5 Tips for self-studying a foreign language

In a previous post here at Vagablogging, I wrote about what tools you can use to self-study a language. While your choice of tools will determine the success of your program, your approach to studying can make the learning process easier and more enriching. Here are some things you should keep in mind while you’re studying on your own:

Learn everyday. You don’t necessarily have to take on a full-blown lesson each day, but by spending just a few minutes learning something new, you’ll spend less time reviewing in the future. If considerable time passes between lessons, you can’t learn as fast and whatever you learn will be easy to forget.

Acquiring a new language isn’t just word substitution. You can’t expect to just grab a foreign language dictionary and literally translate English phrases. The syntax, usage, and conjugations among languages vary greatly. There are unique rules for different classes of languages, and you need to know those rules before you can do accurate translations.

Know why you’re learning the language. In my experience, just ticking off a language from a list isn’t motivation enough. Do you want to learn Russian because you’re obsessed about Dostoevsky’s work? Are you interested in speaking Italian because your grandparents came from Umbria? Having a deep motivation can work wonders, since you’ll be inspired to go through even the toughest lessons.

Find a partner. If you can, find someone who wants to learn the same language as you do
Also, you should look for a native speaker to practice with. This shouldn’t be too hard given the web sites, chat rooms, and online communities at your disposal.

Have quantifiable goals. How do you measure your fluency? Will you take a language test? For my self-study program in Spanish, my goal was to have a 10-minute conversation with a native speaker and to translate at least 5 of Pablo Neruda’s poems. Make sure your goals are measurable so that you be certain whether you’ve achieved them or not.

Learning a new language by yourself is never an easy task. It requires constant patience and discipline. But if you keep the above tips in mind, your lessons will feel like steps towards personal fulfillment, rather than a chore you have to check off from your to-do list.

Have you ever self-studied a foreign language? What advice would you give those who are trying it for the first time?

Posted by | Comments (9)  | June 25, 2009
Category: General

9 Responses to “5 Tips for self-studying a foreign language”

  1. Nomadic Matt Says:

    these are great tips Celine!

  2. Andreas Says:

    Well, I have been trying to learn German for a while. I am from Sweden, and from a historical perspective, Swedish is a distant “dialect” of german. It has Germanic roots, at least. I have been living in Austria since 6 months, but I was going back and forth between Sweden and Austria for about two years before that. I thought learning German would be real easy for me, and I was thinking I would kind of absorb the language after a while, but I have succeeded in this passive approach so far. I normally learn new languages easy, but with German it just wouldn’t stick. The main reason I wouldn’t learn it, is because I have been talking English all the time, since most people here understand it. So I took one month’s course in a volkshochschule, a kind of post-gymansium school, which gave me the basic grammatical structure, after that I started to catch up more much faster. And I am now forcing myself to not speak English, anywhere, anytime. So lessons learned: it requires a LOT of practice and even if it comes out all wrong it is better to just try it out.

  3. Andreas Says:

    oops typo, “… but I have NOT succeeded in this passive approach so far.”

  4. Nora Says:

    On my last trip to Southeast Asia, the airline (which had interactive screens on the back of every seat) had a language instruction program among the movies, television shows, and selection of kitschy games.
    On my flight, I learned to count to 1 million in Thai, as well as mastering a few basic phrases. Once on the ground I learned a few more tidbits from locals, and after a week or so I was able to converse and negotiate with vendors solely in Thai. It was great fun!
    So check out ALL the programs available on the seatbacks on planes: you never know what you’ll find.

  5. Caron Margarete Says:

    Celine, great tips and great timing!I was just saying to a friend earlier how hard a time I’m having learning Chinese- even though I live in China! As an English Teacher I’m surrounded by English and all the Chinese want is to speak English! Aaahhhh… so now I’m taking a step out of the English speaking community more often, putting myself in situations that force me to speak natively but I have also begun reviewing my Chinese lessons just before I go to sleep… funny things happen in my subconscious! =) Must add, I love Renato’s tip about listening and running… will be trying that one!

  6. Chris Says:

    Celine, thanks for these tips! I think your advice is right on, and I especially like the idea of having measurable goals. I minored in French in college, so I have the grammatical underpinnings of the language in my remote memory. I had decided to practice my French this summer by participating in a French book club. Since I had decided to practice French, I had also taken advantage of signing up for a free, weekly Spanish class at my church. I may continue this class just to absorb some facts about the Spanish language, but I quickly realized that I can only intently focus on one lanuage at a time. I’ve decided I’m going to put the focus of my energy into my French. I also have a friend is a fluent French speaker who emails me (in French), so that I have to just give it my best shot at responding to her in written French. Another thing I do, to practice and renew my French vocabulary, is to write daily notes to myself in French (e.g., my grocery list, “to do” notes to myself).

  7. Benny the Irish polyglot Says:

    Those are quite the best concise tips I’ve seen!
    I also agree with Renato’s #6 – I combine learning languages with hobbies like making videos and cooking etc.
    I’ll add my own to the mix (I have already successfully learned 7 languages 😉 ) #7: Keep a positive attitude and be confident! This is extremely important because you can feel discouraged when you can barely communicate, and feel like you are making it awkward for the other person. It’s better to have fun, appreciate that you sound silly at first and go with that.
    A very important #8 is: DON’T SPEAK ENGLISH. Even if you apply all of these other methods perfectly, but spend all of your time abroad with expats, only using the language when necessary (asking directions etc.), you won’t actually make much progress. You should convince your English speaking friends to speak the language with you, or if they don’t understand anything and you really do have to hang out (boyfriend/girlfriend etc.) then use as many pleasantries (please, thank you, see you!) as possible in the other language so you are getting into the mix. When we keep switching back to English we lose our momentum in the other language.
    I’m trying to write about learning methods myself (having learned 7 languages). I’m currently on a mission to learn Czech (apparently Europe’s hardest language) in just 3 months!! 😛 Follow my blog to see if I make it and for other language learning tips!
    Thanks 🙂

  8. Italian Learner Says:

    Wow Celline, Really Its a nice post as You are talking about self study. In my opinion it is really very helpful for the children studying foreign language moreover this could be fun also. Great tips and ideas, would like to hear more about this…

  9. waitinginthedark Says:

    Great tips, Celine!
    I would also suggest a few additional possible tricks that can be useful once you have gained a minimum familiarity with the language
    a) read books with original text on the opposite page
    b) watch movies in original version with subtitles
    c) use holidays to practice, e.g. by joining a group/tour operator of the country/language you are learning instead of one of your native country. I did this in Venezuela. Instead of travelling with Italians, I went all the time around with Venezuelan. A great opportunity to practice Spanish and to discover something more about the country
    d) read regularly some articles. it wont’ take you more than 15 minutes. chose a topic that you like. gossip is absolutely fine. learning is so more effective if you’re having fun!