Until the age of 21, I made several New Year's resolutions to learn Spanish that never panned out. After I graduated from university (as an electronic engineer who could only speak English) I managed to spend an entire six months living in Spain without picking up more than just a few phrases. I was tackling it the way I imagine way too many people are tackling their learn-a-language resolution this year. Today, I'm a successful language learner myself, having studied over two dozen languages. I'm able to speak half of them well and about eight of them with genuine fluency. Hopefully some suggestions here will make sure you don't make the same mistakes I made in my first years of doing it totally wrong!
Title illustration by Tina Mailhot-Roberge
Be Specific In What You're Aiming For
I find that the biggest problem is the vague or impossible goal itself dragging people down before you even get started. Many people phrase their resolution as "Learn Spanish/French/Japanese" without any qualifiers. What does "Learn Chinese" even mean? Learn it to sound like a native? To order food? To write it? And by when?
What you absolutely need to do is be as specific as possible, both in your target and in your timeline. And make it something absolutely achievable within a few months from now.
How about you aim to be conversational in six months? Or be able to ask directions in three weeks? Or talk about your life and your work in two months? Or order food in the language by the end of the month? You can aim for an achievable goal within a few months first, rather than working without a good plan of action for when you can "some day" get mistaken for a native speaker. Be specific and realistic about what you want and when you want it.
The Only "Failure" Is Not Doing Anything
A language is not an academic topic that you can pass or fail, but a means of communication. There is no "failure" here, just various degrees of success when you can use that language. Do NOT aim for perfection-or-bust. Even a small success of being able to buy lunch in the language, with bad grammar and not using precisely the right word, is something worth being proud of.
You Can Learn Well Before Arriving
To really prove to people that you don't need to go to the country to successfully learn a language, I decided to prepare for my upcoming trip to Egypt by spending the last three months immersed in Egyptian Arabic, while hundreds of miles deep inside Brazil. Here is my two month point, and if you subscribe to my blog, you'll see subtitled videos of me using the language with natives while in the country. To prepare for this, I had specific goals, accepted making mistakes as OK, and spoke with natives every day via Skype. I definitely won't lie to you and say that it was easy. I worked really hard and had to feel like an idiot a lot of the time, but it was worth all the struggles and time invested, because now I'm ready to discover this wonderful culture.
Focus on Your Priorities In That Language
Once you have a decent roadmap of where you want to be and when, it's important to focus your time and energy on where your priorities lie. This is why it's simply not possible to describe that "one perfect method" to learn any language that applies to "everybody". As an example, my focus is simple: I want to be able to converse and have real friendships in the language with native speakers. This may seem obvious as a universal goal that every language learner could have, but realistically it isn't, or at least it isn't the absolute priority.
Some people are more passionate about literature in the language, reading comic books / manga, enjoying movies, writing letters, or even learning grammar and the technical workings of various languages. For each of these types of people, I recommend diving into the very things they are so passionate about right from the start. Immerse yourself in that, and it will make other aspects of the language much easier when you come back to them later.
Since my focus is speaking, as I'm a very active traveller (over 10 entire years on the road so far, which has been one hell of an education about the world) this means that my priority is speaking. After I succeed in doing this specific aspect of it pretty well, learning to read and write and even work professionally in the language becomes so much more achievable, even for someone like me who barely passed languages in school.
Recommendations For Those With Spoken Priorities
If your main priority is to converse with natives, then please don't lock yourself away alone in a room with a dusty old book. You must speak with real people right now, and ideally every single day for at least a half an hour. Anything else you do should serve the main purpose of preparing for those spoken sessions. I study too of course, but that study is for today's spoken session, not for six months or two years down the road when I'm finally "ready" to use it. No matter what, you'll always be missing a few words or have some other aspect to improve on — accept this from the start and get cracking on using the language for real!
If you are not in the country right now, or don't have access to native speakers nearby, two completely free resources that I especially like for this are italki (connect with my profile here) and Verbling. italki lets you schedule a language exchange with someone wanting to learn your language, who is confirmed to be patient and helpful. Verbling lets you be more spontaneous about it, with random connections with native speakers in a chat-roulette style.
Remember: because you're both learning, it's OK to make mistakes! In fact, you should embrace making mistakes, because this is an essential part of learning any language.
A Few More Resources To Help You Progress Quickly
If you live in a major city that has a good international crowd, Meetup.com has many regular language specific gatherings, and I've actually found that Couchsurfing, a site usually associated with budget travel, has one of the most excellent per-language and per-city social searches to get in touch with natives.
Apart from one-on-one time with people, the resources that I use between spoken sessions to prepare and learn better include:
- Anki: a flashcard app for the iPhone (paid in iTunes or free on jailbroken iPhones in Cydia) and Android (free). An open database of pre-made decks cover many excellent word lists you can download in advance.
- Memrise: the vocabulary lists on this site include memory cues with their words, to give you tricks and mnemonics to make it much less likely you'll forget the words.
- Native content: Try an active language learning forum to ask for the best news sites or blogs for the language or dialect you are most interested in. One trick I like to do is flick through the top 100 sites by traffic in Alexa's per country list, to see what sites those in that country genuinely check out regularly. For instance, there is a Spanish equivalent of Reddit called Menéame popular in Spain with tons of great articles to read every day. Stumbleupon also has a language setting to find random nice content in a bunch of languages, tailored to your interests, and you can change your computer and software interface languages too.
Your learning approach naturally adapts to your priorities, which is the opposite of what most one-size-fits-all courses seem to aim for. You have great power to succeed in your language learning project this year. Work hard, adapt your learning approach to your priorities, make it about using your language rather than studying it, and you will get results!
Benny Lewis runs the largest language learning blog in the world, fluentin3months.com, where he offer tips and encouragement for adults who are interested in speaking another language. Follow him on Twitter @IrishPolyglot, or on Facebook here.