How to learn a language: The complete guide

How to learn a language: The complete guide

I speak seven languages, and I've learned them through every method imaginable, from schools, through private tutoring to sink-or-swim immersion. The best way to learn a new language quickly (and inexpensively) is by yourself.

But self-learning is no easy task, especially if it’s your very first foreign tongue. Where do you start? How do you motivate yourself? Which tools will help you succeed?

Below, we’ve answered every question an aspiring polyglot might have, from setting goals and building good habits, through recommendations of resources and learning techniques, all the way to your first forays into using the language, and proficiency tests.

Bonus

Download a free checklist that will help you define your study plan and boost your chances of learning the language.
    In this guide:
  1. Goal-setting and motivation
  2. Organisation and habit building
  3. Choosing the right resources
  4. Review and practice
  5. Certificates and examinations

Language learning plan

Goal-setting and motivation

You’ve probably decided which language you want to learn already, and the very fact that you are reading this blog post shows you’re sufficiently motivated to start this journey. However, to achieve fluency, you’ll have to create the right mindset.

Whether your motivation is intrinsic or extrinsic, in the beginning, you’ll be able to do everything necessary to learn your new language through sheer ambition and energy alone. However, before too long, you’re going to reach some stumbling blocks and moments of self-doubt.

“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.”
— Aldous Huxley

Rather than ignoring these difficulties and just hoping for the best, it’s a good idea to start preparing in advance.

Get a quick motivation inspiration with Brandon Burchard's famous Motivation Manifesto

Stop making excuses

They say that human nature is about cooperation, creativity and freedom. Nonsense! What separates us from our animal friends is first and foremost our incredible ability to justify why we can’t do something—especially to ourselves.

Excuses are the nails used to build a house of failure.
— Don Wilder

So, before we talk about study plans, learning habits and resources, let’s squash all the language learning myths once and for all.

“I’m too old to learn a new language.” — Theories which say that language is best learnt before puberty have largely been disproved, and new research shows that it’s never too late to learn a foreign language.

“...and I’m no good at languages.”Talent plays only a small role in learning. Stay focused, put in the time, find a supportive learning community, and you will reach fluency!

“But I don’t have the time!” — You only need to study for 15 minutes a day, and find another 10 minutes for review. What matters is focus and consistency, as these will help you throughout your learning.

“What if I fail?” — Everyone remembers Henry Ford’s Model T. But what preceded it was a very imperfect Model A. Don’t look at mistakes as failures, but rather as immediate opportunities to improve your language abilities.

And last but not least, “This isn’t the right time.” Well, it never will be… unless you stop telling yourself why you can’t, and start learning! This time next year, you’ll regret you didn’t start today.

Have a clear goal

Those who write down their goals accomplish significantly more than those who don’t. We know this instinctively, and there are plenty of studies to prove it.

Goal setting is especially important for self-learners because we need to stay motivated through the time it takes to master a language.

A good language learning goal is:

Specific — Describe exactly what you want to accomplish. Bad: Read a book in Russian. Good: Read Anna Karenina in Russian.

Meaningful — What are your passions? What activities do you enjoy? Bad: Go to Japan. Good: Present in Japanese at TEDx Tokyo.

Challenging— A difficult goal makes you learn more efficiently. Bad: Order a frappuccino in French. Good: Book catering for my wedding in Paris.

“Far away there in the sunshine are my highest aspirations. I may not reach them, but I can look up and see their beauty, believe in them, and try to follow where they lead.”
— Louisa May Alcott

Do all you can to take your goal seriously, and be sure to create some kind of reminder to keep yourself on track.

Divide your study plan into steps

Just like seeing a lighthouse in the distance, identifying your ultimate goal is important, but remember that every step towards it counts.

First, divide the path to your goal into many small steps. Then focus on the actions required to complete each step, and the behaviors that help you progress through the list more efficiently.

More importantly, try to enjoy the journey as much as the end result.

The people he met, the places he passed, were all steps in his journey, and he kept a place inside his heart for each of them.
― Rachel Joyce, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

At Fluent Panda we encourage our users to think about their fluency as relative to the situation in which they use the language. If you need to order a side of potatoes in Germany, for example, and you do so in German, then for that situation at least, you’re fluent. Cherish each small success you encounter in your new language, even if each interaction doesn’t go exactly to plan.

Language learning habits

Organisation and habit-building

It’s great to have a clear goal and a defined study plan, but you need to be realistic and don’t try to learn too much at once. In fact it’s rather like planning a sensible diet. Don’t make the same mistake as many learners who spend a few days scavenging for new resources and obsessive binge-learning, quickly burn out, and soon forget all they’ve read.

You won’t learn a language in a single weekend, so it’s crucial to set up a study routine that is challenging but sustainable in the long term.

You can also think of language learning as a fitness regimen: If you don’t work out, you’ll never get stronger, but if you overdo it, your muscles will give up and you’ll lose all your progress.

Boost your habit skills with Duhigg's groundbreaking book The Power of Habit

Avoid distractions

The first step towards an effective language learning routine is a study environment that lets you focus on the task ahead.

Even the smallest interruptions can derail your learning, waste your time, and even lead to mistakes. Here’s what Gloria Mark, researcher behind the University of California Irvine study on distractions, has to say:

You have to completely shift your thinking, it takes you a while to get into it and it takes you a while to get back and remember where you were. [...] It takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to the task.

We offer practical techniques to increase concentration, and here’s a quick summary to get you focused:

  • Prevent eye strain by matching your screen’s colour temperature to the sun outside with f.lux (Windows/OSX/Linux), Twilight (Android), or Night Shift (iOS).
  • Leverage the multiple desktops feature in Linux, Mac OSX and Windows 10 to separate fun and study. If you have a large apartment, dedicate a separate room or corner for language learning.
  • Block social media and other time wasters with Rescue Time and schedule email and social time on our calendar.
  • Use a Pomodoro timer like focus booster to concentrate in 20-minute intervals, then regroup with 5-minute breaks.
  • Improve your attention in noisy environments with an ambient soundscape from soundrown or noisli.

Study a little every day

You’ve set up your study space and got rid of anything that could break your attention. Now take a deep breath, because every one of the next seven days, you’ll need to make yourself get back to learning, then force yourself to stop one hour later.

Successful polyglots know that there is nothing more dangerous to lasting progress than overworking yourself at the start of your learning journey.

The surge of energy after binge-learning is but an illusion of progress, and it consistently leads to failure when the rational part of your brain finally realises that all this euphoria was unjustified, or your reptilian brain figures out that League of Legends might just have been more fun in the end.

To make steady progress, and eventually reach fluency in your target language, study in small chunks every day, even if it’s for only 5 or 10 minutes.

Build lasting habits

Now you’ve figured out a sustainable study schedule, and you’re starting to make some good progress. It’s now crucial to instil lasting habits, if you don’t want to waste all this effort.

Be it in life or in learning, we benefit from the positive effect of routines and behaviours that we do with little to no thought whatsoever.

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.
— Aristotle

Your brain constantly works behind the scenes to optimise your life and transform your tasks into habits. That’s great, but it can’t always work out which habits to form on its own. That’s when our subconscious needs a little guidance.

The three steps to a language self-learning habit are:

Break your goal down into tiny habits. It’s really important to start small. For example, you’re much more likely to succeed in forming the habit of reading one newspaper headline than in reading one page of a newspaper.

Find an anchor to trigger the habit. For example: “After I turn on the kettle in the morning, I will tune in to French radio.” Or “After I start the dishwasher, I will read two headlines in a Japanese newspaper.

Celebrate every time you complete the habit. The reward is a crucial component of The Habit Loop, which helps your brain to follow up on a habit, and gives you a dose of dopamine, brain’s pleasure chemical released when you bring something to completion.

Again, it’s important to realise that we tend to overestimate what we can do in a day, but underestimate what we can do in a year. Start with a tiny habit, and you’ll be surprised at the progress you’ll make within a few months!

Curious to know the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People?

Language learning resources

Choosing the right resources

One mistake I myself fall victim to again and again is going on a shopping spree for learning resources, only to realise that I’m spending more time scavenging for new ways to learn than I am on actually learning.

Don’t get me wrong—the right toolset can have a great effect on your language learning. Otherwise, why would we spend seven years of blood, sweat and tears building LinguaLift, rather than resort to one of the many existing resources?

You have to think of the learning methodology as a multiplier:

Awful methodology -1×
Weak methodology
Good methodology
Great methodology 10×

All learning tools are worthless unless you use them.

Let’s assume that you’ll learn for 3 years. How many words can you master?

Study once: 5
Study once a month: 180
Study once a week: 780
Study once a day: 5475

To learn a language, you need to multiply the two. You need to combine the great methodology with great habits.

You can choose the best methodology, but if you only study once, you’ll barely manage to ask for directions.

Even the best methodology requires daily practice if you want to reach fluency.

But first of all, how do you choose the first resource that will get you started? And more importantly, how do you avoid sleazy affiliate salesmen trying to sell you awful language software that’ll set you back many months?

Use methods adapted to autodidacts

We have made a list of the 100 best language self-learning resources, so I won’t make any specific recommendations in this post, beyond, of course, urging you to give LinguaLift a try ;)

Instead, I’d like you to consider the general characteristics of a good self-paced course, so you can select the best method from those sold in your country that teaches your language of choice.

Varied. Any programme that has a fixed curriculum, or one specific method of teaching a language is by its very nature unsuitable for self-language learners. Whilst an experienced teacher can usually respond to the needs of any student’s learning style by skilfully navigating any textbook, you shouldn’t expect to have to mould to the methodology of the product. Look instead for a sufficiently rich mix of content and teaching styles.

To learn efficiently mix different content & teaching styles.

Interactive. Be warned: being asked to click a button isn’t interacting with the language, only with the programme. Avoid any method that provides you only with content, and look for courses that expect you to use the language you are studying. This could be as simple as an audio course that gives time for you to parrot back the sentences you hear, or as sophisticated as having a tutor who assigns you homework to be checked, or who can set up a live video chat appointment with you.

Realistic. Don’t sign up for a course that doesn’t meet your needs. Find out what kind of level you can expect to reach, and ask how long an average student takes to reach this goal. If the course takes too long (say you have a vacation to that country, or test before you’re likely going to reach that goal), then move on.

Likewise, if the expectation as to the amount of time you are expected to commit every week is too much for you, then look elsewhere.

Don't believe false promises

It’s important to remember that while there are lots of great products available to help you learn a language, there are also a few products where the marketing is much better than the actual content.

Don’t get sucked in by slick advertising copy! Do your research.

Any service that claims you will be fluent in a certain amount of time is insincere. They don’t know who you are. They don’t know how much time you can commit to studying. They have no idea about your learning styles, goals or anything else about you. All they know is you have an interest in learning a language, and a credit card. Be suspicious of any service that makes any generalised claim about how long it will take you to reach fluency,

We are poor judges of when we are learning well and when we’re not. When the going is harder and slower and it doesn’t feel productive, we are drawn to strategies that feel more fruitful, unaware that the gains from these strategies are often temporary.
"Make it stick: The science of successful learning"

Utilise neuroscience

Using a language is an art, but learning one is much closer to science.

Although the scientific community is still debating some aspects of memory and linguistics, that is no reason to resort to superstition or alchemy.

Many of the processes that occur in the brain of a language learner are already well understood, yet are largely neglected in our education system. As a self-learner, you’re in a unique position to capitalise on all the latest findings, and make use of cutting-edge algorithms to boost your language abilities.

For example, already in the late 19th century, the German researcher Hermann Ebbinghaus, found that over 90 percent of the information we learn disappears within a few days. This is called the “forgetting curve”.

The best way to improve recall, Ebbinghaus discovered, is to test the information frequently—but not too frequently. In fact, the best time to try to remember something is when it’s on the verge of being forgotten. That strengthens the neural pathways associated with the information, preserving it for a longer period of time.

The best language learning software, including LinguaLift, makes use of spaced repetition algorithms (SRS) to activate your memory just as it’s about to fade, and so optimising long-term retention.

We at LinguaLift also track your performance and study patterns constantly, adapting the content to your personal needs, or notifying one of our study coaches that you may need a helping hand.

Language review and practice

Review and practice

You know the science, you know the methods, you have the resources—now what? Well, the learning won’t get done by itself. It can seem time-consuming to absorb new information, but there are proven methods that can increase the efficiency of that process.

“For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.” ― Aristotle

The process of language acquisition is not separated into a phase of learning and then a phase of knowing or using. We use every little bit of knowledge we have as a stepping stone on the path, and we never stop moving forward. Learning is a broad term and we tend to forget that it includes review and practice. They aren’t extras, additions or mere learning-improvers, they are the learning itself.

Performing these processes properly requires a mindful approach and conscious repetition. But aren’t you excited about making efficient learning your new habit?

Always review before you move on

What you don’t review—you forget forever, and forgetting means that all the time you’ve spent learning the new words or expressions has been wasted.

That’s why you should always review before learning more, starting every study session by going over your past notes and flashcards.

That way, if halfway through you realise you’re just too exhausted to make the progress you’d hoped for, you’ve at least made sure you don’t regress!

Push yourself with deliberate practice

Success in language learning doesn’t depend on talent. It’s a result of choosing the right methods to learn and practice plus, let’s face it, hard work. You actually have to build up your abilities in order to reap the benefits. Even Mozart trained long and hard from early childhood to attain skills that later seemed to have come to him effortlessly.

With the right kind of training, any individual will be able to acquire abilities that were previously viewed as only attainable if you had the right kind of genetic talent.
— Anders Ericsson

Ericsson’s research concluded that the rising standards in every discipline from music to sports result from the fact that people learned how to learn—not by focusing on the number of hours spent practising but on the quality and nature of the practice instead. He labelled this new method deliberate practice. What are its components?

A well-defined goal: You have to focus on a very specific skill you want to improve. For example: the pronunciation of the English sound “th”.

Mentors and coaches: Deliberate practice draws from the expertise of others who have already achieved a similar goal. If there are individuals who have already gone through the process you’re just starting, why not use their experience?

Challenge: Deliberate practice places us out of our comfort zone. It challenges you to try things that are just beyond your current abilities.

Errors: Obviously you’ll make errors when practicing a new skill, but with deliberate practice you’ll find ways to eliminate them.

Learn more about the The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice

The first two components don’t sound that scary, but the third one sends shivers down your spine, doesn’t it? But you won’t climb any higher without actually letting go and reaching higher. If you feel comfortable talking to a bus driver in Spanish, continuing to do so you will simply increase your fluency in… talking to a bus driver in Spanish. You won’t magically learn how to interact with a doctor.

Experts are experts at maintaining high-levels of practice and improving performance.

For your body to achieve a higher level of performance, you have to force it to adapt to a new routine or environment. Similarly with the mind—in order to attain fluency in a new skill, it must be challenged to interact in yet unencountered circumstances. You will be basing your deliberate practice on the knowledge you already have, but you’ll take a step further into an unchartered territory. As with all such adventures, it is important to have a guide, someone who will provide you with feedback on your trials and help you to correct the errors.

Efficient learning is hard because it means packing the same amount of progress into a shorter time. Make each minute of your study session count!

Completing even just half of a challenging exercise is equivalent to completing one at your regular level. Even if you feel you haven’t done as well as usual, you have proven to yourself you’re closer to mastering the language than you expected.

Learning is deeper and more durable when it’s effortful. Learning that’s easy is like writing in sand, here today and gone tomorrow.
"Make it stick: The science of successful learning"

Make effective use of live tutors

Private language tutors are costly, but use them correctly, and they can mean the difference between steady progress and a plateau.

Learning with LinguaLift will give you access to expert self-study coaches and helpful language tutors ready to give you cultural insights, grammar explanations and that extra bit of motivation over in-app message. You should of course supplement your learning with language exchange for spoken practice.

If you are using a paper textbook or some other unguided course, make sure to find a good tutor on Italki to support you, and regularly submit samples of your writing to Lang-8.

To get the most out of live language tutors, avoid these 5 common mistakes:

Using tutors as your only source of practice. — Your tutor is there for the tricky stuff. For general day-to-day speaking and writing practice, find a free alternative.

Not setting a consistent schedule. — Set a clear schedule with your tutor and make it your top priority to stick to it.

Leaving the curriculum up to the tutors. — Communicate your needs to your teacher, and help them to help you more.

Not reviewing after the lesson. — Make sure that you consolidate and summarise everything you have covered during your lesson.

Not self-teaching between lessons. — Think of your lessons as a focus point for your self-study.

Language proficiency tests

Certificates and examinations

Being accredited in a foreign language can have huge benefits. Some further education courses require it, particularly those abroad, and it can look impressive on your CV.

However, the ability to pass an exam should be a by product of your fluency, not a target. What really matters is your ability to speak the language. What use is a certificate for Tagalog if the next time you’re in the Philippines you mumble and stutter when asked the most basic of questions?

Don't learn just for the sake of exams

I’ve talked above about the importance of motivation in your learning, but it’s important to know that not all motivation is the same.

Intrinsic motivation comes from within; it’s borne out of personal interest (such as loving anime).

Extrinsic motivation comes from outside; it’s a response to our desire to achieve some sort of unrelated goal (such as getting a raise at work).

Research shows that intrinsic motivation is much more powerful than extrinsic because we learn faster and more efficiently when we’re genuinely interested in learning a language for the sake of knowing it.

I want to make beautiful things, even if nobody cares.
― Saul Bass

This is why language classes often produce lacklustre results. When you are forced to learn a new language for the sake of passing exams, you are operating entirely on extrinsic motivation, and are unlikely to retain any language skills.

Choose the right proficiency test

Although we don’t recommend learning a language for the sake of exams, proficiency tests can be one way of assessing your level, motivating yourself, and getting a job!

Until recently, the language certification landscape was very fragmented. Several different companies offered tests for each language, but these tests were often mutually incompatible, had arbitrary expiration dates and fuzzy guidelines that could change at any moment.

Some of these tests remain important, however, and it might still be a good idea to take the IELTS (International English Language Testing System), the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test), or the TORFL (Test of Russian as a Foreign Language) if you’re looking to work or study using these languages.

But, if you don’t have a school or company in mind that requires such specific credentials, you should take a look at CEFR instead.

The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages was first defined in the early 90s, but it is not until recent years that it started to become a de facto standard in the European Union, and around the world. Here’s a quick video introduction:

The major benefit of taking a CEFR-compatible exam is that you can reliably compare your proficiency across different languages. This helps you get a good feel of where you stand in each tongue; a factor that is also making the framework increasingly popular among employers.

It’s also great that CEFR clearly divides the test into Listening, Reading, Spoken Interaction, Spoken Production and Writing sections, giving you a detailed view of your strengths and weaknesses.

Before you head to a testing centre, I recommend that you estimate your proficiency level using the CEFR Self-Assessment Grid. It’s surprisingly accurate, easy to follow, and can save you a few hundred dollars.

How to prepare for language exams

The most important thing to remember about language exams is that they are actually the easiest exams in the world. Unlike a history, biology, or economics test when you can stress yourself about whether the topics you have learned in depth will ‘come up’ in the exam, that fear never arises with a language exam.

So, you should change your usual attitude to exam preparation, and get into the mindset that there will definitely be things you know, and things you don’t know, and it’s your job to answer the questions being blissfully aware of this fact.

Your preparation should be focused on revising the words, phrases and grammar points that you know, and are comfortable using but often make mistakes with. There is no point in revising the easy stuff, nor is there any advantage in trying to learn new words or grammar points the night before a test—they’ll never stick. Rather, spend some time using your language, identifying any silly mistakes you might make under the pressure of the exam, and finding coping mechanisms for those very cases.

What should I do next?

The world’s most famous polyglots admit they have achieved best results through self-study. Even though learning a language on your own may sound like a huge project, with the right approach it becomes a task like any other.

To get you started, I created a free step-by-step checklist that you can use to quickly define your language study plan.

Click below to download the free checklist:

Language learning checklist