A beginners’ guide to learning a language from scratch.
If we’re honest with ourselves, most of us want to learn a new language someday. But, we make excuses about why we can’t do it right now. We don’t have the time to learn something new from scratch, and even if we did, we wouldn’t know how to go about it.
Around 20% of people at New Year want to learn a new skill. And lots of these people want to learn a new language. Most of us spend at least a year or two learning a language at school, but by the time we reach adulthood, we have forgotten how to go about learning something new.
This is where this article will come in handy.
Everyone learns in a different way, but there are some universal language learning tips that we can all benefit from.
Anyone looking to learn a new language should gather the following supplies:
- A notebook and pen
- A textbook
- A good set of headphones
- A film, TV show, and book in the language they want to learn
- A diary or calendar to schedule in their practice sessions
- And a love of learning
In this article, you will find a robust guide to learning a language from scratch, how to make time to do so, and how to keep your motivation levels high.
The Benefits Of Learning A New Language - Why Is It Important?
If you are reading this article, then you probably have your own reason for wanting to learn a language. You might want to be able to enjoy your vacation more or be able to speak to a friend in their own language.
We won’t be talking about those types of benefits today. Instead, we will be covering some of the more unexpected benefits of learning a new language.
Here are four ways learning a new language can improve your life.
Improves your memory
One of the major benefits of learning a new language is the fact that it improves your memory. It has long been documented that learning a language can improve children’s memories in the long term, but recent studies have shown that learning a new language can improve your memory and cognitive ability at any age.
In a series of tests, research showed that bilingual subjects outperformed their monolingual counterparts in problem-solving, metacognitive awareness, divergent thinking, and attention control. Similar results were found in musicians.
Language learning activates parts of the hippocampus and temporal lobe that we wouldn’t usually use in our day-to-day lives. What is most interesting about our brains, is that they grow and develop to meet the challenges we present them with.
If you want to learn a new language, practice, and challenge yourself. Then your brain will grow larger and will improve in the ways mentioned above. Our memory gets better, we get better at problem-solving, and we even improve our hand-eye coordination when we learn languages.
Allows you to multitask
Being bilingual improves your ability to multitask.
This isn’t strictly true, as multitasking is physically impossible. We only have the cognitive ability can only do one thing consciously at a time. Where language learning can help you is that it reduces the amount of time it takes you to switch between tasks.
When we are working on a task, it takes us around 10 minutes to fully focus on the task. If we take a break to check our emails or do something else, it will take us 20 minutes to reach that same level of focus. Trying to multitask means that we waste a lot of time every day.
However, studies show that being bilingual can cut down that refocusing time drastically. Knowing multiple languages helps your brain to practice switching from one task to another. This skill is then automatically applied to other areas of our lives.
If you have a job that requires you to constantly switch between different types of tasks then learning a language could benefit you hugely.
Improves your performance in different academic areas
As we mentioned earlier, learning a language can improve your memory and it can also improve your problem solving skills, as well as ability to multitask. Studies have also shown that bilinguals do better in academic situations than monolinguals.
Bilinguals outperform monolinguals in all levels of education – from preschool to postgraduate studies.
The ability to multitask has a lot to do with this, but learning languages can have a lot more benefits to your life.
Learning any new skill teaches you discipline. Self-discipline is a muscle that can only be improved through use. When you say that you will study for 30 minutes, then actually do it – you are teaching your subconscious that you are a person who follows through on their plans.
Learning a new language also improves your ability to think creatively and even makes it possible for you to do creative tasks for longer. It also improves your vocabulary and will make you a better communicator in each language that you speak.
Can improve career opportunities
Knowing a second language (or third, or fourth) can vastly improve your career prospects.
Firstly, bilinguals earn 5-20% more on average than monolingual workers. The work they are asked to do tends to be more skilled and therefore they get compensated for that.
There are some countries around the world that will pay employees vastly more if they can speak the local language. For example, Wales (in the UK) has invested a lot of money in increasing the number of people who speak Welsh.
People applying for Welsh-speaking roles in the government can expect to be paid up to a third more just for knowing two languages.
Other organizations like the UN and World Health Organization pay through the nose for bilingual staff members, particularly if the language is rarer.
Bilinguals also get access to more job opportunities than monolingual workers. Whether it be working in translation, diplomacy, or in local government – there are many more opportunities for people who can speak more than one language.
How To Start Learning A New Language
Everyone learns in different ways, so it is important that you experiment with different styles of learning at the beginning. We will talk about this more in the next section.
What we are going to cover in this section are different learning strategies that will benefit anyone who is trying to learn a new language.
If you put these three methods in place at the very beginning of your language learning journey, then you will continue to see the benefits of them going forward.
Develop goals and strategies
While people have been setting themselves goals for thousands of years. It is only in the last 60 years that psychologists have started to study the best way to set ourselves up to achieve these goals.
Below, we have detailed the most scientifically backed goal-setting strategy available today.
SMART is a goal setting system designed by psychologists to help us achieve our long-term goals more consistently. SMART stands for:
A specific goal should be tangible. So instead of saying you want to learn French, you should say that you want to be able to count to 100 or read a book in French.
This goes hand in hand with measurable goals. Think about how you will know that you have achieved this goal. You will know when you have achieved knowing enough French to read a book because you will be able to understand the book.
Your goal should be reasonable. It should be something that you can do in the time frame. You may choose to set yourself the goal of reading a children’s book in a new language rather than a 16th-century classic.
You need to think about the relevance of your goal. Will it help you to achieve what you want? Reading a book in French will improve your vocabulary but not your conversational skills.
Finally, as humans, we have evolved to respond to time pressures. Without one, it is very likely you will put off your goal infinitely. Do you want to be able to read the book before the end of the year? Before you take your next trip to France? Make sure the date is not too far away! Here is a great list of books in French that you can read.
Smart goals may seem like a lot of work at first, but they have been proven to improve the chances of you achieving your goals. The effort will pay off in the short and long term.
Pick up a textbook
We have been learning languages from textbooks for hundreds of years and we still do. Why? Because they are a great tool for language learning. They make solo studying possible and inexpensive.
However, we aren’t suggesting you try and find the French textbook they refer to in Jane Eyre or even the textbooks your parents were using. We understand more about learning than ever before, so take advantage of that and pick up a modern textbook.
One of the benefits of using a textbook is that someone has spent a long time structuring the lessons for you. They have worked out the best order to learn the grammar and the vocabulary for you. This takes a lot of the confusion out of the practice for you.
Attend a language class - online, or in person
Solo study is an important part and essential element of learning a language. You cannot learn a new language without it, but that doesn’t mean that it should be the only type of studying you should do.
Online and in-person classes can have the same benefits. Which you choose will depend on your circumstances.
Classes give you the opportunity to activate different parts of your brain, parts that you don’t use when you are studying solo. The more parts you activate, the easier time you will have retaining and recalling information.
One of the most important benefits of attending classes is that your tutor can correct your mistakes before they become bad habits. Habits are hard to unlearn and can slow down your progress.
Classes give you a chance to practice your pronunciation and listening skills. They are also fun and allow you to meet new and like-minded people. You may meet people who you end up studying with again, and you could even form a study group with people in your class. You can use this group to help keep everyone motivated.
If you surround yourself with people who have similar interests and goals to you, then you are more likely to achieve them.
You may want to also look into one-on-one classes to perfect your conversational skills.
Top Tips For Learning A New Language
Finally, we are going to share some tried and tested language learning tips and strategies with you.
One of the great things about trying to learn a new language is that millions of people have done it before you. This means you do not really have to start from scratch, you can use their knowledge to make your own journey smoother and less stressful. See this section as a road map to language learning.
Here are 10 tips that will help you to learn a new language:
Practice makes perfect
You will read this tip on any piece about language learning, but that is for a good reason. The only way to learn or get good at anything is to practice.
Doing an action – like writing or pronouncing a new word – over and over again will create new neural pathways. Learning a new word creates the connection and practicing it makes that pathway stronger. Soon reading a word, translating it, and pronouncing it will become a habit and you will start to do it without noticing.
Some people find it easier to retain information when they have listened to it, while others find reading new information more beneficial. However, everyone will benefit from writing down the new information they learn and making notes.
Not only does it give you something to look back on when you are refreshing your memory, but writing things down creates a second and stronger pathway.
There is such a thing as good and bad practice, and you will find some advice for engaging in good practice later in this section.
Motivation is the difference between you watching Netflix all night or practicing conjugating your verbs. Motivation is notoriously fleeting, but it is essential to keep yourself motivated when taking on long projects like learning a language.
Let’s start with the basics, to keep your motivation up you need to have it in the first place.
You need to understand why you want to learn a language. Your “why” needs to be internal – rather than an external reason like wanting to impress someone else.
Once you have found your motivation, you need to remind yourself of it daily. Maybe write it on the cover of your notebook.
Goal Setting based on motivation levels
You should consider creating a habit menu.
This type of goal setting allows you to move forward even when your motivation is low. Break down your habit into low, average, and high energy tasks. Then pick the one that feels most appropriate for you each day.
Here is an example:
Goal: To learn enough French to read The Little Prince
- High energy days – Learn 5 new words, practice for an hour, and translate a page of The Little Prince
- Average energy days – Learn 3 new words and practice for half an hour
- Low energy days – Learn 1 new word and listen to the French audiobook of The Little Prince
Using a system like this means that you can still make progress towards your goals and keep your motivation high, even on bad days.
Relevance is important
If you want to achieve your goals then you need to know what your goals are and make sure that your smaller sub-goals are relevant.
You don’t want to be putting all your effort into tasks that aren’t moving you forward.
For example, if you want to be able to hold a conversation about food in French then you don’t want to be spending time researching legal terminology in French. But, if you were looking to take a class in French Law then that would be a useful task.
When we are nervous about an objective, we tend to set ourselves smaller tasks that make us feel productive but don’t actually allow us to progress. For example, you could teach yourself a lot of new infinitive verbs, but not their conjugations.
Every time you sit down to work on your new language, ask yourself the following questions:
- What will I achieve by doing this task?
- Does it align with my long-term goals?
- Is it relevant?
Begin with 100 most common words
Bearing the above section in mind, your first goal when learning a new language should be to learn the 100 most common words.
Many people start by learning animal names, names of countries, and how to say how old they are. While this may be useful for young language learners, these words aren’t going to help most of us reach language mastery.
You can always go back and learn these words later if you want to be fluent in the language.
When you are putting together a list of the first 100 words you want to learn, you should think about which words you need to please first.
Words like ‘please’, ‘thank you’, ‘grocery store’, ‘help’, ‘lost’ – are good words if you are planning to move to the country.
If you are learning the language to help you at work then you may need a more specialized vocabulary. If you are going to be translating something like medical documents, then you will need a good knowledge of human anatomy and descriptions of physical feelings – like ‘dizziness’ and ‘nausea’.
Remember, you are learning this language for yourself, so pick words that you will need to know.
Use audio and online courses for basic grammar
When it comes to learning a new language, vocabulary is only half the battle. It is also crucial that you learn the grammar behind the language as well.
A lot of new learners avoid putting the work into learning grammar because it is a lot harder than learning the language. It also requires a good understanding of the grammar of your native language and many people may find they need to brush up on that as well.
While it is possible to learn grammar from a textbook, there are a lot of great resources online nowadays.
Interactive grammar courses can be found online. These courses can help you in the way a tutor would – by pointing out your mistakes and helping you correct them.
You will also find that there is a wide range of audio courses online too.
We recommend practicing your grammar using a combination of these tools and by using a textbook. You will remember that we discussed the benefits of using multiple learning techniques to increase the amount of information the you retain.
Grammar can be particularly difficult to get your head around, so use all of the tools available to you.
Download a dictionary app on your phone
There is nothing more useful when learning a new language than having easy access to a dictionary. Thankfully, long gone are the days where we have to carry around a physical dictionary to do this.
We recommend making sure that you have a dictionary in the language you are trying to learn on all your electronic devices. This means that you can look up new words whenever the mood takes you.
To really get the most out of this software, we also recommend that you keep a notebook where you write down every word that you look up and its definition.
This will allow you to practice these new worlds and make sure that you commit them to memory in your next practice session. Otherwise, you will find yourself looking up the same words over and over again.
You can write down the words in the order you look them up, or record them in the notebook alphabetically, depending on which technique works best for you.
Understand pronunciation patterns
Every language has its own set of rules, tonal and pronunciation patterns.
The sooner you can memorize these patterns, the easier it will be for you to learn and speak the language.
There tend to be more resources available to help people learn grammar and vocabulary, but less for pronunciation. So, you may have to spend more time looking for the right resources. However, this is the kind of information that any good tutor will be able to point you towards.
If you are really struggling to find any information on this subject then you can use Google Translate as a stop-gap. Over the last decade, Google Translate has gone from being a hit-and-miss translation system to a really useful tool for language learners.
In the early stages of learning a language, it is important that you listen to it being spoken as much as you can. Thanks to technology, it is really easy to find these resources. If you head onto Youtube, you will find dozens of instructional videos of native speakers using the language you are trying to learn.
For the more popular languages, like Spanish and French, you may even find free pronunciation guides online.
After practicing the first 100 words, try being conversational
Once you have mastered your first list of 100 words, it’s time to make yourself another list and to put your first 100 words into practice.
While you are working on your first list, you will probably come across dozens of new words you need to learn. Keep track of these words and add them to your second list.
While you are learning your second set of words, you should start to put your first list of words into practice. You should be learning how to use those words in a sentence. As well as, learning phrases that will help you in conversations.
You should try learning phrases like ‘good morning’, ‘it’s nice to meet you’, ‘do you know where ___ is?’
When you start to put your vocabulary into practice and context you will be able to get a better understanding of the language, the pronunciation, and the grammar.
When all of these elements come together you will find that things start to make more sense.
When you get to this stage, you may find that you benefit more from taking classes and talking to people in that language. There are many native speakers that you can pay to have a conversation with you over Zoom.
Watch TV shows and movies, in the language you are learning
Films and TV are great resources for language learning. They will allow you to listen to a language being used in context and spoken at a regular speed, but you will be able to use English subtitles, as well as, pausing and rewinding the footage.
You will also find that if you understand the story, you will be able to guess the meanings of words with greater accuracy. Particularly, if you have seen the film before in English.
Another great way to pick up new words is to read the news in the language that you are trying to learn.
We have found that the most helpful way to pick up new words and get a greater understanding of the language is to read a book or watch a TV show that you know well in the language that you are trying to learn.
Already knowing the context and plot of the media means that you can focus on getting your head around the vocabulary and grammar.
We recommend having a notebook and dictionary handy to keep track of words that you don’t understand.
Don’t get upset if you try this and you find it too overwhelming. Take a break and come back to it another day.
Get out of your comfort zone
Studies have shown that humans are designed to perform better under pressure. This harks back to the days when our fight or flight instincts were saving our lives on a daily basis.
You will find that if you put yourself in a situation that makes you feel uncomfortable – going to a class where no English is spoken, for example – will help you to learn faster than you would than if you were sat at home.
This is why many people swear that the best way to learn a language is to spend time in the country. As no one around you will be speaking English, you will be forced to learn new words from context and if you want to be able to get by you will have to improve your skills.
We don’t recommend doing all your language learning outside of your comfort zone because you may put yourself off learning the language altogether. But doing it occasionally will be a powerful boost to the process.
Here are some ways to get out of your comfort zone:
- Get a pen pal that doesn’t speak any English
- Go to a class where no English is spoken
- Call a shop in a country that speaks that language and ask them for information about a product that they sell
There are so many reasons to learn a new language – to improve your job prospects, to get more out of a trip abroad, or even just to exercise your mind.
No matter your reason for picking up this new skill, the article above will teach you some solid language learning skills and methods that will help you throughout your journey to fluency.
So, what are you waiting for?! It’s time to pick a language and start smashing out your goals.
Let us know how you get on in the comments!
Hey, I’m Kris Taylor. I’m a Learning and Development professional currently in the healthcare field, with over 8 years of experience in the area of corporate education. I have created numerous instructional content for various corporate projects including eLearning, in-person facilitation, and virtual training across a wide variety of learning interventions and sectors. On Taughtup, I discuss topics ranging from how to succeed through K-12 to college all the way to instructional design tips for L&D designers.