Hand emerging from a pile of screwed up paper, holding a sign saying "Help!"

He Said ‘Help’! How To Learn A New Language

I hear this request “Help me how to learn a new language!” all the time. I am a member of many online groups for language learners, and I kid you not, every day I would see this type of post come up several times…

“I am a speaker of X language wanting to learn Y language. I can speak a little bit but understand a lot more. I have very little time due to my job but would still love to learn. Any suggestions?”.

So, how do I learn a new language at the moment?

1 Pimsleur lesson, 1 Memrise app session and 1 ‘Teach Yourself’ type book is a good commitment for me to do most days.

I switch daily activities to my target language to integrate more of the language into my life.

And I listen to Pimsleur or songs when driving.

For those of you who want a little more detail, keep reading 🙂

How To Find Time To Learn A New Language

Child riding a bike with parents helping.
Photo by Agung Pandit Wiguna

I feel like the most important point to keep in mind when approaching language learning is to accept that you have a life.

You have friends, family, work, study… and these activities continue when you are learning a new language.

Be realistic. Spending time on any hobby takes time… what is it going to ‘take time’ from?

Yes, the more minutes you invest each day, the faster you will progress toward fluency, but if you have kids around the house, you just aren’t going to be able to invest the same amount of time as if you were single and living alone.

Having noted that learning languages takes time… don’t feel it is impossible because you have “little time”.

Many serial language learners spend only 20-30 mins a day actively learning. Then they add exposure time by switching every day activities into their target language. So they aren’t ‘taking time’ … they just exchange it.

Now, in my current project of Spanish I’m really a false beginner… I have dabbled for about 20 hours already, over the past several years.

But I want to get to a B1 level within the next 6 months.

That means I need to spend at least an hour a day actually focussing on learning. I will also try to spend another hour a day actively listening to music, or watching YouTube videos in Spanish.

I actually have an incredibly busy next six months, probably twice as busy as normal, so all my learning has to happen around work, study, this blog, and preparing to move countries.

Language Learning Activities – How to Learn a New Language?

Active Study Activities

When I am actively learning a new language, I make a commitment to never go to bed without spending at least 15 minutes on a flashcard app, and prioritising 30 minutes or so on a chapter from a study course.

I don’t have to do it all at one time, I can divvy the time up according to the day’s activities. But I do find it easiest to do my study course material first thing in the morning.

Then I spend another 25-30 minutes listening to a Pimsleur audio lesson when I go for a walk each day, or when I’m driving or commuting.

Passive Exposure

Person playing on their phone.
Photo by Katerina Holmes

In the evenings, or at lunch or break times, I find a YouTube or podcast channel in my target language that is in an interest area – perhaps travel, or personal development, or business. And I listen to them for entertainment.

Even before I am particularly far along in my study I will do this, as it helps me to tune my ear to the sounds of the language, and to hear how native speakers say things colloquially. If I subscribe to the channel, it makes it easy to find each day.

Talk To Myself

Another activity I start to do as soon as possible is to practise speaking to myself. Maybe I have just learned the names of colours, and I will start to say when nothing else is in my head things like “The grass is green. That tree is green too. Look at the red flowers.” Even if I don’t know the word for ‘tree’ or ‘flower’, I will just say as much as possible in my target language, and then throw in the English words for the rest (and make a mental note, or better, a note on my phone to remind me to learn those words!).

Conversation Practice

Conversations are a great way how to learn a new language.
Practising speaking languages helps.

Once I feel I can put a few basic sentences together, I try to find patient people to practise with. I prefer face-to-face, so I always try locally. But if that fails, I see if I can find a language partner online through language learning groups, or I hire a community tutor with iTalki. This seems to be the online service most serial language learners find most helpful for finding a teacher or a community tutor to chat with.

Which Language Learning Apps Are Best?

Duolingo Green Owl Logo

Honestly, the language app that attracts you the most is the one that is best for you to use. They all have pros and cons, and different apps are attractive to different styles of learner.

Many people use Duolingo, because it is an attractive looking app (and has been very well marketed!). You can read my review of Duolingo for an indepth look at the little Green Owl.

I personally really like Memrise.com. I have used it to learn Biblical Hebrew, French and now Polish and Spanish – in fact, it is usually my ‘go-to’ flashcard app, because there are so many community contributed courses, that you can usually find what you want.

The Spanish course also has video clips of native speakers saying the words and phrases, which makes it easier to follow the different sounds (especially when they speak very fast for a beginner!).

Which Language Study Course Should I Use?

Teach Yourself Spanish Course

When making this decision, for me it depends on the language, what resources I have already hoarded, and what I like the look of – and also the stage of language learning I am up to. I have just started actively learning Spanish, and to start with I am using the Teach Yourself Beginner’s Spanish study course. I bought this years ago, and have had it on the shelf ever since. It’s so old it has a cassette tape! The newer version Get Started in Spanish has a CD.

Conclusion

If I could emphasis ANYTHING to a beginner language learner, it would be to ‘Just Start‘. There is no one way to learn a language, and nearly any resource can be useful. It constantly amazes me when speaking with other language learners just the myriad of resources and techniques people use to learn.

Some people LOVE classes. I hate them. I like to organise my own learning. But some people adore the social contact.

Some people have a ‘speak from day 1’ attitude. Others have a ‘read, read, read and get a lot of passive input before speaking’ approach. I’m somewhere in between. They all learn, and to quite high levels.

Some people feel they HAVE to learn grammar, so they can analyse the language. Others focus on learning high frequency word lists. I prefer to learn by immersion.

So here is my parting advice

  1. Pick activities that appeal to you, and ignore anything that doesn’t call your name – motivation is your biggest resource.
  2. Pick one or two resources and finish them… the next course is probably not better. Having said that…
  3. If you start doing something and it really doesn’t hold your interest, allow yourself to let it go. Review each month – what worked, what didn’t. Make adjustments accordingly.
  4. As soon as possible, find a local group or tutor where you can get face-to-face practice – or online if you can’t find one.

And Chill! Enjoy this hobby you have embarked upon. Never lose your curiosity – and enjoy yourself!

Cate is a language enthusiast sharing her language learning journey here. Apart from her native English (albeit 'Strine'*!), as an adult she has also learned Auslan (Australian Sign Language) to approximately a C1 level, Dutch to around B1/2, French to around A2, and has a smattering of other languages.

B.A. (Anthropology/Marketing), Grad. Dip. Arts (Linguistics), Grad. Cert. Entrepreneurship & Venture Development, (CELTA).

Auslan Interpreter (NAATI), and general Language Nut.

*For more information on 'Strine', visit https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strine