Last month I decided to take a risk. I decided to ask a variety of people to give me their best advice for beginning language learners. I wanted to ask the language learning community of course, but I wanted to get out too, to find the everyday learner’s among us who aren’t writing about the joyous journey that is learning another language. And I also wanted to ask a few big names. So I made a list. I emailed a lot of people both well known and soon to be known and many who are just like most of us – average folks endeavoring to learn another language.
There was one question:
In 150 words or less, what is the best, most unique advice you would give to a beginning language learner to help them reach their goal?
Here is my response:
One of the biggest challenges faced by language learners is the war of attrition. Very few quit the journey of learning another language. Most fade away. It’s the slow death of desire, the unnoticed reduction of time spent working in and on the language and subsequently the end comes. Months later the books are dusted off for another go round and the cycle continues. But mastering another language requires consistent persistence as my friend Andrew likes to say. In order to foster this, I advise surrounding yourself with individuals who will spur you on to reach your goal. When you can’t find them in person, the writings of those included below can and will serve as a strong substitute. Hang out with them at their blogs, follow their journeys and allow them to be the inspiration you need to stay in the game and learn another language.
And here are the responses I got from 20 of those I emailed.
Enjoy. Compare. Learn. Respond.
First of all, keep your ears open at all times. Learning a language is as much about listening as it is talking. Don’t try to understand the logic of your new language either. Direct translations from one language to another will often not happen. Persevere and within time, it will all slot into place like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.
Also ensure you have enthusiasm and a burning need to learn that language. If you do not, than distractions will get in the way, you will postpone lessons for other matters and over time, the idea of learning that language will be pushed to a back burner. Make it your passion and your priority and you will succeed.
-Natalie Sayin of Turkey Travel Blog
Avoid text for the first 50 hours. For the first month or two, just get a CD or audio book that teaches simple words and phrases. Listen to it without referring to any text. That will allow you to get a sense of the sounds of what the language really sounds like, rather than what you think it should sound like based on the spelling.
Aaron Knight of Phrasemix
My top piece of advice, not just in language learning but in all of life, is simply: stop worrying about what other people think. You don’t have to impress anyone, nor should you try. And counter-intuitively, it’s when you stop trying to impress people that you start to actually do it. So get out there, make a fool of yourself, make mistakes, and have fun. You’ll be surprised how much faster you learn!
-Randy Hunt of The Yearlyglot
My kids love flashlights. They build a little tent out of blankets, turn off all the lights, and use their flashlights to see. But the time to clean up eventually comes, and then the lights have to go on. Suddenly, as the bulbs of light spring to life, a new luminescence brings a new perspective. They have not just built one tent, but a whole tent-city!
Learning a language is like that. You study and grind and listen and learn and all you see is a few steps in front of you–much like a flashlight in a dark room. Then the day comes, oh that glorious day! The day when all of a sudden the full electric power kicks in and the bulbs reveal the wonder of a bigger world, a world where the new language I am learning becomes my own…it is my language!
Owning a language takes a long time and a lot of energy. I remember the drain and frustration that I sometimes felt when I was learning Spanish. Let me tell you, having come through that dark valley of the language learning curve, the view on the other side is marvelous. So keep up the work, keep working to learn. Know that your day of light is coming.
Dave Buller, Pastor Cornerstone Community Church
That’s my advice in one word or less. But to take it further, I’d suggest putting yourself into uncomfortable situations (it will almost always be uncomfortable at first) and learning to sink or swim as you go. Hopefully, you swim.
Chris Guillebeau of The Art of Non-Conformity
For a new language learner, building a strong, positive relationship with the language is critical. In the early stages, find a comfy location. Go there every day at the same time and do something to gradually get your feet wet. Use tapes/CDs to get used to hearing the sound of your voice speaking that language. If the language has a unique alphabet, get comfortable writing the characters by hand and learning their meaning.
Talk to people. Sit next to people having an animated conversation. Before you know it, you’ll find yourself struggling to find the right works and your brain will finally “get it” that this is important. Talk to children, a lot. Their enthusiasm is infectious and young children will not be offended by bad grammar. Grammar is optional. If the foundations of affection for the language are firmly in place, you will persevere.
Language learning is like guerrilla fighters trying to overthrow a regime and anything can be used to help achieve the mission. Taking a class, immersion, music, grammar books or even a candy wrapper can be crucial in achieving the goal of fluency.
Small guerrilla groups that have overthrown regimes achieved victory with resourcefulness. For example, Fidel Castro and his group of 81 guerrilla fighters defeated the Batista regime which had tens of thousands of soldiers. In order to survive they had to be resourceful and convince the local population that their cause was worth fighting for. The same goes for language learning, one has to be resourceful and talk to those who speak the target in order for them to join their cause.
If you’re offered a lesson, take it. If you’re offered a book, read it. If you’re offered the chance to be immersed in the culture and language, definitely take it!
Kevin Post of Kevin Post
The best way to learn a language is jump into it. Start talking. Every day. Listen to music in the language. Talk to native speakers. Read books. Whatever you can do to submerse yourself in the language, do it. The more you actually use it in everyday scenarios, the better you’ll get.
Joel Runyon of The Blog of Impossible Things
When I started to play the guitar it wasn’t easy. I couldn’t change chord shapes or play along to a song. My fingers hurt.
I persisted and eventually I could change between a few chords with ease. What a feeling! Soon I could play along to a simple song and it sounded the same as the record. I then advanced to riffs and solos.
If you focus on the end goal, it can be very easy to beat yourself up for not getting their quickly. However, if you embrace the small milestones along the way you will have better motivation to continue.
Rather than thinking that you should be fluent in a language quickly and then quitting before you get to that point, celebrate the little victories along the way. Learn enough to order a drink in a bar. Then progress to ordering a meal and so on. Enjoy the journey.
Chris Stott of Create and Conquer
My advice to beginning language learners is to make sure you know the scale of what you’re getting yourself into, define your own goals, and hold yourself accountable for them. Often natives will tell you that you speak the language really well, even in the early stages. The truth is that they’re probably just being nice and trying to encourage you, but as a beginner it’s easy to let the compliments go to your head! Or at least that’s the mistake I made with Japanese, my first foreign language. I let myself slack off on Japanese and move on to other things, only to realize later on that I still couldn’t read a novel in Japanese– and I wanted to be able to read novels! Feedback from others is important, but ultimately you have to know what you’re aiming for and hold yourself accountable to yourself alone.
Jana Fadness of Adventures of the Directionally Challenged
I did very poorly in language in school. My worst subject, by far. Then, one summer, I had to teach 42 kids from Mexico how to paddle a canoe. In Canada! ¡Remate! Immersion seems to be the only answer. We ought to shut down and reinvent language education in public school… it’s a waste.
Seth Godin, Seth’s Blog
Patience, persistence and playfulness. I forget where I heard these three P’s all in a row for the first time. But write them down, tattoo them on your forehead, make them your daily mantra. You have decided to hit the road on the language learning journey. This won’t be like any journey you’ve taken before. It’s a journey whose destination always looms further on the horizon, and whose joys lie not in the mythical city of mastery, but in the muddy trenches and stunning paths of unending possibilities. And it’s a journey that will be different, radically different for each person. So have the patience to cultivate a daily practice of learning, have the persistence to carry on through inevitable moments of discouragement, and have the playfulness to laugh off your blunders and embrace your inner creativity and ingenuity. Patience. Persistence. Playfulness.
Gavin Lamb of Leaky Grammar
Be prepared – prepared to devote a lot of time and energy, prepared to overcome obstacles, prepared to explore.
Be optimistic – learning a language is a tough task but be positive and you will make progress.
Be realistic – don’t expect too much too soon. Progress takes time.
Be open – learning a new language will introduce you to a whole different way of looking at the world. Embrace it.
Be yourself – never forget YOU are learning this language and YOU are using it!
David Dodgson of Reflections of a Teacher and Learner
Stop studying so much, find a human being and force yourself to use the language with them. They will be more patient than you can imagine. Making mistakes is OK, and a necessary part of learning.
Benny Lewis of Fluent in 3 Months
You can study vocabulary and grammar for years, but everything changes when you’re immersed in the language. You’ll feel overwhelmed. You’ll question whether you forgot everything you studied. You might even think you’re hearing the language for the first time.
Don’t panic! Don’t quit!
You’ll pick up country-specific idioms and slang. It won’t always seem like people are speaking so fast. You won’t always have to plan out every sentence before speaking.
Keep speaking even when it’s frustrating, even when you’re tired, even when you’re overwhelmed. Don’t be afraid to speak, even if you’re slow and stumble. Recognize that you’ll embarrass yourself at times. Learn to laugh at your mistakes.
Before you know it, you’ll be using the subjunctive without a second thought. And if you need to loosen up, I found my Spanish improved dramatically after a glass of Argentine Malbec or Dominican Rum.
Lindsay Hunt of The Boomerang Kid
There are many different ways to learn a language. If you’re serious about learning, it’s important not to get discouraged. If you try one method and it doesn’t seem to work, try another. Keep trying until you find a technique that works for *you*. Just because your friend learned with Rosetta Stone doesn’t mean that’s going to be effective for your learning style. For me, I made the biggest strides when I broke down and hired a tutor. I’ve been working with her for three months, and have gone from zero Spanish to conversational Spanish. It’s awesome! Now I’m able to use all of the old methods that didn’t work to help enhance my learning, but it took hiring a tutor to make any real progress. I just work best with one-on-one instruction.
J.D. Roth of Get Rich Slowly
My advice for an individual new to learning languages – I would first try to remember that learning is a process and the more consistent you are the better you will remember what you have been studying.
Don’t expect instant results. In the past I’ve experimented with language tools and tricks like others experiment with fad diets. What really works is consistent daily dedication; do something every day. If you want long term results don’t invest in splurges or cram sessions; you’ll only disappoint yourself, burn out and waste time that could otherwise be spent more productively. Learning a language that interests you is joyful, but one must pay the price to master it.
Don’t be afraid to be creative. Just because you are consistently working toward a language goal doesn’t mean it has to be boring.
Lastly, don’t be afraid to be a pioneer. In the area of indigenous languages we will need pioneers.
Krystle of Navajo Now
Total immersion is obvious. What really helped me was curiosity. When learning English I asked anybody and everybody when I didn’t understand a word, concept, saying, expression, slang, etc. Stay curious! I lost that when learning Spanish and that made a big difference.
Make sure what works for you. Does for instance watching movies and listening to songs actually work for you? It didn’t help me as I tuned out to what they were saying and just read the subtitles or the other way around, didn’t read subtitles and instead listened to what they were saying.
Know your limits. I know that I’m not good at just talking, I get intimidated and then I get lazy. So for me having a teacher 4-10 hours a day would be much better. I’ll do that with Spanish when I get the chance.
Choose your language carefully. i.e. don’t choose German:-))
Jannick Kjaer of Julio’s Sol
My first advice would be to completely immerse yourself in that language. If you can move to a country where they only speak that language, even better. Otherwise the best advice I have for a beginning language learner is take consistent action every day. Take the time to listen to audio, studying vocabulary, practicing sentence formation and conversation skills every day. It doesn’t need to be a lot of hours if you don’t have it but do something every day. Imagine if you did a little every day for a year. You would be so far ahead of the person that tried for a month and then stopped.
Benny Hsu of Get Busy Living
Fall in love with the language. I mean this literally: get into the language so deeply that you can’t imagine living without it. Listen to it being spoken. Listen to it being sung. Hang out with people who speak it, just so that you have the opportunity to be immersed in it. Let the language get under your skin and into your bones. Cook foods from cultures where the language is spoken and visit those countries as often as you can. Immerse yourself as you have never immersed yourself in anything before.
And then when you are ready, when you feel like you and the language are truly one, do some grammar and vocabulary work – not because you /have/ to but because you /want/ to. Do it because it brings you just that much closer to the language you can’t live without. Because, the truth is, language is life.
Corey Heller of Multilingual Living
Wow! That was a lot of great advice.
I would love to hear which was your favorite advice. Let me know in the comments below and make sure and send all your friends over to this great post as well.
This post was a lot of fun to put together and I want to send out a huge thank you to all who participated.
And just a reminder, tomorrow at
6:00 10:00 PM New York time, I’ll host my first live coaching event. It’s free and will be lots of fun. Learn More.
image: Sarah Holloway
Ready to get serious about learning another language?
"Aaron consistenly pumps out top quality language learning advice and motivational posts,
and is probably one of the best sources of encouragement you'll come across."
-Donovan Nagel, The Mezzofanti Guild