How easy is it to learn a language?

When I tell people that I speak French and Spanish they often say, ‘Oh I’d love to learn a language’. To which I usually say, ‘Go on then’. They then normally say something like, ‘Oh I don’t have the time’ or ‘I’m not a languages person’.

Two things;

You do have the time.

You are a languages person.

And I can prove it using a few simple points…

Are there a few points in the day when you’re wasting time, perhaps playing a game or watching a TV show you’re not bothered about? Do you commute? Do you have a spare fifteen minutes?

Pretty much everyone can answer yes to all three of those questions.

As for being a languages person. Are you a human being? Can you understand at least one language to a reasonable level? Do you know a smattering of words in a foreign language?

I’ll bet everyone answers yes to all of those questions too.

Language is simply communication and too many people get hung up on being fluid (not fluent) straight from the off. Most of us have done a language in school and then perhaps gone on holiday, tried to use it and been faced with blank stares or at worst an awkward situation. This is where the ‘not a languages person’ stance comes from in most of us, but really, you just had your confidence knocked.

If you really want to learn a language, ANY language, from French or Spanish to Arabic or Mandarin Chinese – you can do it. With a bit of effort, a little bit of fearlessness and some know how you can be at a basic level within weeks, conversant at three months and fluent in a year.

Getting Started

For many languages you will probably already know some words. These are called cognates and they are the words which are the same, or similar, in different languages. For example in French you say ‘différent’ (with a French accent) and in Spanish you say ‘differente’ (with a Spanish accent). In Latin languages (French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish) there are many cognates and similar verbs which will cut a lot of corners if you brush up. The same for Germanic languages (German, Dutch, Afrikaans and the Scandinavian languages) which have many similarities to English.

Get a good beginners book in your target language and try and get through a chapter every few days. I strongly recommend the Teach Yourself series of books which I have always found to be excellent.

Don’t be afraid to read out loud and go back and re-do chapters if you’re not feeling like its going in. We all have off days and I have definitely spent a week or two going back to the same chapter and getting annoyed at myself for not getting it. Move on and come back to the difficult bit later on.

Manage Your Expectations

Ask yourself, what do you want from your language study? Do you want to be able to do the tourist trail in Italy in a month or do you want to be chatting freely in Korean by next year? How much time do you have and how much time can you commit?

Tourist level language skills can be learnt in a few weeks – a month of consistent study and you should be able to ask directions, understand menu items and explain simple problems.

A decent level of conversation would take around three months depending on how much time and effort you put in.

However everyone is different and you could easily find that it just isn’t going in. Don’t beat yourself up about it, perhaps change your technique and see what happens. If you’ve been learning from a book perhaps try and watch a few YouTube videos or pay for a few lessons. If you’ve been only using DuoLingo or Rosetta Stone then try and use a different tool. Go to your local library and hire a Michel Thomas or Assimil language pack and see if that helps.

Language learning is an ongoing process so don’t give up at the first hurdle!

Hone Your Skills

Once you have some basics, you need to harness the fear and USE IT! Seriously, as soon as you can introduce yourself and string a simple sentence together, go and use it. Maybe that’s easier said than done but in the internet age it really isn’t.

First of all do you have friends, family or acquaintances who speak your target language? If you do, perfect, hit them with your clunky, ‘Comment ca va aujord hui?’ or your ‘Que tal amigo?’ – tell them you’re learning if it helps. Better still say that in your target language, ‘Je apprends francais’ or ‘Aprendido espanol’ and they will no doubt be ready to help and offer advice.

If you don’t have a native speaker to hand, no worries. That’s where the internet comes in handy. is an excellent site full of all kinds of meetups, from fitness and art to language and other cultural opportunities. If you live in a large town or city there will probably be a Meetup for one of the more popular languages. If not set one up! Try Gumtree too.

iTalki is perhaps the most revolutionary language learning tool since the internet. It’s basically Facebook for language learners. Sign up, add a few ‘amicis/amigos/amis’ and arrange a time to chat on Skype/Hangouts/Facetime. Everyone is in the same boat so you get to talk clunky ‘whatever’ and they do the same to you in English.

I cannot stress enough – do not put this off! Use the language at the first opportunity, not when you think it’ll be good enough for an in depth conversation about current events. Use it when you can barely introduce yourself or count to ten. It’s this awkward phase that you need to get through, kind of like everything else you’ve ever learned to do ever.

You’ll thank me later.


OK. After three months of learning someone is gonna talk to you in whatever language you’re learning and you’re not gonna have a clue what they just said. You’ll be looking at them, trying to pick out the words in there you know and maybe… No… Sorry… One more time but slower! Hmmmm… I thought I was better than this…

This happens to EVERYONE.

Speaking is actually quite easy and once you get the confidence up it just kind of flows. But listening, sometimes, hmmm. Accents, slang, intonation, regional dialects can all trash your confidence. But as an English speaker consider this – you’re from Spain, you’ve learned a decent level of English then you meet a man from Scotland. Or Louisiana. Or Mumbai. Exactly.

The best way to practice your listening is to listen. Might sound obvious but there it is. Listen to music in your target language. Listen to the news. Watch a TV series with the subtitles in the same language, if you didn’t get it the first time, go back and watch it again. YouTube is stacked full of listening comprehension for most languages. The LanguagePod series on YouTube is a great place to start listening comprehension including languages like Arabic, Swahili and Korean among others.

Make Time To Learn

Language learning is an investment in yourself and is actually relatively easy. If you’ve ever learned anything at all in your life then you can learn a language, you just need to make time. Perhaps when you’re commuting read a few chapters of your language book, when you’re in the gym listen to a podcast, in the evening try and watch a telenovela instead of X Factor.

A little bit of time and you will surprise yourself…

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