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How to Learn Any Language from Scratch

Language has fascinated me for many years, but it wasn’t always that way.

Who could have blamed me? Language classes, particularly in high school, have a bit of a reputation for being difficult and ineffective. Even the students who ace every test rarely go on to speak the language to any useful degree.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Here are some of the things I’ve learned over the last decade as I’ve dabbled in Spanish, French, Japanese, German, and Mandarin Chinese.

To any sign-language learners out there, please note that this is written with spoken languages in mind. Some of this may still be helpful for you, but I have little experience signing and can make no promises. Sorry!

Anyway, let’s get linguistic.

Find Your Motivation

Before you commit to studying a language, you should know why you’re doing it. I won’t lie to you — it takes a lot of effort just to reach a basic level of fluency. On top of that, if you don’t want to feel your new language slip from your grasp, you have to maintain it to some degree, forever.

Among other reasons, this explains how someone can take four years of language classes and come out remembering nothing.

Unless you wanted to learn Spanish, you likely didn’t have much choice if you went to school in the U.S. Who’s to say you ever had any more motivation than trying not to tank your GPA?

So take a few moments to write out the purposes that brought you here. Why do you want to learn a language in the first place, let alone the one you’ve got in mind? Travel? Culture? Impressing attractive humans? Any reason you come up with will have its own requirements and ability to keep you invested.

If you only need to get through a vacation or two, you can learn a little and forget it later.

If you’re hoping to impress someone, what happens if they’re no longer in the picture? Could you impress them with something less time-consuming?

Of these three examples, cultural immersion may be the strongest, but even that doesn’t require a language. There are plenty of people watching anime and making French bread that didn’t need to learn anything (other than baking). A language can unlock new levels of cultural understanding and appreciation, but that only matters if it matters to you.

What If I’m Not Sure Yet?

If you don’t quite know what your reasons for learning a language are yet, don’t be discouraged! I actually did choose Spanish because it happened to be available, but I fell in love with it over time as I let it become a part of me. Sometimes we don’t know whether we like things until we’ve properly tried them.

On the other hand, if that spark never arrives, don’t be afraid to change course. This has the potential to be a lifelong commitment — you don’t want to force it.

What if I’m Bad at Languages?

Don’t worry, I hear you. It’s hard not to when there are so very many people who feel this way. But aren’t you currently reading a language now? And if you were born in literally any other place, wouldn’t you have picked that language up just fine?

I blame the constraints of traditional education for part of this. At least in the United States, we’re primarily worried about grades. Therefore, work and progress are distilled into a number.

But how do you objectively grade a freeform conversation? Not as easily as a memorized script. (Also not as easily as you can grade a multiple choice test or an assortment of essay questions.)

The problem here is that at best, the work I just listed might make you a skillful writer. But reading and writing don’t help when we’re still too afraid of sounding foolish to open our mouths and speak.

I couldn’t roll my r’s when I was learning Spanish for the first time, and I dropped out of my first high school Spanish class because I understood so little of what the teacher said that I didn’t realize when we had homework. But now I can roll my r’s until I run out of breath and I’ve had Spanish speakers ask me where my parents are from, not realizing the answer is just “Iowa.”

If you’re willing to put in the time, you can do it.

How Long Does It Take to Learn a Language?

Before you get started, it’s a good idea to consider what your timeline might look like. Realistic expectations will prepare you to focus on the challenges ahead, rather than how long you seem to be taking.

With that in mind, how long do you have? What goals did you write down earlier? What language are you learning, and how different is it from your mother tongue?

All of these will affect the time it takes you to learn a language, along with countless other variables like your learning methods, your motivation, and the hours you put in.

To complicate things even further, not all hours are created equal.

If I study Japanese for ten minutes a day over two years, I’ll likely learn something. Maybe it’ll even be enough to make me happy. But it’s also reasonably likely that I would have learned as much, if not more, if I had just studied for an hour a day over the summer.

The times where I’ve made the most progress in a language were the times I pushed myself the hardest. After long and difficult study sessions, I often felt like my brain was melting. Doing one push-up a day isn’t enough to convince your muscles to get much stronger. The same logic applies to your mind.

There are limits, though. You probably shouldn’t study for twenty-four hours over three days, even if it adds up to the same as 432 days of ten minutes. You’ll need to balance frequent practice with intense practice to make your way to whatever success you’re looking for.

In general, language learning can take anywhere from a few months to several years. But how long it takes you to learn a language is, in part, up to you.

Start with Sounds

If I had to pick a skill that’s driven my language learning success more than anything, it’d be pronunciation. Building a good accent is an incredible boost to your confidence, and you’ll need confidence to get through the myriad mistakes you’ll be making.

When I made mistakes in my language classes, I still felt okay because my accent was able to mask them. I still sounded right, so no one really cared. I could then focus my energy on grammar and vocabulary instead of trying not to feel ridiculous in front of my classmates.

So once you have a language in mind, make a point to start listening to how it sounds and find out which pieces are difficult for you to either hear or pronounce yourself. Some sounds are so similar we can’t hear the difference at first, and many sounds require us to learn to move our mouths differently to produce them.

If you need to double-check something, you can hear native speakers pronouncing many of the words you might come across on Forvo. Forvo has helped me both in languages I’m studying and with more common issues like pronouncing an unfamiliar name.

When you do come across these sounds, try to isolate a few words that include them. Repeat these in the shower, out on walks, or wherever else you won’t feel too weird chanting foreign words to yourself. If you find your mouth feeling a bit tired, remember that pronunciation is a physical skill. You’re basically starting a new exercise routine.

Spotify Playlists

Along with movies, YouTube videos, and whatever else you can find, now might be a good time to check out some music in the language you’re learning. I’ve got casually maintained Spotify playlists in Spanish, French, Japanese, and German.

Each playlist has one song per artist for the sake of variety, but they’re also based on what I personally like. Feel free to explore further if you don’t like what I’ve chosen. Note that singing along to foreign rap is a really good way to practice pronunciation, as each song is basically a three-minute tongue twister.

Learn Your First Words

Enough preparation — the time has come to officially dive into the language! Words and grammar may not sound exciting at first, but this is where things start to feel real. You’re starting a new adventure in learning.

And no, I’m not just being dramatic by calling it an adventure; thinking about the days of the week in French gives me a rush of joyful nostalgia almost as good as remembering the first time I set out from Pallet Town.

If the scale of this goal suddenly seems a bit intimidating, don’t worry: since pretty much everything is new, you’ll get a chance to feel accomplished no matter what you do.

As such, the method you use isn’t much to fret over. I like Duolingo, as it gives a clear path forward, which is really important when you could choose so many directions to go in. If you prefer paper, you may instead (or also) want to look into Benny Lewis’ Language Hacking Guides or a textbook like Genki.

If you plan on studying primarily on your own, make sure you find a way to stick to it. With something as long-term as learning a language, procrastination can be a death sentence.

Otherwise, traditional classes can also be a good place to start. But none of these things will likely be enough to keep you invested by themselves.

To keep the learning process fun, you need to personalize your studies.

Personalized Vocabulary

Every time you have to learn an inane and almost 100% unnecessary phrase like “the apple is red,” personalize it. Use the same grammar to make a phrase you might actually want to use someday.

I’m not often around people who are simultaneously unable to see what color an apple is and care. It’s an apple. Just eat it. I’d be much more invested in a phrase like “the piano is old” or “spiders are cool.”

Learn words that apply to your life and the things that fascinate you, so you can talk about the things that matter. After all, language was invented to communicate, not to test your grammar skills.

Spaced Repetition

When learning new words or phrases you want to remember, it’s a good idea to use a spaced-repetition system (SRS), like Lingvist or Anki.

I’m not going to go into too much detail here because we already have a fantastic post and video on the topic, but it’s basically like having magical flashcards that only test you when you’re on the verge of forgetting something. That way, you don’t waste time going through words you already know by heart.

Flashcards may not sound very fun, but in the beginning stages, you don’t yet have the skills to enjoy learning words more naturally. You can’t read books, watch movies, or say all that much, so you can’t pick up words by chance the same way you would in your native tongue. For now, you’ll need the artificial environment of flashcards, apps, and structured lessons.

If you want to supercharge your SRS, you may want to look into a frequency dictionary (like this one in Spanish), which lists the most commonly used words in a language. Due to a statistical phenomenon called Zipf’s law, the first 100-200 words alone can cover about 50% of what you’ll hear on a regular basis, so these can be quite useful.

No matter how you choose which words to turn into flashcards, make sure not to overwhelm yourself with too many at once, and don’t add words that you’re not sure about. It does no good to memorize a word when you don’t know how to use it.

Moving Past Flashcards

As you progress in a language, you may reach a point where you grow tired of flashcards, and that’s okay! With enough language input you can take advantage of a sort of natural SRS.

If you spend enough time reading and having conversations, you’ll run into common words commonly (obviously). When you do, you’ll know these words are important, and you’ll be using natural language as your “flashcard” every time they show up. The words you don’t see often aren’t commonly used, at least in your areas of interest, so they’re not actually that important for you to remember anyway.

If you still think you need to know every word in a language to be fluent, do you know what entomophagy means? How about peristeronic?

See? Not important.

Master the 4 Basic Language Learning Skills

While you continue to work on building your pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar, you’ll want to make time for the four major skills of language learning. These are pretty self-explanatory, and you can probably guess them:

  1. Listening
  2. Speaking
  3. Reading
  4. Writing

Instead of explaining what it means to do basic verbs, I’m going to give some examples for how you can practice these skills, both in a beginner’s artificial environment, and later on in the intermediate/advanced learner’s natural environment.

1. Listening

As a beginner, your biggest hurdle to listening well is learning to separate the words you hear from each other, rather than just hearing a long jumble of foreign sounds. To learn this skill, you can use anything from music to movies to a nice, daily episode of Pokémon in Spanish.

An even better way to get listening and reading practice at the same time is to use something like Duolingo Stories or to get an audiobook in your target language and follow along in the written version. I’ve acquired translations of a couple of books from Audible, and even if I don’t have time to read along, it makes for a much more constructive commute than looping the DuckTales theme.

You can also get good practice from traditional classes, Meetups, or from personal language lessons via iTalki. With iTalki, you can either find a language partner for free or pay for lessons one-by-one. It offers some of the best language practice you can get from home — I should know, as I’ve happily spent over 150 hours on iTalki lessons over the years.

Later on, you’ll be able to start understanding and enjoying more media, along with much more fulfilling interactions with teachers and friends. Like in your native language, you’ll be listening for what’s being said, rather than just listening for the language itself.

2. Speaking

As with listening, taking personal lessons through an in-person tutor or something like iTalki is one of the best ways to improve your speaking skills if you don’t know anyone to practice with. I’ve also found several language practice groups on Meetup.

If I’m feeling busy or antisocial, though, I can still practice my speaking skills through the power of video. How does this work? Basically, if you’re a beginner, all you have to do is film yourself reading through some text. You can also just read out loud without filming, but recording yourself lets you play it back and listen for areas you struggle with.

Here are some things to check for when listening to your recording:

  • Rhythm
  • Pronunciation
  • Clarity
  • Confidence

A more advanced way to practice this is to film yourself speaking extemporaneously. If you don’t know what to talk about, find an impromptu speech topic generator, get a topic, and try to talk about it for 2-3 minutes. You’ll quickly find gaps in your vocabulary and grammar that should point you in the direction of growth.

As a bonus to using this technique over time, you’ll continue to see video of a new language coming from your own mouth. This constant visual reminder can help you pull the language into your identity and boost your confidence, because you’ll see yourself getting better. You’ll know for certain you’re the kind of person who speaks that language, because the evidence is right in front of you.

3. Reading

Reading can be tricky for new learners, as the written and spoken versions of a language don’t always have as much in common as one would like. French, for example, at some point decided that leaving approximately eighteen silent letters in every word was a perfectly reasonable thing to do.

Okay, so maybe that’s an exaggeration, but we really don’t even need to use French as an example. Just look at how the words on this page are spelled compared to how they sound. You’ll see what I’m talking about.

But spelling is just one potential hazard. What about the languages that don’t use Roman characters (or whichever ones apply to your native language)? Japanese, for example, requires learning some degree of three separate writing systems. If you’re coming from a different type of writing, you can’t even guess how words like ほうじ茶 might be pronounced. How are you supposed to know what they mean?

As a beginner, you’ll need to dedicate time to learning the writing and spelling systems. You won’t be reading very many books quite yet, but signs and menus are within your grasp. The more you see the language, the more you’ll start to internalize how it works.

For something like Japanese, where you do need to learn a new system entirely, spaced repetition can be helpful. Wanikani, for example, is a great system for learning to read Kanji. If there isn’t anything specifically built for the language you’re learning, you may want to find a way to incorporate the new system into something more universal, like Anki.

Once you can understand the writing well enough to get by, you’ve got a few more options:

Translations of books you’ve read before, like The Hobbit, can be helpful as well. You’ll already be familiar with the story, so you can follow along a little more easily.

Even then, it can still feel hard to enjoy reading if the vocabulary’s a little out of your range. To overcome this, I like to read through a page or two without stopping, writing down everything I don’t understand. Then, I’ll look it all up, write down what it means, and reread the pages for enjoyment. The second time usually goes much more smoothly, and I have a fresh batch of flashcard fodder for later.

Eventually, short stories and novels originally written in the language will become accessible. Once you’ve made it this far, congratulations! You can start enjoying the literature of an entirely new culture.

4. Writing

Writing obviously brings many of the same challenges that reading does, but practicing works a little differently. How much you care to practice some things, like handwriting, may also depend on your goals. If your only goal is to speak, for example, you may be able to get by just by learning enough to type what you want, rather than learning how to write the characters yourself.

If you do need to learn how to handwrite something new, note that it may be more complicated than just drawing something that looks similar. In Japanese, for example, the order in which you write each stroke of a character tends to follow a pattern. If you deviate from that pattern, you may make your writing harder to read.

Outside of that particular challenge, a great place to practice writing is Lang-8. Lang-8 will let you post something you’ve written and have others correct it for you.

I’ve also experimented with something I like to call a story dictionary. Instead of using flashcards, I decided to write a story using new vocabulary words I wanted to remember. Each time I wanted to add something, I would reread my story and add a new sentence that used it.

In my particular case, I used characters from Winnie-the-Pooh so that I didn’t need to think too hard about a plot. I just tried to write things I thought they would have done in the situations needed to introduce the words.

Every time you reread your story to add something new, you reinforce every word you’ve added using personalized, memorable examples.

How to Learn Multiple Languages

Ah, an aspiring polyglot, I see. Well, I have a lot of experience in juggling languages at this point, and I’ve felt the downsides. If you want to make satisfying, quick progress, don’t learn more than one language at once. (At least not if you’re learning both from scratch.)

Languages take a lot of effort — you’re literally learning a brand new way to describe existence. If you have an hour a day for studying language, and you split it between several, each language suffers.

I’m not saying this strategy won’t work eventually. It very well may. But I’ve never found mediocre progress in many things to be very fulfilling, and if you overwhelm and discourage yourself in this way you may end up quitting all together.

I strongly recommend sticking to one language until you reach at least a casual fluency (perhaps a B2 on the CEFR). Then, go ahead and maintain that one while you pick up another.

As a reward for your patience, each new language will be a little easier to learn due to the vast number of new connections you can make between different words and patterns. You’ll also start to understand more of how languages work in general — when you find yourself needing to use the present perfect tense or a past participle, you’ll at least know how to find what you’re looking for.

Language Learning Apps and Tools

I’ve mentioned a fair amount of tools and resources throughout this page, and I thought it might be easier for you to find what you want if they were all in one place. So here it is: wish preemptively granted.

Start Your Language Learning Journey Today

So there you have it: choose your language, master its sounds, start learning words and grammar, and reinforce it all by listening, speaking, reading, and writing.

When you find something you don’t understand yet, don’t feel discouraged for not knowing it. Feel excited to find something new to learn. After all, there will always be something new to learn. As a wise man once said:

I don’t believe you can ever learn all of anything, let alone a language. — Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind

The first time I realized I could speak Spanish, it felt amazing; I can’t wait for you to feel the same thing.

¡Buena suerte!

Photo credits: Japanese tea house