6 Tips for Teaching Yourself a New Language

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So that foreign language class you wanted to sign up for clashed with one of your other courses. Or maybe you did enroll but you know you need to practice outside of class. Or maybe you just can’t find classes in the language you want to study. You realize that you will have to learn the language independently. Whether it’s picking up a new foreign language or brushing up on your old skills, studying a language at home requires patience and motivation. It is not impossible, though. Whether you are learning your first foreign language or picking up your seventh, here are some tips to manage your independent studies.


1. Think about why you want to learn the language. Sometimes the answer is “because it’s useful”, but that’s not personal enough. Why is it useful to you? Are you learning Russian because statistics shows that it’s spoken in a lot of countries or are you learning it because you want to travel or study in Russia. Think about where you will want to use the language: in study or work, for travel and leisure, or simply because you’re really passionate about the target culture. List down motivating and exciting reasons why you want to learn that language. If you can’t come with any, maybe you should reconsider your choices and pick another language.

2. Find all the tools available. Don’t just buy a grammar book. Check what’s available online. There are websites that offer especially designed lessons to teach you grammar and basic vocabulary. These come in written, podcast and video format, so pick what works for you – or try a bit of everything. For some languages finding resources is easier, but generally there are loads of options. Just try looking up tutorials on YouTube! Also check what apps you can download onto your phone. You could be listening to audio lessons of Italian or practicing Chinese characters while sitting on the bus. With apps like Anki you can create your own flashcards to practice vocabulary. Plenty of blogs and forums discuss language related matters – these make a great source for understanding culture and handling real life situations and finding questions other learners have asked.

Authentic material like unsubtitled TV-shows, radio, newspapers etc. are also great for listening to intonation and pronunciation. However, if you’re still a beginner, you may find them quite daunting, so please don’t kill off your motivation by tackling something far beyond your current skills!

3. Schedule your practicing. Quick sessions are easier to fit into your busy day. Watch short learning videos between classes, use an app to revise vocabulary on the go. Quizzing yourself using flashcards and noticing your own improvement are more fun than sitting down once a week to study for three hours straight. Frequent revision also ensures that way you will have the opportunity to refresh your memory frequently, eventually making sure it all goes into your long term memory. Of course, if you want to you can make a long-term schedule, where you aim to cover certain aspects of the language by a certain date. This is useful if you will need the language at a specific scheduled event, say, a standardized test. In general, however, it’s better to just keep going at a steady pace: you can’t really tell in advance how much time you’ll need to learn a specific thing (while still remembering the old stuff).

Another issue is that learning a language is not necessarily a finite process. There’s no final-level where you know all there is to know, and thus no deadline for becoming fluent. As long as you keep a steady pace, your skills will be honed just fine.

4. Practise all areas. Some people notice that they know lots of words, but can’t really put them in a sentence. Others learn the grammar perfectly, but know only a few phrases. But one cannot exist without the other and thus it’s important not to practice only your forte. The same goes for other areas of language use: Reading, Writing, Listening, Speaking. The way you learn a language really affects which areas are your strong suits. If you learn mostly by reading texts, chances are you find listening to native speakers very difficult. If you learn a lot by listening, you may not know how to spell words. And the classic: in school you were taught to read and translate chapters from the textbook. Years later you’re still too embarrassed to use the language in a conversation. This time, don’t let that happen. If you’re unsure of your strengths and weaknesses in a given language, you can always try taking a test, even if it’s just an online test. Always remember that testing should not be about dictating how bad you are but about recognizing what can be improved!

5. Use the language. Not only do you learn a language in order to use it. You learn a language by using it. Write diary entries in that language – even if you don’t keep a diary. Talk to yourself in that language. Even better, talk to someone else in that language – maybe you can find a study buddy, even if it’s someone who’s also a learner. Mimic or sing along to any audio material to practice your pronunciation. But remember that you don’t have to have perfect pronunciation or vocabulary to make yourself understood about basic topics.

The important thing is to just make yourself understood, even if that means you have to rely on gestures and loan words. It’s a bit awkward at first, communicating to native speakers, but when you notice that you can handle the situation, it will really boost your confidence. Look up the lyrics of a song or watch TV with subtitles, and try to actively recognize words from the speech. When you’ve gotten past the first hurdles, you can skip the subtitles and pick up a few easy reads such as comics or magazine articles on familiar topics.

6. Keep it up. Unfortunately, many people quit the learning process. Maybe you’re one of them, having never looked back at until now, when you find you’ve forgotten pretty much everything. To keep your memory fresh on all the vocabulary and all the verb forms, you need to keep using them. The more you practice, the better you get, and the easier it becomes to do all kinds of things with the language. Suddenly you find yourself able to read books in that language. Motivation lacking? Look back at your list of why you wanted to learn that language. Remember how you wrote down you want to brush up your Swedish because all many of your friends from work speak Swedish? Remember how you decided you’d learn at least the basics of Spanish so that you could speak the language when you go backpacking in South America? There’s a concrete reason for why you’re doing this, a goal to aim for that’s not just a grade on an exam paper.

Bottom line: practice, practice, practice, but don’t lose sight of what and why you are practicing. Languages are a thing that should help you expand your horizons!


About The Author

Well met! I study English philology and linguistics. I fill my spare time with procrastinating and overthinking, but I do enjoy shonen anime and high-fantasy literature as well.