It’s hard to learn a foreign language. No argument there.
But I think it seems so difficult because it’s open-ended. The activities involved are not too hard, but without guidance you can easily run into a wall.
Experienced language learners can begin speaking only days after they start learning. Their secret? By learning one new language, you gain a clarity about which activities are valuable.
In this article, I’ll lay out eight hard-learned tricks to find success when learning a language.
Why listen to me? I think about language learning for nearly the entirety of my workweek.
Yes, I self-taught myself Japanese, studied German for four years in high school, and am currently working on Dutch. But most of my experience comes from my day job. I’m the head of software products at Innovative Language Learning. I'm constantly observing how students use our program and researching how to improve their rate of success. Language learning has been my professional life for over 10 years.
1. Don’t aim for fluency
Many learners see language learning as a journey with one endpoint: fluency. I hear these sorts of questions:
“How long does it take to get fluent?”
“Are you fluent in Japanese yet?”
“I keep studying but I can’t become fluent!”
In all of these cases my reaction is the same: what does “fluent” even mean?
Imagine “fluent you” for a second. What are you doing?
Perhaps you’re chatting up a waiter in a Parisian cafe.
Perhaps you’re giving a presentation in smooth Mandarin.
Perhaps you’re dazzling a K-Pop idol with a witty Korean joke.
Hey, those sound like great goals. Let’s use those!
I hate the term “fluency” because it doesn’t mean anything anymore. It’s this hand-wavy term that represents complete mastery of the language.
The dictionary says fluency is “the ability to express oneself easily and articulately.” But now we argue: what is sufficiently articulate? how easy is sufficiently easy?
It’s not personal, it’s not measurable, it’s not actionable, it’s not possible.
Two things happen when you say that your language goal is to get fluent:
First, you’re saying that you want to know everything there is to know about the language. Noble, but multiply the time you can expect to spend by ten.
Second, you can expect a very frustrating and joyless slag. This pathway is super unrewarding. The finish line isn’t just far away—it doesn’t exist. If you define fluency as never encountering unfamiliar words, then baby, you aren’t even fluent in English yet.
Instead take your image of fluency and turn it into concrete, realistic goals.
“I want to be able to order in French at restaurants.”
“I want to be able to explain my business plan in Chinese.”
“I want to be able to make people laugh in Korean.”
Notice how these goals give you instant focus for the path ahead. No more “This is a pen.” lessons for you! Because you have limited your scope, you can actually accomplish these goals within a month or so. Really!
And don’t act like you’re “giving up” on fluency. Any progress you make is good. Any progress gets you closer to knowing everything. But by setting smaller goals, you’ll get a sense of focus and accomplishment that will provide excitement and motivation throughout the journey.
2. Start with high-value words
I can teach you a new vocabulary word in 15 seconds.
“Mayor” in German is “burgermeister.” Imagine a mayor, wearing a sash, skillfully cooking burgers for his entire town. The mayor is a veritable burger meister.
But then you take a step back, crane your neck to look up, way up at the mountain of vocabulary you have yet to learn. Thousands, tens of thousands of words, all with their own pronunciations, conjugations, nuances, and genders!
Ok, Mr. Language Hacks. How to get out of this one?
A dictionary might contain hundreds of thousands of words. But open to a random entry and chances are it’s a word you don’t use all that much. I’m talking words like banish, nylon, and redundancy.
Nice words. Useful when you need them. But how many times did you use them in the last week? The last month? The last year?
It turns out that there are many words that we seldom use. Burgermeister probably fits into that category. But on the other hand, there are a few words that we use a ton. Words like work, go, eat, person, hot, big, beer… In fact, if you knew the most common 1000 words in a language, you would recognize 75% of the words you read.
Sounds like a great shortcut! But how do you know what the most important words are? They can be found online easily. One free resource is Gabriel Wyner of Fluent Forever, who has compiled 625 high-value words to learn in any language. Obviously each language is different—it’s critical to know the word for rice in Japanese but not so much in German—but concepts like restaurant, hungry, and delicious are universal. For a more rigorous resource, try the frequency dictionaries by Routledge.
Your first steps into a new language are also your most uncertain ones. By focusing on commonly-used words, you’ll start to see and hear them frequently. It’s a highly motivating and rewarding way to start.
3. Have real conversations as soon as possible
“I’m not ready yet!”
I know, I know.
You want to your first conversation with a native speaker to be poetry. You want to knock their socks off. You want to hear stunned silence as they try to reconcile how long you’ve been studying with how amazing you sound.
It’s a losing strategy.
We want to seem smart. We don’t want to show our weaknesses. We don’t want to admit that we haven’t figured it out yet. It’s called “being human.”
But this tendency works in direct opposition to your language success. Babbling your way through a disaster of a conversation will destroy your ego, but supercharge your language ability.
Why? Because humans learn better from failure and embarrassment than they do from a sterile classroom environment.
Think back to being a toddler, touching every object in the house. You see a pretty glowing orange ring on the counter. You reach out to touch it...
Nothing teaches you not to touch a hot stove better than touching a hot stove. The negative reinforcement is burned into your mind—and into your fingers! More than just a will to learn is at work to teach you this lesson.
It’s not so different when you’re staring down the barrel of a native speaker. They ask a question. You hunt for the answer. You know you know the word, but can’t conjure it up. As you try to remember, you notice their waiting eyes and feel the time stretch. You have to answer! What’s the word?
When you forget or misuse a word in front of a native speaker, the embarrassment will sear into your mind like a brand. Every time you come across that word in the future, you will remember the experience.
Painful? Yes. But you’ll learn like crazy.
I don’t actually condone hunting for native speakers on the street and subjecting them to terrible conversations. Instead, make use of the resources out there for conversation practice.
You can connect with freelance language teachers at Verbling and Italki. Or get a language tutor to chat with at Innovative Language. (Yes, the same Innovative Language I work for. I don’t get anything if you use it.)
These are native speakers who know that you’re beginning and expect that you’re not perfect. No matter how you feel about making mistakes, they don’t think you’re dumb for trying. A patient conversation partner is an amazing resource.
Even in this safe space, the emotional gains you’ll get from jumping into conversation are massive. Embrace feeling silly for the short term and you’ll start feeling awesome much sooner.
4. Create your own immersion
One of the biggest myths people spread is that you need to fly to a far-off land really learn a language. The theory goes that if you immerse yourself in another country, you will be forced to use the language 24/7. Your progress will skyrocket and you’ll arrive home as fluent as a native speaker.
But there’s one really, really big problem with that theory.
It's really easy to cheat your way out of immersion.
I’ve lived over six years in Japan and seen this same story play out over and over. Expats move to the country, figure out how to order food, and then shrewdly avoid learning anything else. I’ve met Americans who managed to live in Tokyo for 20 years without only a few survival phrases.
Even at a Japanese language school, which is theoretically stocked with highly-motivated people, me and my American classmates found it extremely easy to stay within an English bubble, spending our free time together or online. Some of us managed to finish our semester without much progress at all.
This is not to disparage those people. Living abroad is a highly-stressful situation. When you get knocked down a few pegs on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs it’s easy for your language learning ambitions to slide. But it illustrates how “immersion” is more of a state of mind than a geographic reality.
Don’t cancel your plans to travel, but at the same time don’t treat it like a requirement—or assume that it will help.
You can get the same benefits of immersion at home with some clever tactics.
Change your computer or smart phone’s language
Even performing common actions will force you to learn certain words.
narrate your actions in the language as you perform them
We talk a lot about what we did, do, or are going to do. That doesn’t change in a new language. Narrate what you’re doing throughout the day (in your head or out loud) and use it as a trigger to look up any words or grammar patterns you need.
Read or watch content in your target language
You no longer need to move to read or watch what native speakers do. Find a news website or YouTube channel in the language you’re studying. I don’t believe in learning by osmosis (learn while you sleep!) but constant exposure to natural language is one of the major benefits of being in a foreign country.
Communicate with native speakers
All you need is the internet to have meaningful conversations with native speakers. Find chat rooms, Discord servers, or online games with native speakers. And you always have paid options for some 1-on-1 conversation lessons.
5. Pay money to save yourself time
This is the golden age of free online resources. Frugal learners can find everything they need to study a language online without paying a cent.
I know that for some, money is extremely tight and expensive resources are just out of the question. But we have a really bad habit of overestimating the value of our money and underestimating the value of our time.
Even free resources have a cost. That cost is your time.
A high-quality textbook or grammar reference can give you step-by-step guidance on how to approach your language. This doesn’t need to cost more than $30.
A tutor can catch your mistakes early, give you personalized guidance, and answer your questions directly. You can have a personal tutor for as little as $23/month.
You should still use free resources. They’re free! And a lot of them are great! But a quality resource can prevent you from wasting a lot of time in the long run.
Imagine a machine in your living room. You insert money and time stops for an hour. You can do whatever you want with that hour—work on a project, spend time with your family or friends, play video games, take a nap...
How much would you pay to operate that machine? $5? $10? $50?
Your answer reflects how much money an hour of time is worth to you. Even if you would only pay $7.50 to save an hour—minimum wage—a $30 textbook only needs to save you four hours to pay for itself. A good one will certainly save you much more.
You can get away without paying for classes at an expensive language school. You don’t need a library of language books. And physical dictionaries—paper or electronic—are not enough of an improvement on free resources to justify their cost.
But there are fantastic paid resources out there. Don’t get distracted by the list of features. Ask yourself how much time it will save you. You will most likely give up less than you receive.
6. Practice thinking in the language
Another expectation we place on “when we get fluent” is thinking in the language. We imagine a time when the language becomes so natural that we even begin to dream in it.
Thinking in a foreign language is really about speed. If you are constantly translating things in your head—that is, if you maintain an “English orientation”—your mind must go through a mental obstacle course each time you are asked a question.
If you’re asked “ichi tasu hachi wa nan desu ka?”, someone with an English orientation would have to think.
Ichi means one…
Tasu means plus…
Hachi means eight
Wa nan desu ka means “is what?”
So, what is one plus eight?
Nine is kyuu.
Someone who can think in a foreign language hears Ichi tasu hachi wa nan desu ka?, does the simple math, and replies “Kyuu!”
Starting out in a language, responding so quickly can seem like the stuff of legend. Maybe someday, but for now we must rely on English.
But thinking in another language is a practiced skill like anything else. If you don’t practice, you won’t get good at it. It’s as simple as that.
So how do you actually do it?
Say you encounter a new German word: Frühstück.
If you look that up in the dictionary, you’ll get the sterile English translation of “breakfast”. Great. Frühstück means breakfast. Next.
What if instead, you typed Frühstück into a Google Image Search. What you’d find is a wealth of images. Not only do these images clearly communicate the concept of “breakfast” without the crutch of English, they are images of true, German breakfasts.
You gain something that you feel rather than translate. You’ll notice how German breakfast staples are subtly different from the typical American “breakfast”. Now when you hear Frühstück, those collections of images can come to mind. Not your usual order of bacon and eggs, but this…
Web searches are a fantastic resource to get the overall impression of a word. It’s particularly useful for concepts which don’t have a neat English equivalent. You could learn that a koto is a “13-stringed Japanese zither”. Or you could plug it into Google Images to see how it looks. Better yet, search it on YouTube and hear how it sounds.
It’s a much more three-dimensional and complete explanation of that word, and there’s no longer any need for it be translated into an English word in your head.
Guess what? You just thought in a foreign language.
7. Embrace spaced repetition for reviewing
Language learning is essentially the process of committing many small things to memory.
If you just cram everything into your brain and hope for the best, you’re going to be disappointed with the results. We forget about 70% of what we learn within a few days. Are you ok with that?
I’m not! I’m very uncomfortable with the idea of spending time learning something only to forget it days later. Worst yet, there’s no alert when you’ve forgotten something. You just go to access it one day and find nothing but a hazy recollection. Hmm, I remember learning this at some point...
Stop the bleeding. Add everything new you learn to a flashcards system. Yes, you will have to review your flashcards frequently. But in return you can remember 100% of what you learn. 100%!
Once you experience the joy of tracking everything you learn—and catching it before it falls out of your brain—you’ll want to use it for much more than vocabulary words.
Use it for conjugation rules, sentence patterns, grammar points, interesting facts, cultural knwoledge… You can even put mistakes you make into your flashcards so that you can be sure never to make the same mistake twice.
Spaced repetition is near magical in its power if you trust the system. Read more about spaced repetition here.
8. Do your own thing
Take a step back.
Why are you learning a language? What goal did you set for yourself? (And don’t say “fluency”!)
The fact is we’re all individuals, but we follow paths set out for us by teachers, textbooks, and apps. Those resources don’t know us. They use generalized goals like CEFR levels, standardized tests, or an arbitrary list of grammar and vocabulary. “If it’s good enough for most people, it’s good enough for you.”
My #1 piece of advice is this: never forget that the true result of learning a language is you—in another language.
Think about that. You are an individual. You use the English language in a way nobody else does in the world. Perhaps you love using metaphors. Or you have a dry sense of humor. Or you like to burst into song. There are so many things about your personality, your interests, your worldview, you that is different from everybody else.
So if you haven’t figured out a language goal yet, let me offer one: learn how to be yourself in a foreign language.
Ignore what anybody says about when it’s “appropriate” to learn certain words, phrases, or patterns. If discussing, expressing, or doing something is important to who you are and what you like to do, waste no time in learning that.
Learn to rap in Finnish.
Learn to tell dirty jokes in German.
Learn to play Dungeons & Dragons in Korean.
Learn to binge watch Chinese soap operas.
Skip entire chapters of your textbook. Ask your tutor about a super-advanced topic. Pick and choose the topics that you care about.
Because what happens if you follow the textbook, study the approved vocabulary lists, and only learn what someone else tells you?
You get a solid language base. And an empty personality.
If you’re going to put effort into learning language, make certain that you’re still you when you come out the other side.
Because the worst thing to have lost in translation… is yourself.