The best way to learn a new language [step-by-step guide]

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This is a guide designed to simplify language learning. It’s meant primarily for beginners, but the principles can apply to anyone learning, regardless of level.

In this guide, you’ll find my step-by-step approach to language learning. If you follow the steps, you’ll save time, have more fun learning, and make faster progress.

In this guide, you’ll learn 5 key steps to learning a language:

  1. Have a vision.
  2. Do one thing every day
  3. Prioritize based on your interests
  4. Reward yourself each time you learn
  5. Trust the process (consistent effort will bring results)

Before we go into the steps, let me address two common questions:

Can anyone learn a new language?

The short answer is yes. Like with other skills, it will come more naturally to some than others. But even the most talented need to put in daily work to improve.

Immigrants all over the world learn to speak, and not all of them are innately talented (or interested in) languages.

The common denominator among successful learners: daily interaction with the language over a long period of time.

Anytime you interact with the language, you’re learning.

What you do to learn depends on your level and the things you’re interested in. Let’s talk about what you can do, specifically, to learn a language.

How can I learn a language easily, fast, and free?

It’s what we all want to know. Is there some way I can just download it to my brain? Or an app that will do it for me?

It’s the same reason people search for quick ways to make money: we want fast, easy, free solutions to difficult problems.

Here’s my experience:

  • You can learn a language for free. But you’re more likely to continue if you invest a little in yourself at each stage of learning.
  • You can learn a language fast, but only by spending more time each day with the language. That’s why people often make faster progress when living in the country where it’s spoken — they get more time with it each day. Regardless of where you live, you can make incredible progress in 6 months if you dedicate 25 minutes a day to active learning.
  • And you can learn easily, by focusing on what’s easy and interesting for you. Rather than slogging through grammar books from day 1, find an interesting, interactive resource like the Coffee Break series to get started. Rather than memorizing massive lists of words, watch and read things you enjoy, and get your new vocabulary from there.

With all that in mind, let’s dive into an approach that I think can help you become fluent in any language:

5 steps to learning a foreign language effectively


Here’s how to learn a language, step-by-step:

1. Have a vision.

Know why you’re learning, and know roughly what level you want to reach. If you’ve ever dabbled with Duolingo or similar apps, you’ve probably experienced something like this:

Motivation curve in language learning: how motivation increases and decreases over time

Why the big drop in motivation? It’s not Duolingo’s fault (although it’s not a comprehensive tool, in my opinion).

The reason is most people aren’t clear on why they’re learning.

If learning isn’t an absolute in-your-face necessity — and for English speakers, it’s often not — you can’t progress without a good reason why and a vision for the future.

Knowing HOW you intend to use the language, and then picturing a future where you are in fact using it, is powerful.

It helps make a long-term goal feel more tangible. It makes the delayed gratification less delayed, which helps you stay motivated.

By the way — you don’t have to speak fluently if that’s not your goal. Wanting to learn the bare basics, or to just have a simple conversation, are perfectly okay.

If you want to use the language to build relationships with potential clients, imagine traveling to the country and surprising your prospects by greeting them and having a short conversation in their language. Imagine the respect they’ll feel for you, having made the effort to learn some of their language. Imagine how much more connected — less like an outsider — you’ll feel.

If you want to use the language to connect with people while traveling, imagine making friends with locals who offer to show you around and give you a locals perspective on the place you’re visiting. Picture yourself there, interacting with people.

Write down a simple vision and a why in your notebook or notes app, and refer back to it anytime you’re feeling demotivated.

2. Do one thing every day (for 1 month, then reassess)

Once you have your vision, it’s time to get to work. Here’s the short story: to learn a language, do one thing every day in that language.

The more time you spend on it, and the more focused you are, the faster progress you’ll make. But even 5 minutes a day is enough to make some progress.

STEP 1: FIND ONE PRIMARY RESOURCE

It should be interesting in some way.

​​In the beginning, it can be hard to find interesting content since your vocab is limited.

But good programs will teach you useful stuff that’s decently interesting.

I would steer clear of Duolingo and similar free apps. They can be fun supplements but aren’t a complete solution. Plus, investing a little money in yourself can make you take it more seriously.

Use this resource for at least one month, then reassess. Switch if you’re not enjoying it.

STEP 2: MAKE A PLAN TO LEARN DAILY

Building a habit is the hardest part, but the most important.

Learning requires repetition.

The more you see and use a phrase over time, the more it’ll stick with you.

By learning a little bit every day, you give your brain more chances to absorb things.

You don’t HAVE to do it every day, but that’s what works best for me. If I skip a day, I start to lose steam. I get motivation from practicing daily.

If you make time (even 5 minutes) for your language every day, then every day you’re telling yourself that you’re serious about it.

Here’s a trick you can use, called habit stacking, which I learned about in Atomic Habits by James Clear:

Every day after/before/while I [thing you already do], I’ll spend [X minutes] actively studying my language.

    • Ex: Every day while I’m drinking my coffee, I’ll spend 10 minutes actively studying Spanish.

Plan what you’re going to study ahead of time too, so you don’t have to waste time getting set up for figuring out what to use.

    • Ex: On Sundays, make a quick list of the lessons you’re going to do that week

You can even keep a journal of your progress, or keep a calendar where you put an X on every day you do your Spanish. A lot of people find this helpful.

STEP 3: USE THE LANGUAGE

Speak, write, listen, and read.

You can’t learn to speak without speaking, read without reading, write without writing, or listen without listening.

The best way to do those 4 things?

Build the language into your life – pop culture, culture, comedy, etc.

It’s important to have fun, positive associations with the language. Filling your feeds with real-life content is great for this.

Find music you like, and start adding it to playlists on YouTube or Spotify.

Get an effortless drip-feed of content by following teachers of your target language on Instagram or TikTok, as well as famous people from the countries where it’s spoken.

Follow podcasts and YouTube channels in your target language that cover topics you’re interested in.

For example, I’m learning to oil paint and watch tons of YouTube tutorials meant for Germans who are learning to paint.

Tip: The Language Learning with YouTube plugin generates auto-captions and subtitles.

3. Prioritize based on your interests

Prioritize useful words and phrases, and things you’re interested in

Useful = useful to you.

I don’t recommend memorizing lists of “500 most common verbs”, etc. I find it boring and therefore demotivating.

Instead, I recommend learning words in context, as they appear naturally.

So say you’re an upper beginner, going through a French course online. Rather than memorizing every word they give you, make note of words that seem important to you. Words you want to know.

You’re the one speaking, so there’s no right or wrong answer.

Remember that there’s no point at which you’ll have “completed” the language.

Just like in your native language, there is always more to learn.

So don’t stress, and learn things that you want to learn. You’ll remember things better that way.

Tip: Don’t forget to make note of common filler words, responses, and conversational links. Things like, “I think so”, “Can I please have”, “you know what I mean?”, etc. These are much more useful than memorizing things “in order”, and help you speak more naturally from the beginning.

 

4. Reward yourself each time you learn

If you’ve read about building habits, you’ll know that humans respond to rewards.

This means rewards are important when you study your language. It can be simple. David from raptitude.com has a simple system that I love in his short book, How to Do Things, called “Blocks”.

Essentially it involves working in 25-minute chunks — in this case, studying your language for 25 minutes. Phone away, full focus. When the 25 minutes are up, you draw a big, rectangular block on a sticky note, imagining that it’s a block used for building a house.

You can keep your sticky note for a week, doing 1 “block” of study each day. After 5 days, you have 4 walls and a roof. At the end of the week, just throw out your sticky note and start fresh.

Whatever you choose, do something that you find rewarding after each session. Maybe that’s eating a snack, playing a game, playing with your kids, or anything else.

5. Trust the process (consistent effort will bring results)

Regardless of who you are or the process you use, learning a language takes time.

You can decrease the time by cramming more into each day, but just like cramming for a test in school, that’s not best for our long-term memory.

For most people, a realistic goal is 25 minutes a day, 6 days a week.

You will feel frustrated at times because progress isn’t always obvious.

But if you focus for a set amount of time each day, you will look back in 6 months and be amazed at the progress you’ve made.

So trust in the process, follow your interests, and trust in your ability to develop a natural feel for the language over time.


Programs to learn another language by yourself

How do you learn a new language at home? What apps, programs, or systems should you follow?

Here are the apps and resources I recommend.

I recommend you choose one primary resource at any given time. It’s the resource you use each day when you learn. Anything else is supplementary.

Getting started with a foreign language

For audio-learners:

Coffee Break Languages

It’s free, entertaining for beginners, high quality. This could absolutely be a primary resource if used intentionally. Coffee Break series is one of the best free resources out there, in my opinion.

Pimsleur

Great for pronunciation, teaches useful beginner info, but is a little slow. The best part is how it teaches pronunciation of difficult words and the way it forces you as a listener to reproduce the language.

Michel Thomas

I used Michel Thomas when starting to learn German and it was a nice introductory resource, but not very comprehensive. It gave me a solid foundation in pronunciation and helped me understand some basics of word order, grammar, and vocab. It emphasizes cognates, so you get the satisfaction of feeling like you’re making quick progress.

For more visual learners

RocketLanguages
Has an app, convos are downloadable, very comprehensive, real/modern Spanish and other languages. I tested out the Spanish and it seems very good. Sort of a podcast style.

Uncovered series
Paid course with a 7-day free trial. Created by Olly Richards, who I’ve followed for a long time shares high-quality info. It’s a story-based method and has great reviews.

For speaking

iTalki
Conversation partners at any price point. Book several intro calls, find one you enjoy talking to and meet with them once a week for 30 or 60 minutes.

Tandem
Free exchange app. It is free in terms of cost, but it takes more of your time because you have to sort through people. I recommend iTalki 9 out of 10 times.

Great free resources for learning any language

EasyLanguages series on YouTube

Once you’ve passed the beginner stage, you could use these videos as your primary source. Watch one each day, take notes on phrases to remember, then add them into an app like Anki.

Supplemental resources

Basically any popular app (Duolingo, Babbel, Memrise), plus podcasts and YouTube channels.

At later stages, “real” content like podcasts and YouTube can be your primary learning tools (they are mine currently for German) if you use them to study actively.


How to understand native speakers

I often hear people say, “native speakers speak so fast, I just can’t understand them.” Understanding native speakers at their natural speed is a challenge, and it takes time. But most people who say this haven’t spent much time listening.

You need to build up to it. Listen to things just above your level, and gradually build up to things meant for native speakers.

How to practice accent & pronunciation

You will probably feel silly when you try to speak like a Spanish speaker (or Russian speaker or Japanese speaker). That’s natural.

Pronunciation has a lot to do with identity — i.e., I’m an American, I speak this way, speaking that way is not “me”. But if you can overcome that, and embrace cultural things, the accent will come a lot more naturally.

To actually work on your accent, the best time is when you’re starting.

It’s basically a muscle memory thing, and the more you practice correct pronunciation and intonation as a beginner, the easier it’ll be later. If you ignore it at the start, it’ll be harder later.

To start, try to imitate the native speakers in whatever course you take.

Reading texts out loud, recording yourself with a voice memo, and comparing that to a native speaker is a good way to practice.

Don’t stress too much about it — being understood is the most important part. The biggest thing is just to pay attention to the accent and do your best to imitate it.

How to Learn Grammar & Vocabulary

Vocabulary:

Focus on phrases, not words. This might be the best advice I can give you overall.

For example, rather than learning the word for apple (la manzana), learn the phrase ‘I ate an apple’ (comí una manzana).

That way it’s practical (aka, you can use it in a sentence) AND you’re learning grammar and sentence structure without having to think about it.

Kids learn languages by imitating phrases they hear. Only later do they learn the meaning of the individual words in the phrase, or the grammar of that phrase.

Grammar:

My advice: don’t worry about it at the beginning.

Think of grammar as a tool to help you understand why things are the way they are — NOT a set of strict rules that you must follow.

For example, say you learn the above phrase, “comí una manzana”. Then you get curious — okay… the word for eat is comer, so why is “I ate” comí ? Then you look it up.

But don’t worry about it on the regular, and definitely don’t try to memorize boring charts of verb endings.

Summary: How to learn a new language effectively

  1. Have a vision. Know why you’re learning, and know roughly what level you want to reach (your goal doesn’t have to be “become fluent” — whatever you want is okay)
  2. Do one thing for 25 minutes every day. Make a plan and build it into your schedule. After 1 month, reassess and find a different primary resource if you’re not liking it.
  3. Prioritize. All words are not created equal. The words that matter depend on who you are and your interests. Follow your interests when choosing what to learn.
  4. Reward yourself for doing it. A simple reward system goes a long way in reinforcing your new habit.
  5. Trust the process. You won’t see progress every day. But if you build a habit of 25 minutes a day, you will look back in 6 months and be blown away by the progress you’ve made.
Every 10 days, get a brand–new piece of language-learning insight and inspiration. 
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Connor Kane

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