Four questions about language-learning, solved here

Get over problems by focusing on the basics
Get over problems by focusing on the basics

I wanted to get back to basics this week.  I would like to say that the following are the most common questions and complaints that I hear from people when they ask me.  I will be honest and say that these are from ME; I keep asking myself these questions.  So here is the advice that I most often give myself.  Maybe it will help you, too.  I’m lucky that I keep having a lot of great experiences that help me when motivation flags.  I’m sure that you will soon have some great anecdotes to help motivate you.  Languages are not hard if I focus on a reasonable amount of time to work each day, if I talk to people, and if I use methods that are fun and helpful.

Learning a language is hard!

Speaking in one’s native language is almost as unconscious as breathing.  Speaking in another language looks like working calculus on a unicycle–with a time limit.


Always remember that 4-year-olds can speak their native language, but it takes years of labor, interactions, encouragement, and adorable mistakes.  I’ve found that as soon as I’m ready to just try, I am constantly making incremental improvement.  I always keep in mind that it takes a child 4 years to speak like a 4-year-old: that keeps my progress in perspective.

What method should I use?

With so many methods of learning out there, I’ll have to do tons of research.  Many of them cost so much money that buying the wrong one would really set me back.


Start with Google, and search for “learn (language name).”  Helpful information will come up right away.  For example, when I google (learn Tamil), the first five sites would take me several weeks to get through, if I wanted to spend some time every day– everything from writing the alphabet to basic dialogues (written and audio) and intermediate grammar.  After you find out what you like and dislike among the free material, you can start looking for paid material.

How can I talk to somebody?

My first problem might be I don’t know anyone who speaks the language I’m learning.  My second problem might be I know someone who speaks it, but I’m embarrassed to torture this person by making them listen to my terrible speech.  I mean, I can barely say, “Hello“!

Solution to first:

There are two places to look for speakers.  One is in real space.  “Ethnic” shops and festivals cater to people who likely speak your language.  And if you go, you already demonstrate your open curiosity to another culture, so you will make a good first impression just by showing up.  Try out your language as much as you can.  Make sure you say “hello” in that language or “Do you speak (your langauge)?” at every opportunity.

Another place to look is in cyberspace.  I found the site to be invaluable in finding speakers to talk to over Skype.  But speakers of every language are all over the net, if you look for them.  Many of them want to learn English, so language trades are easy to set up so everyone wins.

Solution to second:

Most people enjoy it when others are learning their language.  I was learning Russian in school in the 80s.  The first time I met a real Russian, the Russian conversation didn’t last past, “How are you?”  The man very kindly made me recite the days of the week, and it was really helpful for me.  I wasn’t putting him out; while he was relaxing in the park, he enjoyed teaching me–just some young guy–the days of the week.  I began only knowing “hello,” and left knowing the days of the week really well.  Any interaction will surely teach me something–and will be a pleasure for the other person.

I don’t have time!

With work, friends, family, and working around the house, I can’t spend tons of time on a language.  Languages take years to learn and I’m just making it through the day.


Work 15 minutes per day, 5-6 days per week.  You will make progress.  You don’t have to memorize vocabulary and grammar all the time.  You can Skype or IM with speakers of your language on-line, or you can watch a TV show or listen to a podcast.  If you hear a word a lot, look it up, or ask your real space or cyberspace friends what the word means.  Writing is helpful, too.  For example, I write up dialogues of what I want to talk about in Somali.  Then I ask my Somali friends over lunch at work how to translate some of the lines.  Every now and then, I read through a dialogue for 5 minutes to learn the phrases better.  You can also write essays and get corrections from native-speaker friends.

Overall goals

I would set up some large-scale goals of what you want to learn just to keep your overall aims clear.  Write them down.  You can make goals for how much vocabulary you want to learn, how many essays you want to write, how many times a month you want to venture to a local center for your language.  Focus on methods that are enjoyable and fruitful.  Do your best to keep up with your goals, but remember that steady progress is the ultimate goal.  If you continue with 15 minutes per day you will make progress.

What are your greatest roadblocks to learning languages?  How do you stay motivated?  Do you have any cool stories that help keep you motivated?

Photo credit: illuminaut / / CC BY-NC-SA

12 thoughts on “Four questions about language-learning, solved here

  1. Hi, I Speak English at middle level. I think I’ve got stuck to this level for years with no noticeable progress. What overwhelms me is that language structures sound infinite…


    1. Yes! They keep going on and on. Then you get into idioms and poetry, and it gets deeper.

      I think that broadening one’s horizons helps things. When I was teaching my kids Russian, I realized that I had some trouble with some of the vocabulary. Fairy tales talk about animals and tools that nobody talks about in everyday life. They are much more connected to the land, while my vocabulary is linked to school and the city.

      I also learned some silly kids’ songs–and now they’re stuck in my head.

      This is how little Russian kids learn, and the language is the basis for their literacy.

      Have you tried learning little kids’ things, like memorizing songs and poetry? Google “Mother Goose”–you’ll find some fun stuff there 🙂 It will be a nice change of pace, too.


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  3. Thank you for this post! I only can learn languages if I enjoy doing it. I can’t learn a language by studying vocabulary or grammar without a context… and when I teach (German, Italian and French), I prefer making examples from the “real life” and this works pretty good for me too. My best way to study a new language is 1) listening to it constantly (CD’s, DVD’s, radio etc.), even without really paying attention, to interiorize the sound of it, 2) reading everything I can find, starting with books for children (easy sentence structure and vocabolary), small easy articles, books etc. 3) talking to people I know are native speakers. I need to consider learning a language like a game, something I like and that’s exciting. After I’ve achieved a good level of passive and active competence, I love comparing the language structures… “déformation professionnelle”…


    1. I like your methods. I think I use many of them. I’ve been watching more Farsi TV shows, and I like to listen to the Somali guys at work talk. I’m not reading as much as I’d like, though. I’ve focused more on talking to native speakers. It’s so rare I leave one of those conversations without more knowledge.


  4. Michael

    I do not mean to overwhelm you with some unimportant information and my ideas. I know German and Russian pretty well. In the past I completed advanced courses of German and Russian. I just thought that some valuable information on issues of learning these languages might be of interest to you and might be quite helpful in your language activities. As a former ESL teacher I no longer teach English as I have finished my ESL teaching career. I do not need that information much. I gained it as a result of extensive exploration.

    What information may be really helpful to you? Perhaps I may have some valuable information worth corresponding at your convenience, for example my highly practical English learning articles (suitable for learning German, Russian and many other languages), my extensive lists of the most helpful German, Russian and English learning resources, and links to highly helpful language learning tips (advice).


    1. I also know Russian and German. Where did you learn them? I spent time in both places, though I started learning them in the US. How long did you teach ESL? Why did you get out of teaching ESL?

      It sounds like you have an interesting story . . .


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  8. Pingback: Week 10 of Loving Somali: No more advice, please. I just want to love languages. | Loving Language

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