Language Learning Quick Start Guide

Thinking about signing up for a class or plopping down a couple hundred dollars on an expensive piece of software? That’s cool–those are effective tools for any language learner. But before you do, take a few minutes to read this article so that you can use those tools to the fullest.

The goal here is to give you the right mindset going in. I want this to be the year that you actually make a dent in your language goals.

Step 1: Acknowledge the Challenge

How long does it take to learn a language? Well, that depends on a lot of factors, and I’ve written an article with more specific estimates.

But just to keep things simple, if you’re studying daily, expect:

  • 3 to 6 months to get to a survival level–being able to handle day-to-day activities like shopping, eating out, or asking directions with patient conversation partners.
  • 6 months to 1 year to get to a functional level–being able to have simple, strain-free conversations and understanding the main idea of most texts.
  • At least 1 to 2 years to get to a highly proficient level–being able to do pretty much whatever you want in the language.

Learning a language takes time. There are a lot of changes that take place in the brain to make it happen, and those don’t happen overnight. But I’d rather you go in knowing what’s ahead of you rather than thinking it’s easy and getting discouraged at the six-month mark because you can’t, say, understand economics textbooks.

Step 2: Pick a language

Chances are, you already know which language you want to study. If so, don’t second-guess yourself.

But if you don’t, pick a language that means something to you.

Ask yourself what you really want. Do you want to travel or live abroad? Do you want to get in touch with your heritage or speak to your grandparents? Do you want to be able to watch French films, or read Japanese Manga, or listen to Korean pop music?

Don’t pick a language because you think it’s easy, and don’t shy away from a language because you think it’s hard. Every language takes time to learn, so pick one that really resonates with you, deep down, so that you’ll be more likely to stick with it for the long term.

Step 3: Come up with a routine

Figure out how you’re going to study. There are plenty of articles on my site with tips, but let’s keep it simple.

When you’re starting out, you don’t even know what you don’t know, so take a class or follow some kind of course. These don’t have to be expensive courses or classes. In fact, there are tons of free resources online:

  • Free Online Courses
  • Free YouTube Courses
  • Free Podcasts

If you follow those links, you’ll find lists of literally hundreds of resources spanning dozens of languages. Some are really high-quality stuff that rival any expensive language program.

While you’re taking those courses, make sure you also get plenty of practice actually using the language. Pay attention to all four skills:

  • Reading
  • Writing
  • Listening
  • Speaking

Use some common sense with how you use the language. If you’re a beginner, you’d be better off with reading a children’s book rather than trying to tackle something like The New York Times.

If you’re looking for speaking partners, consider a language exchange website like italki. If you’re looking for writing practice, consider the site Lang-8.

Throw in some vocabulary drills and grammar drills to round out your efforts.

Combine all these elements as you see fit.

Step 4: Commit to 21 Days

Getting started can be overwhelming. Whatever routine you come up with, commit to sticking with it for 21 days.

As I explain before, 21 days is long enough to see improvement while short enough not to be overwhelming.

Once you see that you are actually making progress, you’ll be motivated to keep going forward.

Step 5: Listen, listen, listen

Out of all four skills I mentioned–reading, writing, speaking, and listening–I firmly believe that listening is the most important.

Why? There are too many reasons to go into here. But the short of it is, listening primes your brain for language acquisition. It assigns aural context–rhythms and intonations–to words and phrases, basically turning symbols and codes from something 2D into something 3D.

Listen to the radio in your target language. Watch movies. Listen to music. Have conversations and pay attention to what your partner is saying. Even if you can’t understand every word, try to follow along and understand the best you can and let your brain try to assemble meaning out of verbal chaos.

Step 6: Make language learning a lifestyle

I know that all of you, without exception, are busy. And I know that most of you want the rewards of language learning and aren’t necessarily looking forward to the hard work.

So if I told you to study two hours a day, most of you would tell me to get lost. And truthfully, I’d understand.

But there is no substitute for persistent effort. If you’re serious about reaching your goal, you have to put in serious work. There is no quick fix.

Look, I get it. I have a forty-hour a week job, a commute, and a family. I’m not exactly swimming in free time either. But I’ve still managed to make language learning a lifestyle.

I sneak in language throughout the day. 10 minutes in the morning reading the news online, 30 minutes listening to a podcast in the car on the drive in, 15 minutes watching TV on my break. My brain is humming with my language all day long, and by the end of the day, I’ve snuck in two or so hours of exposure mainly by using my dead time.

When I started this website, I decided early on to cater to the hardcore language learning crowd rather than the dilettantes. A lot of my articles go into the weeds on language learning and recommend stuff the casual learners would never do.

But that’s because I realized the only difference between someone who is passionate about language learning (and anything, really) and someone who isn’t is that the former decided to be that way. And a year from now, it’s those people who will have reaped the benefits of their efforts.


If you’re up for the challenge and are serious about reaching your language goals, subscribe to Language Surfer for tips, ideas, and motivation:

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