Learning a language from scratch can be very intimidating, especially if you've never done it before.
In school, at least, a lot of the decisions are made for us. In a language classroom, we are told what to learn, how to practice, and how quickly to progress through new material.
On your own, the situation is very different. As an independent learner, you must take sole responsibility for your decisions, your successes, and your failures.
While this can seem overwhelming, it is also incredibly freeing. You get to decide every detail, large and small, from which language you learn, to the kinds of things you learn to talk about in that language.
Given the choice, I would choose to be an independent learner over a student in a language classroom, every time.
If you're interested at all in learning a language, I recommend the same for you.
To help you get started, I've compiled this list of 10 Kickass Tips to Learn Any Language from Scratch.
Let's dive in.
Tip 1: Know Your Why
In life, there are many decisions that we make without much forethought. We don't worry about "why" make these choices, we just make them, and move on with our day.
For example, choosing what color shirt to wear (Blue, or green?) or what to have for dinner (Pasta, or meat? on any given day are generally made quickly, and rarely have a lasting impact on our lives beyond the day we make them.
Choosing to learn a language is an entirely different type of decision, however.
Unless you are learning a language only to meet a very specific short term goal (e.g. you need to learn some Spanish before you travel to Mexico in two weeks), you need to really be aware of why you want to learn your target language
Knowing your "why" is important because language learning is almost always a long-term process. Assuming you have no intention of forgetting the language in the future, you'll need the mindset and motivation to keep learning indefinitely.
That kind of mindset and motivation only comes from truly powerful reasons for learning a language, and not from weak, temporary ones, like "I want to learn French because it sounds cool."
So, the first thing you should do before starting any new language is write down your "why," or your powerful reason for learning that particular language. Then post it somewhere where you can see it every day, so you can draw motivation from it, as needed.
Tip 2: Dispel False Beliefs about Language Learning
Before starting a language, one of the most difficult things to deal with are the vast number of opinions that people will share on the matter:
"Only people with talent for languages can learn them"
"Japanese is impossible to learn."
"You can only learn a language by living in the country"
People will share these opinions not from personal experience, but because that's simply what they've heard or been told about certain languages and language learning.
In most cases, these are not facts, but stories or myths about language learning that are told so often that they have begun to sound factual.
You may believe some of these myths, including the ones I've posted above. However, if you want to be a successful language learner, you will need to dispel these myths, and discover for yourself what really is possible.
So write down a list of the potentially negative things you've heard about languages in general, or about learning your target language.
Once you have your list of myths, do some research. Try to see if you can find examples of people who have proven that that myth is incorrect.
Let's say that your first myth is something like "It is impossible for a non-native to learn Mandarin to a high level."
How do you disprove this?
You look for non-native speakers of Mandarin who speak the language well.
A quick Internet search will dispel this myth, as YouTube has many videos made by learners who have achieved a high level of Mandarin. Even if you can't tell how good the person speaks, you can usually look to the comment section to see what other people think.
For each myth on your list, follow the same process. Do research, ask questions, and try to uncover examples that can prove your myth wrong or right.
In most cases, I'm sure the reality will be much more motivating than the myth. But you need to discover that for yourself.
Tip 3: Plan to Learn Every Day
One of the hardest parts of learning on your own is actually fitting it into your schedule.
Classes make it easy because the class will usually always happen at the same time, and you just need to make an effort to attend.
People who self-study language, though, don't have this luxury. There's no schedule you are forced to adhere to, so you can learn any time you want.
Learning "when you want" or "when you can" can seem beneficial, but with time, most people with a loose learning schedule tend to never make time for learning at all. So having a set schedule is actually more beneficial, than not.
Before you start officially learning, it's best to sit down and create a "learning plan", consisting of the following elements:
That's right, I believe every good language learning plan will require you to learn every single day. Daily practice will help you learn more, forget less, and maintain your language motivation over the long-term.
You don't need to spend a lot of daily time on learning, either. In fact, I recommend that you start small, with a daily block of 30 minutes to one hour. As your skill and motivation increases, you can then think about expanding your learning time.
Tip 4: Start with One Good Resource
If you're reading this in your Internet browser, I want you to do me a favor.
Open a new tab and go to your favorite search engine.
Type in the name of your target language, plus "learning resources", (So something like "German learning resources") and hit Enter.
Look at the search results.
It's highly likely that every link on every page of results will lead you to one or more resources for learning your target language.
Potentially, every single one of these hundreds or thousands of resources could help you learn the language you have chosen.
Not so much.
Even if you bought one-tenth of all the resources available for your language, you'd probably not learn very much.
Because the more resources you try to use at once, the less likely you are to actually focus and make progress.
In short, more resources equal more distractions!
This is why I recommend that every beginner learner only focus on one good language learning resource at a time.
With a single resource, you will then be able to focus all your time, energy, and effort into extracting all the value you can from that resource.
What kind of single resource should you look for?
A resource that is:
Tip 5: Find What Works for You
Since you're currently reading an article on a blog about language learning, I think it's safe to assume that you've read at least a few other blogs on the topic, as well.
Across all of the blogs you've read on languages, do they all recommend the same learning methods?
Not really, right?
Even if there are common elements between approaches, most experienced language learners tend to recommend their own way of doing things, above all else.
For beginner learners, this can be very confusing. How can so many different methods be considered "the right" one? And which of the "right" methods is the "best" method?
The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is that there is no "best method." There are certainly more efficient and less efficient methods, but even the same method can work differently for different people.
So don't worry about finding the best method. Instead, focus on finding the method that works best for you.
What you want, ideally, is a method that conforms to your interests, goals, and individual learning style. Any method that has these characteristics will take you further in your learning than any other method will.
I, for example, enjoy beginning every new language by using Assimil textbooks, which are filled with texts and dialogues in my native and target languages. I find these books extremely interesting and motivating to work through. While I do recommend Assimil to many people, it doesn't suit everyone. It may or may not suit you, too.
Do your research, and start with the method that is most appealing to you. Over time, and through some trial-and-error, you'll find your favorite method, which you can apply continually, and even to future languages.
Tip 6: Focus on Communication, Not Grammar Rules
As a child, how did you learn your native language?
Did your parents sit you down, drop a dusty old grammar tome in front of you, and say "Today, you're going to learn the imperfect tense before dinner, or no ice cream for dessert!"
They absolutely didn’t, I can assure you.
In fact, I can guarantee that before you entered school, you probably never heard of common grammatical forms, and terms such as nouns, adjectives, adverbs, tense, mood, and the like. The entire topic of grammar as a whole was likely completely foreign to you.
And somehow, before you ever set foot in a school, you could speak your native language perfectly, or near-perfectly. You could accurately use nouns, adverbs, tenses and more, without having ever heard of those concepts in your life.
How is this possible?
When you were young, you picked up language naturally.
If your mom asked you "Are you hungry?", you would just blurt out "HUNGRY!" or "FOOD!" (if you knew the word) without thinking about grammatical tense, or subject-verb agreement.
You, like all other children, used language as a tool to communicate, without worrying about how it worked.
As long as you could use words to get what you wanted, the form or structure of the language was not important. And then, over time, you were able to layer on complexity to the things you said, until things like form and structure, and "grammatical correctness" finally became useful. Even still, communication remained at the center of everything.
As a language learner, you, too, should start by focusing on communication, instead of being grammatically correct all the time.
Even though things like conjugation tables, declensions, and tense lists will help you speak the language more accurately, those are things that are best absorbed gradually, over time.
For now, even if you can't say something perfectly, it will always benefit you to try to communicate anyway. Chances are, even if what you say is incorrect, people will still understand you, and perhaps even give you the feedback you need to improve.
Tip 7: Practice Good Pronunciation from the Start
Every language on the planet is constructed of individual sounds, called phonemes.
Everything you say in a language, from a word, or sentence, all the way to a twenty-minute speech and beyond, will be expressed through a finite set of these sounds that is unique to the language.
If you can't pronounce one or more sounds of your target language, misunderstandings will start to occur. People will believe you said one word, when you totally meant to say a different one. Sometimes, they'll miss your intended word entirely, and lose the ability to follow the thread of the conversation. And other times, they won't understand you at all.
Poor knowledge of the sound system of a language can also hurt your ability to understand it, as well. For example, many languages have phonemes that are very similar to one another. Sometimes, if you take a word, and switch one similar phoneme for the other, the meaning of the word can change completely.
If you can't tell the difference between similar sounds, you'll easily mishear words, and that may make it difficult for you to keep up with conversation.
To avoid problems like the ones I've described above, it is always a good idea to practice good pronunciation and intonation habits from the very beginning.
You don't need to speak and pronounce perfectly right away, but the sooner you can start practicing good pronunciation and intonation habits, the faster you will improve. Additionally, starting with good habits in mind will save you from having to "undo" bad habits later on, which are generally very difficult to overcome.
Tip 8: Make Adjustments, as Necessary
In language learning, as in life, it's easy to fall into the trap of wanting to do everything perfectly.
We want to sound like a perfect native, speak perfectly fluently, and have the perfect routine, all from day one of our learning. We want to always be sure that we're doing "the right thing", so that we never have to backtrack, change course, or otherwise re-analyze if we're heading in the direction of our original goals.
I'll say it bluntly: don't pursue perfection, because you'll never achieve it. None of us will.
Instead of promising yourself perfection, promise yourself this:
If you're not getting the outcome you desire, adjust your plan of action. And don't just do this once, but do it every time you need to.
When you're not seeing forward progress, adjust your schedule, adjust your methods, adjust your resources, adjust your pronunciation, and adjust whatever else you need to, until you find yourself making forward progress once more.
And when you realize that a re-adjustment is necessary, don't treat it as a failure. Instead, treat it as a chance to experiment, gain flexibility, and try new and exciting things which could help you greatly in the long-run.
Tip 9: Combine Digital Notes with Physical Notes
Up until about twenty years ago, nearly every single language learning resource was purely physical in nature. We had:
Now, thanks to the Internet, every single one of those resources has a digital equivalent, which can be constantly in reach through use of a smartphone or laptop computer. We've got:
While these digital resources are certainly a lot more portable than their physical counterparts, there is still a reason to use both types of resources.
Specifically, I still recommend using paper copies of resources like dialogues and reading passages, so that you can mark them up by hand. Furthermore, I personally try to handwrite most of my language learning notes.
Why go through the trouble of doing all this, when digital resources are faster and easier to use?
Physical actions like writing by hand can actually assist learning and memorization. Scientific studies have even shown that you will have a much easier time remembering words you have physically written, as opposed to ones that you typed into a computer.
So, whenever you have the opportunity, remember to write things out by hand. If you can make it a habit, it will play a large part in successfully memorizing many words and phrases over time.
Tip 10: Reward Yourself
One of the most unfortunate side-effects of in-school learning is that aside from your grades or your diploma, there's very little that you can consider as a satisfying reward for all of your hard work.
This goes double for language classes, which usually just require you to complete in-class assignments without giving you rewards to look forward to for using the language in real life.
This is a shame, considering that even the smallest of rewards can be a powerful motivator, and can spur you to keep working hard, even when times get tough.
This is why, every time I begin a new language, I try to establish a reward for meeting a particular goal.
I live in Europe and love to travel, so if I'm learning the language of a European country, I promise myself that I'll visit if I can accomplish the goals I've set.
Even if you're just starting out, you should try to establish similar rewards as well.
Of course, I'm not saying that all should go out and book a "reward flight", if it's not what matters to you. Just set a reward that is both manageable and motivating, (like practicing your Spanish at your favorite Mexican restaurant) and you'll soon see that the hard work of language learning suddenly becomes much easier to look forward to.
When you decide to learn a language from scratch, you've got a lot of tough decisions ahead of you, and a whole lot of work to put in.
If it's your first time learning a language independently, it can be even more challenging, as you're likely not even sure where to start.
It is my hope that with these 10 kick-ass tips to start learning any foreign language, I've made the process of beginning a new language a bit easier, and a lot more clear.
In fact, I recommend that any new language learners print out this article, and post it on your wall, or in your language learning notebook.
When you feel stuck, or when you aren't sure what to do next, consult this article again, and see if there's anything you haven't yet implemented into your learning process.
And, of course, if you have any questions or doubts, come to this page, and leave me a note in the comments below!