How to Teach Yourself a Foreign Language

For anyone who doesn’t understand why learning a foreign language is a good idea, read 5 Great Reasons to Learn a Foreign Language. Everyone else, let’s get started.

Note: I don’t claim that following these instructions will make you fluent. Fluency requires time and immersion. What this post will help you do is become conversant. You will be able to have a simple conversation, ask for directions, order at a restaurant, make small talk, etc. You will also be able to read fairly well with the use of a dictionary. Following these steps will give you a great base in a new language.

Course Materials

The first step is acquiring the materials you will use to teach yourself. The first thing you need is an audio language course. This is essential for developing your basic vocabulary and, more importantly, your pronunciation. I can personally recommend the Pimsleur Language Programs (aff) because that is what I use and I’ve had a great experience with them. Pimsleur uses memorization techniques and question and answer prompts to keep you involved in the lesson and help you retain what you learn. The lessons are about 30 minutes long. A great place to do them is during your commute. This saves you time, makes the drive go faster, and is surprisingly fun. If you don’t want to go with Pimsleur there are plenty of alternatives, but from what I’ve read they are not as engaging.

The next thing you’ll need is a basic grammar guide and a dictionary for the language you want to study. This will help you understand the basic mechanics of the language and the differences and similarities with English. You will use this continuously as a reference.

You should also get some interesting books in the language. For me this is a huge motivator because reading something interesting is much more rewarding than reading a text book. The way to go in the beginning is dual language books (aff). These have the original language on the left side and a literal English translation on the right. This allows you to start reading great books without having to reach for a dictionary every other word. It is also great for learning idioms, expressions, and verb tenses.

Getting Started

Once you have your materials you are ready to learn. Start off by doing the first lesson of your audio language course. Continue doing a lesson a day. You can do these on your commute or while you exercise to save time. For a while I did lessons while walking up and down the stairs of my apartment building. (No, I don’t care if people think I’m weird.)

In conjunction with this you should read your introductory grammar guide. This will give you a foundation in the language and help you learn the different parts of speech and their English equivalents. Don’t worry about memorizing every single rule. It simply isn’t possible. The idea is to get a general understanding first. This is the most boring part of the process, but don’t give up because it’s well worth it.

Making Progress

When you finish the grammar guide you will also have completed several days of audio lessons. At this point you will feel much better about your learning ability. You will know the important basic phrases and speak much more naturally. This method of learning is much more effective than traditional school teaching because you are actively engaged the entire time. The audio lessons force you to listen and speak more than I ever did in school.

Now it’s time to start reading those dual language books. Digging into some interesting material will build your vocabulary. Whenever possible always read aloud. This helps your speech, memorization, and makes you start thinking in the new language. I’ve found reading and doing the audio lessons concurrently enhances both experiences. During the lessons, being able to visualize words makes them easier to understand. Likewise, while reading, the pronunciation experience improves your internal monologue.

Don’t be in a rush. Read slowly and reread until you understand. Don’t hesitate to look up verb conjugations in your grammar guide. The same goes for the audio lessons. If you have trouble with a lesson, repeat it the next day. As the lessons get more complicated, I start doing them twice. The second time is actually more enjoyable. Hitting each phrase right on the money is a huge confidence booster.

be consistent

It is extremely important to study for a short time every day. Daily repetition makes the language second nature. It is much better to read for a short time every day than to put in several hours once or twice a week. When you get a spare minute, try finding new things to read online. You will be surprised how good your comprehension is.

After a few months of consistent practice you will really start to see progress. Beautiful foreign phrases with be stuck in your head, your pronunciation will be damn near decent, and you will be able to read and understand whole paragraphs. Once you make it this far, you’ll have some serious momentum going. You will understand more than you ever did in school and you won’t want to stop.

Taking off the Training Wheels

Eventually you will complete all the audio lessons and a couple dual language books. You’ll be able to read well with a dictionary and carry on simple conversations. You are now ready to spread your wings and fly. Start reading the greatest books in your language and use a dictionary when you need to. Find someone who speaks your new language and talk to them. Go to online forums for your new language and make an email buddy. If you can, plan a trip to a country that speaks your language and experience the local culture. If you are curious about another language, then start learning that too!

Regardless of how you use your new language skills, you will have become a more educated interesting person. More importantly, you will have proven to yourself that you are much smarter than you thought.

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  • http://www.italki.com/ Victor

    Oh I’m sorry to cross-post here…
    (remove the other post)

    I just wanted to note that there are now websites whose sole purpose is to find you language partners. I know http://www.italki.com is one of them. You can find language partners there, as well as tutors, and links to other good language learning sites.

  • http://www.pickthebrain.com John Wesley

    No problem Victor. I don’t mind the plug because it’s very relevant to the post and could be useful to readers.

  • http://blogosquare.com Hans

    wow! nice tips up there. I would also say that watching TV programs or movies in the foreign language subtitled with the language you understand so that you can follow, might also help.

    If you don’t have its TV channel, consider watching it online. It’s as you said to get the tone and way of speaking and pronounciation.

    Infact for the materials, getting online is a great way to get them free.

    I would like to ask you help infact in how to read books quickly and understanding them at the same time. I think reading is the best way to get better acquainted with the language. That’s why I would like to improve in my reading skills. Have you got any past article on the subject.

    Thanks indeed for the above tips.

    • Christine Jernigan

      Hi Hans,
      I’m always trying to improve my reading skills in Portuguese, a language I started learning in my 20′s. Sometimes I just google topics I like but write the expressions IN Portuguese. I use googletranslate if I am struggling with how to do that. Sometimes non-text things come up like youtube and they are actually VERY helpful to hear before I start reading b/c i’m better at listening  than reading. It gives me the vocabulary…keeps it fresh in my mind so that when I then click on one of the links with actual text, it’s easier to understand. Just something that helps me.  If you’re interested more in teaching yourself another language, I”ll have some videos on using children’s literature to learn another language. Still working on them at present but they’ll be up within a week at http://www.youtube.com/getbilingual  

  • Samir Mishra

    Hi
    some prob with your link as given below

    The requested URL /5-great-reason-to-learn-a-foreign-language was not found on this server.
    Apache/2.0.54 Server at http://www.pickthebrain.com Port 80

  • http://www.pickthebrain.com John Wesley

    I’m hoping that was a one time thing,. I just tried the link and it worked. Thanks for the heads up though.

  • http://captains-bridge.blogspot.com/ Tomas

    Hi, let me start with hearty Thank You. These my comments are literally the teaching myself a foreign Language. I am Lithuanian. Thank you for the possibility to talk and to comprehend what I am doing by leaving comments.
    you wrote:
    “The first step is acquiring the materials you will use to teach yourself” that looks logic, but I will allow myself to argue. I am deeply convinced the first step is the desire to say Hi my dear. Everything else will come as if of itself and is a secondary.
    Thank you.
    It would be grand to see you on my blog Captain’s bridge and bridge the far continents in a hug.

  • http://www.golefarhang.blogspot.com Violeta

    This is a very useful and informative post! I like the methods you recommend, and wanted to say that as a Farsi language student who has gone from no knowledge whatsoever to easy conversational skills in just 4 months through similar methods. Using heavy audio/visual and also following a much faster pace than conventional language classes/programs allow for has made a huge difference for compared to past language-learning experiences.

    Again, a great post! I’m bookmarking it in case I want to recommend it to friends in the future.

    ~Violeta

  • http://www.owresource.com Ibanez

    Good Stuff. Usually for most the motivation to keep going wears off, because they set a long term goal of fluency but never set shorter ones to give them a boost along the way.

    Visting the country is the best, even if you have to suffer from culture shock. However, it’s the best way to learn, do or die in a sense.

    • Christine Jernigan

      I totally agree about the importance of setting short term goals. I work with parents who are trying to raise bilingual children, eventhough the parents aren’t themselves bilingual. I’m always emphasizing the importance of even semi-bilingualism. Can’t let the perfect get in the way of the good.

  • http://www.financialgerman.co.uk meandering

    Although you might want to master a language, it is great fun when you visit the country after only a year of learning or even earlier. You’ll probably find that you can actually communicate with people despite your little knowledge of the language. In a way, that’s the most exciting phase. It’s like falling in love.

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  • http://klortho.livejournal.com/ Chris

    I guess you’ve never tried to learn Chinese. You skipped right from reading a few dual-language books to reading the greatest books in your target language. I’ve been studying Chinese intensively for two years and still can’t tackle popular novels, let alone the classics.

  • http://www.pickthebrain.com John Wesley

    You’re right, I was talking more about languages that use the standard Western alphabet. Any language that uses its own alphabet would be much harder to start reading.

  • Russel Marks

    I got the 404 error too:
    http://www.pickthebrain.com/5-great-reason-to-learn-a-foreign-language

    It should be:
    http://www.pickthebrain.com/blog/5-great-reason-to-learn-a-foreign-language

    With the “/blog” in there, I was able to read it.

    Great list, especially regarding resources. With all those things, you could learn a lot more effectively than in school. I recognize many elements from when I successfully became fluent in Spanish. I would just point out that becoming fluent is such a different experience that what you might be used to after one or two semesters in high school or college. It’s worth the effort, and you can get there in the same amount of time.

    If you get any tips for how to start reading Chinese, please add them.

    Thanks!

  • http://www.pickthebrain.com John Wesley

    Thanks, I just got that broken link corrected.

    Being fluent is something I plan on doing, once I acquire the freedom to travel and immerse myself somewhere. Hopefully it won’t take too long!

  • http://- RabidBibliophile

    I’m an avid linguaphile, but have had LITTLE success in traditional classrooms. While teaching my sons, I’ve established that they must “take” at least four years of foreign language study in the same language. My oldest started German at age 11, and ran through German 1-4 at the community college as well. Even with all of that practice, he cannot do more than pick through a paragraph in his target language! In contrast, a single month of using these technicques has given me at least the confidence to TRY the same type of reading in Welsh!

    Now he wants to switch to Japanese, and I’m *completely* at sea. Instead of trying to ‘keep ahead’ of him to help him study for class, I think we’re all going to incorporate these study tips and pick four different target languages! (My youngest is slowly learning ASL, I’m tackling Welsh, and the oldest wants to wrestle Japanese while continuing his German.)

    Another suggestion to mention for those looking to *immerse* themselves in target languages are IPOD BROADCASTS!!!!! There are very many in French, German, Spanish, Japanese and Italian, geared for beginning speakers, and I’ve found a few for other languages as well. I love these because I can pause, write down what it *sounds like* they’re saying, and when the broadcast is done, pick over the written estimate with the help of a grammar guide and dictionary. As a very WEAK auditory learner, putting things in print makes them ‘stick’ much more clearly in memory.

  • http://www.china232.com Gary

    Hi. I’ve been learning Chinese for a while and I find podcasts a great way to learn the language. I think one of the best things about them is that they are fun and relaxing. It feels as much like listening to a radio show as it does to be in a class.
    I teach ESL as well and I got my university students in China to listen to podcasts from http://www.china232.com
    They really like them and the classes have been much more enjoyable after using those podcasts.

    • http://ispeakx.com Jeannie

      Agree. Podcast is great for learning foreign languages. Watching movie/online videos, listening to songs are also effective. Additionally, text-to-speech can be useful too. See our site http://ispeakx.com which offers online text-to-speech as well as other features that improving language learning experiences.

  • http://www.audiobookstofit.com/ Paul

    True to the marrow John

    Definitely Pimsleur is the way as it teaches languages using the latest knowledge. It is the cutting edge method. Audio recordings featuring narrators whose performance is only second to none is essential since we learn by imitating the speaker. Exposure is another important factor. It is actually everything since a language is a means of communication and who else is better to communicate with than other people? Living for a while in a country where the language of our choice is spoken is an ideal learning environment.

    Keep up the good job!
    Paul

  • http://ProvantechTV.com David Jones

    Hey John,

    As, I mentioned in a different posting, I’ve managed to learn 4 foreign languages. I learned them extremely well(at least some of them). I spent a year in Brazil, and came back unable to speak english without an accent and mistakes. I spent 8 months total in Japan, and around month 6, I could call a native japanese person and they couldn’t tell I wasn’t japanese.

    I’ll let you know the secret. The secret is this:
    1. You have to learn from a native speak or speakers, immersed in the country that speaks the language. If you can’t, there are alternatives, but every alternative will give you lower quality results.
    2. The first thing you must learn is: “How do you say…”. and from that moment on, you avoid speaking your native language at all costs(well not all), except to say “…”.
    3. When you ask how to say something, or what something is called, immediately after hearing the person’s reply, repeat it to them, to complete the sentence or statement you wanted to make. If you make a mistake, ask again, and again. Always get it perfectly right. People tend to think they can get away with saying it slightly wrong or with a bad accent. I know their wrong, because the accent makes a huge difference in your experience, confidence and ability to learn more.
    4. Every day that you are in the country of interest, study grammar and memorize a certain difficult number of words. When I was in Japan, I would religiously force myself to learn 30 words a day. I wouldn’t actually learn the words. What I would do, is go over the list, over and over until I could mentally recall the meaning of each word. When I could do that, I would stop. Immediately I would forget most of the list. But, when I heard the word during the day or the next day, or sometimes even during the week, many times it would stick forever. That’s how I learned Japanese in no time.

    I have to say though, I stopped maintaining and learning languages now, because I felt I spent way too much time maintaining them, and very little or no time using them. For me it was fun when I did it, but not worth the time anymore

    Dave

  • raj

    send me charges of subscribing

  • http://www.bloggercamp.com Mark Penix

    One thing that also helps is watching TV in that language (where available) or listening to the radio (songs/broadcasts) in that language

  • http://www.thelinguist.com Steve Kaufmann

    As someone who has learned to speak nine languages fluently and is now reading and listening to Tolstoi in Russian after 15 months of self-study, one hour a day or so, I largely agree with what you say . I am not, however, a fan of Pimleur. I prefer intensive repetitive listening to meaningful input and the English on Pimsleur puts me off. In addition Pimselur simply does not teach you enough words to reach fluency. Fluency requires a large vocabulary.

    Where I also differ is in the use of dual language books, which I find tiring and distracting. I prefer reading on the computer with an online dictionary and have develop a method to accumulate an interactive database of the words and phrases that I learn from my listening and reading. But I agree that getting to authentic content asap is important. Blogs and podcasts are a great and growing source.

    A small grammar book is an option but not a necessity, even for Russian, in my experience. First just let the language penetrate and learn the words. Ask the odd question, yes but do not try to learn something for which you have no point of reference, the grammar of a new language.

    Chinese can be learned the same way, although a separate effort in learning the writing is mandatory for the system to work.

    Maintenance is not a problem as long as you create your own little world of interesting audio books, blogs and podcasts in the language and listen regularly.

    TV and video are fun and stimulating rewards for your effort, but not as portable or word-intense as listening and reading. And it is all about vocabulary!

    Since Pimsleur got a plug here, I hope you will not mind me mentioning my little project which is still incomplete but gradually getting there. http://www.thelinguist.com offers a free library of audio and text content in various languages, and is growing daily. It also has a link to a site for learning these languages using a method that I think corresponds to your main principles. I would be interested in your reaction

    Steve

    • zaiijh

      Hi Steve!
      How are you?
      In which was have you learned all 9 languages?
      Did u take classes? university? or a language program?

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  • http://www.edufire.com Jon Bischke

    Really good comments here. One of the things that we firmly believe at eduFire is that when you make learning social you make it much more effective and enjoyable. The best way to learn a language is to travel to a place where you’re forced to survive on the language. But in the absence of that there are a lot of things you can do from the comfort of your home.

    We haven’t launched yet but in the meantime we have compiled hundreds of lanugage-learning resources for you. Here’s the link:

    http://blog.edufire.com

    Enjoy!

  • http://www.englishryan.com Ryan

    Great article!

    I read some of the posts above and also agree that podcasting can be a fun and very helpful way to learn a language. I have been studying Chinese using this method and have made tremendous progress in only a few months.

    I also have a podcast of my own that teaches English while talking about interesting topics (celebrities, video games, popular music, etc). I try to keep the lessons very structured so that students are actually improving the language skills as they listen. If you are interested – http://www.englishryan.com

    Thanks again for the post

    Ryan

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  • http://www.vandoornslanguagetechnique.com Adriaan Van Doorn

    Learning a foreign language can be easy for some people but not for all. The best way to learn a foreign language is to tailor a custom program for the individual. Visit my website

    http://vandoornslanguagetechnique.com

    for details on how to custom your own language learning program based on the Proto-Indo-European Language Family Tree.

  • anoumus…

    im only 11 and i have already learned 35 Japanese on my own
    i bet because i started learning now i will be fluent in about a year or two

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  • http://www.facedestiny.com Maggi

    I spent 4 years at nightschool learning Greek, repeating the same level a couple of times because the college didn’t offer anything else and I wanted the active input.
    I’ve also used audio tape/books such as Greek in 3 Months, the BBC Greek course, and Rosetta Stone CDs.
    Now I live in Greece so have the opportunity to speak and learn the language in situ.

    All methods have good and bad points. Interaction with others is important, but I’d agree with an earlier commenter who said this needs to be a native speaker if possible. My Greek teacher had lived in Crete for 10 years so was pretty good with pronunciation and idiosynchrasies of the language.

    Rosetta Stone lets you hear native speakers, and has a good range of options (audio only, reading only, a mix of the two, speaking and ‘writing’). The latter two are weaker sections, especially the speaking where you’re supposed to match pronunciation but sometimes have to speak a long phrase straight off to register on the recorder.

    Rosetta Stone fails to give enough dialog in the first person. It’s biased towards 3rd person which isn’t really helpful as I’m much more likely to want to talk about what I want than what he/she/it wants. Their choice of verbs raises some questions – I know how to talk about horse riding and jumping off tables and into swimming pools, but I’m not sure when I’ll really need to!

    Another failing of RS is the lack of supporting materials, which means it’s possible to get things right without really understanding what you’re saying. I needed to consult a dictionary frequently and also used my other text books to make sure I understood the tenses as these were often unclear just from the CD materials (it’s difficult for a picture to show different tenses accurately sometimes.

    Living in the country doesn’t always make it a whole lot easier though. Greeks like to practice their English, and prefer this to letting me practice my Greek. And it’s discouraging when my Greek is perfectly understood but I’m still answered in English. But my skills are slowly improving.

    The Greeks seem to have a natural habit of correcting grammar which I find helpful as it’s done in a very subtle way. In fact I don’t think they realize they’re doing it, they’re just saying the correct word out loud so they can be sure they’ve understood.

  • http://howtoteachkids.info Charla

    I’ll have to remember this site if someone I know wants to learn a foreign language.

  • http://www.theLanguageBear.com Language Bear

    I’ve been teaching myself languages for years now and I find reading bilingual books to be a great way to learn. There are also lots of different types of flash cards out there. Make sure to try them all and find the ones that work for you. (Check my site for some that I’ve created) It’s important to review vocab ALL the time since it can be hard to actually USE the language with others.

  • DUE

    My new language now is English, I studied English at school, but it wasn’t that good, so now I am trying to self-study it back.
    My level is intermediate. I know all language basics, but my problem is that I do not have people to talk in English with, I kept talking to myself, is this enough?

  • http://www.languagevox.com Language Vox

    Great tips. I would however suggest talking the ¨new language¨from day 1. Learning by doing is the way to go. One of the biggest problems with language learners is that they get stuck in the ¨reading about learning¨ and ¨learning grammar¨when what they want to do is to start understanding and speaking.

    I believe that one of the biggest impediments for that to happen is being afraid of making mistakes.

  • http://speakrussian.bilstonaudio.com/ ZivonBagge

    I like to learn the programm of you.
    Thanks for blog.
    Learn Russian Audio

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  • http://www.sharinglanguage.com Jose

    Hello, very interesting article. Thank you.
    Learning a second language is not only fan but also rewarding. I have been studying English for some years, and one of the things that amaze me the most is to everyday realize that I am improving. Even though, at times, you belive not to be improving, you actually are. And I am more than happy when I see that I am able to understand people and texts that I wasn´t able to. Even, to read this article was just a pleasure. I hope to continue learning and enjoying while doing it.
    And, of course, I would recommend to practice as much as possible, and with native speakers if possible. For example, here, at http://www.sharinglanguage.com, you will be able to meet native speakers of any language. If you complement this kind of practice with the study of grammar, it will help you really a lot.
    Best regards!

  • http://bit.ly/75fWgR Homework Help

    Good Article, learning other language can be a fun just needs to practice finely….

    Best Wishes !!

  • http://bit.ly/75fWgR Homework Help

    Good Article, learning other language can be a fun just needs to practice and have to give proper time towards….

    Best Wishes !!

  • http://customizedfatlossreview.net Jack’s Customized Fat Loss

    Nice article! I can totally relate, cause I’m learning an Asian language by myself. Written in the article were some helpful tips, i can use to learn more in a fun and easy way.

    - Jack Leak

  • http://customizedfatlossreview.net Jack’s Customized Fat Loss

    Nice article! I can totally relate, cause I’m learning an Asian language by myself. Written in the article were some helpful tips, i can use to learn more in a fun and easy way.

    - Jack Leak

  • http://customizedfatloss.com/ Jack’s Customized Fat Loss

    I used to
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    - Jack Leak
    Customized Fat Loss

  • http://twitter.com/barbiefantasies catherine’s designs

    I totally agree with those tips. I believe the main thing in language learning is consistency. You should really regularly try to do at least something. I also think that is is very important to use a good book. Here I’m giving some tips on that based on my own experience: http://en.lifepractice.de/?p=119

  • Christine Jernigan

    What fun ideas!  I’m working with parents who are trying to learn another language to then share it with their kids. Check out video clips I made with my daughter about teaching her Portuguese eventhough I’m not a native speaker. http://www.youtube.com/getbilingual                 Let me know what topics about language learning you’d like me to cover in upcoming videos!

  • sam

    good advoices thanks

  • EnglishSpanishandFrench

    All is well… 
    Although I don’t really approve of the starting out with a grammar book. In my language learning experience, I think grammar is best to be introduced at more of an advanced beginner level. One needs to build up vocab and attain the necessary building blocks beforehand, and then learning and reading through a grammar book will be much more interesting, and amazingly: actually fun. 

    As for an audio course I would recommend Michel Thomas or Paul Noble over Pimsleur, not only because Thomas and Noble are wayyyyy cheaper, but they have more content AND more quality. Pimsleur is parrot drilling. Listen, repeat. Thomas and Noble actually force you to think and construct your own sentences on the building blocks they have provided you with.

    All in all, good post.

  • EnglishSpanishandFrench

    All is well… 
    Although I don’t really approve of the starting out with a grammar book. In my language learning experience, I think grammar is best to be introduced at more of an advanced beginner level. One needs to build up vocab and attain the necessary building blocks beforehand, and then learning and reading through a grammar book will be much more interesting, and amazingly: actually fun. 

    As for an audio course I would recommend Michel Thomas or Paul Noble over Pimsleur, not only because Thomas and Noble are wayyyyy cheaper, but they have more content AND more quality. Pimsleur is parrot drilling. Listen, repeat. Thomas and Noble actually force you to think and construct your own sentences on the building blocks they have provided you with.

    All in all, good post.

  • Clumsy Annie

    I tried to learn Chinese but that did not work out so well. That was kinda suck

  • http://www.theuniuni.com/ cheap bras

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  • amknightingale

    I would also like to suggest a slight side note for those who want to teach themselves a new language but either don’t have the confidence or use the usual excuses of ‘not having enough time’ or it being ‘too expensive’. If you check out http://www.fluentin3months.com/ and read some of what Benny has to say, it might help you get motivated or give you some more good ideas on where to start! Go for it!

  • amknightingale

    I would also like to suggest a slight side note for those who want to teach themselves a new language but either don’t have the confidence or use the usual excuses of ‘not having enough time’ or it being ‘too expensive’. If you check out http://www.fluentin3months.com/ and read some of what Benny has to say, it might help you get motivated or give you some more good ideas on where to start! Go for it!

  • amknightingale

    I would also like to suggest a slight side note for those who want to teach themselves a new language but either don’t have the confidence or use the usual excuses of ‘not having enough time’ or it being ‘too expensive’. If you check out http://www.fluentin3months.com/ and read some of what Benny has to say, it might help you get motivated or give you some more good ideas on where to start! Go for it!

  • Hikton_z

    Hi nice tip thanks a lot. It is more helpful i think those who are struggling a new language my be help full. Thanks

  • Hikton_z

    Hi nice tip thanks a lot. It is more helpful i think those who are struggling a new language my be help full. Thanks

  • Chloe Holler456

    too long for me to read, i just skipped to the comments…. learning a new language sounds hard and confusing, i might just give up.

    • http://www.facebook.com/luke.givens.963 Luke Givens

      You sound sad and depressing. Maybe you should just give up on life if you can’t read a one page article. 

  • Ana Caroline

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