When you begin learning a new language, it’s absolutely critical that you start things off on the right foot and spend your first three months wisely.
As they say “A good start is half the battle.” If you get your language learning habits, resources, and mindset in a good place from the very beginning, you’ll allow yourself more of your valuable time and energy to actually learn well when it matters most.
I’ve been learning languages for three decades now, and every time I start learning a new language, I have a set of steps that I follow that help me ensure that I stay engaged with my new target language, motivated to learn, and inspired to embark on an amazing journey.
Let’s take a look at those steps, shall we?
1. I Set A Starting Date—and Stick To It!
It’s not uncommon to meet people who say that they want to learn a new language, or that they’ve even decided to start learning one.
However, when you ask these people when they’re actually going to get started learning, they usually don’t have an answer for you. They give you vague answers like “someday”, or “soon”, or “as soon as I’m done with final exams”.
And then, when it comes down to it, they never actually start.
This is probably the greatest and most common sin of language learning—never actually starting to learn, even though you know you want to.
The cause of this, of course, is procrastination. Just like exercising, eating right, and learning an instrument, we all know deep down that language learning is a challenge, and so we try to trick ourselves into putting it off forever.
I can fall victim to this too; that’s why, whenever I decide to learn a new language, I take the time to fix an actual start date for my learning, and put it on my calendar.
In my case, I like to begin learning languages in September. It’s an old habit back from my school days, since September is when each new school year would start.
In your case, all you need to do is pick a start date that is significant for you. It can be any date, or any time of year, so long as you stick to it.
Again, the purpose of setting a date is to beat procrastination. To give yourself a sense of urgency, of motivation, and of starting a new, exciting adventure.
Once you set such a date, you know that there’s no going back. You’re going to learn your target language, and it’s going to happen on that date circled right on your calendar!
2. I Use Timeboxing to Schedule my Daily Learning
Language learning is a long journey.
When starting out on the journey it’s easy to look out at the vast distance in front of you, and become overwhelmed with just how much work there is to do before you reach your goal.
Fortunately, there’s an easy antidote to this feeling: a daily action plan.
You see, though the journey is intangibly long, it is made up of smaller parts that are much easier to understand: days, weeks, and months.
Of these, the most important is the day. If you can master your daily language learning schedule, and do that over, and over, and over again, then reaching your long-term goal is just inevitable.
And when I say “mastering” your schedule, I just mean finding a set amount of time every day in which you can learn and practice your target language.
I do this through an easy technique called timeboxing. I break down my day into fixed “blocks” of time, usually ranging from 30-60 minutes. When I start a new language, I make sure that my learning time gets the most special “block” of the day—the first 30-60 minutes after I wake up. Even at the beginning, a new language doesn’t have to demand any more time than that (unless you want it to).
3. I Visualize My Future Self Using the Language
Motivation is one of the most important resources in any language learner’s arsenal.
However, it’s not always easy to come by. Even if you start learning with enthusiasm, that single burst of motivation isn’t likely to last very long, especially once learning becomes more challenging.
As I mentioned earlier, language learning is a long journey. To reach fluency and beyond, you need to be able to create enough motivation to fuel your learning over the long term.
To create the motivation I need to learn a new target language, I use a technique called visualization. Visualization is the act of using your imagination to project yourself into the future, and imagine what your life will be like when you’ve attained a specific goal.
When I use visualization, I imagine myself as a highly skilled learner of my target language. I picture myself traveling to where my target language is spoken, having lively conversations with natives, and making deep and compelling friendships.
Though visualization is a mental tool, I don’t just picture a few compelling images and call it a day. Instead, once I’ve imagined those future scenarios, I write them down in my notebook, and keep those notes with me as I study.
Once I have my visualization written down, it serves as an endless source of motivation which is just as useful far along my journey as it is in the very beginning. It keeps me focused on my compelling future, and gives me the boost I need to keep going, even when learning is difficult.
4. I Choose One Interesting Resource to Start With
Thanks to the Internet, it’s almost too easy nowadays to fall into the trap of spending hours and hours looking for the best possible beginner resource, and never actually deciding which one to use.
Even worse, it’s even possible to buy too many resources, and then spend all of your time switching back and forth between them, never confident which one you’re actually going to stick with for the long term.
I combat this problem by restricting myself to spending only a short amount of time looking for resources before starting. After I’ve done an hour or two of research into the kinds of resources I’d like to use, I pick one resource and then begin my learning.
On top of all that, I avoid the trap of endlessly switching between resources by making a pledge.
Put simply, I promise myself to use my one chosen resource for at least three months, before moving onto something else. This gives me enough time to fully test out the resource and absorb the knowledge or skills that that specific resource is trying to teach me, without getting distracted by all of the other shiny resources out there.
5. I Minimize Distractions
To learn something well requires your full focus and attention.
This is something we may all intuitively understand, but in reality, it’s easier said than done.
In today’s digital age, we are almost constantly distracted one hundred percent of the time. At any moment, the majority of us are under attack by a deluge of phone calls, emails, text messages, Instagram notifications, and advertisements.
They come from all directions as well. Any Internet-connected device—be it your phone, tablet, smart watch, or even your ebook reader—has the potential to bury you in distracting notifications.
If you want to seriously make progress in the new language you’ve chosen to learn, you need to figure out how you’re going to protect yourself from all of these distractions.
Personally, I’m a bit of a digital minimalist.
When I sit down for my daily language learning session, I don’t use my phone at all. I do use my computer, but only for audio playback. If, for some reason, I absolutely have to use a web browser, I make sure to close or minimize any distracting tabs.
For everything else, I like to go old-school, and stick to paper and pencil. I take copious notes while I learn, and I really enjoy writing things down by hand.
Doing this really helps me keep focused, and learning in this way has none of the potential drawbacks that learning with apps or computer programs tends to have.
In general, if you’re starting out learning a new language, then you need to train your “focus muscle”. You can start doing this by keeping your phone and computer in “Do Not Disturb” mode while you learn, and even by blocking Facebook and other social media sites on your phone.
The combination of eliminating potential external distractions and purposefully trying to stay more focused will help you get more value from each learning period, and help you waste less of your valuable time.
6. I Write My Notes By Hand
When you sit down to learn, it may seem faster to type out your notes rather than write them by hand. However, typing requires you to remain in close proximity to your computer and phone, and as I mentioned above, interacting with technology while learning can expose you to dozens upon dozens of distracting notifications.
Writing notes by hand may seem like the slower, less “fancy” option, but in truth it has a number of surprising benefits:
First, though handwriting is more effortful than typing, the extra physical “work” that goes into handwriting can actually help you focus on the details that you’re actually committing to the page. Studies have actually proven that the physical act of handwriting can help you memorize what you’re learning more effectively—and since language learning requires A LOT of memorization, every little bit helps.
Of course, there are still serious benefits to having digital notes—I, for example, keep my most important notes filed away in a series of Google Docs—but the trick here is to write your notes by hand first, and convert the most important stuff to digital stuff later.
7. I Tackle Pronunciation From The Very Beginning
Pronunciation can be one of the most difficult parts of learning any language, but it is generally the most important.
Why? Because if no one can understand what you’re saying, then it doesn’t really matter how many words you know, does it?
Good pronunciation skills are essential for effective communication in any foreign language, and that’s why I personally focus on them from the very beginning.
I’ve also learned the hard way what can happen if you don’t prioritize pronunciation. Back when I was learning Swedish, I had ignored a key feature of the Swedish sound system (something called “pitch accent”), and to this day my pronunciation still suffers.
Why do I still struggle? Because pronunciation skills are, at their core, just a series of physical habits that are formed over time. If you develop the habit of pronouncing something in the wrong way (as I did with Swedish), it becomes incredibly difficult to “undo” the habit later and then re-learn it the correct way.
Because of all that, I believe it is very important to focus on building the right pronunciation habits from your very first day of learning.
Pay attention to the combination of consonants and vowels, focus on these sounds in short sentences. Read and repeat out loud. Experiment. You can even use tools such as the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) to help you learn to articulate specific sounds.
8. I Use A Learning Method That Works Well For Me
There are a billion and one language learning methods out there, possibly even more.
As a beginner learner, it’s daunting to see all the possibilities and avenues you can explore just to learn a single language, and then be expected to pick one—just one—to start with.
But that’s what you must do. At the start of your journey, the most important thing is to spend more time learning and less time deliberating over your options. To start, pick one method, and commit to testing it out for a limited period of time, like six months or one year. Then, at the end of that period, think critically about how well that method worked for you.
If you find that your chosen method worked—great!
However, if you didn’t work, then the next thing you need to do is pick a new method to experiment with for a period of time.
It may seem tedious, but this trial-and-error process is something that every language learner must go through. This is because there’s no one best method for every learner. Instead, different methods work well for different people.
In my case, I’ve been learning languages for thirty years. It took me several years of learning and experimenting before I stumbled upon my Bidirectional Translation method, which I now use to start every new language I learn. However, even that method isn’t fixed—I revise it constantly, and it evolves with each new language.
So if you want to find the method that works best for you, then you need to do something similar. Experiment, try new things, and reflect on how different techniques work for you. After a while, you’ll become much more in tune with how you learn, and you’ll be able to find your ideal language learning method as a result.
9. I Get Exposure to the Language First, Then I Worry About Grammar
Most people who have attempted to learn languages in school tend to see grammar as the most important thing to learn as a beginner.
As a result of my years of practice, I disagree with this heavily.
When I begin a new language, the most important thing is to get daily exposure to enjoyable and comprehensible input in my target language. I need to hear how the language sounds, see how the words are written, and observe firsthand how native-speakers use their mouths and body language to express themselves in the language.
Following the famed “Pareto” principle, I spend at least 80% of all of my learning time attempting to absorb this comprehensible input.
The remaining 20% of time is what I use to focus on grammar. For example, I do occasionally look at grammar explanations online or in textbooks, but only when I need to clarify an obscure point, or figure out something I could not understand just through context.
The best thing about all this?
This 80/20 balance between comprehensible input and grammar learning will actually require you to spend less time explicitly learning grammar over the long term. This is because the frequent exposure to interesting and comprehensible content will gradually train your brain to grasp grammar patterns implicitly, meaning that even if you do need to occasionally look at a grammar book to clarify something, you’ll be able grasp the concept much more quickly than you would otherwise.
10. I Keep a Journal
Considering how long the language learning journey can be, I’ve always found it useful to keep track of the process by maintaining a language learning journal. This can be incredibly beneficial for many reasons.
First and foremost, it helps me see my progress, and keep an eye on just how much work I’m putting into my language learning on a daily basis.
Secondly, it allows me to store notes and other observations that may be useful in the future. For example, if I find that a specific technique or resource is really benefiting my learning, then I make a note of it in my notebook. Then, later on, when I review my notes to determine how to improve my learning method (see tip #8), I can use that information to make positive changes in my technique and learning schedule.
I recommend that every language learner keep a journal like this. It doesn’t have to be super involved, or take up too much of your time. Just spend 2-5 minutes writing down notes and observations in your notebook at the end of every learning session, and you’ll be surprised just how much help those observations can be later on down the line.
So there you have it. These are 10 of the most important things I do when I begin learning any new language.
The first few months of learning are the most delicate stage of the process, so implementing these techniques and strategies really help me lay a solid foundation, and get ready for the intermediate and advanced stages of my learning. If you implement these techniques, you’ll be able to get off to a strong start, as well.
Do you have any routines or rituals that you follow before learning a new language? If so, have you always had the same ones, or have they evolved as you became a more experienced learner?
Leave a note in the comments and let me know!