Are you wondering how to learn a language by yourself? Or finding the best way to learn a language?
Then you have come to the right place.
First, let me tell you my story about learning Spanish so that you know that you can learn a language on your own.
Before traveling to Chile, I couldn’t speak Spanish and wondered how I was going to survive in a predominantly Spanish continent. I assumed that Latin Americans would make my life easy by talking with me in English.
But neither the Latinos nor the foreigners living in Chile spoke English, at least not as much as I expected. That is when I realized that I had to learn Spanish. Reality hit me hard, and I prayed for survival.
Learning Spanish in Chile, a country notorious for bad Spanish, wasn’t easy. I struggled to make my way around Chile from morning until night. I couldn’t understand the conversations on the dining table and longed to participate. I missed cracking jokes. I wanted to cry.
Words fell on my ears, but my brain couldn’t comprehend them.
Rather than pitying myself, I decided that I had to learn enough Spanish so that I can understand the people around me and reply. And that is what I did. From speaking incorrect Spanish unabashedly to practicing Spanish grammar with workbooks, I tried all ways to learn a language.
Fast forwards a few weeks, I started speaking Spanish fluently. I was still a foreigner in Chile, but as I began to understand more Spanish, I became a part of the Chilean host family. We woke up, greeted each other by kissing both cheeks, ate toast with avocados and Nescafe coffee, and talked about life at supper or the evening Once.
I had a second home now just because I could converse in Spanish.
Related read: Most Common Spanish phrases that you would need to travel in South America.
Now when you know that you can teach yourself a language, let us come to the next question.
Why should you learn a foreign language?
Language is the brain and heart of every community. If you want to become a part of another culture and assimilate with people at the other end of the world, you will have to converse in their language else you wouldn’t understand their lives and would always remain a foreigner.
To survive or to feel at home anywhere, invest time in learning a foreign language.
If you have the right motivation, you can learn a language on your own.
What is language learning? Is it hard to learn a new language?
Language is not only its words and grammar. Language consists of slang, local dialects, the speed and rhythm with which its spoken, abbreviations, and idioms which people use. Understanding all these dimensions of a language in addition to learning its vocabulary and speaking the right words is what learning a language means.
But now you can imagine that learning a language by yourself can be hard.
Teaching myself Spanish was a challenging task. I studied Spanish every day and talked to locals so that I could speak the language colloquially.
When people heard me converse in Spanish after a few months of my stay in Latin America, they thought that I had been speaking for years and refused to believe that I did not speak Spanish before traveling to the continent. From blankly watching my Chilean friends’ faces to making the same friends laugh and run behind me as I pulled their legs in Spanish, I went through an incredible language learning journey.
In this “how to learn a foreign language on your own” guide, I list all the best ways to learn a new language that I have collected from my personal experience of mastering Spanish in a few weeks. I promise that my language learning tips will help, but you would need a motivation to learn a language for it is not an easy task.
The Internet has a plethora of language learning apps and tutorials. Memrise is one of my favorite apps to learn and play around with a new language. Irrespective of which ones you pick, use these ways to learn a foreign language.
Let’s get you started with a new language.
(Here is a downloadable pdf of this guide in case you wish to print it.)
My 24 best tips for learning a new language by yourself.
1. Find a native speaker of the language
This is the first step of how to learn any language.
The need to speak the language is the biggest push to learn another language. I could speak Spanish in a few weeks because I was surrounded by people who only spoke Spanish and I had to talk to them. But I cannot still talk in Kannada, the local language of Bangalore, because almost everyone in Karnataka speaks Hindi or English.
If you have to talk to a native speaker, you will not only have a necessity to speak the target language, but you will also have access to someone who knows the language thoroughly. Talking to a native speaker will make you think in the language you want to learn.
But how will you find a native speaker?
Many people, like you, want to learn new languages, and you can have a language exchange with these language aspirants. You can easily find a native of the target language with one of the many free or budget-friendly online language learning applications and websites.
Some of the sites which offer language exchanges are iTalki, My Language exchange, Couch Surfing(look for coffee and conversation in the same city), The Mixxer, Polyglot club, LingoGlobe, SprachDuo, and Verbling.
Most of these language learning websites let you connect with learners on the go, some allow scheduling a session, and a few even have other language learning resources.
You can also find people who want to learn the same language in meetups in your city or on social media. Use Skype or any other voice over call media and get started.
For the rest of the article let us assume that you are either in the country of the target language or you can speak to at least one native speaker of that language regularly.
2. Watch and listen to the native speaker speaking the target language
When I started learning Spanish, I watched my Latin-American friends carefully whenever they spoke. At one point, they even got conscious of my constant staring. But by observing the way they spoke Spanish or pronounced certain words, I absorbed the nuances of South-American Spanish, without even knowing.
Pay attention to how people greet each other, how do they wish good morning and goodbye, what do they say when they overeat or are late for a party, the speed with which they speak, the sounds they make, et cetera.
Listen and observe, as much as you can. Soon you would start speaking at least some words of the language you want to learn with the correct accent and sounds.
3. Start speaking the foreign language
If you ask me what is the best way to learn a new language, I will tell you to start speaking in the language as soon as you can.
Start speaking the language irrespective of incorrect grammar, incomplete sentences, missing articles, and an awkward accent. Don’t be embarrassed or hide behind the convenience of not knowing the foreign language.
If you don’t have anyone to listen to you, just record an audio message and play it later for your language partner.
Once you overcome the inertia against speaking a new language, you are on the right steps to learning a language.
4. Use facial expressions, point at objects, and act with hands if you don’t find the right words
Sometimes when I had finished speaking a Spanish sentence, I used to create sinusoidal waves going to the left with my hands. The waves signified that what I said had happened in the past, for I didn’t know the past tenses in Spanish until then.
Either you can blankly stare or pick up a pen to show that you need stationery. If you want to ask your language partner if he had food, find the right sign language.
You get the idea.
Design your own hand movements and facial expressions to add to the broken conversation. Your gestures will aid the conversation, and the person with whom you are speaking would be more willing to help you learn the language.
5. If you want to learn a language quickly, you can’t be shy
Draw those curtains of shame. You would never learn otherwise.
I knew foreign volunteers in Chile who could not speak Spanish even by the end of our four months English teaching program as they were too shy to say anything beyond a hola. You have to face the fear of speaking incorrectly and have to keep aside the embarrassment to learn a language fast.
Remember — even if you don’t speak, people know that you don’t know their language. Then what are you hesitant about?
Related Read: 15 things we can care less about
6. Label objects with their names in the language you are learning
Dr. Kenneth Higbee, memory expert and author of the book Your Memory: How It Works and How to Improve It, tells: It is the disorganization in your mind, not the amount of material, that hinders memory.
Label all your home and office objects that you can put a sticker on. When you will look at the new words frequently, they will get added to your vocabulary. You can buy the labels of any language online. Here are some Spanish ones that I really liked.
Label objects, and notice yourself stutter how you forgot huevos (eggs) while walking back home from work.
7. Practice the basic grammar rules from a grammar book — One of the crucial steps to learn a new language
My English-teaching volunteer program gave me a Spanish workbook which expedited my Spanish learning process. Apart from explaining the basic grammar of Spanish, the book also listed easily confused words, false friends, and incorrectly used verbs.
I practiced grammar exercises and discussed them with friends every day. By reading and writing the words and resolving my doubts with the native speakers, I laid a strong Spanish foundation.
Find a grammar book of the language you are studying. Then start practicing grammar rules from it one by one. Live with present tense, then accept past, and then prepare for the future. Explore a few regular and irregular verbs every day. Learn to modify the tense form of verbs.
Buy a practice book and study like a child. When you write a word or a sentence correctly in five attempts, the chances of you getting it wrong would be close to zero. You will be able to think the right tense for the verb while speaking because you had practiced the tenses and their rules.
8. Clear your doubts
Whenever I thought my host mother was going to thrash me for confusing between the Spanish words for snowy (nevado) and clouded (nublado), she explained even better. People have much more patience than we credit them for.
Ask questions from your language exchange partner or in meetups and online forums. Your interest and resilience increase others’ motivation to help you.
9. Watch movies and TV shows in the foreign language you want to learn
— My answer on how to teach yourself a language with fun.
I can’t remember how many telenovelas I watched while I was on my South America travel trip. What was the master plan of the vamp in ‘Te Doy La Vida’, what time was ‘A Corazón Abierto’ telecasted, and what was the wicked lady in ‘La Raina del Sur’ planning to do next were on my fingertips. But also some of the words and phrases the characters spoke and how they spoke them.
Watching the TV shows and the cinema of the target language is not only a way to practice the language, but you can also learn a lot about the culture even before you travel to the country. While having fun, you develop your vocabulary, pick up the colloquial words, gestures, and accents.
As you hear more people speak the language, you also start thinking in the language, thus eventually speaking it and understanding it better. Try some newly-learned phrases on your language-exchange friend and see how she reacts.
10. Understand the concepts of the language rather than learning the phrases
When my Chilean friend said good morning to a school colleague, I learned the phrase and repeated it the next time I met my friend. She laughed. I hadn’t replaced the “he” with “she.”
You can learn the solution to one linear equation in Mathematics but to solve another, you need to know the concept. Don’t memorize the answer; understand the steps. You can then modify the language and use it as per your convenience.
11. Don’t leave even a single chance to practice the language you want to learn — Force yourself to think in the new language.
I recited the recipe of an Indian curry to my host mother because I wanted to learn the utensils’ and spatula names. Our conversation was hilarious.
Watch a Bollywood movie with your target language subtitles. Find a recipe you want to cook in the language you want to learn. Change the language of your phone and computer to the target language. Search for popular podcasts.
The more you have to see and understand the new language, the more you will think in the language.
12. Write in the language — One of the well-proven language learning methods.
Take small notes. Write your dreams. List numbers.
Once you start writing in the target language, you will never forget the words that you wrote down.
13. Listen to Audio lessons of the target language
Almost all the languages have online podcasts to which you can tune into and keep listening. The podcasts are a combination of audio lessons, dialogues, tips, and tricks. I am thinking about purchasing this Spanish one just for fun.
Listening to someone speak to us is sometimes more impactful than reading ourselves.
14. Keep translation applications handy
Google Translate and Spanish Dict were like those emergency phone calls back home that you make when you are cooking paneer butter masala, and you can’t remember whether you add cream before or after adding the tomatoes.
Translation applications are handy while directing a taxi, shopping, or during a conversation. But if you have some free time, you can use the applications to learn new words by translating whatever comes to your mind.
Translation applications aren’t perfect, but they are good to learn the basics of a new language.
15. Know the right order of learning — One of the many secrets on how to learn a language fast.
Before traveling to Latin America, I tried learning Spanish with DuoLingo but the application proved useless. The course started with greetings, a few words from the everyday vocabulary, how are you, and that’s about it. It never came to daily conversations.
The right order of learning is important.
Start learning a language with greetings, then daily routine questions such as did you eat lunch or want a cup of tea — these everyday conversations would ease your way into the language slowly and naturally.
Then come numbers, time, pronouns, introductory phrases, routine verbs such as to be, need, want, say, come, go, have, eat, drink, party, read, learn, forget, watch, work, live, see, sit, sleep, shower, wash, clean.
Relations, surrounding objects, seasons, places, temperature, professions, come next.
Start with less. When I started speaking Spanish, I used to thrust out a string of jumbled words without articles, pronouns, and right tenses. Then I started adding these missing constructors one by one.
Choose an online tutorial or application that respects the order of learning foreign languages. If you are feeling overwhelmed by the complexity of tasks or phrases on the first few days of your learning a new language, you might want to switch to a different application.
I didn’t like DuoLingo, but Memrise seems promising. Here is a complete Spanish step by step book.
16. Read a foreign language book aloud — One of the very under-rated steps of language teaching.
By reading aloud you can practice the sounds, accents, and the pronunciations of the target language. Just pick up a book or an article on the internet and read it loudly as if you are narrating it to someone.
The more you practice speaking words of the new language, the more confident you will be to use the language in public or with your language partner.
17. Write the phonetics of the foreign language words in your native language
I used to write down the phonetics of the Spanish words in Hindi to remember the correct Spanish pronunciation. Even today when I get confused on how to pronounce a Spanish word, I dig into my hilarious notes that only I can understand.
Ask your language exchange partner to enunciate the word for you. You can also listen to the correct pronunciation by playing the Google Translate voice feature or even Memrise tutorials introduce new words in audio formats. Then write down the phonetics in your native language and refer to them whenever you need.
You can learn the correct sounds of the new language if you know the right phonetics.
Helpful read if you are learning Spanish: Important phrases of Spanish with Hindi and English Phonetics
18. Don’t be lazy — Sadly the quickest way to learn a language
Learning a language is a lot of work but extremely rewarding activity.
When you start speaking a foreign language, you have found another culture that you can become part of. As I said before, find the right motivation. And don’t give up.
A helpful read: Tips on making an efficient daily routine
19. Focus on details
In Yoga, we correct ourselves little by little to get the perfect posture.
Similarly, when you start learning another language, you would be far from perfect. But learn from your mistakes. Focus on details to slowly improve your language skills.
Teaching yourself a new language is a process. Notice, listen, think, repeat, write, improve, repeat.
20. Don’t get offended if a native speaker corrects you.
Learning the colloquial nuances of a language is an art. You can only speak a language like its native speakers if you talk to them and let them correct you. But if you get offended, people would not point out your mistakes, and that is the last thing you want.
If you are attentive, you grasp the accent, appropriate words, modifications, speed, and idioms. These amalgamate you with the people. I have seen truck drivers, who let me hitchhike, light up as I referred to them as Caballero (gentlemen). Or women gleaming with pride as I complimented their cheese empanadas with Spanish idioms.
But for colloquial learning, you can’t get angry. Please keep your ego on the side while teaching yourself a language.
Also Read: Why are human relationships important and how to create them
21. Crack jokes to test your progress
If your language partner or meet up friends, laugh at your jokes, you are making progress.
Cracking funny jokes in a foreign language shows that you understand the language and its philosophy.
22. Be patient — Fastest way to learn a language
The appropriate greeting, the accent, and the right grammar won’t come in a few days or even in a few weeks.
We all learn at our own pace. Be easy on yourself, and take a break sometimes. Enjoy the language learning journey for the process is always more important than the result.
23. If you are studying a foreign language, be prepared to feel like an idiot sometimes
Once at a pharmacy in Santiago, I realized that I had not practiced the Spanish words for sanitary napkins. I stood there staring at the pharmacist as if I was trying to recall a complex chemical equation. Believe me; it gets worse.
Don’t think that you are forced to learn a language. Instead, embrace that you are learning a new thing, voluntarily, and have fun with it.
You would pull your hair — more than you imagined. Pour a glass of wine and Netflix.
Or try these fun language learning books along with some short story collections.
24. Conversation. Conversation. Conversation — The most effective way to learn a language
I took a French course in college, but I cannot speak any French as I never practiced it. But I spoke as much Spanish as I could while I was exploring South America, and I speak fluent Spanish even two years later.
Jump at every chance of conversation in the foreign language or create your own reasons.
Your hard work to learn a language would pay off. You would be able to travel the world and work wherever you want to. People would remember your timely jokes and your kind words even years after you have left their country.
Learn a foreign language and get to know some strangers. Good luck.
Download: Remember to download the pdf version of this “How to learn a new language by yourself” guide if you want to read and refer to the guide later.
Further Reading: My incredible journey of learning Spanish in South America
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Do you now know how to learn a language on your own? Feel free to ask your questions in the comments.
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