How to Learn a Language
By Percival L on June 14, 2023
Learning a language is not much of a joke. Learning two is even less so. And learning any language on your own is absolutely no joke (speaking from personal experience). However, if you persevere and stick with an organized study plan, it is also extremely rewarding; being multilingual enables you to empathize, understand, and communicate with people different from you—an extremely desirable skill for any open-minded citizen.
So how do you go about self-studying a new language? The answer is time—lots of it, in fact. But time is not the only component of a successful study plan; consistency and immersion are just as important. Of course, much of this sounds exceedingly abstract and not very useful right now; thus, in the interest of helping you take your first steps toward polyglotism, I’ll go through a few concrete tips for studying another language.
Lastly, before we begin, bear in mind that these tips are mostly informed by my own experiences. Feel free to disregard anything that doesn’t suit your needs!
Time and Consistency
As I said above, learning a language really is no joke. And if you want to learn quickly, you should be ready to devote a lot of time engaging with the material—one weekly session every Saturday isn’t going to cut it. Ideally, you’ll want to spend some time every day teaching yourself the language, whether that be through books, TV shows, music, or movies. I recommend an average of at least 30 minutes a day; 1 hour would be ideal if you can manage it. If you don’t have time on the weekdays, be prepared to spend more time on the weekends; although “cramming” isn’t quite as effective as consistent practice, it’s still better than nothing at all.
Consistency is really the secret sauce here; you need to stay motivated, particularly during times when it feels impossible to continue sinking time and energy into a difficult language. Hold yourself accountable, and set aside a specific time every day to learn. Letting your friends and family know your goal can be particularly helpful, as they’ll usually ask about your progress and encourage you to keep up the good work.
I understand that this may sound daunting. An hour a day, after all, is quite a lot of time—out of the ~16 hours we are awake, about 7 of those hours are dedicated to school alone, leaving less than 9 hours for eating, hygiene, homework, sports, tutoring, leisure, and more! Unfortunately, there is no simple way around this requirement; when my dad’s colleagues were going through intensive language training, for example, they were expected to spend at least 8 hours a day studying! In fact, they were literally getting paid to learn a language, since they wouldn’t have the time to work otherwise. If you can’t sacrifice the time, you’re going to have to accept diminished returns.
Immersion and Authenticity
Textbooks can only get you so far. Language is a form of communication, not an academic abstraction. Specifically, Youtube videos have really helped me get a grasp on the kind of language native speakers actually use in day-to-day conversations.
In addition, read, read, read! Besides watching videos and having conversations, reading authentic texts (and not textbooks curated for foreigners) is the best way to improve a language. When I lived overseas, it was very difficult to take language lessons and practice talking to people. As such, I grew used to reading as much as I could to build my vocabulary and improve my comprehension skills.
A fun activity is trying to understand the lyrics of foreign songs you like. Read them on your phone, print them out, analyze them, memorize them, etc. Not only will you have fun, but you’ll also learn a new language without even trying! Certainly sounds a lot better than staring at a textbook in a cold classroom for hours on end.
Active Learning and the Danger of Captions
Learning a language is nowhere near as simple as staring at a book and watching the information slowly worm its way into your brain (quite unfortunately). Instead, you’ll need to learn actively. Similar to what tutors do here at Schoolhouse, active learning at home entails actively absorbing the language—ask questions, test yourself, and repeat vocab/phrases/grammar points until you absolutely get them. Challenge yourself to speak in complete sentences rather than scattered phrases, and see if you can translate what you want to say from your native tongue to the language you are learning. And, if possible, keep a notebook filled with vocabulary and grammar you’ve picked up from studying.
To keep yourself motivated, I highly recommend that you use learning a language as an excuse to engage in activities you genuinely enjoy. For example, if you like K-pop and are planning to learn Korean, listen to more K-pop! If you like Japanese period dramas and are learning Japanese, watch more period dramas in Japanese! Or, if you like Spanish opera and study Spanish, go to more opera performances! Learning something isn’t quite as hard if you are having fun at the same time!
I would also like to caution you against using captions and/or subtitles excessively. Although certainly better than dubs, subtitles tend to hinder your learning in the long run; instead of focusing on the language you’re studying, your brain will take shortcuts and simply read the translated text. And most frustrating of all, you still feel like you are learning productively because you are immersing yourself in the language every day.
Paybacks and Rewards
So, what does another language do for you?
Lots, actually. Many of my parents’ colleagues have received better benefits and job assignments solely because they spoke another language. I built connections with other people just because I could speak their language. And at my internship last summer, my language skills unexpectedly came to the rescue when a couple of our customers didn’t speak English.
Growing up in a multicultural family, I’ve always treated language as a way to connect with both sides of my identity. As such, it was a real shame to watch other kids like me give up on a language they used to know due to academic pressure or extracurricular involvement. Being multilingual is not necessarily the flashiest skill, but it certainly is one of the most rewarding.
Resources and Advice
There are a couple of channels on Youtube run by polyglots, including lingosteve, Zoe.languages, Xiaomanyc, and many more. Definitely check them out if you are interested in studying a new language!
Some of our wonderfully talented tutors at Schoolhouse are fluent in multiple languages, too! Keep an eye out for foreign language sessions on the platform if you are interested.
Lastly, remember to treasure the small victories; don’t feel discouraged even when the going gets hard. Particularly once you’ve mastered the basics of a new language, progress can feel very, very slow. Unfortunately, the best you can do to deal with this “language learner’s block” is to simply force yourself past it without giving up hope. Know that you are not alone, and understand that, when you pull through, you’ll find yourself on the other side a wiser person than you were before.
Thank you to Maya B for editing this article!