How to Learn a Language on Your Own

My journey with language learning started in school. The middle school I attended offered both Spanish and French, and I found myself faced with the decision to choose. Everyone - I mean everyone - pressured me to take Spanish like everyone else, because it’s incredibly useful to know, especially when living in the United States.

Maybe I thought French sounded beautiful (I still do). Maybe I wanted to be rebellious. Maybe I could tell, even then, that I wasn’t planning to spend my whole life living in the US. In any case, I chose French, continued studying it for nine years, and wound up studying abroad in Paris for a semester with a French minor under my belt.

Because I don’t have room in my schedule for more French courses, and because I enjoy learning languages in general, a ton of my language learning as an adult has been independent. I have an intermediate knowledge of Spanish and a working beginner grasp on Italian, Quechua, and Irish Gaelic; and I’ve kept my French fresh in my mind. All of this is thanks to the tips I am about to share with you. Knowing another language besides English boosts your resume, your creative problem solving skills, communication skills, and opens up a new group of places and people you can visit and interact with. Learning a language on your own is great if, like me, you don’t have room in your schedule for language classes, or if a traditional classroom environment isn’t for you!

Do your research

Know the components of language: nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc. In the beginning, focus on vocabulary rather than grammar. Google reputable online dictionaries - my favorite is Wordreference, which has dictionaries for languages like French, Spanish, Italian, German, and many, many more. After a while, find or purchase dictionaries entirely in your target language. This way, when you look up a word, you’re encountering an explanation that’s also in your target language. This will help your creative communication skills when you find yourself needing to express an idea in conversation when you may not know an exact word. It also helps keep your mind in the language when you’re speaking it, which is crucial to fluency; now, when I’m speaking French, I’m also thinking in French.

Take advantage of technology

There are an endless amount of resources that technology affords is in the way of language learning, and most of them are totally free. I’m actually just going to list some of them below in no particular order.

  • Duolingo - a free language learning app. It has the structure of a language class but you can make your own schedule! They have TONS of languages to learn; I’ve used it for Spanish, Italian, German, Swedish, Gaelic, and High Valyrian (from the Game of Thrones franchise).

  • Language podcasts - there are tons of podcasts that are essentially like free Rosetta Stone, which have audio lessons to listen to whenever you would listen to a podcast. A lot of them are designed for people who don’t have time for a full language course, so they offer short, bite-sized lectures that are easily consumable. Two of my favorites are Coffee Break and OneMinute, but there are literally hundreds.

  • YouTube - there are tons of YouTube channels dedicated to language learning, whether it’s someone providing free lessons or someone who is in the same boat as you: learning! Many people document their experiences traveling and learning languages to try and relate to others doing the same. Not only can it open your eyes to new tips and tricks for learning, but it also fosters an internationally curious community. My favorite channel is DamonandJo!

  • Social Media/Phone - while in Paris, I started listening to French music, following French people on Twitter & Instagram, and reading French news. I still do all these things now, and it’s amazing to read French first thing in the morning when scrolling through my phone in bed, for example. Additionally, my phone language is in French - considering how much people nowadays use their phones, this is an incredibly easy and almost immediate point of access to language learning.

Create an immersive environment

In the field of language learning, it is well known that the most useful tool is immersion - being completely submerged in the language and having to figure a way through it. Try and recreate this environment as best you can in your own life. Watch movies and TV shows in your target language (all streaming services have subtitles!! Great for learning!). Listen to music in your target language. I found rap to be incredibly helpful in improving my French, both for the sheer amount of words in a song and for the slang used that I wouldn’t find in a French textbook. Super tip here: Genius.com, an open-forum lyric explanation website, has songs in many different languages. Look up slang words or phrases you don’t know on Genius for convenient explanations you won’t find in a traditional dictionary. Also, the explanations will most likely be in your target language, which (re: my earlier point about dictionaries) is super incredible for learning.

Learning a language on your own ensures your learning in a way that suits your academic needs and your schedule. It’s a much more personal process than something you’re simply doing for a grade, and I can attest that you will feel so proud of yourself for doing something so productive and amazing independently. This, paired with the real-life utility of being bilingual, will open so many doors for you and improve your overall quality of life tenfold.