Want to become fluent on your own?
Or maybe you’re learning a language by yourself to comfortably get by on upcoming travels.
No matter what your language learning goals are, the words of French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry still apply:
“A goal without a plan is just a wish.”
Well we’re going to turn your wishes into reality with a successful study plan.
Self study offers a unique alternative to traditional classroom learning, but you need to equip yourself with the right tools to succeed without a dedicated instructor in your wheelhouse.
Keeping yourself motivated, making quantifiable progress and learning to speak like a native number among the many obstacles you’ll face along the way. But the tips and hacks in the following three steps will get you over these hurdles and beyond, as you build your own language study plan.
DIY Language Learning: 3 Steps to Build a Successful Study Plan on Your Own
1. Outline Your Study Goals
Reflect on the last time you sat in a classroom. Most professors use highly specific curriculum and a detailed syllabus to outline the trajectory of their courses. As an independent student, you won’t benefit from the same structured lesson plan. While some language enthusiasts find creative license to be a boon in their learning endeavors, many others find themselves overwhelmed by a lack of direction.
If you’re just starting out on a language learning mission, use your overall objectives to guide your study goals. Why do you want to study this language? Perhaps your desire to learn is driven by an upcoming trip, for example. In this case, you’d want to set basic conversational skills well within your sights, as well as memorization goals for learning travel and food-related vocabulary.
Perhaps you’ve advanced past the elementary elements of your chosen language, in which case you’ll need to set more ambitious goals. To complete this process effectively, follow this three-step approach, which is explained in detail below:
1. Research challenging concepts
2. Set a realistic time frame
3. Build a syllabus
Research Challenging Concepts
Progressing from intermediate language skills to the next echelon of fluency often trips up independent learners. The world may be your oyster, but how should you pinpoint what to study next?
One easy way to gauge your progress and determine where to focus your energy is to take a placement exam. Academic institutions use placement exam results to determine which courses are most appropriate for experienced students. Many universities allow you to take a free placement exam online—simply perform a Google search for “[target language] free placement exam.”
Maybe you’ll find you need to work on expanding your vocabulary, or perhaps your knowledge of a particular verb tense is a bit rusty. Use this insight to target particular goals.
Set a Realistic Time Frame
Use your previous learning experiences to estimate how long it takes you to grasp new concepts. Outline a reasonable time frame that propels you forward without sacrificing long-term retention of your study materials. You’ll likely also need to keep personal commitments, your work responsibilities and other “real-world” obligations in perspective when setting these deadlines.
If you’re feeling particularly ambitious, consider choosing multiple goals to master simultaneously. Whether you try to accomplish all of these goals on the same date or scatter them throughout your studies will likely depend on your own learning patterns. If this is the first time you’ve tried to learn in such a structured way, don’t be afraid to “fail.” Should you find that your initial time frame isn’t quite plausible, you can use your mistakes to set yourself up for success down the road.
Build a Syllabus
Should you find yourself struggling to stick with the schedule, why not take a cue from teachers across the planet and write test dates and study sessions on a physical calendar? Struggle with motivation? Buy a pack of fun stickers at a dollar store and mark your progress. It sounds pretty silly, but the visual reminder can help keep you on the right track.
2. Recreate the Classroom Experience
Once you’ve charted out your learning goals and study timeline, work to recreate the traditional classroom experience in the comfort of your own home. This doesn’t necessarily entail purchasing a colorful lunch box and an array of crayons—though if that helps, by all means go ahead. Instead, you want to focus on constructing a well-designed instruction strategy.
A trained teacher doesn’t simply dabble in one element of her chosen subject, but she instead addresses a myriad of different components. Thankfully, you don’t have to be a pedagogic expert to craft your own unique learning plan. You may, however, find it useful to procure some of the same materials a foreign language instructor uses.
It may come as a surprise, but homeschool students across the world learn foreign languages every day without a native speaker by their side. Why not purchase some homeschooling curriculum that lines up with your current grade level? Visit a curriculum marketplace like Homeschool Classifieds to find affordable materials.
Of course, you can always purchase traditional textbooks from a secondhand marketplace or university bookstore, but make sure they have answer keys that prove vital for many independent learners. For help picking out the best textbooks, here are some quality recommendations:
- Chinese textbooks
- French textbooks
- German textbooks
- Japanese books for learners
- Spanish textbooks for advanced learners
Hiring a “Teacher”
Yes, embarking on self study implies working without the input of a qualified instructor, but limiting yourself to textbook instruction can stall your progress. You might not have access to a classroom teacher, but consider using an online tutor to supplement your learning materials. Many tutors market their services on marketplaces like Verbalplanet and Learnissimo.
Verbling specializes in helping learners find the perfect online language teacher, and even includes its own video chat technology on its site so you can have your tutoring sessions right there.
As an alternative, you might want to follow a structured online language course, many of which include input from experienced teachers.
Embrace Source Materials
Learning with the help of a structured lesson plan offers a smart way to keep yourself on track, but relying exclusively on coursework is a quick way to send your motivation into a nosedive. Avoid failing at your self instruction by using a wide assortment of external materials to keep yourself interested in your work.
One incredible resource for learning real-world languages is FluentU. FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons. And FluentU isn’t just watching videos—it’s about learning and actively practicing the language you hear in videos. Use the interactive subtitles, flashcards and vocabulary lists to learn phrases better than ever.
The sky is truly the limit when it comes to finding interesting information and entertainment to consume in your target language. From reading stimulating books to watching television and movies, choose activities you enjoy every day in English. As you progress, you’re bound to find these activities just as enjoyable in a foreign language, and you’ll likely find yourself motivated by a desire to better understand the materials in question.
Feeling stuck for ideas? Consider the following out-of-the-box activities that can help boost your language learning prowess:
- Listen to podcasts in your target language
- Subscribe to a foreign magazine (You can find many on Amazon!)
- Check out an online broadcast of an international radio show
- Do a Google search for interesting blogs in your target language
- Join a foreign forum dedicated to a subject you enjoy
3. Put Your Skills to the Test
If you’ve ever tried to put your high school Spanish chops to the test on a vacation to Mexico, you’ve experienced the dichotomy between classroom language learning and real-life application.
It can be hard to gauge your actual progress in a foreign language, simply because you can’t provide constructive criticism to yourself. Instead, you’ll need to look to native speakers to get the job done right. Fortunately, there are a wide number of unique technological tools that simplify this process for the modern language learner.
Learning how to write is tricky business, as there are often several ways to write the same idea. Why not join a community like Lang-8, where you can submit writing samples in your target language? Native speakers provide corrections and feedback for you, and you’ll offer the same in English. It’s a language exchange for the modern age!
There are plenty of other platforms you might also want to consider for meeting other language learners and participating in language exchanges. These tools include sites like My Language Exchange and The Polyglot Club. Both of these platforms allow you to organize both email exchanges and Skype sessions with other students on their own language learning journeys.
You may find your reading comprehension grows faster than your other skills, as you can consume materials at your own pace and may be able to guess context using words you already know. Simply putting two and two together might suffice for evaluating your reading comprehension progress, but you might also want to consider purchasing a bilingual book for extra practice. Many booksellers sell these unique works, which feature the source material next to an inline translation.
Traditional language teachers use oral exams as a way to gauge their students’ grasp of the spoken language. A tutor comes in particularly useful when trying to test your listening and speaking abilities, but you can try to replicate this experience online. Some sites, such as Livemocha, allow you to record yourself speaking and have a native speaker correct your pronunciation and grammar. There are also a number of apps that offer similar functionality, including HelloTalk.
Learning a foreign language through self instruction is undoubtedly a big challenge, but thousands of students have successfully walked this path before you. If you’re ready to master a new language and want to do so independently, it’s important to set goals, build on your progress and use others to help guide your attempts. With the right dedication and a bit of luck, you may find self instruction to be more enjoyable and productive than any traditional language class.
Adam Zetterlund is a language enthusiast living in New York City. He spent five years honing his foreign language skills in Paris and London, and he currently partners with a number of international clients in a marketing capacity. Learn more by reading his blog.
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