fired up to get started and make progress with a new language right now, download the FREE Guide to the Best Resources in Language Learning by registering below: