As an introvert, it has been difficult for me to learn languages because the fastest way to learn a new language is to constantly listen to and talk to native speakers. However, it is not impossible to learn a language on your own and for very little money. There are tons of resources out there, many of which are free.
I have studied many languages, most through college, some through community centers and others completely on my own. The following are points that I think are important in language learning and will help you focus your studies.
Each language uses a slightly different collection of sounds even if they may be written in a way that makes them look the same as English. Spend some time learning and practicing the sounds before you begin learning words. Native pronunciation is not necessary but being intelligible is important. This is far more critical than the cursory 5 minutes that most teachers spend on it.
You can find resources by searching for pronunciation. Pictures of the tongue can also be helpful so that you know how to make the sounds. See the example below from Chinese pod.
Here are some examples of what to look for:
If you are curious about phonetics, check out the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). The IPA is a classification of all the sounds humans can make with their mouths and throat. What is remarkable is how many sounds can be made with the lips, tongue and glottis in the mouth cavity. The chart below shows the sounds sorted on their location in the mouth.
Learning languages is not hard (our brains are built to learn language!) but it is like exercising, you have to be consistent to see progress and you will see more progress the more time you are able to devote to it. A few times a week should keep your skills from deteriorating. A half hour to an hour a day will help you progress but slowly. The more you can add in to your day, the more improvement you will see. If you only have a half hour, practice listening and speaking. If you have an hour, add in some reading, writing and vocabulary. Start with the most frequently used words in the language. If you have time beyond that, spend it listening.
Here are some examples of what to look for in vocabulary lists:
Throwing yourself into this new world will give you the fastest returns on language learning. Find ways to add your target language to every part of your life. Label items around your house. Listen to foreign music. Read news or books. Listen to podcasts and radio programs. Watch movies and TV shows. The more you can fit the language into your daily life, the more you will progress. All Japanese All the Time suggests that you listen to 10,000 hours of the target language to improve your listening ability.
Ice Fantasy: A show in Mandarin that I am watching now.
- Listening/Speaking Practice
This is probably the most essential practice you can do when learning. In order to function in another language, you need to be able to both listen and respond when people talk to you. Practice will also help you get used to the rhythm and cadence of the language, how to stress sentences, and how to shape your mouth around difficult words. Really focus your practice around using sentences and not just memorizing lists of words.
My favorite resources:
- 20-30 minute audio language lessons – I really like Pimsleur, but Rosetta Stone and Berlioz would work as well. I don’t think the 5 minute lessons give you as comprehensive of a learning experience. Pimsleur and others teach you conversational sentences and have you improvise answers back. They also periodically refresh old vocabulary to check what you’ve forgotten. Vocabulary is limited but once you get through 2 levels, you are ready to go off on your own. A limitation is there really is not much of a written component so you will have to supplement these programs. Pimsleur can be found for free at most libraries. There are also a wide variety of language learning podcasts.
- Movies or TV shows without the subtitles – You can find foreign language movies on many streaming services as well as in your local library. The nice thing about movies is that they provide visual cues for the audio so you have some sense of what is going on even if your level is very low. Also you can learn things about the culture and hear language as it is actually used.
- Podcasts or radio shows – Apps like Podcast Addict or the iTunes store can get you started finding podcasts or radio shows completely in your target language. Audio only can be more challenging than movies or TV shows because you don’t get nonverbal cues.
- Writing/Reading practice
Much of writing/reading practice will depend on your goals with the language. If you plan to visit a country where your target language is spoken, you will need to learn how to read. Otherwise it will be quite painful finding your way around, purchasing things or ordering at a restaurant. If you want to write or translate in a foreign language, you should include writing/reading practice from the very beginning of your studies. Additionally languages that have different scripts will require much more effort.
My favorite resources:
- Flashcards – There are innumerable phone apps now that function basically as flashcards. But you can also use the classic notecard for practice. Be sure that you practice both being able to identify the foreign word and be able to translate to the foreign word (i.e., use both sides of the flashcard as practice). Keep a notebook for your vocabulary.
- Reading manga, comic books or kids’ books – These making reading practice more fun and the pictures are helpful. These can be found at the library, phone apps or on Amazon.
- Penmanship flash websites – An example for Mandarin is https://www.mdbg.net/chinese/dictionary. These websites will show you how to draw in different scripts. If your language is not in Latin, I would recommend you spend some time here (e.g. Cyrillic, Chinese, Arabic, Indic, among others).
- Keep a journal – Writing a few sentences each day will challenge your vocabulary but also help you focus on grammar. Additionally, since you have time to write, it’s not on the spot and improvised like conversation, you have more time to think about what you want to say.
- Cultural connection
I’ve found that if I am interested in the culture of a particular country, I have much more motivation to learn the language. Use this to your advantage. Get addicted to foreign TV shows. Plan travel. Read books and movies. Celebrate holidays. Learn about idioms and gestures. All these things will help you to really enjoy learning and give you more purpose as well.
- Don’t be a forever beginner
There are tons of free and not so free resources out there but don’t let them overwhelm you. Get up to a reasonable proficiency as fast as possible and then you really just need to be using native resources. Listen and read. You can start with stuff meant for children but don’t waste all your time on just bouncing from one 5 minute lesson to another. You won’t know everything and that’s ok but at some point, get rid of the training wheels and get into native level resources.
- Before you start, get pronunciation down
- Language practice should be done daily
- Include your target language in your life as much as possible
- Practice listening, speaking, reading and writing for true mastery – time devoted to listening will likely be the best time spent
- Get excited about the culture to amp up your motivation
- Jump in the deep end. You don’t need to understand 100% or even 50% to learn
Pimsleur – language learning lessons for many languages
Memrise – a fun flashcard app
Duo Lingo – a very popular language learning app
All Japanese all the Time – discussions on how to learn languages
Fluent in 3 Months – tips and tricks from a guy who has learned many different languages to fluency
Hello Lingo – converse with native speakers