Are you looking for a way to learn a new language but can’t make it to classes or find an online program that fits your schedule? Is learning on your own something that would fit better into your busy lifestyle? If so, then it’s time to take matters into your own hands.
Self-taught language learning can seem daunting, but it is an achievable goal if you have the right mindset and strategies.
So if you’re ready for this challenge, here are effective ways to learn a language on your own:
Learning Success Strategist | Ivy-League Educated Linguist and Principal Consultant, Edlinguist Solutions | Author, “Me Power“
Cuss it—it improves your communication skills
One of the best ways to learn a language is by immersing yourself in the community—and what better way to do that than by getting down and dirty with some cuss words? It’s not just about learning how to swear; it’s about learning how people colorfully express themselves in real life.
There are also cognates across regions with the same sound but different meanings. Understanding all this practically is a way to laugh, learn nuances, and get comfortable with more expressive communication.
Although most people swear to communicate with vigor, recent research shows that swearing also has several hidden benefits. The most obvious advantage is that it helps us express our emotions.
Researchers have even found a relationship between swearing and an increase in strength when it comes to pain tolerance. People who swear while being administered an electric shock, for example, report feeling less pain than those who don’t swear.
Neuroscience research suggests that swearing may be located in different brain areas than speech. Specifically, it may activate parts of the limbic system, which helps the body respond to intense emotions by activating our fight or flight response.
The body of work in these areas seems to explain why swear words can remain intact in people who have suffered brain damage but have difficulty remembering other words and speaking.
In the end, the secret to language learning success may indeed be profanities, which help build community, expand one’s vocabulary, relieve stress, and have fun.
Writer, Avagu Press
Learning a language on your own can be daunting, but with the right approach, it can be manageable and (dare I say) even more efficient than taking a class or following a textbook. Here’s how:
Identify your communication goals
The beauty of learning a language on your own is that you can decide what’s important to you! Many language classes and textbooks start with introductions and then often go into shopping and ordering in a restaurant.
But, if you’re studying a language on your own, you might decide that you’re more interested in reading the historical pamphlets at museums, asking locals about traditional music, or maybe being able to go to bars and flirt in your target language.
Some travelers want to focus on survival language skills, while others prefer to learn a language to socialize, and there’s no wrong answer.
Whatever your communication goal is — whatever scenarios you want to be able to use your target language in — you want to focus your language learning in those areas.
Break down the grammar and vocabulary skills you’ll need
Now that you’ve identified your communication goals, you’re going to want to break those goals down into language skills — grammar and vocabulary. The easiest way to do this is to think of a few basic conversations and interactions that are a part of your goal and pick them apart.
For example, if you’re interested in learning Swahili for your bucket-list safari trip, you might imagine the following conversation:
- Guide: “Look! Do you see the lion?”
- You: “Where?”
- Guide: “There!”
- You: “Yes, I see it!”
Now, you can go through and think about the language skills you’ll need to have that conversation.
Here’s an example of what that might look like:
- Question words (where, what, when, etc.)
- Yes/no questions
- Present tense
- Subject pronouns (I, you, etc.)
- Animal names
- Verbs (see, look)
Create a study plan with more details
Having identified the language skills you need to learn, the next step is to make a plan of how/when you’re going to learn them. This can look different for everyone, and there’s no wrong way.
The easiest way you can think of to study will probably be the way that works for you (because you thought of it, so your brain likes it)!
The only major guideline I have is that your study plan should be concrete. Instead of writing, “I will learn the present tense this week,” consider a study plan with more details, like the following example for a Spanish language learner:
This week’s Spanish study plan:
- Monday: Review vocabulary for 10 regular verbs. Read about how the present tense is conjugated for regular Spanish verbs. Find 2 practice worksheets online and complete them.
- Tuesday: Do online review activity (like Conjugemos) for 30 minutes, focusing on regular verbs. Translate ten sentences with regular verbs into the target language.
- Wednesday: Review vocabulary for 10 irregular verbs. Read about how the present tense is conjugated for irregular verbs. Find 2 practice worksheets online and complete them.
- Thursday: Do online review activity (like Conjugemos) for 30 minutes, focusing on irregular verbs. Translate ten sentences with irregular verbs into the target language.
- Friday: Self-test by writing twenty sentences with verbs conjugated in the present tense, attempting to use as many different verbs and pronouns as possible. Correct sentences.
I like setting a self-test or a “target activity” for the end of my week. That way, I know what I’m working towards and have a way to check my progress as I study. Especially when studying independently, having a concrete goal and something to achieve is really helpful in keeping your motivation up.
Keep going — learning a language is about consistency
If you remember nothing else, remember this: learning a language is about consistency. It’s a long process and requires patience and dedication. Especially when you’re learning a language on your own, there might be little external accountability — no class to give you grades, nobody checking on your progress over your shoulder.
Having a study plan will help, and focusing your language learning on your own interests and goals will help keep up your motivation, but there’s going to come to a point where you just have to put in the work (even if you’re tired of studying).
Regardless, the work pays off — learning a language is a beautiful thing and opens so many doors! You’re a rock star for putting in the effort. Keep up the language learning!
Dr. Benjamin Gibson, PAHM, PharmD
Pharmacist and Health Coach | Founder, AWCDIT | Podcast Host, Food Health Facts
When I was young, I read about a living American politician who knew seven languages. In history class, I also read about a deceased American diplomat who became president and would speak in a foreign language sometimes.
On national radio, I heard of a priest Fr. Mitch Pacwah, who knows a similar number, even if some are dead languages from antiquity. Those three people inspired me to speak more than one language, and you can too!
Pick a language that has a similar alphabet to what you already know
If you only speak one language and want fluency or proficiency in more, I have the knowledge you may need. Here’s the first tip, whatever language you know already is similar to others. Some have different alphabets. For success, pick a similar alphabet.
For instance, the Dutch language overlaps with English. However, they are supposed to speak English often, and I never traveled to that country. However, I did spend time with other languages like French, Spanish, and Italian.
Most Asian languages and central European languages have different alphabets. If you read English fluently, know that adding a different alphabet is challenging to language fluency. However, it’s not impossible.
I also have a friend who is Hungarian. She knows three languages. In addition to Hungarian, she learned German and English. She told me if I ever wanted to immigrate to Germany, I could for one simple reason. She had done it, and it wasn’t that complicated.
I am bilingual in Spanish and can speak many German and Italian words. I can read more words in French than in German.
Related: The Benefits of Bilingual Education
The next big tip is consistently learning. Make a schedule where you practice learning for 5-15 minutes daily. You must continuously do this activity.
For instance, one year, I had weekly Italian lessons. I also had made an effort years before to learn Italian. Then I took a year or two breaks of not speaking, not reading, and not listening to it.
Then I had a meeting. Lucky for me, the speakers knew Spanish and English. After speaking some words, I reverted to Spanish. Why? After a year or two of not using it, my long-term memory kept other information.
However, I can say that whenever I restarted Italian lessons, I would easily remember the words I had used.
In contrast, I tried to learn Aramaic, Armenian, Cantonese, Mandarin, Vietnamese, Korean, Tagalog, and Russian. I spent a few hours watching many videos over a short time. I would repeat back what I heard. However, I had no one to practice the language with, which made it harder to retain what I had learned.
Related: What Are the Hardest Languages in the World to Learn and Why?
The bigger reason is that I got distracted. A friend knew Greek. So I had spent some time learning that earlier. Realistically, just take the long road and try to learn a language consistently.
Download apps for the language
I like Duolingo. They have notifications and badges to help you learn. A few friends asked me what I was learning when I used it. One of my friends took a job where she learned Irish. She was so happy when she met an ex-patriate couple and said some Irish to them.
Listen to movies with the language
This is helpful with oral retention. When I first started, I would watch with Spanish language subtitles and Spanish audio. When I got better, I switched to just the Spanish audio.
Sometimes I left the English subtitles on but would only look at them if I didn’t understand how a word was pronounced. I did this many times. You can also watch them on YouTube.
Read the written language
Try books, newspapers, or blogs in another language. Often, many are free. The printed word is better since you can write new words. This helps kinesthetic learners.
If you find a newspaper that charges for some content, you can practice just by reading the headline. This is how a bilingual friend (English and Spanish) became trilingual in Italian.
Writer | Entrepreneur | Scientist and Health Activist
Think of your goals and know how you learn best
Learning a language on your own requires strategy and discipline.
Related: Why Is Self Discipline Important?
It helps to think of your goals. Is it your long-term goal to master the language, or are you looking to improve your basic conversation skills or essential phrases for an upcoming trip? Your goals will help you determine what to focus on and what resources to use.
Related: 22 Reasons Why Goal Setting Is Important for Success
It also helps to pay attention to how you learn best. Are you a visual person? Do you like to know the “rules” of a language, or are you comfortable diving right in?
Start small and have fun
Cracking the code of a new language can be daunting but keeping motivated is key. Language apps like Duolingo and Memrise are a fun place to start. You can learn anywhere, anytime!
Ditch the desire to be perfect
You don’t have to be perfectly grammatical or have the perfect pronunciation to start speaking. Language is about communicating; you can’t communicate if you stay silent.
Develop a habit and stick to it
Carve out time every day to do 15 minutes of language learning, even if it’s just listening to music or a podcast during your commute or house chores. You do have time, even if it means cutting 10 minutes of mindless scrolling on social media.
Try to pick up patterns
Look for patterns in word order, word endings, and pronunciation…the more you observe, the quicker you’ll learn.
If possible, join a conversation group, even a virtual one. Take a class, watch a movie in the original language (with subtitles), pay attention to music lyrics, listen to locals (even if just on social media), and study or work abroad if the opportunity arises. Fill your ears with the language, watch locals’ gestures and learn about the culture whenever possible.
Boost your vocabulary by labeling objects in your home
You can use removable stickers to label items in your space to help you learn (and remember) new words. Flashcards can also help.
Review what you learn
Language learning requires lots of repetition and practice. Going back to consolidate what you “already know” is important.
Adam Goulston, PsyD, MBA, MS
Global Content Marketer | Owner, Scize
Repetition is key
There are three or four indispensable steps to learning a language as an adult. But repetition is consistent in all of them.
As a child, you’re probably getting total exposure, you benefit from a young and malleable brain, and you’re not always asking why and comparing to your own language. You also experience the same or similar language over and over again. And it eventually sticks.
As an adult, you have to deliberately learn to speak, listen, read, and write. For a language with a Roman alphabet (like English), you’re 25% ahead. Among languages with non-Roman alphabets (Chinese, Arabic, Greek, etc.), you have an extra step.
There’s also the issue of tone. A tonal language like Chinese or Thai adds a learning step if you’re an English speaker. If daily communication and survival are your focus, just stress speaking and listening over and over.
The essential elements for functional fluency are a way to:
- Hear and emulate natural language by native speakers (listening)
- Practice speaking and be corrected
- Read a variety of texts
- Write and be corrected
Repetition is key in all of these.
As a native English speaker, who has learned Spanish (easy), German (pretty easy), Japanese (much harder), and Thai (harder and easier), I have to have: language exposure in all elements, repetition, practice, and feedback.
Related: Best Way to Learn Spanish, According to 11 People Who Did It
For all of these, you need repetition. Listen many times, speak many times, read and write many times. All until you get it right or almost right. These are all available online, though, of course, boots on the ground are preferable.
College Counselor and Community Manager, Transizion
Learning another language is challenging, particularly if you’re working on it alone. One of the first things you need to ask yourself is whether you care about learning to read and write or if you want to focus on speaking and listening skills. Either way, here are some resources you can use to get started.
Use a language app
One of my favorite ways to get started with a language is using Duolingo. They have everything from real languages like Norwegian to fictional creations like High Valarean and Klingon. It’s fun, interactive, and free.
You can also turn off different aspects of the program, like the speaking questions, if you decide that isn’t right for you. Of all the resources out there, I think it does the best job teaching basic vocabulary and grammar, so you can get started on your own.
Read children’s books
Children’s books are a great resource for someone interested in reading and writing in another language. The vocabulary is generally simple, and popular stories are often translated into multiple languages.
When I was studying French, it was of great help (and ginormous fun!) to read Asterix and Obelix and Asterix “La Galere d’Obelix“. By comparing the English translation to the French original, I picked up many new words.
The best news is that sometimes local libraries will have copies of the same book in different languages, so you can practice for free!
Improve your listening and speaking skills through YouTube
YouTube is a great resource for people who want to speak and understand another language. When my mother decided to learn Bengali to talk to some immigrant families, she hopped onto YouTube and found several Bollywood-style films to watch.
The best part is that YouTube allows viewers to slow down and speed up the playback. She listened to them very slowly at first but gradually got faster and faster. When she decided she wanted to learn how to read a little, she just turned on the subtitles.
Susan Gentile, RN
Nurse Practitioner, ChoicePoint
You can learn to speak a language by yourself. It is possible, but it is not easy. You need to have a plan, you need to set goals, and you need to stay motivated.
Here are two important points for learning a language on your own:
Make sure you understand why you want to learn the language
Make sure you understand why you want to learn the language and how it will help you achieve your goals.
For example, if you want to learn Spanish so that you can travel around Latin America, then that’s great. But make sure that you also have goals like learning enough Spanish so that people can understand what you say in their own language.
Find a schedule that works for you
If you’re learning on your own, it’s up to you to find the time and energy to make it happen. That means making sure that you’re setting aside enough time each day so that you can study effectively.
Maybe that means setting aside 30 minutes in the morning before work or school or dedicating an hour or two after dinner every night. The key is figuring out what works best for your schedule and sticking with it.
Tutor Lead & Content Editor, TheTutorLink
Use online resources or join a language group
There are many online resources that can help you learn a foreign language on your own. Some of these resources include websites that offer audio and video lessons, flashcards, and other learning tools.
Moreover, joining a language learning group can greatly increase your chances of success when learning a foreign language. Groups can provide a supportive learning environment and opportunities to practice your language skills with others.
If you want to learn a foreign language on your own but don’t want to invest in a lot of resources, taking a course may be the best option for you. Courses can provide you with various learning materials and opportunities to practice your language skills with other students.
Founder and Owner, Salty Endeavors Scuba Center
Learn a language on your own through traveling
The best and most creative way to learn a language on your own is through traveling. Traveling is a good way to immerse yourself in another culture, but it’s also an excellent way to learn something new.
Here are things you can do to learn a new language while traveling:
Go to a place that doesn’t speak your language
When it comes to learning a foreign language, necessity can become a great motivator. Going to a place that speaks the same language as you do doesn’t put you in a learning environment.
Try going to a remote location, let’s say, small towns or rural areas where there are no English speakers. You won’t be tempted to speak your language because no one will understand you. But at the same time, you’ll be motivated to learn what language they’re speaking because it’s necessary.
But let’s say you’re going to a common travel destination. Obviously, there are plenty of locals and tourists you can speak with using your language. And you can also find restaurants where the menu is in English.
In this case, explore places like markets with no English menus. This, again, will motivate you to learn a new language out of necessity.
Talk and listen to locals
Learning a new language is more fun and easier when you have someone to talk to. In this case, talk to the locals of the place you’re visiting or listen to some conversations. This way, you can actively listen to what they’re saying, how they use words, and times when they use particular terms.
When you listen closely, you will start to mimic bits and pieces of their phrases, vocabulary, and speaking patterns. Locals will also help you become more familiar with plenty of words and phrases. You can try saying these by yourself.
For example, you can repeat some keywords you’ve heard and understood from what the other person says and ask if you’re saying and using them correctly. This way, you get to learn a new language while making friends.
Write down some basic words you see on the street
If you’re struggling to remember some basic words, the best you can do is write them down. Once you have them on a notepad or any piece of paper, look up what they mean.
For example, while you’re walking down the street, you found a sign in another language. Write it down and look for its meaning later on. This will help you master some of the basic phrases or terms you need to learn to survive in another country.
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes
Learning a new language while traveling can be especially tough. You’ll surely make mistakes and hit some plateaus, but that’s okay! This is exactly how you can learn a new language. Recognize that you’re a beginner and let go of your inhibitions.
You’ll naturally experience plenty of corrections to your pronunciation and usage. This will motivate you to learn more and challenge yourself.
If you don’t understand something, ask questions. In fact, locals really appreciate it when foreigners learn their language and immerse themselves in the culture.
Writer | Entrepreneur | Engineer
You have to start somewhere. This might mean Duolingo, Youtube, or articles related to your target language. We won’t use this as our means to master the language, but you need something to start that explains the basics of your target language in your native language.
Basic grammar, conjugations, vocabulary, and phrases are what we’re looking for here.
Act like a baby—listen
How do babies, children, and essentially all humans come to learn a language? They listen.
Stephen Krashen, the developer of the Comprehensible Input hypothesis, argues that getting input (i.e., listening and reading) is the most important step in acquiring a second language, whereas output (speaking and writing) is not.
Children slowly acquire their language by hearing common words repeated and seeing or hearing them in context. An example would be a mother pointing to her nose and saying the word “nose.” The child can now discern that the protruding object on peoples’ faces is called a nose.
To apply this concept, we can start by reading or listening to things we can understand roughly 80% of (so mostly comprehensible). Push through the kids’ books; I promise the sweet spot is when your skills are sufficient to take in media that is both interesting and understandable.
Once the content is interesting, you’re motivated to continue getting input. Read, listen, read, listen. Krashen suggests roughly 1000 hours of cumulative reading gets you to a really skilled, fluent level.
If your goal is to simply be able to talk to people in your target language, as opposed to publishing scientific papers, you won’t need the full 1000 hours to get there (I estimate roughly 60% of that).
I was never a fan of the immersion approach because it’s normally not feasible to just up and leave for Spain for six months, and you can certainly learn a language in your home country.
However, if immersion is possible, definitely do it. All it’s doing is making the input process come to you. Instead of reading a chapter of a book each day, you simply go about your everyday life and get the input you need to learn—in the supermarket, the cafe, and the taxi.
What happens if you date someone that doesn’t speak your language but speaks your target language? Well, if you want to communicate with them, you’d better learn something. This need and constant input can easily expedite your learning process.
I’m not here to talk about morals, but I wouldn’t date someone simply to learn a language. Hopefully, you like them. That’s for you to decide.
- Netflix and subtitles
This goes back to obtaining comprehensible input. In the beginning, if you’re watching a show in your target language, you may add subtitles in your native language, and that’s okay.
However, try as quickly as possible to switch the subtitles to your target language. With the audio and subtitles in your target language, you don’t have the crutch of the familiar language in case you miss something.
You also are forced to use context to figure out certain words (remember the baby discovering what a nose is called).
Senior Editor, Tandem
There are many reasons that you might be considering learning a new language. It could be you are going on a trip, moving to a new country, or just because it’s something you have always wanted to do.
If this is you, you might wonder how you can learn a language on your own. Here are some tips:
From Duolingo to Rosetta Stone to Lingvist and more, there are many applications you can download to teach yourself a new language. Some of these programs might be more difficult to use than others, and it might take a few tries until you find one that best works for you.
Use your tools. In addition to the available apps, there are other tools you can purchase or create to help you remember a new language.
Learning something new is just like going to school. When you previously went to school, you needed to study. Learning a language on your own will be no different. You must study whenever you can. You can use flashcards, get a tutor, or try to get as much input from others as possible.
Start by taking baby steps
When you are learning a new language, you probably want to learn as much as you can as quickly as possible. Though this might work for some people, for others, their minds won’t as quickly process all the new information it’s being fed.
It’s okay to start with smaller steps and build your way up as you learn more words and phrases.
No, this is not referring to streaking across a football field. By “exposing yourself,” this means you should find ways you can incorporate the new language into your life.
This can be listening to podcasts or watching shows in the language you are learning. If you have any friends that speak the language, ask if they can spend some time using it with you.
Don’t beat yourself up
As you go through the process, you might face instances where you are ready to give up. It seems you don’t remember the words or how to conjugate them correctly, which might seem too difficult.
Don’t give up! Also, don’t get upset with yourself for not picking up a new language as quickly as you would like. Even if it takes a bit longer, you will get there.
Related: How To Stop Beating Yourself Up
I know individuals who speak 3, 4, or more languages. I actually know someone who speaks English, Hebrew, Yiddish, French, Spanish, and Italian. That’s 6 languages! I am in awe of how she learned and has used all of these languages throughout her life.
Maybe your goal is to learn as many languages as she did, or perhaps you would be happy to simply learn one more. Whatever your goal is, practice makes perfect. You will be speaking that new language fluently before you know it.
Founder, Weight Loss Made Practical
Hear and see people actually use the language
I speak English, Dutch, and French, and I’ve been learning a lot of Japanese over the last two years.
To learn a new language on your own, you want to do two things. The most essential is hearing (and preferably seeing) people actually use the language.
Language is not something that was created by people who write textbooks. It is a way people communicate with each other. Living somewhere people actually use the language can be extremely effective for this first part.
Watch TV shows or movies in the language
The second best thing is watching TV shows or movies with the language. I find subtitles a really helpful way to pick up more and more of the language. For example, as a kid, I learned how to speak English by watching “Friends” with Dutch subtitles.
Visual media like TV shows are great because you can also learn the meaning of things by what the actors are doing.
Something else you preferably want to do is read the essential grammatical rules of the language.
For example, Japanese is a very different language from the languages I already spoke in terms of sentence structure and grammatical rules.
Instead of figuring these out on my own by hearing the language, learning these grammatical rules through an app like Duolingo saved me a lot of time and really sped up my progress.
With basic knowledge of the grammar of the language and a lot of time hearing/seeing the language being spoken, you gradually become able to speak more and more yourself.
Founder, Trivia Bliss
Immerse yourself in it
As a young traveler and entrepreneur who wanted to enjoy travel while also starting up his own business, I knew that the best way to truly understand another language and its culture was to immerse myself in it.
So, to learn Spanish, I jetted off to Spain and Mexico. During my travels, I took classes in local language schools and on the ground. I found that the best way to learn a new language quickly and effectively was through natural everyday experiences and conversations.
Everywhere I went, I made it my mission to try and speak the local lingo. Whether I was downing a pint in Madrid, haggling with a market stall owner in Mexico City, or having a heated debate with a Spanish-speaking taxi driver in Bilbao, I’m proud to say I put my language skills to the test.
Of course, I couldn’t just rely on conversational Spanish and needed to do some more scholarly pursuits to really get to grips with the language. With a combination of private language tutoring and self-study, I was able to quickly understand the basics and eventually develop a good level of conversational fluency.
Since learning Spanish, I’ve since gone on to learn Chinese too. The best way to start learning and understanding a language is to know about its culture and get a sense of how it’s used in everyday life.
Again, I used immersion, classes, podcasts, and other online resources, to get me started.
Co-Founder, The Word Counter
Be in an ideal environment and use the language daily
Immersion is the best way to learn a new language. If you have the resources and opportunity, spending six months in a different country is the ideal way to pick up the native tongue.
In my own experience, I spent half a year in Southern France, where I was able to land a job in a cafe. Despite not having a solid background in French, I was able to pick up the language by being forced to communicate daily.
Learning a language in that environment was ideal because my coworkers were supportive and informative, while customers understood I was not a native French speaker.
An additional study, using online platforms, and watching films and TV with subtitles, was certainly helpful. But simply being in an environment where conversational French was spoken 8 hours a day was the best way for me to learn a new language—and I got paid for doing so!
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