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
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:
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.
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.