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

tips teaching yourself a language.png

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.

Progress Report after 13 Months of "Slow Welsh Language Study"

Waw, mae'r amser yn rhedeg...time flies (or runs, as my dodgy translation implies).

I have been learning this new language for about 13 months now...so let's have a look what the middle ground looks like!

Before you read the post, download your copy of the free "Teach Yourself Toolkit" in the Fluent Cool Kids Club. It's got links to all the resources I use.

I Spoke Lots of Welsh in Wales!

welsh study update

Back in August, I fulfilled one of this year's language goals and spoke Welsh at the Eisteddfod, the National Festival of Wales. The festival was one week long, with a big site located in Abergavenny, South Wales.

I pitched up my tent for 4 days at one of the official campsites. What a total delight! Immediately, I was hearing people of all ages speak Welsh around me and everyone addressed me in Welsh. In fact, I was surprised, because turns out..

Welsh is real, mae'r Gymraeg yn go iawn!

It's not a postcard language, and it's not even a dying language. Not when you hear and see it all around you, witnessing thousands of people as they celebrate their art, music and identity. Even though I had been learning the language for a year, this was my first experience of feeling how truly alive Welsh is in this world.

In terms of culture and enjoyment, the Welsh festival was amazing. Wales is such a small country that you can make friends with everyone in just a week. From meeting the bands I love (Plu, Candelas) to hanging out with the creators and learners of Say Something in Welsh, every conversation evolved naturally. I often found myself invited to film screenings and discussions (lots of gwin am ddim - free wine!), quickly forgetting I was attending the festival on my own.

Language Immersion is Easy

The Eisteddfod visit showed me that it doesn't take much to create an environment where you learn this new language. Simply go where people speak it. Hearing the language spoken around me was a boost even before I opened my mouth. Yet I also worked on creating speaking opportunities from the start by volunteering as a steward so I was forced to get involved and talk to people from the minute I arrived. It was the perfect Welsh immersion environment.

Impressions from Eisteddfod week

I liked having English as a backup. It was very reassuring to know that I can stop or ask for a word when I need to... I would have never remembered the word for "self-employed" (hynan cyflogedig) if it hadn't been for so many reminders from my conversation partners.

The Fight For Welsh Language Rights

One of the groups I want to highlight is Cymdeithas yr Iaith, an advocacy group for Welsh language rights.

Cymdeithas is an activist group founded in 1962, promoting the right of Welsh citizens to live their lives in two languages. Without them, there would be no bilingual road signs. Old Welsh people may not understand official letters sent in English only. And there would be no education in Welsh. In other words, the language would be dying a lot faster.

Find out more about language rights in our podcast episode with Wikitongues.

If you want to join me at the next Eisteddfod, here's a helpful guide for English speakers.

Speaking and Understanding Welsh After 14 Months

The benefits of visiting Wales and speaking and hearing my target language took hold right away. I was myself having a 15 minute Welsh conversation with an old man in a tiny village, just one week after.

Since returning from Wales, it's been tough to maintain this immersion but I continued to practice. Back in October, I booked a tutoring session with Mererid and my range of conversation was HUGELY improved. It's really great to know that you're impressing your tutor!

I continue to work through the Say Something in Welsh lessons and switched from the old to the new course system back in September. Yes, so I started at the beginning again but that doesn't feel like a setback at all. I loved the opportunity to consolidate my language skills so far. In fact, I got through the first 8 lessons at 1.5 speed, and am now halfway through the course. Say Something in Welsh is intense at times, and it's making me feel like a very confident speaker. I'm also reading a lot of Welsh as I subscribed to the learner magazine Lingo Newydd.

Grammar and Vocab in Welsh

My system is to practice WLCR (Write, Look, Cover, Repeat) using my own notebook. I also maintain a personal Memrise course with the 30% of words that are the hardest to remember. So overall, my vocabulary in Welsh has now grown to about 500-700 solid words - maybe 1000? Who's counting! Studying vocabulary is never going to be a walk in the park when you don't have classes or conversations every day.

--> Learn more about WLCR techniques in my Vocab Cookbook

I'm very happy with my grammar progress, finding that I'm able to say and describe more patterns (he says mae o'n dweud...he said naeth o'n dweud...he was saying oedd o'n dweud ...and so on). Everything still seems to have lots of extra rules and dialects, but I've not had to study many tables at all.

Being an experienced language learner is a big advantage for me here. I find myself seeing patterns and recognising the rules a lot more quickly, and I am confident when I make new sentences out of these structures. I always loved how language can be so playful when you get a pattern.

My Welsh Language Level After 13 Months?

I'm not performing to a set standard, however I've recently downloaded the Mynediad (Beginners) exam guidelines. I'm planning to work through these materials with a tutor. I am pretty much there, meaning I've reached the end of level A1 by studying "little and often" for a little bit more than a year.

Is this impressive? No idea. I don't feel that I would be able to share this on YouTube as a major polyglot win, but at the same time this is something I know I've learnt for life.

The thing about studying for 13 months is this: My time is not wasted just because I've not learnt everything yet. It is time well spent, moving forward, step by step to conversation levels. When you think about how quickly you can learn a language, it's easy to consider any slow periods as "wasted time", but I believe that the long-term commitment is what counts when you want to progress and grow your mind.

What's Next?

In terms of listening, I wish that I had more opportunities to hear real people instead of TV or radio characters. I feel ready to graduate from TV subtitles, but the radio and TV are still too fast for me. What to do?

As a podcast junkie, I would love a slow Welsh news podcast like News in Slow French, or perhaps a learner's story show. I have heard that there's some useful stuff on YouTube, but it's not enough. Give me more Welsh!

My biggest goal is to speak and eavesdrop more. I want to be able to witness conversations in Welsh easily, so that means the following practical goals for December:

  1. Book another tutoring session
  2. Speak Welsh at Polyglot Pub on 6 December
  3. Spend an hour every week listening to the language, ideally spoken by real people around me (failing that, BBC Cymru and S4C will do)

I'm also planning a social media project based on my friend Lindsay's new Social Media Course. More about that in the next blog update!

How Are You Getting On In Your Language?

Are you learning lots, or struggling to find time? Let me know in the comments below!

Language Update: Speaking Welsh After 8 Months (+ Free Toolkit)

Welcome to my third update on how I'm getting on with the Welsh language! I can't believe how much time has passed, and I'm excited to share what I've learnt in 2016 so far.

Before you read the post, make sure you have downloaded your copy of the free "Teach Yourself Toolkit" with all my resources in a handy format.

8 Month Progress

First of all, let's accept it's always tough to assess your own progress. I have a bit of a self-critical streak, and like every other language learner I remember the failures more than the successes.

But there are successes to report. I've closed some basic vocabulary gaps like numbers, days of the week and all that. I added around 150-200 new words in the last months (that's around 7-9 each week, if you've got to count).

I'm halfway through the first Say Something in Welsh course - not bad!

Check out this video to see how I'm speaking Welsh at this stage.

What I've Been Doing

1) Following Say Something in Welsh and the BBC Big Welsh Challenge, and Creating Vocab Lists and Memrise Courses

My core routine has not changed. I add new words to a hand-written list. When I'm not near my notebook, they go straight into Memrise. You can read more about the exact process I use here.

2) Writing Practice Typed and Hand-Written

The great thing about writing is that you really have nowhere to hide. No matter if I'm on Hello Talk or writing by hand, it's obvious where my mistakes are. I share my writing and get corrections online, which helps immensely. Applying the corrections and reading the improved text creates an extremely effective learning process.

3) Finding The Community

It's been tough to attend my Welsh class on a regular basis, but I got involved in an online community. The Dw i'n dysgu Cymraeg group on Facebook is a cool place to find more learners and get help with questions.

Understanding Welsh

Back in February I started watching a Welsh TV drama called Byw Celwydd. After this finished, the next show for me was Ffasiwn Bildar, a reality TV show.

Each source of natural language is a bit different

Going from scripted drama to a reality TV show means that I get to hear more “real language”. But the spontaneous talk is harder to understand, so I still use subtitles. And when I listen to music (indie band Candelas are great), I can repeat, listen again and translate the lyrics. But of course they're more poetic and make less sense!

All in all, having Welsh language channel S4C and Spotify as language resources is a great help. My next TV show will be "Y Gwyll", which you can watch in English as Hinterland. Who doesn't love a bit of Celtic Noir!

Speaking Welsh

I'm now expecting more from myself when I speak Welsh. My pronunciation is fine, and my spelling has improved in line with it. It's still difficult to have an all-Welsh conversation. I'm lucky that all Welsh speakers are bilingual and speak English too.

Welsh is a tease. It lures you in with simple structures! At the start, I was cheerfully ignoring one of the key aspects of Welsh grammar: the mutations! A mutation is when words change their first letter because of the previous word...or their gender...or some other reason. They're not exactly transparent, and it's impossible to hide your bad mutations.

Speaking Welsh In The Real World

People I talk to have to be patient! A lot of the Welsh speakers I have met have been language lovers who know exactly how I'm feeling. The patience of Simon Ager, Richard Simcott, Mererid Williams and Gareth Popkins has been pretty legendary. At the Polyglot Gathering in Berlin for example, I ran into Richard and was encouraged to speak to him in Welsh -- but I'd just come out of my first ever Indonesian class! That sense of embarrassment when you don't rise up to the occasion was painfully real.

Another cool result: I've found out that some of my Facebook friends speak Welsh. It's amazing how people come out of the woodwork when you are learning their language. And how cool that I can talk to them in Welsh now! I'm so grateful for these connections.

Great Plans For The Summer

It's time to make the 3-hour trip to deepest, darkest Wales and start speaking, don't you think? I'm very excited about a few upcoming things.

1) Eisteddfod

The Eisteddfod is an annual festival of all things cultural in Wales. It takes place in the summer over several days - a must for any Welsh learner! I was particularly excited to find out that there's a gig with several Welsh bands and radio star Huw Stephens. Just the right motivation to go!

2) Welsh WJEC Mynediad exam

Having looked at the requirements for passing an A1 exam in Welsh, I think that I could be able to pass the beginner's WJEC exam by the end of the summer. Exams are a fab way to focus when you're learning a language. So I will take the opportunity and prep for this one.

I'm looking forward to visiting Wales again, and can't wait to document all the language I hear and see.

How Are You Getting On In Your Language?

Are you feeling the progress, or feeling stuck? Let me know in the comments below!

If you're in the UK, are you going to the Eisteddfod? I'd love to see you there!