OPINION: How to Actually Learn a Language

Miscellaneous language learning books. Photo by Cassandra Uchida.

Most people associate learning a language with boring high school classes, grammar drills, or a special talent that they just do not think they have. But you can learn a new language without any of these. 

I have been teaching myself foreign languages as a hobby since 2013; I speak Japanese at an advanced level, conversational Korean, and I could survive in about three other languages if needed. I have spent countless years trying new learning methods, online programs, and seeing how others learn. 

Throughout all this, I have found there are two core requirements that you need to successfully learn a language: True personal interest and persistence. Anything else is secondary. 

It does not matter if you have talent, immersion in another country, or the most advanced language learning programs and classes in the world. If you do not cultivate a personal connection to the language that keeps you coming back, you will likely give up or have a lot of difficulty learning. 

To make a language personal and important to you means building it into your day-to-day life.  

Several of us listen to music and watch TV every day, so I believe before even beginning learning you need to have a lot of foreign-language entertainment. Explore music and performers, TV shows and movies, books and comics. This exposes you to the language and culture and creates a personalized interest, even if it is through English subtitles or translation. 

Cultivating an interest is about 60% of the battle; the other 40% is sticking with it. I am not going to lie and say that language learning is not difficult at times. It’s a large, time-consuming commitment, and every large commitment comes with hurdles.  

Learning a language often comes with having to face your insecurities in social and learning skills. But overcoming those difficulties makes it even more rewarding and develops a sense of personal pride in yourself that is hard to explain to anyone who has not also done it. 

In the words of the polyglot Kató Lomb, “We should learn languages because language is the only thing worth knowing even poorly.” 

To start, you need to have challenging but attainable goals. If your goals are too ambitious, you will get burnt out and upset with yourself. If your goals are too vague or easy, you will have a hard time seeing progress and feel like you will never know enough. 

First, decide on what skills you want the most. If you are more extroverted and enjoy socializing, it would be best to focus on speaking and listening from the start. If you are more introverted and want to understand the media you consume, it is better to focus on listening and reading. 

Next, you want to find an accomplished language learner to look up to. There are a lot of polyglots and language learners who share their experiences and tips online. All have different goals and experiences that will help you when you get discouraged. 

Some major polyglots who have YouTube channels and websites worth checking out are Lindie Botes, Luca Lampariello, Benny Lewis, Alex Rawlings, Steve Kaufmann, and Moses McCormick. Sadly, Moses passed away in 2021, but his YouTube videos and Foreign Language Roadrunning method remain a major guidepost for language learners around the world. 

After you choose a goal and someone to follow, you need to choose educational resources. I recommend choosing only one or two apps, books, or programs to stick with in the beginning.  

Google is a very important tool for finding learning resources. I recommend searching “Best free resources to learn (language),” then looking through blog posts and forums that come up. Many of the best resources are free or under $15; programs like Pimsleur and Rosetta Stone are usually overpriced and ineffective. Forums tend to highlight many resources and their respective pros and cons.  

Finally, after choosing a resource to learn with, it would be best to learn about learning techniques. You will have to study grammar and vocabulary at some point, but having learning hacks makes it a lot easier. Some techniques I recommend looking into from the beginning are comprehensible input, Spaced Repetition learning (SRS), and mnemonics. 

For an overview of some of the best learning techniques, I highly recommend the TEDx Talk “How to Learn Any Language in Six Months” by Chris Lonsdale. 

If you would like more language learning tips and tutoring or need help finding resources, please contact me at cass.m.uchida@gmail.com.  

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