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.


Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

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