Learning a New Language? How to Start Navigating the Terrain in 5 Easy Steps

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

We’ve all heard that one, right?

But let’s be honest.

As far as advice goes, that saying is about as useful as, to borrow an expression from “Dodgeball,” a poopy-flavored lollipop.

Think about it. If you’re stranded in a foreign wilderness with no idea about how to get where you want to go, you’ll have an extraordinarily difficult time getting there.

But if you’ve got a map and compass, as well as some decent navigating skills, you’re likely to be on your way faster than Donald Trump’s hair blowing off in a strong wind.

In the same way, when you’re starting a new language, it helps to have a road map to both guide you along and guarantee that you’re still headed in the right direction.

And just like physical maps, a map for language learning should be based on what other people have seen. There are a number of polyglots and dedicated language learners out there who have become the cartographers of the linguistic frontier.

Let’s take this collective language learning experience, along with some scientific know-how, and set out on the path to learning a new language in double time.

Here’s not just one, but five steps to get you started in a clear direction on your language learning journey. So how can you learn a new language? Read on!

The Rookie’s Map for Learning a New Language: How to Start in 5 Steps

1. Become your own coach: Develop goals and strategies

A lot of the time, when we start something new, we make vague statements like “I want to be able to speak well as quickly as possible” or “I’m going to study X language as much as I possibly can.”

This can be a problem because when we create such vague goals it can be very difficult to achieve any sort of meaningful result. That’s why orienting your language learning odyssey should start with the use of two techniques: SMART goals and metacognitive strategies.

SMART in this case is an acronym which you can see spelled out here. The short and skinny of it is that you need to make really, really concrete goals that can actually be achieved.

Instead of “I want to be able to read children’s books,” say “I will study vocabulary every day for an hour and basic grammar every other day for an hour with the goal of being able to read X book in three months’ time.”

If you write out something like the second one for yourself it will be blindingly obvious for you whether you’re succeeding or failing with your goals.

Setting goals like this is an essential skill for anyone studying by themselves, as well as anyone who wishes to maximize their study time.

If a fancy business world acronym doesn’t impress you then maybe the evidence of the effectiveness of metacognition will. I’ve talked about metacognitive strategies before, but to summarize very quickly, metacognition for language learning involves three steps:

  • First, you plan. Ask yourself what your specific goals are and what strategies you’re going to use to achieve them.
  • Second, start learning and keep track of how well you do every day. Are you having problems that need new solutions? Write that down. Are you consistently succeeding or failing in a certain area? Keep track of that, too.
  • And the third and final step, after a few weeks to a month, maybe, is to evaluate yourself. Were you able to achieve your goals? If not, why? What strategies did and didn’t work? Then the whole process repeats again.

These two techniques naturally fit together quite well and they’re both indispensable for making sure you’re cooking with gas every time you sit down to study.

2. Hit the books

“But what should I do about the meat of language learning?” you say. “Should I pick up a textbook and get a teacher, or should I just book a flight to a country that speaks the language?”

While immersion is great at any level, and is certainly the ultimate goal to strive for, most of us aren’t free to move from country to country as we please and must make decisions about when the best time would be for us to go to that oh-so-wonderful country we’ve been daydreaming about for countless hours.

With that in mind, the truth of the matter is that full immersion is far more helpful when you’re an intermediate to advanced speaker.

This is because we develop by hearing a little bit of something we don’t understand within a lot of other stuff that we do understand. You still do this in English. For instance, if you’re reading a newspaper or textbook and you come across an unknown word, the first thing you try to do is infer its meaning from context.

Luckily, FluentU lets you start learning this way sooner with guided video immersion.

But what’s it like when you go to a country where you don’t understand a word? Well, you may as well be trying to understand the language of radio static because you’ll be bombarded with so many unknowns that picking up on anything just from hearing or seeing something will be quite a struggle.

Consequently, it’s not such a bad idea to go for the old textbook, classroom or online course option to start with.

3. Meet face-to-face

Taking an in-person class as soon as possible can be especially useful. People are social animals, and nothing motivates a social animal quite like peer pressure. If you’re learning a new language, peer pressure can really be a useful tool.

Once having joined, you’ll feel a pleasant pull to continue on with your language learning to see your peers—assuming you make friends—and also a bit of a rougher push to keep you going when the going is tough, such as at one of those times when you’re exhausted or even feeling slightly under the weather.

Someone studying at home with just a textbook might easily throw their hands up and relax for a day in a situation like the one above. But that’s a much more difficult prospect when you know people are expecting you to be somewhere and you’ll have to explain any excuse to their face.

Even beyond the advantage of peer pressure, there’s also the fact that meeting face-to-face facilitates language learning specifically to no end. That’s because one of the best ways to learn is to role play everyday situations.

In meeting up with a class, or even just a teacher, a round of role play with a set of props can easily be arranged and got going in no time at all.

4. Become immersed

Assuming you’ve had some self-practice and classroom experience, the next step is language immersion. But what’s so special about language immersion, anyway? Why is it so talked about?

The reason is simple. People placed in immersive environments are likely to learn faster than students taught in the traditional manner and achieve a more native-like understanding of the language. What more could you possibly ask for?

The question then becomes not why you should try to become immersed, but how.

The obvious choice is to move to the country of your language by any means necessary. But be careful. There are plenty of expats who have lived in a foreign country for decades, never to pick up the language.

The real key is interaction with the local populace. One option that I have seen work wonders for my students of English is to join a company where your target language is spoken. If you need your new language to survive, to handle basic everyday tasks, you’ll progress faster than you ever thought possible.

If, however, for some reason going abroad is simply not in the cards for you, there are a couple of different ways to get your immersion fix right in your home country.

Perhaps the best option, though also the most expensive, would be to attend one of Middlebury’s esteemed summer language programs where you take a pledge to speak only in your target language for three months.

A less intensive option would be to create something close to immersion yourself via in-person or Skype language pals, local language exchanges with partners or groups and replacing all your usual activities with the equivalent in your target language.

For instance, if you like to read, don’t buy or borrow any books in your native language(s). If your only option is to read in your target language, you’ll be much more likely to do so. And in fact, if you take this option to its logical extreme, you’ll be learning everything new in your target language.

Are you a chemist? Read scientific journals in your target language.

Are you deeply inspired by history? Read history books in your target language.

It’s been shown that learning about something outside the language itself, that is to say, not just reading about grammar all the time but studying something you’re interested in, can be one of the most effective ways to learn a language.

5. Enjoy yourself

Languages can be quite the untamed beast. Even the easiest of languages for English speakers can take 600 hours to conquer according to the Foreign Service Institute, and perhaps much more than that if you want to do something with it professionally. This is not something you can do day in, day out without getting some pleasure out of the whole ordeal.

Thankfully, language is as human a thing as it gets and is naturally tied to bountiful rewards. Language is the thing that connects us to other people and social rewards are extremely powerful.

Just think about how often you check Facebook. Why are social networking sites so popular? Because any information connected to other people is inherently seductive. So from the get-go, make sure that you use your language skills for what they were made for. Socializing.

Sometimes, when your schedule is crazy, you’ll be tempted to jettison the “fun” things that made you attracted to the language in the first place in order to get some regular practice in. Maybe you’ll skip your favorite foreign TV show because you can’t understand it without subtitles yet, or you’ll forget to keep up with the newest news on your favorite foreign band.

But make time for the things that got you started. They’re what motivate you and push you through when language learning just seems like a brutal punishment.


In reality, it’s all about balance.

The steps are all here, laid out for you.

But only by starting out on the journey yourself will you gain that intuitive control, a sense of masterful dexterity like that of a professional athlete.

You have your map.

Now you just need to take those first steps.

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