If you search online, there is no shortage of sites or apps that promise to make you fluent in a language within months – or sometimes, in just weeks – and there are many self-learning books that carry titles making similar claims.
However, while you can certainly acquire enough language to “get by” in a relatively short time, there’s no escaping the fact that reaching a more advanced level takes much longer.
If you have higher ambitions than simply being able to order a coffee or check into a hotel in a foreign language, a much more reasonable timescale to consider is one year – and with a year of study, you can expect to reach a respectable level of proficiency.
At the end of a year, you should feel comfortable discussing a range of topics. You should be able to understand what people say to you and know how to answer, and you should able to deal confidently with most situations you are likely to meet while traveling in places where the language is spoken.
Even better, if you know what you are doing, you can achieve this entirely through self-study – and in this post, I’ll tell you how.
You’re about to commit to a year of self-study, and one of the keys to success will be maintaining your motivation.
If you stick with it for one year, you can make huge progress, but one of the main reasons people fail to learn a language is that they give up before they see the results.
In many ways, it’s like joining the gym.
When you sign up, maybe your aim is to lose weight or perhaps you want that perfect beach body for the summer. You know your goal, and you’re full of determination to achieve it.
However, as time passes, there will be moments when you falter.
There will be mornings when you prefer your bed to the gym, and there will be times when you can’t resist that extra slice of cake. But in those moments, your coach is there to remind you of your goals and encourage you to keep going.
Learning a language is the same. There will be times when you are too busy or too tired to study, and you will face moments when you feel you aren’t making any progress and want to give up.
To combat this, before you start, take time to think about your reasons for learning.
What do you hope to achieve in your new language? Do you need to use it for business? Would you like to be able to read novels? Do you want to have a conversation with a family member who speaks the language?
And how will speaking another language make your life better? Will it lead to a more interesting job? Will you be able to move abroad to live or study?
Think about your motivations for learning and what excites you about speaking a new language. Write them down on a piece of paper and put it somewhere safe.
This way, whenever you feel too lazy to study or begin to doubt your progress, you can look back at what you wrote to rekindle your enthusiasm and get excited about learning again.
With autonomous language learning, you need to be ready to be your own gym coach!
A big part of staying motivated is being aware of your progress. A sense of achievement is the fuel that will drive you on, and one way to ensure you experience this is being methodical and systematic in your approach.
Furthermore, if you just jump in and start learning without any clear idea of what you are doing or where you are going, it’s easy to become overwhelmed, but with a plan, you will always know what you should be doing.
To give you the structure you need – and to set up clear milestones – we’re going to divide your year of study into two phases.
When you start, you will probably know little or nothing of the language you’re going to study. This means that at the beginning, you need a large amount of linguistic input – you need to be exposed to the basics of the language to give you the tools for basic communication. For this reason, we’ll call the first phase “Study and Learn”.
However, you will never be able to speak a language through study alone.
To achieve a good level of proficiency in a language, you also need to use it in real situations, so we’ll call the second phase “Practice and Use”.
To be successful, you need to set aside a specific time for study every day – and stick to it. Studying just a little every day is much better than studying for five hours once a week, and building a daily study habit will allow you to achieve your goals.
Try to study for 45 minutes or one hour every day, and try to never skip a day. You will miss some days, of course – but if you do your best to stick to it, you can potentially clock 300-350 study hours throughout the year.
Now let’s have a look at how to go about it in more detail.
Choose a good coursebook
As I mentioned, your study needs to be methodical and systematic, and this is especially true at the beginning, so to give you the structure you require, start by finding a good coursebook to follow.
Your coursebook will guide you through what you need to learn, and you will know how to spend your study time each day.
A perfect option is Assimil since these courses give you one complete lesson to study every day, and the whole course usually takes just under six months to complete, the perfect length of time for our purposes. However, English versions are only available for the most popular languages, so you might need to look elsewhere.
The FSI materials are another possibility – Headstart or Basic would be best – but these are not designed for autonomous study, so they might be more challenging for first-time language learners.
Whatever you choose, you will need to find structured course materials that you can use for the first six months of your learning.
I also recommend supplementing this with a secondary coursebook. This way, you will see language presented and explained in different ways, and this will help you understand it better.
Seeing the same language in different contexts will also fix it in your memory more effectively, further consolidating what you have learned.
For your secondary coursebook, the Teach Yourself series is a good choice – and the FSI courses are also ideal for use as secondary materials.
For the first three months, simply work through your coursebook, making sure you study every day.
Try not to miss any days. Once you skip a day, it gets easier to skip another – and before you realize, you’ve missed a whole week. And at that point, you’re already dangerously close to giving up.
If you have a second coursebook, spend any spare time each day working through that too.
If you want to do ten minutes or so per day on something like Duolingo, that’s also ok– it can help build your vocabulary. However, do this only in addition to your main study because if you spend most of your time on Duolingo, you won’t learn anything.
At this stage, don’t worry too much about grammar. To begin with, just work on building your daily study habit, absorbing new words and getting used to hearing and pronouncing the sounds of the language.
By the end of three months of study, you should already have a good grasp of the basics. You’ve reached your first big milestone, so congratulate yourself on everything you’ve already achieved.
Now you need to start working on output too.
You should already have enough language to start building sentences and short dialogs, so in addition to your regular study with your coursebook, spend time writing out or speaking sentences – and even having conversations with yourself.
This might sound strange, but it is an excellent way to practice. You don’t need someone there to correct every error, and just the process of working out how to say things and speaking sentences will prepare you for talking to a real person.
When you do this, make sure you always speak at full volume and not under your breath. This is so important for building fluency and working on pronunciation.
At this point, you can also start looking for partners on language exchange apps like Tandem or HelloTalk. You won’t be able to have full-blown conversations with native speakers yet, but you can try typing – or even sending voice messages if you’re feeling confident.
At the beginning, you might only be able to say the most basic things, but you will soon start making more complicated sentences, deploying ever more of the vocabulary you have assimilated.
Don’t worry if you don’t understand much – or anything – of what people say to you, and don’t worry if you make mistakes – this is perfectly normal. Instead, just celebrate how much you can already express in your new language.
If you can have a simple conversation, that’s already a big achievement.
Once you reach the six-month mark, it’s time to stop and take stock. If you managed to stick with it, you should have finished working through your original study materials, and you will have a good foundation of basic vocabulary, expressions and grammar.
Take out the piece of paper where you wrote down your goals and motivations, review it and congratulate yourself on the progress you’ve already made. You may also wish to add new goals or motivations if anything has changed.
Six months is a big milestone, and if you’ve made it this far, the hardest part is already done. From here on, things are about to get much more interesting!
Up to this point, you have been working through your coursebook. However, now it’s time to look for ways to start using and practicing the language in more authentic situations.
In Phase II, you still need to stick to your daily study routine, but now you need to take more responsibility for what you learn.
Take time to find new materials to work on, and make sure you give yourself plenty of variety. Don’t fall into the trap of doing the same thing every day – this will quickly get boring, and it also won’t expose you to language in the range of contexts you require.
Since you are no longer being guided by a coursebook, you are also responsible for making sure your study is still organized and methodical.
Take ten minutes at the start of each week to plan your study for the rest of the week. This way, you set yourself a goal for the week, you know in advance what you are going to do each day and you can ensure your study is adequately varied. Then review at the end of the week to evaluate what you achieved.
Do the same at the start and end of each month too. Doing this will allow you to set up mini milestones to keep track of your progress.
We called Phase I “Study and Learn” because, during the first six months, your goal was simply to absorb as much new language as possible.
However, the second phase is called “Practice and Use” because from now on, you need to start applying what you have learned in a more practical way.
Of course, when you look at new material, one aim is still to acquire new bits of language, but another is to use the language rather than just study it.
So for example, if you read an article about whaling, you might find some useful new words you want to remember – but you will also learn something about whaling, the same as if you were reading the article in English.
If you listen to a podcast about life in Paris, you will learn some new expressions, but you will also find out about how people live in the French capital.
Now, you are taking an interest in the content of the material and not just the language you can learn from it. Your language use is no longer just a learning exercise, it is becoming more real.
In Phase II, the important thing is to make sure you spend enough time on each different aspect of language learning.
Reading is an excellent activity, but if you spend all your time reading, you will have trouble speaking or understanding when you try to have a conversation with a native speaker, for example
Instead, divide your study time each week between different activities, including listening, reading and vocabulary work. You can also spend time working on your writing, although writing is a specific skill that is difficult to learn alone, and for most people, the other skills will be more important.
You should also spend some time tidying up your grammar. Try to find a good grammar book and work through any points that still seem ambiguous to you – although, even now, don’t get too hung up on grammar since most of it will fall into place with time.
Always try to work with materials you find interesting. This will make learning more fun, and you are also more likely to retain vocabulary or expressions that are relevant to you.
Finally, it is extremely important to choose materials that are the right level. If it’s too easy, you won’t learn anything new, but if it’s too hard, you won’t understand anything and you won’t benefit. As a guideline, if you understand about 75% of what you are working on, this is just about right.
Check out my post here for more details about choosing the right study materials to work with and where to find them.
The final piece of the jigsaw is practice, and without this, all your efforts will be for nothing – because you can’t learn to speak a language without…speaking it!
It is important to understand that you don’t need to learn something new every time you sit down to study for it to have value. In Phase II, you still need language input so your knowledge continues to grow, but you also need time to practice what you have learned.
Think of someone learning the piano. They don’t need to learn a new piece of music every time they sit down to play, and many times they will simply practice and perfect the pieces they already know.
It’s the same with learning a language. Sometimes you need to learn new things, but sometimes you just need to practice, so when you are planning your week or month, you need to build in time for it.
Include specific time for listening practice and make sure you spend time on your speaking. If you have a language partner, having a 15-minute conversation with them every day is just as valuable as spending that time doing grammar exercises or working through a pile of flashcards – in fact, probably more so.
Even if you don’t have anyone to speak to, speak to yourself – or your goldfish or pet pebble. At first, you might feel like you should be doing something more “useful” – but believe me, as part of a balanced learning schedule, this type of exercise is as valuable as any other.
Speaking to people is one of the main reasons you learn a language, so to master a language, it is essential to find ways to practice this vital skill.
During the second half of your year of study, you may catch yourself reading a magazine article in your new language just because you are interested in the topic. At other times, you will find yourself chatting to your language partner – in their language – not because you are “studying” but because they have become your friend, and it’s just normal to talk to them.
When this happens, you have successfully made your new language a part of your daily life. You are now using the language for real communication rather than studying it – it has reached “critical mass”, and as long as you continue to practice, it will keep growing and expanding naturally.
By the end of the first year of study, this is what you should aim for, and when it happens, it’s “mission accomplished” – after which, your language skills will only continue to improve.
This post is the first part of a two-part series about autonomous learning. In the second post, I will go into more detail about some of the ideas I’ve introduced here as well as giving you some additional suggestions to help you achieve your learning goals.