How to Learn a Language by Yourself: 5 Rockstar Tips for Success
Rock on – you’ve decided to learn another language!
But solo? Is that possible? Absolutely!
You can learn a language on your own, and to set you up for success I’m sharing five awesome tips that are filled to the brim with actionable items you can start today!
- 1. Work with—Not Against—Your Psychology
- 2. Design Your Environment to Maximize Language Input and Output
- 3. Track Your Progress
- 4. Create a Tribe: Learning “By Yourself” Does Not Mean Learning “Alone”
- 5. Consistency Trumps Quantity: Make at Least a Little Progress Every Day
1. Work with—Not Against—Your Psychology
“In language learning, it is attitude, not aptitude, that determines success.”
Set S.M.A.R.T. goals
If you don’t know where you are going, how are you ever going to get there? I know, it sounds like something that would be printed on one of those corny motivational posters from the ’80s. But it’s still a valid question to pose to oneself before embarking on a self-guided language learning mission.
When most people think of goal setting, short-lived New Year’s resolutions probably come to mind. Many of us set out to conquer the world on January 1, vowing to learn a new language, drop one’s spare tire, get out of debt, etc. Yet a few weeks later, we somehow find ourselves watching bad TV instead of studying, stuffing our face holes with pizza instead of broccoli and charging a new big screen on our Visa.
But why does this happen? Is it simply a matter of laziness and weakness of character? Perhaps for some. But I think the real problem for most people is poorly defined goals. While setting goals is no guarantee that you will actually achieve them, it is an important step in the right direction.
So what’s the problem with most goals, especially the aforementioned resolutions? They are either vague, unmeasurable, unattainable, irrelevant to one’s life, have no clear deadline or all of the above. To prevent such wimpy goals, try instead to employ the acronym S.M.A.R.T. to your language learning goals. A “smart” goal is:
Instead of saying, “I want to learn Spanish” (What do you mean by “learn”? By when? For what purpose?), you can instead say, “I am going to speak with my Spanish language partner every Wednesday for 15 minutes for the next 6 months.” See the difference?
Embrace the process over the destination
Setting goals is essential, but contrary to popular belief, picturing yourself attaining those goals is actually not as helpful as you might think. Positive thinking is great, but what ends up happening for many people is that they subconsciously think, “I have already reached the goal, so why work so hard?” I know, it sounds crazy, but it’s a real phenomenon. So set goals, yes, but instead of picturing yourself crossing the finish line, visualize yourself actually running the race.
View language learning as an adventure, not a chore
Instead of telling yourself, “I have to study a language today,” use a little linguistic jujutsu and say instead, “I get to study a language today.” Yes, it’s a small change, but it can have a significant effect on your outlook and likelihood of staying the course day in and day out. Remember that languages are doorways into new lands, new cultures, new foods, new music and perhaps, new romances. The minutes and hours you spend today, could earn you years of joy down the road.
Choose inherently enjoyable learning activities
If you wouldn’t watch a soap opera in your native language, why would you force yourself through one in your target tongue? (Well, all right, unless you’re studying Spanish—because Spanish soap operas are their own unique form of entertainment! But you see my point). Part of making language learning fun is doing things in the language that you would do anyway, activities that bring you joy and fulfillment.
For me, it’s learning martial arts or other physical activities. The immediate physical context makes it much easier to figure out what’s happening, helps make vocabulary stick (especially if someone sticks a punch because I did the drill wrong) and is inherently enjoyable in its own right. Do a quick survey of your personal passions and find some opportunities to do something with them using your target language.
2. Design Your Environment to Maximize Language Input and Output
“Excellence is never an accident. It is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, and intelligent execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives. Choice, not chance, determines your destiny.”
Replace your media with target language equivalents
It’s imperative to stop “choosing” to study throughout your day. When you make your target language the only option, you have no choice but to get valuable exposure each and every day. And one of the best ways to limit choices and maximize learning is to switch all your sources of media (TV, movies, magazines, blogs, podcasts, etc.) to your target language. Place foreign film DVDs by the DVD player. Replace the magazines in the bathroom. Put a stack of foreign language manga next to the bed. You get the idea.
Consider trying a virtual immersion platform as well. For example, FluentU uses video excerpts from TV shows, vlogs, and other types of material combined with interactive captions. There are also review quizzes to boost vocab retention.
Change all your devices to your target language
This one is a game changer. Given how many hours a day most of us spend with our eyeballs glued to our various screens, changing the device display language can significantly increase our target language exposure. Granted, this increases passive reading input, not active speaking output (the most important language activity), but hey, every little bit helps.
Best of all, you can make lots of educated guesses about new vocabulary based on your previous experience using the user interface in English. For example, if you are new to Japanese, you probably don’t know the word for “Settings” in the language yet, but once you change your iOS interface to Japanese, you will see that 設定 (settei) is written below the “Settings” icon. Boom. That’s one more word in the bag.
Label key items in your home and office in the target language
An old idea, but a good one. Just as changing your device language increases exposure to contextual vocabulary throughout your day, labeling items around your home and office accomplishes much of the same goal. The difference of course is that these labels will be providing less tech-centric input, meaning you’ll learn lots of useful real-life vocabulary that’s necessary if you ever travel or live abroad.
To get started, use Vocabulary Stickers, durable and removable labels that teach you the names of the most important items around your home and office, for hassle-free language learning. For languages with grammatical genders, the stickers are even conveniently color-coded so you learn the gender of each word as you learn the word itself.
Create visual study cues and “When I…, then I…” statements to promote new habits
Creating new habits (or quitting old ones) can be an extremely difficult task, but there are a few tricks to stack the behavior change deck in your favor:
- Create constant visual reminders in your environment. Place flashcards on your nightstand, put language apps on the home screen of your device and swap out your media as discussed above.
- Create some “When I do X, then I do Y” statements. For example, “When I wake up, then I immediately review 15 flashcards.” Make these statements tied to specific times of day, specific locations or other activities you do on a regular basis.
3. Track Your Progress
“What gets measured gets managed.”
Measure progress in hours, not years
Most people assume that it will take years to learn a foreign language. And sure enough, it does seem to take most folks at least a few years to reach conversational fluency in a foreign language. But this is because most people only put in a few hours (if not a few minutes!) each week.
But if you made language learning your number one priority and put in at least an hour every day, you would be able to reach your fluency goals far faster. Forget about years. Such measurements of time are too big and too intimidating to be of much good for our purposes.
Instead, try to keep track of how many hours you spend actively learning the language each day. If you are not improving as fast as you want, the answer is very likely that you are not putting in enough hours each week. But unless you measure, you won’t know. You will likely feel like you are putting in gobs of time, but may in fact be doing very little.
Record yourself speaking at least once a month
While there are many ways to measure your progress, unscripted speaking is by far the best test of your actual level in a language. It doesn’t matter what device you use (smartphone, tape recorder or phonograph), just make sure you do it at regular intervals. I recommend once a month so that there will be enough time to see—or rather hear—observable progress.
Write a daily journal in your target language
While speaking ability is the main goal for most language learners, writing skills should not be underestimated. Keeping a daily journal in your foreign language is a great way to both improve your word smithing skills while also measuring your progress over time. The journal doesn’t need to contain beautiful, flowing prose. The only requirement is that you get words down on paper (or on the screen) on a daily basis. Months later, you can then go back and review what you’ve previously written. You will be amazed how far you’ve come!
4. Create a Tribe: Learning “By Yourself” Does Not Mean Learning “Alone”
“Yes, I think it’s okay to abandon the big, established, stuck tribe. It’s okay to say to them, ‘You’re not going where I need to go, and there’s no way I’m going to persuade all of you to follow me. So rather than standing here watching the opportunities fade away, I’m heading off. I’m betting some of you, the best of you, will follow me.'”
Get a tutor, language exchange partner or private teacher
Though the title of this post is “How to Learn a Language by Yourself,” I am in no way encouraging you to learn in isolation. You must (I repeat, must) apply what you learn by interacting with native speakers. What I am saying is that you don’t need to attend formal classes to do that. With the advent of Skype (and similar VOIP services), you can now interact with native speakers of nearly any language, just about everywhere. There are countless free (or at least affordable) language exchange sites, some of which even connect you with professional teachers. My favorite is iTalki, but you can Google around until you find something you like.
Find or make friends learning the same language
Learning alone is not only boring, it’s also a recipe for failure. Having at least one friend learning the same language as you means that you will have a trusted confidant to share with, whether it’s sharing resources or venting frustrations. It also allows for a little friendly competition.
5. Consistency Trumps Quantity: Make at Least a Little Progress Every Day
“You don’t set out to build a wall. You don’t say ‘I’m going to build the biggest, baddest, greatest wall that’s ever been built.’ You don’t start there. You say, ‘I’m going to lay this brick as perfectly as a brick can be laid. You do that every single day. And soon you have a wall.”
Commit to a small amount of study every day no matter what
Is it better to study five hours a day than five minutes? Sure. But it’s also way better to study five minutes a day than not at all. No matter how many curve balls, emergencies or defeats your day throws at you, do your very best to fit in at least a tiny bit of language study. Even if it means just reviewing one single flashcard. When you completely miss a day, you are that much more likely to miss the next, and then the next, and so on. Don’t let yourself break the streak.
Use “hidden moments” throughout the day
As I mentioned in my last post, “hidden moments” are a great way to squeeze in language learning time even in the busiest schedule. Any time you find yourself waiting for something (may it be waiting in line or waiting for the elevator), whip out some flashcards or listen to a podcast. A few seconds here, a few minutes there, can all add up to a big chunk of time at the end of the day.
Study first thing in the morning
Literally, put language learning “first.” Before you do anything else in your day, make sure that you spend a little bit of time listening, speaking, reading or writing. That way, no matter how many TPS reports you end up having to resubmit at the office, you will have already checked off “language study” from your list of daily commitments.
Do you feel confident now? You should, because you can learn a language by yourself—and feel like a rock star as you progress towards reaching your specific language goals.
Just put these tips into action and you’ll be on the road to success.
John Fotheringham is a linguist, author, entrepreneur, pun aficionado, and full-time silly goose. As both learner and teacher, he has spent the last decade testing first hand what works, and perhaps more importantly, what doesn’t. He shares these results on his blog, Language Mastery, in his podcast, The Language Mastery Show, and in his comprehensive language learning guides, Master Japanese and Master Mandarin.