The Process of Learning a Foreign Language from Scratch [8 Steps]

Learning a new language can be an emotional roller coaster.

You might feel excited, confused, curious, bored, ecstatic—all at different times!

It’s always going to feel like a crazy adventure, but this rough roadmap can be your guide and help you plan your venture into language learning

Follow these general points, and you’ll be well on your way to earning bragging rights for your foreign language skills.

Contents

8 Steps to Learn to Speak a Foreign Language from Scratch

1. Plan, plan, plan

Trying to figure out how to learn a new language? First things first. You’re going to want to lay out your goals on paper.

These goals should incorporate all of the four language skills: Speaking, listening, reading and writing. The amount of time or effort you spend on each one will vary depending on your personal preferences, learning goals and learning style, but it’s a good idea to include them all since they help to reinforce each other.

It doesn’t have to be too much. If all you want to do is converse with people you meet, then writing an essay every day is probably overkill, but keeping a journal where you write a few sentences a day will go a long way.

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In addition to these four main language skills you should make sure to tackle supporting skills, which are the backbone of language. I’m talking about things like grammar, vocab and pronunciation. You can do separate exercises with these or try to roll them into your work on the four language skills. For example, you might ask a Skype language partner to correct you whenever you make a pronunciation mistake while having a conversation with her.

Learning the four language skills plus grammar, vocab and pronunciation can take up a lot of time, so it’s best to rotate them if you don’t have the luxury of being able to study the whole day long. For instance, on Monday you could study vocab for an hour and then read for an hour. By doing so, you’ve hit on one of the core language skills (reading) and a key supporting skill (vocabulary). Your vocab learning will be reinforced by your reading and vice versa. Then on Tuesday you could mix it up with pronunciation (supporting skills) and listening practice (core language skill).

And don’t give short shrift to those supporting skills. If you need to, streamline your study habits for them and make sure you get in some studying for at least one of them each day. By streamlining I’m talking about good old flashcards combined with some newfangled spaced repetition. We’ll talk about vocab below, but for grammar you can try sentence mining and for pronunciation try writing a difficult word to pronounce on one side of a card and the IPA pronunciation on the other.

To make sure that you accomplish your goals take some time to read over what it is that defines a SMART goal. If you set clear, measurable goals with deadlines, you’ll be a lot more likely to make headway than with a wishy-washy “I’ll do whatever I can.”

2. Build your foundation

The first thing you’ll probably want to focus on is memorizing some basic vocab and common phrases.

For vocab, try to find a list of the hundred most commonly used words in the language you want to learn. In the English language the hundred most common words account for 50% of language use. With a couple hours of work, you’ll be understanding half the words coming out of the mouth of anyone speaking your new language!

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As for phrases, you can either use one of those nifty travel books that includes a list of useful phrases, use a site like Memrise where you can find courses that people have created to memorize phrases, or create your own deck of phrase flashcards with software like Anki.

3. Language skills, activate!

New language learners often have a tendency to study vocab and grammar and then not really use it for much. It’s intimidating to speak to other people when you’re just starting out, and foreign texts often just look like a jumble of characters.

However, once you’ve got some studying hours under your belt it’s essential to activate those skills. By “activate” I mean put them into practice with a strong focus on writing and speaking. These two skills are the productive skills. You need to produce language with your knowledge. If you can get a grip on these, that means you really know something.

If you’re listening or reading you can half-know a word and still understand the sentence as a whole. But if you need to use that word in speech or write it down then you’re forced to really understand how it should be used.

In order to make sure you activate the things that you’ve been studying there are a couple of things you can do.

When you’re doing speaking practice you can use conversation topics that steer your dialogue towards what you’ve been learning.

To get in some writing practice, you can try to write out a story, blog post, journal entry or anything else using the grammar and vocab you’ve learned. Preferably it should be profane, bizarre, erotic, eccentric, deranged, etc. Basically anything that will make new language stick in your mind.

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4. Let your passion burn with the fire of a thousand eruptions

Motivation is one of the key factors in being a good language learner, so be sure to have some good reasons why you think you really need to learn the language. And to pile motivation on top of motivation, always stay on the lookout for new sources of inspiration.

This could mean joining a volunteer group where your new language becomes essential, as it might be if you were teaching English to immigrants.

Another option could be inventing a project that requires your new language. Maybe translating your favorite novel is a bit beyond your abilities at this point, but if you have younger relatives, why not try translating children’s books for them to read? Or you could simply sign up for an officially recognized test like the JLPT for Japanese or the TOPIK for Korean. Any one of these options would help, and if you combine them then you’ll really be cooking with gas.

5. Become a new you

I’m an INFJ. What are you?

If you know what I’m talking about you probably have your own four-letter characterization of your personality forever burnt into your mind. For those of you who don’t know, these letters come from the Myers-Briggs personality test which has become quite popular despite a lack of scientific evidence to support it.

In fact, personality is much more malleable than most of us think and is strongly shaped by what we believe about ourselves. This is good because learning a new language may require some personality changes for a least a few of us. Learning a language means allowing yourself to be open to constant criticism and willing to say whatever comes to your mind, even if it’s not perfect. That’s the key. Being sociable and willing to make mistakes.

If this sounds difficult, take it one step at a time. You can try to be less of a perfectionist in your native language first, which may seem less frightening. Or you could try meditation, which has been shown to reduce neuroticism over time. Whatever suites your personality…for the moment.

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6. Pulling out all the stops

In order to really take your learning to the next level take some time to learn about new technology and techniques that will help immerse you in your language. For starters there’s the classic change-the-language-of-all-your-electronic-devices trick as well as the spaced repetition memorization technique.

Other favorites include language learning apps such as Duolingo and the aforementioned Memrise. Duolingo teaches a language through bite-sized games that motivate you to keep leveling up. On the other hand, Memrise focuses on everyday phrases, with clips of native speakers saying these out loud.

While you’re watching media in your target language, you can also use interactive subtitles in a program such as FluentU.

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7. Improve your study habits

Despite spending years and years of our lives in the school system being forced to study, many of us have never seriously considered how to study effectively. Thankfully we’ve got science to direct our pursuits.

What do these studies show? Mostly that taking some simple actions can have clear impacts on how well we learn. For instance, if you just switch the room where you study every now and then it will help you retain words you want to memorize. And again, if you just switch the skills you’re working on every now and then, provided they’re at least somewhat related, it will help you improve more than just honing in on one skill for several hours at a time.

While it may seem like we’re getting more work done when we sit in one place and focus on one task the whole day, the reality is quite different. This uses so much willpower that it’s harder to get stuff done. So remember: Variety is key.

8. Get some sleep

I know, I know. You’re busy. You’ve got things to do. There’s no way I can work all day, see my friends, study a language and get as much sleep as I need, you say.

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But it’s worth the extra effort to plan out your day down to the fine details to ensure you get enough sleep. The early part of our sleep cycle is the part that helps our brain with learning languages and lack of sleep has been shown to hurt students even when they are using that time to study. If you’re serious about learning, then sleep has got to be up there on the priorities.

You’ll finally be able to rest easy at night after laying down your road map to language learning success.

Sure, languages can sometimes seem like big, scary monsters that resist all our attempts to get them under our control.

But that’s just an illusion.

With the right frame of mind, some tools, your passion and a lot of persistence, that new language will be your tame little pet before you know it.

Hi, I'm Alan! I became obsessed with learning Chinese, Japanese, and Korean in 2001, and managed to get good enough to work professionally in those languages as a management consultant.

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And One More Thing...

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