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How To Learn a New Language by Yourself (and Not Die Trying)

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How to Learn a New Language By Yourself

Imagine the opportunities that could open up for you if you knew another language. With a new language under your belt, you could apply for new job openings internationally, open your business in different and new markets. And if you are an aspiring digital nomad or a nomadic entrepreneur, you could easily live, work, and play in many more places. To be sure, there are some amazing benefits that come to those who find out how to learn a new language. And finding more success and personal gratification is just the tip of that iceberg.

And the great news is, you can learn a new language by yourself. So, that’s what this article will be covering today, some valuable insights on how to learn a new language by yourself without killing yourself, or breaking the bank. With that being said, if you’re ready to learn how, let’s dive in.

How to Learn a New Language By Yourself

Now, I don’t remember a time in my life when I felt more fulfilled and self-satisfied than that unforgettable moment when I realized I could, at long last, watch (and actually understand) Korean movies without subtitles. Mastering a foreign language is, without a doubt, a gratifying experience, that feels even more rewarding when we become our own instructors, work at our own pace and assess our personal learning needs in order to achieve awesome results. However, there is always two sides to a coin, and teaching yourself a new language is challenging, demanding and can quickly turn into a real-life nightmare if it is not approached it the right way.

I am 25 years old, and as of today, I speak 3 languages fluently, aside from my mother tongue: Spanish. I have tried several different approaches to language learning, including self-teaching, and I have come to the following conclusion: it’s absolutely doable, one way or another, but there are certain methods and tricks to do it more efficiently, as well as a few little tips to keep in mind in order to guarantee your learning experience is as smooth and nice as you first envisioned it when you started your journey. And I would like to share my favorites with you today.

1. Forget About The Myths

Perhaps all your life you have strongly agreed with those who say “French is the language of love” and you have always wanted to speak it; or maybe a recurring dream of yours is indulging in all those unsubtitled Mexican Telenovelas, but just when you are ready to grab that dictionary and get stuff done…you remember that you don’t have time! (Myth 1). Not to mention, you also recall you read somewhere that you can’t learn a language if you don’t receive formal classroom instruction (Myth 2) and that to achieve fluency you have to live in a country where the language is spoken (Myth 3).

In my opinion, this is the biggest issue with language learning and the reason why a lot of people give up before they even try: the great deal of misconceptions revolving around it that make the whole thing seem like the most daunting of tasks and almost feel like an impossible mission, even for the motivated mind.

I don’t know about the people that made popular all of these opinions, but I can speak from my personal experience and I can tell you three things:

  1. I learned French as a hobby when I was drowning in school work and tests (which by the way were in Korean). Bottom line: You can always find some time.
  • I never attended a French language school or took French classes. Like I said, it was purely a hobby I loved to engage in every night. Bottom line: You don’t need formal education. I just watched Ratatouille in French maybe more times than I like to admit.
  • I achieved fluency in English when I was 14 years old and I have no recollection of going abroad until I was in University. In fact, I don’t think I ever spoke to a native English speaker until I was 21. Bottom line: Moving to Stockholm to learn Swedish is not required. Yes, it would be awesome, but not mandatory for your Swedish dreams.

Giving importance to all of these myths will only occupy mental space, and you need that mental space in order to memorize all those Chinese characters! Not to mention, it will frustrate you and put you in a negative mental place that in turn will slow down your progress. On the contrary, having a relaxed and serene mind when learning, can boost your performance and help those brain cells build the connections you need more quickly. In fact, there are numerous studies that suggest that a positive mindset can greatly influence a person’s ability to learn and absorb knowledge.

So once again: Forget about the myths. Whether you realize it or not, these misconceptions pile up in your mind and act as a discouraging factor that weakens your motivation. And believe me, when it comes to language learning, motivation is important. You’ll want to stay in a positive mindset to be able to maximize learning.

2. Give Yourself Permission to Make Mistakes

I get it. If you’re like me, no matter how much we hear the words “It’s human to make mistakes”, sometimes it seems that our brains are designed to organize a mental “walk of atonement” (à la Game of Thrones) every time we go wrong. There’s no way my brain cells are going to forget what I did 2 years ago in that Korean restaurant, when I said “Hello” to the waitress instead of “Thank you” when she brought our food to the table; or when I asked for “shoes” in the fruit market instead of “apples”; or when I called my Korean professor “Mr. fish” instead of “Teacher” (In Korean, the word for “teacher” is composed by the same two syllables as the word for “fish”, the only difference is the order of said syllables. So…mess up the order and you’ll end up saying something awkward, like I did).

But the thing about mistakes is that we need them, even if we feel they put us to shame. Mistakes are nothing but life’s way of giving us feedback and we need that input in order to grow, in order to learn. They are scary, for sure, but that’s because in our minds they mean failure, and failure is scary. For this reason, we tend to avoid making mistakes by sticking to those things we know well and staying away from anything that looks foreign or unfamiliar (because the unknown usually means making mistakes, and a lot of them).

But when it comes to language learning, as well as many other things in life, you can’t stay in your “mistake-free” comfort zone. If you want to achieve proficiency, you need to constantly challenge your knowledge, try new things and practice daily. And you better be ready, because practice is usually jam packed with opportunities to make memorable mistakes. So, how about you start to see those so-called “embarrassing moments” as part of the road and try to get used to them? Give yourself permission to make mistakes. If you want to achieve language proficiency: Go ahead and make as many as you can!

And if you’re still finding it hard to let go of the fear of making mistakes, here’s one bonus technique that works wonders for me: Whenever I am afraid of making them, I try to imagine a scenario in which I am the native speaker and a foreign person tries to speak to me in broken Spanish. I guarantee you the last thing in my mind would be “Wow, look at how bad their rolled R’s are!”, my first thought would probably be “Wow, it’s amazing they are speaking to me in my mother tongue!”. And worst case scenario: people do make fun of you! Then shame’s on them. Be proud of you and your hard work.

3. Podcasts Are Your New Best Friends

Listening is incredibly important when trying to learn a new language. You may not remember it but you learned your mother tongue by constantly listening to it. There you have it: the proof you needed to know this method actually works! Okay, we know listening is effective when it comes to learning a new language, but how can we incorporate it correctly to our daily life? Through podcasts!

When learning Korean, I struggled a lot with what I called “my non-existent listening skills”. Months and months went by and I felt that no matter how hard I tried, nothing seemed to work. Either that, or my progress was painfully slow. However, after more and more frustrating months of trying, just when I had resigned to my fate of not understanding movies in Korean, podcasts came to the rescue! It was a game changer. I saw a great improvement in my listening skills in a relatively short amount of time and I gained more confidence to go out there and actually try to have conversations in Korean. After this experience, I have applied this technique when learning other languages and it has proven to be effective every single time.

What’s so great about podcasts is that they keep you engaged. You can learn a language by choosing to listen to a topic you are interested in, rather than a boring dialogue between two textbook characters you couldn’t care less about. With podcasts, you can learn new vocabulary and expressions while learning about something else as well. But remember to chose content that is appropriate for your level. Don’t try to listen to a podcast about economy or the latest developments of space science if you are just getting started in the language. Start simple, small baby steps and gradually work your way up from there.

There are a couple more tips to help you get the most out of your listening experience:

  • Pay close attention to the content you are listening to. That’s why it’s of great importance that you choose a topic that sparks your interest. You have to keep those brain cells engaged and make sure the attention doesn’t drift somewhere else.
  • Generalize. A common mistake we make when practicing our listening skills is trying to understand every single little word we hear. That is, not surprisingly, impossible for a language enthusiast in the early stages of learning, and what happens is that we end up fatigued and frustrated. Instead, we should aim to get a general idea of the conversation or content we are listening to, and try to focus on the bigger picture. Most of the time, all it takes to understand something is catching some key words, not everything.
  • Don’t do passive listening. Which basically translates into the famous “Be present in the moment and focused in the task at hand”. Listening to music or podcasts is the go-to activity to pair up with other things such as cleaning, exercising or driving. But when it comes to language learning, your mind has to be present. It requires that you direct all your attention to what you’re listening to. Do active listening, really taking the time to analyze the content that flows into your ears, to take in the accents and nuances of the language.
  • Try and try and try. It will be hard at first, but no pressure. Just be constant and try to make it a habit to listen to a little podcast every day. Also, be ready to hit that replay button a lot.

4. Set Your Phone in Your Target Language

Or at least the app you use the most. For me, it’s The Sims Mobile. I was not feeling so good about spending hours after hours glued to my iPad remodeling my Sims’ house for the third time that day, so I wanted to find a way to feel a little bit more productive while still doing the things I enjoyed. The solution I came up with was setting the game app in French. The results of this experiment? Well, I learned a lot of new things by just doing this simple trick.

Your hard-earned language knowledge is like a plant you should water every day so it doesn’t wither. It’s a skill you should nurture every day in order for it to blossom. And every small thing you do, counts. You need constant exposure to the language you are trying to learn in order for your brain to get used to the grammar and sentence structure, and eventually start thinking in that language.

Setting your phone in your target language is also a great way to stumble upon new vocabulary and expressions. This technique is especially useful for those who don’t like to read as much. Reading is also an extremely beneficial activity when it comes to language learning, but if we don’t find the idea of picking up a book so appealing, then this technique does the work too! Especially since our electronic devices are something we look at on a regular basis. I guarantee you’ll learn a lot without even realizing it.

5. Write a Journal

Remember: exposure is key. Writing a journal is an excellent way to practice the new vocabulary and grammar concepts you learn while also developing your writing skills. Journaling helps you build confidence in your writing, which is a fundamental part of mastering a language.

Additionally, journaling is perfect for assessing our learning progress, reinforcing what you already know and pinpointing the areas where we are lacking and therefore, need to improve. For example, a common thing I noticed when journaling was that my vocabulary was scarce. This discovery helped me realize I needed to dedicate more time to improve my lexicon rather than my grammar knowledge.

Writing will also provide you with awesome opportunities to learn new things and practice them right away. Every time you want to write something and you don’t know how to say it, look it up and try to use it in various sentences as you journal.

One last thing about journaling: The more often you do it, the better. And just write anything. Don’t be shy about your ideas. There’s no invalid topic. I remember once writing a whole page about a burrito I ate that morning. But if you need more elaborated ideas, here I come: you can try writing down your grocery list in your target language, translating your favorite quotes or songs, writing about your day, expressing your thoughts about a movie that you just watched, listing everything you love about your cat, keeping a gratitude journal…The list goes on. Or if you are feeling very creative, you can even try writing short stories or fiction.

6. Be Consistent and Patient

Small. Baby. Steps. We all like how the words “learn”, “language” and “fast” sound together, but there’s no magical way to pick up a language in three weeks or so. What you can do, however, is build good foundations in those three weeks. Do a little everyday, even if it’s just reviewing a set of Flashcards or adding four new words to your deck. It takes time? Well, yes. But unless someone is pointing a gun at you to memorize all the verbs in Greek by next week (or unless you are cramming for a language test due next week, like I did, deeply regret and strongly advise against), you have all the time in the world to learn a language. So, no hurries. No rush. Every new thing that you learn, no matter how small, is another brick that goes to edifying your language castle. So focus on how far you have come rather than how much it’s left to build.

And now that I mention it, we should always focus on how far we have come rather than how far from our goal we are. Let me explain further. In a self-development journey, there are always two focal points: the starting line and the finish line. A common mistake we make is measuring our progress based on the finish line (a.k.a how far/close we are from our goal), but we should do it based on the starting line (a.k.a how far we have come). Remembering this, will help you acknowledge your hard work and effort, keeping you inspired and motivated throughout the learning process.

Final Thoughts

Okay, now you know some of the best tricks to master any language you feel very passionate, mildly curious or insanely excited about. But before you start rolling all those R’s, remember that learning is a personal journey. You have to take the time to know yourself well and evaluate which techniques work best for you. This means trying plenty of combinations until you find that one learning routine that’s perfect for you. But you can always include the simple ideas and concepts listed in this article and you’ll be off to a good start. Good luck! Buena suerte! Bonne chance! 화이팅!

Till next time,

STRIVE

Lisseth Aizpurua is a lifestyle writer and content creator specializing in habit-building and learning techniques. She is passionate about personal development and everything related to learning new skills in life. She strongly believes in the power of autodidacticism and self-motivation to reach our true potential and become better versions of ourselves. You follow her at @AizpuruaLisseth

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