Learning a foreign language is arguably one of the most rewarding things that people can do in their lifetime. Language learners stay healthy for longer, they’re more attractive, they earn more money.
There are over 6900 languages spoken in the world today, and in fact the World Economic Forum recently cited research showing that languages can be picked up at any age, and that bilingual workers and managers earn more in the workplace.
Learning languages is a smart thing to do, but a lot of people worry about whether or not it’s effective to learn a language without teachers, classroom, or in-country immersion.
How can you become organised, consistent, motivated, and effective as a language learner?
Full Disclosure: I Started as a Bad Self-Teacher
When I became a self-teacher, I had already learnt 5 foreign languages at school and university, and taken a postgraduate degree. I thought I was totally set for life as a language learner.
Safely supported by the structures of school, exams, language classes, I never really wondered what happens when you’ve got to think up your own routine.
After I left university, I took a job in international marketing. In my new job, nobody needed me to speak any other language than English. I still loved languages, and maintained my level in French after begging my employer to let me attend classes…but I was entirely dependent on those classes.
One day, a local teacher I knew decided to offer a single Polish class. I attended, loved what I learnt. The class never picked up enough students to become a course, and it was cancelled. So I decided I was going to “learn Polish” by myself. Simple!
That Polish class was in 2007, 10 years ago today. I consider it my first attempt at learning a language by myself. And I totally failed. I can’t say much more than “czesz, nie mowie po polsku” (and that means “hi, I don’t speak Polish”).
I can’t say it any other way: I was a bad language learner. My Polish project ended the way so many other people’s attempts end: I ran out of motivation and ideas after a few months. I didn’t know where to look for good materials. The language just fell off my radar.
If You Gave Up Before, You Haven’t Failed
At this point in language learning, many people feel that they have failed, or have “no aptitude for language learning”. But sadly, I already knew lots of languages. Aptitude wasn’t the problem. There must be something else I don’t know.
I didn’t really try another new language for a few years after that. I was interested, but had no need to learn…until my job started sending me to Kazakhstan: a country where English wasn’t the norm.
In Kazakhstan, I was surrounded by Cyrillic script and unusual sounds, and I totally wanted to talk to people. The radio, the maps, the street signs: Everything was in Russian (and Kazakh!). I felt like I just had to talk to more people in Russian.
So I did what I had not done for years: I started from absolute zero and I finally figured out “how to learn a language”.
Russian From Zero
Starting small was what mattered the most at this point. I didn’t need to be perfect, and I had to shake off any ideas about where I “should” be with my new languages. I bought the simplest, most encouraging book I could find: Russian in 10 minutes a day. And with this book, I found my first techniques of self-learning.
There were lots resources to play with: visual, aural and even kinaesthetic learning. There were even stickers and flashcards and role play ideas, giving me the kickstart I needed to feel entitled to discover my own style.
And slowly, I continued on my path and started learning the language. I didn’t get lost, and I didn’t “give up”. Instead, I developed language learning routines that put me head and shoulders above most friends I knew who studied in evening classes.
Learn How to Learn Languages With Ease
If you want to reap all those benefits of language learning that I mentioned at the start of this article, it’s important to learn how to learn. At some point, any group class will end and leave you with a cliff edge. The following tips will help you take things easy while growing your self-teaching skills.
Tip 1: Make it Just 10 Minutes a Day
Let’s not kid ourselves here: 10 minutes every day is not enough for you to learn a language “fluently” in under 2 years.
But what matters here is not how little you plan to study. This one is all about overcoming your internal resistance. If you feel like you have to study for 2 hours “or it won’t count”, you’re on your way to giving up too early. Instead, aim for the smallest possible effort, and make it consistent.
You’ll soon find yourself starting a 10-minute session that turns into an hour-long one.
If you want to get ahead in your language and build a simple language learning routine, try the Language Habit Tracker included in the Language Habit Toolkit. Simple system, monthly reviews, and you no longer have to worry about what counts.
Tip 2: Play
The best thing that happened to me when I started self-teaching languages was the flexibility that came with the “10 Minutes a Day” book. I had so many options: flashcards, images, role plays, stickers.
You will learn better when you break through your own limitations and shake up the routine every now and then.
Play around, dabble, try a new language or a new book, discard what you don’t need. It’s good to try out what experts recommend, but never feel like someone else’s path is the only way to do this.
The line here is this: If it’s not working for YOU, then it doesn’t work.
When you’ve played for a few weeks, use something like the “Your Month in Review” worksheet from the Language Habit Toolkit to find exactly what works for you and what you can safely discard.
Tip 3: Continue.
Looking back, persistence was one of the most significant actions on my way to becoming the multilingual person I am today. Had I stopped after that cliff edge of classes and exams, I would be on my way to average, knowing very little and regretting how much I have forgotten.
But if you continue on your language learning journey and make persistence one of your core values, you’ll never go wrong. You can forget a lot of what you learnt, but you cannot really go backwards!
It took me a while to hone these self-study skills, and nothing helps more than a good tracking routine. If you want to find out how to plan, track, and optimise your routine, check out the Language Habit Toolkit.
Do you love self-learning a language? How long have you been at it? Share your thoughts in the comments below!