How to Learn a Language

9 lessons for the uninitiated

Taahir Kamal Chagan

The key determiners in the process of learning a language are the same timeless qualities that are involved in learning anything well in life. Here are 9 insightful lessons for people who are considering embarking on the journey of acquiring a language.

1- The ‘Why’

What’s driving me to do this? We need to think this through before we start. It’s the engine we’ll need to propel us on the journey, to guide us when encountering rough terrain. And it’s going to be the common thread that weaves its way throughout the process.


2- Bust the Myths

Myth #1: Language learning takes talent. We’re born with it or not.

No successful language learner or Polyglot believes this. Most people who speak other languages started learning well into adulthood, and on their own. If we can speak one language, we can speak another.


Myth #2: Being in the place where the language is spoken is the key to picking up the language.

It doesn’t help as much as we may think. In fact, in the beginning stages, it’s often no use at all because the level is too high, so our brains just filter out what we’re hearing. The advantage we may feel is that there is an immediate why: we are surrounded by the culture and we have clear examples where we need the language. So we have a high motivation. But that’s it. Is it preferable to be in the country? Sure. A little bit. But the advantages are so slight that if we’re starting the language from scratch it wouldn’t even be worth mentioning. And, in the 21st century, much of what we would be getting from physically being in the country can be recreated via the internet anyway.


Myth #3: You need an outstanding memory.

Language learning is not about memorization. Do we need to somehow find a way over time to put hundreds of new words into our brains? Yes. But it’s not about sitting down with lists of vocabulary and forcing ourselves to commit them to memory. It’s about building up a familiarity with the language. Our brains will remember what has meaning for us. We want to absorb the language naturally: hear and see the language in interesting contexts, enjoy the process, come to love the way the language sounds, and be curious. The rest will come.


3- Get in the Habit

The beginning – where we’re trying to build up our familiarity with the language – is like a delicate thread that needs to be taken very good care of. We need a lot of exposure to the language, and we need it in small-ish doses, consistently over time.

The first thing we must do is develop positive habits that cover a minimum amount of time that we should learn on a daily basis.

30 minutes a day is a good start. We want to turn this into a habit, in order for us to get to the point where we don’t have to think about it anymore. The point where it’s automated, where it just happens. The honeymoon phase is gonna fade. Our motivation will wane a bit, the baby will be born, work will get busy – life will infringe on our good intentions. That’s why we want to form habits that are immune to our feelings and to our life circumstances.

We want to consistently meet the minimum amount of time. But doing too much can also be dangerous. We want to avoid burning ourselves out. That’s just gonna make us feel terrible. That’s when most people give up. We shouldn’t try to force things into our brains. More is not always more, and like with most things there is a point of diminishing returns. A weekly schedule of 30 minutes a day for five days (totalling 2.5 hours) is more effective than 5 hours on a Sunday, especially in the beginning stages when we’re still building up an intimacy with the language. We need to accept from the beginning that it’s not going to happen overnight. It is going to improve in increments, sometimes unnoticeable increments.

If you miss a day, don’t jump off a bridge. Life happens. But get back on the horse. Because like with anything: momentum is magic. Like with anything: habits are powerful. And like in the rest of life: discipline conquers everything. Later, when you get to the higher peaks, you’ll be soooo glad you took just a few small steps every day to get up the mountain. There’s no cable car to the top.


4- Narrow Your Focus

Languages are big things. We can develop tactics and goals as we go, but in the beginning, we may need to make some decisions about how exactly we’re gonna spend our time. This is where we translate our why into the realities and conventions of language acquisition. Have a look at the following motivations that a bunch of different people have for learning a language. Which areas could these people focus on, and which areas could they possibly leave out of their learning journey?

  • I’m moving to Japan for a year. I want to be able to listen and speak, but I’m not sure how long I’ll stay there, so I don’t want to commit to learning Japanese characters just yet.
  • I just moved to Columbia and I need to be buying stuff from the supermarket in Spanish in two months.
  • I just got engaged to my Russian boyfriend. I want to learn the language in order to be able to interact with his family by the time we get married.
  • I’m immigrating to Sweden with my family and I want to learn every aspect of the language.
  • I just wanna learn ten phrases to help me get around Egypt while I’m there on holiday.
  • I only need the language to help me with my career.
  • I love foreign films and just want to enjoy them more in the language, so I don’t necessarily need to speak or write.

In the examples above, a lot of the people would be able to leave certain parts of the language out of their learning, at least initially, and focus their limited time and energy where they need it most. Languages like Chinese, Arabic and others have an additional Writing aspect that requires much more energy than their Latin-based counterparts. If, for instance, our goal is Speaking quickly, we need to practice speaking and pronunciation. And some of us may need to work on the non-language related parts of our personality: getting out of our comfort zone, talking to strangers, making mistakes, getting over any self-consciousness or shyness.

Having focus areas are beneficial because they allow us to leave certain aspects that we don’t need out of the equation. This helps us achieve results in an initial area that we want to prioritize. This success will, in turn, do wonders for our confidence and belief. And from these peaks, we can scale others.


5- How can I make this interesting?

Just because we have solid habits that we’re executing daily, even when we’re not particularly feeling super motivated, doesn’t mean we can’t make the process fun and interesting. To do this, we need self-awareness and creativity. This is where we connect our learning to our personalities. Only we know ourselves well enough to know what interests us, so the best methods are often the ones we think up ourselves. With that said, millions of people before us have learned the language successfully, so we can explore what’s out there and find out how other people keep their learning interesting.

6- Find your Tribe

A learning community that we’re going to rely on for expertize and support is a critical component of the process. We want to draw experience from the people who have already learned languages successfully. This community includes language partners, teachers, polyglots, successful learners, experts on language acquisition, and people who speak the language. We don’t need to know these people in person. The internet is a treasure-trove of experience that we can harness. From this tribe of fellow learners, mentors and experts, we’re gonna discover invaluable tactics, resources, and personal experiences to guide us along our journey.


7- Rewind & Fast-Forward

The more we make progress with the language, the more we will have accumulated. That stash of knowledge needs to be consolidated until it becomes a part of us. In the Elementary phase, it’s tempting to want to rush ahead to Intermediate and Advanced content. Don’t. We must exercise restraint, patience, and discipline because we’re aiming for a strong foundation in the language. Strong foundation = confidence. Reviewing is critical. It allows us to strengthen our pronunciation, understand a grammatical concept better, and remember words we haven’t used in a while. Sometimes we have to go back to go forward.

With that said – just like in the rest of life – language learning has its paradoxes too. We do also want and need to skip ahead from time to time, in small doses. Once we have a good foundation in the language, we can find extra challenges from time to time. Overall, we should lean much more towards learning and consolidating the foundation in the beginning. As our level improves, we can let go a little bit and raise the difficulty level. This is a balance we’ll learn to manage over time.


8- Patience & Persistence

Language learning can sometimes feel frustratingly slow, especially when we’re just starting out. We have to remind ourselves that what we put in is what we’re ultimately gonna get out – even if it may not be happening immediately. We have to stay the course and be consistent. Finding ways to enjoy the process, and not focusing so much on the outcome, can help us maintain our sanity during these moments of impatience.


9- Sharpen the Saw

There will come a time when we need to press pause and review the process. We want to reflect on our focus areas, tactics, our habits, the quality of our support network, as well as achievements and areas for development. This is also the time to focus on improving our understanding of learning how to learn: read some articles online from language experts, listen to interviews with polyglots and successful language learners, tap into our tribe and see what we can learn. During these moments of reflection, we can look back and celebrate even the smallest achievements. Then, we need to pick out a few things from the reflection process that we’d like to work on improving, get back to the grind and apply them to our daily habits.


Outro: Conquer Yourself

Learning a language successfully involves the same timeless qualities involved in learning anything well. Being clear about why we are doing something. Overcoming mental barriers by busting any common myths that are out there. Developing positive habits that will allow us to learn consistently. Focusing our energy on certain elements that are relevant for us. Keeping things interesting. Tapping into a support network. Developing a strong foundation and reviewing what we have learned. Being patient and persistent. And making time to press pause and reflect on the process. We wish you all the best on your learning journey.