Learning Languages with Self-Study

Learning a new language is quite the task for adults. Gone are the times when we picked up our mother language seemingly effortless as a child. Additionally work and other obligations cut into the time that can be spend on studying. It's still possible to learn languages in self-study though and the big advantages are free time management and self-paced progression into new material.

Get Out of the Classroom

Learning languages in a classroom environment has long been considered the go-to solution for students of all proficiency levels, from beginners to more advanced speakers.

Learning a language in a classroom has some serious disadvantages though. All students in a class are basically bound to learn at the same speed. This inevitably means that for almost all participants the introduction of new material and the reinforcement of previously introduced concepts is either progressing too quickly or going too slow. Additionally the teacher's attention is by necessity divided between all students and his own teaching efforts.

Another reason for the questionable efficiency of language learning in a classroom is that a major aspect of language acquisition is to memorize vocabulary, the very foundation of speaking any language. In a class vocabulary learning is usually relatively slow, even if it has the advantage that new words can be immediately used, which improves retention.

On the other hand large volumes of words can be much better learned individually, when the learning speeds of fellow students are not a concern. With the huge amount of online resources for language learning available today, it's absolutely possible to leave the classroom behind and learn on your own accord. This means not being tied to rigid time schedules, the freedom to learn at your own speed and to go more in-depth with any topic you fancy.

That doesn't mean that learning in a class is useless, if you think you can benefit from it, or are bound to learn in a class anyway, use it to your advantage as good as you can.

The New Tools for Language Learning

Pretty much anything you could need for learning any non-obscure language should be available somewhere on the internet for free. Be it vocabulary, grammar rules, texts for language learners or spoken audio recordings. There is probably a place to get all of that and then some for your language of choice.

The next big thing are interactive learning tools that more or less automatically guide you through certain aspects of learning a new language. The beauty of this new era of language learning is that it can adapt to a student. The right tool or learning platform will challenge without overburdening you. Additionally the vast amount of information pertaining to a language can be laid out and made accessible in a much more efficient way than any book or rigid classroom language course ever could.

Two such platforms, which you can use free of charge and which both offer courses for a range of languages:

Duolingo: Has interactive translation exercises and introduces vocabulary step by step. Material is organized in a clear structure and students have to learn lower tiers before they can tackle more advanced material. This is a good choice to get into a language you have no prior knowledge about.

Memrise: A good platform for vocabulary acquisition with spaced repetition. Many courses have audio recordings for each word which immensely useful for learning vocabulary. Courses are community created and a long list of languages is already available.

Both are good starting points for computer aided language earning and they work well when used together. Their strongest benefit is that they automatically adapt to your learning speed and allow you to learn as much or as little as you want at any time. This kind of self-control benefits the study of a language greatly, because it increases motivation and memory retention.


An important factor to improve and speed up your learning efforts is to immerse yourself in a language. Ideally you would want to be in a country where your language of choice is being spoken. When you are surrounded by people speaking the language all the time, you have basically no other choice but to learn quickly. Whenever you fail to communicate something in the local language, you will be naturally inclined to learn how to do it better next time. This arguably helps to memorize vocabulary better than anything else.

If you cannot be in the country of your language, you have to bridge that learning gap with all kinds of material in the target language. Start listening to podcasts in the foreign language, there are many free podcasts for language students available and you can listen to them wherever you go, your daily commute can for example be an excellent time to listen to native speakers.

Watching movies and TV shows in the foreign language is also very effective at getting you immersed. You can start out by watching with subtitles turned on and later switch them off, when you have a grasp of the foundations.

When you are more advanced you can try to read books. This can be very challenging for new speakers and you would be well advised to pick books that are targeted at younger readers first, or you might get overwhelmed with new vocabulary. Don't waste your time with looking up each and every word though, as long as you understand what is being said in context.

Reading news sites in your new language of choice is also a great exercise to train your comprehension. They usually use a relatively limited vocabulary that caters well to learners.

Last but not least, try to find people nearby who are from the country of your target language. Talking to friends in their native language is a good way to improve your conversational skills and maybe you can help them at the same time to improve their command of your own language.


Being motivated is one of the greatest boosters to learning. Learning a language because you have to and learning it because you really want to are two completely different things. If you have decided to learn a new language on your own, you probably have a good reason to do so and can keep your motivation up by focusing on your long term goal.

Even then you might have phases where you are a bit out of steam and the drive to move forward just isn't there. An important factor of learning a language learning is to study regularly though. If you neglect your vocabulary repetitions for too long a lot of the effort you have put in earlier will effectively be lost, because the memory has a tendency to discard information when it hasn't been used in a while. It's therefore a good idea to at least repeat what you have already learned occasionally, even if you feel no motivation to learn new material. This will at least keep your previous work on a usable level and you can later go back to learning all the new things you haven't seen yet.

Don't forget to reward yourself occasionally for your advances. You can set yourself certain milestones, like numbers of words learned or podcasts listened, and allow yourself little indulgences for reaching them. Such rewards are a good way to keep pushing towards a goal and to increase long-term motivation.

Language and Linguistics

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