How to Start Learning a Language in 9 Steps
My name is Shannon Kennedy and I'm the language lover,…
Lately, I’ve had quite a few questions come up about how I go about learning a new language. While Lindsay and I are sharing how we’re learning Korean from the start as a part of the Korean language challenge, I thought I’d share a bit about how I go about learning a new language, in general, in today’s post.
I’ve now been through the “starting a new language” process now a total of ten times (give or take), and while I haven’t kept up every language that I’ve started, I have used what I learned starting up each of the past languages to more effectively begin the next.
There are a few things that I’ve found work really work for me (and a few that don’t). The important thing to remember is that every learner is different, and so, what might work for one may not work for another. Nonetheless, I’d like to share the system that works for me in the hopes that it might help you find something that works for you as well.
Things that work for me when I start learning a new language
1 // Spend some time familiarizing yourself with the language before you actually go about learning it.
Read the introduction chapter of your course book, a book on the culture of a country that speaks your language (preferably the one that speaks the dialect you’re going to study), and spend some time researching the language online, reading about it on sources like Wikipedia and Omniglot.
I also recommend listening to plenty of audio in your target language – whether it’s through a recording of some sort or even video – so that you can get used to the way that the language sounds. And don’t worry, it’s totally okay that you don’t understand what’s being said.
When I started learning Russian, I listened to every single podcast available on RussianPod101 just to get my ear comfortable with the language. They have an awesome sign-up offer that gives you access to everything for $1 for a month, and so I crammed in as much material as I possibly could (and I still ended up continuing my subscription after that first month).
2 // If your language as a writing system different from your own, spend some time learning it before you dive into the language in its entirety.
Even if you don’t master the alphabet during this stage of your learning, it’s a good idea to get familiar with it early on. When I started learning Russian (my third language with a different writing system), I spent the first week of my study just learning to read the alphabet using a Memrise deck and a printout that I created because the flashcards alone weren’t enough (I could remember the characters while using the deck, but outside of that context I needed something just a bit more and I needed to see them all at once).
3 // Decide what your goals are in learning this language
Spend some time thinking about what you hope to accomplish in learning this new language. Write down your goals. To give you an idea of what I mean, my goal in learning Russian is to reach a conversational level in speaking and comprehension as well as a fluent reading level.
By deciding on my goals for the language, I can then spend some time figuring how I can go about accomplishing them. This, in turn, gives me a clear sense of direction and a clear path to take to achieve my goals.
I’m a huge fan of the onion goals I learned about through Lindsay Dow as a part of her Successful Self Study course. I start at the center of the onion with the goal itself, so, for example, a fluent reading ability in Russian. I then ask myself how am I going to go about achieving a fluent reading ability in the language?
My answer? By ensuring that I spend a significant portion of my studying time developing my reading ability in the language.
And how am I going to do that?
By learning enough vocabulary to understand simple texts so that I can eventually move on to more complicated texts.
And how am I going to do that?
By studying flashcards every day and learning the writing system.
And how am I going to do that?
Well, you get the idea. ? The point is, you take the goals you create and you keep breaking them down until you get to small, manageable tasks that eventually lead you to your goal(s).
This step is so very, very important. I can’t tell you how many times I plateaued in my language learning JUST because I lacked a clear sense of direction – the next step, if you will. If you spend a little time in the beginning deciding on how you’ll go about studying, you’ll save yourself so much time along the way.
And don’t worry if your study plan changes! That’s okay. As we get into a language and our interests and learning styles change, it’s normal to reevaluate what we’re doing and head along a new path. The important thing is to start out with a plan, even if you need to modify it later on.
4 // Select about 3-4 resources that you’ll work with
I, personally, do not advise working with any more than three to four resources for any given languages at a time because I believe that there is too much repetition involved when we bounce from resource to resource. In my opinion, one of the best ways to ensure that you continually move forward in your learning is by thoroughly working through a limited number of resources.
I also feel that it’s best to ensure that the resources you’re using are diverse in that they each cover different aspects of the four core language skills: reading, writing, listening and speaking.
As a reference, I usually start out with:
1) A coursebook like Assimil because it includes listening, reading and writing;
2) Pimsleur because it covers speaking and listening;
3) Memrise because it includes reading and writing (and sometimes listening); and
4) iTalki because I believe that the guidance of a good tutor can do a lot for your learning AND cover all four of the core skills.
5) BONUS: A phrasebook (but I don’t actively study this, I just have it on hand for if and when I need it)
5 // Create an easy way to take notes
Taking notes is one of my favorite ways to really work on new vocabulary and grammar. There’s just something about writing it out that increases the odds that the information will stick with me.
For some of you, taking digital notes on Google Docs, Evernote or in Word may be your preference. For others, like me, you may prefer writing things out by hand.
6 // Create a Plan
Now that you know what your goals are for the language and that you’ve picked out the resources you’re going to use, it’s time to create a study plan. Take a moment to sit down and think about where you have (or where you can make) time to study your target language.
Perhaps its 15 minutes before work or during your commute that you have time to listen to a podcast or audio lesson. Maybe you have time to work with your course book during your lunch break at work and time to run through your flashcards while dinner is cooking in the oven. Wherever that time may be – even if it’s only ten to fifteen minutes here or there, make note of it. Once you have an idea of when you have time to study, you can decide what you’re going to study during that time.
A few tips for effectively using your time:
- Material that is new to you requires more focus and time than material that you’re reviewing. Be sure to take this into account when planning your study time.
- There are quick activities you can complete pretty much anywhere (a Duolingo lesson, Memrise watering or planting, etc.) and there are activities that need to be completed in certain environments. That’s pretty much any audio driven study needs to be done where you can hear the audio clearly, course book study isn’t convenient just anywhere, and speaking practice usually needs to be scheduled ahead of time (unless you’re jumping over onto an app like HelloTalk).
- Several 15-minute study sessions throughout the day can be much more efficient than a solid one to two-hour study session because the time between gives your brain the chance to process new information.
- Don’t fill every spare minute with language study. You might burn out if you cram too much into your schedule, especially if you’re new to language study.
7 // Start building your vocabulary
Now that you know what your goals are in your target language, you have a better idea of the vocabulary you’ll need to accomplish them.
Are you learning Spanish for an upcoming trip? Then your time would be best spent learning travel oriented vocabulary in the language. Do you need to learn German for your job? Business German it is. Do you want to be able to communicate with your family in French? Then focusing on basic conversational vocabulary and learning how to talk about your interests is a great way to go. Do you want to read science fiction in Russian? Well, then, you know what to do.
So now that you know the kind of vocabulary you’d like to learn, let’s talk about how to go about learning it.
There are a ton of different ways to learn vocabulary, so if you don’t already know what works for you, spend some time trying out some of the different methods and then stick with the one that works best for you. SRS is my preferred method (I use Memrise), but I know other learners who like the Goldlist method and Memory Palaces. It doesn’t really matter which approach you prefer as long as you find one that not only works for you but is something that you’ll continue with throughout your learning.
8 // Take Responsibility for Your Learning
Something that I’ve noticed with both my music and language students is that they easily fall into the trap of expecting their teachers and texts to teach them music or a language. They don’t take responsibility for their own learning.
I’ve seen countless students show up to classes not having invested in doing the “outside work” required of them to be successful. A teacher, a book, a podcast, or any other resource are just tools. You need to use them to build your knowledge of a language. They won’t build it for you. All they’ll do without you taking an active approach to using them is sit in their toolbox and rust.
Another important aspect of taking responsibility for your learning is identifying when something isn’t working for your in your study routine and doing what is necessary to fix or change it.
To use myself as an example, here a few things that didn’t work for me:
- // Picking up just any book and expecting it to teach me the language.
- // Studying with a tutor without doing any independent work outside of our lessons.
- // Going at language learning without a clear plan or specific goals.
- // Picking a language because I thought it would be useful rather than choosing it because it interested me.
- // Forcing myself to study.
Don’t get me wrong. There are times when you need to study even when you don’t feel like it, but there are also times where stepping away and taking a break is a better option in the long term.
You also need to learn when a language just isn’t working for you. A few years back, I hated the idea of quitting a language that I had started learning, even if didn’t enjoy learning it anymore or no longer had a practical use for it.
But it’s okay to give up a language.[Tweet “It’s okay to give up learning a language.”]
The more important thing is to maintain your interest in languages in general. That’s not worth giving up because learning a language has become a chore because you’re studying a language that you’ve come to dread spending time on.
Like I said, you need to learn to identify when something isn’t working (even if it means the language itself) and make the changes necessary.
9 // Get out there and use the language
I struggled with this last point for far too long and I hope to help you avoid the same mistake by pointing out just how important it is to get out there and actually use the language that you’re learning.
I’m an introvert and so my natural impulse was to study on my own, avoiding speaking the languages that I was learning. Needless to say, I struggled with speaking the language because I refused to practice that very skill.
When I finally started getting out there and using the language, forcing myself to step outside of my comfort zone, my speaking not only improved but so did my overall understanding of the language. The same can happen for you if you’re willing to make the effort.
A few more tips to help you jumpstart your learning:
- Two of the most important sentences you can learn in your target language are “Can you please say that again slowly?” and “How do you say _____ in [your target language]?” Learn these as soon as possible.
- When you learn a new word, don’t just write it in your notebook with its translation. Instead, try putting it in a sentence.
- Don’t be afraid of mistakes. We make them every single day in our native languages so we’re bound to make them in our target languages.
- Make sure that you’re learning in a way that you find enjoyable. Yes, there will be certain tasks you can’t avoid that you aren’t a fan of, but that doesn’t mean that the entire language learning process needs to be painful. Think of things that you enjoy doing in your native language and find a way to start doing them in your target language.
- Traveling to a country that speaks your language isn’t the magic solution to learning the language well. Yes, it can help, but you can do just as much from home as long as you have an Internet connection. Traveling works better as a way to reward yourself for having learned a language, not as a method to learn a language.
- Your age and so on don’t change how well you learn a language. Only the time you dedicate and the attitude you go at it with do.
So there you have it. If you’ve studied a language, what are some tactics that helped you succeed? I’d love to hear about them in the comments below!
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My name is Shannon Kennedy and I'm the language lover, traveler, and foodie behind Eurolinguiste. I'm also the Resident Polyglot at Drops and the Head Coach of the Fluent in 3 Months Challenge.