Now that I’ve been at this whole independent language learning thing for a few years now, I have picked up a few bits of knowledge that I wish I knew when I started out. Since I can’t go back in time and share this knowledge with myself, I thought it would be helpful to share it with you in the hope that it might save you some time as you make your way along on your own language learning journey.
Here are 8 things that I wish I knew when I started learning languages on my own.
1 // It’s okay for it to all be one huge jumble at the beginning.
When I first started learning Chinese, I was overwhelmed by the newness factor. I was taking on a new writing system, new vocabulary, new grammar, and a new culture. It all just seemed like too much. I worked through resources, dutifully adding new phrases and words to my notebook wondering how on earth I’d ever remember it all.
But guess what? A few months later when I went back through my notes, I realized just how much of those new words and phrases weren’t new at all any more. And a year later, none of it was new. Through repetition and constant exposure, I was picking up and retaining far more than I initially thought that I would. That huge jumble sorted itself out just because I was constantly working with the language.
2 // You really can’t do it alone.
I’m an introvert and so I have a tendency to hole myself up in my little study corner, working through Memrise decks, studying textbook grammar, and listening to my Pimsleur lessons. But I’ve found that doing this isn’t enough. It really wasn’t until I started interacting with tutors and other language learners that everything really started to come together for me. I also didn’t really know what I was doing on my own – which resources to pick, how to go about studying without a teacher assigning me homework, and so on – until I went online and discovered other language learners. Community is everything.
3 // There’s no one right way to learn a language.
This is something that I’ve run into with music as much as I’ve run into it with language. In music, musicians (not all, mind you) often run out and buy equipment because that’s what so-and-so-famous-talented-musician is using and so it must be right. If I own this saxophone, that mouthpiece, those reeds, then I’ll sound just like that person! But that is NEVER the case (plus trying to sound just like someone else isn’t a good plan, you have to be you).
The same goes for language learning. I often see learners jump at buying certain resources because so-and-so-talented-language-learner said it’s the best way to learn a language and I’ll be as good as them if I buy it. Again, not the case. We’re all wired differently and we all learn in our own way. What may work amazingly for one person may not work so well for another. That’s also part of the reason why I mention who I think a resource would be great for whenever I write a review.
So don’t be discouraged when one method doesn’t work for you – it isn’t you! Just try something different. You’ll be surprised how much changing your learning routine can do for your study.
4 // A little bit every day is far more effective than a lot done less often
Studying fifteen minutes everyday is far more effective than studying for two hours one day a week. That doesn’t mean you can’t do that two hour study session if you have the time to do it, it just means that you should also study a little bit the other six days of the week.
5 // There are two kinds of study
There are two ways to spend your study time, and again, this also applies to music. There is what I call “practice” or when you take material you don’t know and add it into your repertoire, and there is what I call “playing” where you work on something you already know. So in the case of language, “playing” can be called “review” for simplicity’s sake.
In order to fully develop your language skills, you need to spend time both practicing new material and reviewing previous material. To progress efficiently, in my opinion, more time should be spent practicing than reviewing. While reviewing is great to ensure that you’ve retained what you’ve learnt, the only way to increase it is by working on new material.
6 // You need a goal and plans to move towards that goal to succeed
There are good goals and there are not-so-great goals. A not-so-great goal is “I’m going to be fluent in Russian.” This goal doesn’t have a deadline, fluent isn’t easily defined, and so, it’s really hard to gauge just when you’ve reached “fluent in Russian.” Better goals are “I’m going to order in Chinese at the local restaurant this next weekend.” This goal is much more attainable because, not only do you have a deadline, but you also have a specific set of vocabulary that you can work on to take that next step in the language that you’re learning.
Your plans towards moving to that goal could be to first create a Memrise deck including the vocabulary you need, spending fifteen minutes a day studying that vocabulary, and then holding a mock conversation in a restaurant with a language exchange partner on iTalki.
I also recommend sharing your goals in some way. It helps you keep accountable. If you’d like to join us, we host #clearthelist, a monthly linkup where we share our goals and checkin on our goals from the previous month.
7 // Breaks aren’t a bad thing
Breaks really aren’t a bad thing, as long as they don’t last more than a day or two. I used to feel like a total slacker whenever I took a couple days off from study, but I’ve come to realize that breaks can actually be beneficial to your language learning. Not only to they give your brain time to process and digest all the new information, but it also allows you the opportunity to step back and look at how you’re approaching your studies. Just make sure that whenever you take a break, you don’t let it last too long!
8 // There is a great community of language learners online who share their experiences
There are just so many fantastic language learners online and many of them blog about their experiences, sharing what has worked for them and what hasn’t. They can save you a lot of time and energy too, because many of them have resource pages on their website and they often share their learning strategies. I definitely wish that I was aware of the online language community when I first started out (psst… I have a list of some of the blogs that I enjoy on my resources page).
So there you have it, 8 things I wish I knew when I started to study languages on my own. If you’re an independent language learner and you’re looking for a little more guidance, I would like to invite you to check out Lindsay Dow’s new course Successful Self Study. I’ve had the pleasure of previewing the course and it contains a ton of helpful information on how to become a more effective independent language learner. I absolutely recommend it.
What about you? What are some useful things that you’ve learnt as a solo language learner? I’d love to hear about them in the comments!