If you don’t have prior experience learning foreign languages, then starting a new language for the first time can be a really challenging task.
Even if you’re motivated, things aren’t easy. At the beginning, lots of motivation and little direction typically leads to a bookshelf full of unused language books, a phone full of unopened apps, and a learning schedule that’s all over the place—that is, if you spend any time learning at all.
Instead, most of your time is spent thinking. Or rather, worrying.
You worry to yourself, asking questions like:
- Which resource should start with?
- When should I start?
- How often should I sit down to learn?
- How long should each of my learning sessions be?
You’ve probably found most of these questions hard to answer, especially if you don’t have outside help. Where usually you could rely on a teacher or tutor to provide solutions, learning independently has left you with little to rely on other than yourself.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. With the right guide, and the right plan, you can learn any language, even in the comfort of your own home, far away from any language classroom.
In this article, I’d like to guide you through the three simple steps that you can put to use today, to help you begin learning a new language—the smart way!
Let’s dive right in!
Step 1: Get the Right Resources
When you’re just starting out in a language, the most obvious thing to worry about is which learning resources you will use.
It doesn’t take more than a quick Google search to reveal that for nearly any language you want to learn, there are hundreds of books, apps, courses, podcasts, flashcard decks, and more, all intended to help you learn that language.
This might seem like a good thing, but the sheer abundance of available learning materials makes it impossible to navigate between them, and choose which ones are actually ideal for your own needs. So, despite the great number of resources, most people get stuck at this stage, and struggle to move forward.
While there are many characteristics that you could possibly look for in a good language resource, I recommend that you focus on resources that have two traits in particular.
When choosing a language resource, aim for materials that are:
- Comprehensible (that is, they feature language that is appropriate for your skill level)
- Interesting (that is, they feature content that you find engaging or compelling).
Resources that meet these two conditions are most likely to keep you both challenged and engaged for the longest period of time, which will allow for the most learning to take place.
In my experience, I’ve found that learning materials with authentic, bilingual texts (affiliate) in my target language are the ones that most often meet the comprehensible and interesting criteria. This goes for me, and the hundreds of language learners I’ve coached personally.
Why are bilingual texts so important?
Because having the text in both your target language and native language (or a language you know well) will help you compare and contrast the structure of both languages. This comparison will help you gradually gain an understanding of how each language works in relation to the other.
This type of comparison is something that you’ll do in your head (with or without a bilingual text), but having the texts in front of you makes it a smoother, more painless process.
As a beginner, you’ll want to look for bilingual texts that feature short, natural dialogues (affiliate) in your target language, along with audio of those dialogues—even better if the dialogues also come with things like a vocabulary list and simple grammar explanations. These extra tools will help quickly clarify any words or grammar points that are difficult to grasp solely from examining both texts.
There are a number of resources on the market today that have all of the features I’ve described, but I’m personally quite fond of using Assimil’s “With Ease” series for just this purpose. Assimil is a French company that provides language coursebooks in a wide range of language combinations. These coursebooks are jam-packed with short, funny dialogues that I’ve found enjoyable across many different languages.
If you can’t find Assimil in your language, click here to access my recommended resources page, where you can find many other beginner resources that I recommend.
Step 2: Get Organized
Another important thing to keep in mind if you want to start learning a language successfully is to get organized and stay organized, from the very beginning.
Contrary to what you might think, language learning is a marathon. It isn’t something that you can just do for a few weeks or months, reach the level you want, and then just forget about.
If you don’t use your language skills, you lose them, so it’s of the utmost importance that before you start, you prepare yourself to learn every day, over a long period of time.
The most important aspects of this preparation are threefold:
- Create a learning space
- Organize a regular learning schedule
- Cultivate a strong mindset
For my learning space, I make sure to keep a clean, organized, and distraction-free area of my room where I can sit down every day and learn languages. I learn in the same spot every day, so as to train my brain that this is the spot where learning happens.
Your learning space can be anywhere you’d like, however I’d recommend you try to keep it as free of distractions as possible, and that you learn in that same location every time.
For my learning schedule, I try to keep things consistent and organized as well. Specifically, I learn at the same time every day, and almost always for the same amount of time. This helps make learning a habit. For added benefit, I do this at the time of day when I have the most energy, so that I can focus better and more easily.
For your learning schedule, aim for a daily time slot of at least 30 to 45 minutes, when you feel most awake and alert. Try not to skip it—if you do, definitely don’t skip two days, as you risk breaking your learning habit altogether.
For my mindset, I focus on discipline over motivation.
Motivation is unreliable. Some days you’ve got enough to take on the world, other days, it’s nowhere to be found. When embarking on a challenging, long-term process like language learning, motivation usually ebbs and flows in unpredictable ways, meaning you can rarely plan on having it when you need it.
Instead of motivation, I rely on discipline. Discipline is about showing up every day, whether you “feel like it” or not. It’s about putting in the time, and putting in the effort, even if you’re not quite seeing the results you expect. In a word, it’s about consistency, which, if you noticed, is a core part of my learning space, my learning schedule, and my mindset.
If you’re feeling low on discipline, you might be wondering how you can get some, too.
Here’s a strategy I’ve often used that you can try out yourself:
If you don’t have enough motivation to start a difficult task (like language learning), you can generate discipline by developing a starting ritual.
A starting ritual is a simple routine that you can practice that trains your brain to think “ok, now it’s time to get started!”
Your starting ritual can be anything, but I prefer short, meditative activities that I can do anywhere. In particular, before starting each of my language learning sessions, I like to:
- Do one minute of breathing exercises
- Do one minute of walking around the room
- And sit down at my learning space
Once I’ve done my breathing and walking exercises, then I know that sitting down is the signal to get started learning.
It sounds simple—and it is!—but these kinds of starting rituals can be quite effective at getting started, even when motivation is low. If you build the habit of starting even when you don’t feel like it, then you’re cultivating discipline, which will be an invaluable tool along your learning journey.
Step 3: Reflect on Your Progress Every Day
Learning a language is a process of long-term growth. Though you are learning every day, the steady progress you are making can be difficult—or impossible—to see.
If you can’t see your progress, it can be easy to become demotivated. And though I said earlier that I don’t rely on motivation, I do believe it’s important to watch out for demotivation. If left unchecked, demotivation often causes people to give up, and stop learning altogether.
To avoid the trap of demotivation, it’s important to make your progress visible, and to review it regularly. I do this through keeping a language learning notebook.
Now, I say “notebook”, but what I really mean is “a space to write about your language learning activities”. It doesn’t have to be a physical notebook, or journal. In fact, I often use Google Docs for just this purpose.
Every day, in my language learning notebook, I write down the language learning activities that I have done for that day. For the languages I’m a beginner in, these are usually listening, reading, and translation activities tied to my Bidirectional Translation Method, which is what I personally use to start any language.
Beyond the list of activities, I also ask myself questions which help me reflect on the quality of my learning for that day.
These include questions such as:
- Do I enjoy my current learning activities?
- Do I find them too easy, too difficult, or just challenging enough?
- Can I add or remove anything to make these activities more effective?
- Is there anything I can do to better adapt these activities to the language I am learning?
Asking myself these questions keeps me from getting complacent in my learning activities, and helps me to strive to improve them more and more over time. Reflecting in this way helps me not only keep track of my developing language skills, but also my developing strategies and techniques for learning languages, as well.
Ok, so there you have it. Now you’ve learned the three simple steps that you can put to use today to start learning any language.
If you’re interested in learning more about how I start learning new languages on my own, click here to learn more about my language learning course for beginners, titled Become a Master Language Learner: The Bidirectional Translation Method.
This course teaches the ins and outs of my very own Bidirectional Translation method, which is what I use to start every new language I learn.
Are you currently in the process of beginning a new language? Are there any steps you think I may have missed? Let me know in the comments!