How to Start Learning a Language

Claire Handscombe

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If you’re one of the people who’s decided to use this time for language learning: firstly, I applaud you and your iron willpower and indestructible motivation. Secondly, you might be wondering how to start and what your language study should actually look like. From my experience as a French and Spanish tutor, here are some pointers.

Set a goal

You’ve probably heard of SMART goals: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, timetabled. How will you know, at the end of the year, if you have “learned Italian”? Difficult to quantify. But how about, this year I will complete all the exercises in “Colloquial Italian”, or, once travel is possible again, spend a week in Venice and strike up conversation with five strangers? You will know if you have done those things. You may then find it helpful to break it down into smaller steps.

Stay motivated

Make a list of five reasons why learning the language you have chosen is a good idea, how it will improve your life. Return to your list when you’re feeling fed up.

Find a tutor

Most of us do not have the discipline to keep up self-study entirely by ourselves, long-term. You don’t have to have a lesson every week, if time or funds don’t allow it: even knowing that you will have a monthly “check up” and opportunity to ask questions can be enough. A good tutor will be able to advise you on learning materials, too, and activities that suit your learning style. For professionals teachers where you live (or who can teach online), check out Language-School-Teachers.com.

Get a good textbook

Particularly at beginner level, a textbook will be invaluable to you, so that you can lay effective foundations and progress incrementally. For French, you can’t do better than the Grammaire Progressive du Francais series, although it’s possible you will find it a bit dry without something else to complement it. For a good, well-rounded approach to many languages, the Colloquial series is recommended. In the old days, these came in a pack which included CDs (!), for listening practice, but these days the tracks can be found on the publisher website.

Listen to podcasts

You are, in all likelihood, busy. You don’t have hours and hours to devote to this new endeavour. But you do, probably, in regular times, sit in traffic or stand, squashed, on public transport for a substantial proportion of your week. And even now, there’s a fair amount of mindless tasks that need doing where you’ll welcome the distraction: cleaning, cooking, tidying. Use the time to listen to one of the many podcasts available, like the Coffee Break series.

Read books

At every stage of language learning, there are books that can work for you, help you to see how the grammar works for you. A good language bookshop such as Grant and Cutler will be able to advise you on Easy Readers, which are a series of simplified, abbreviated novels especially designed for learners at various stages. as you progress, you might want to move on to children or young people’s fiction, or to translations of classics that you know well already.

Read magazines

As adults, we filter out enormous quantities of information that is not immediately relevant to us. But if we read something that is related to a topic of interest, we are more likely to remember it. If your language skills are intermediate or above (B1+), browse the press shops next time you are on holiday and consider subscribing to a mag in a topic that interests you. (Ask your tutor (or me, in the comments!) or your language bookshop for advice on specialised language learning magazines if you are a beginner, or lower-intermediate.)

Use apps

There are a lot of those out there — the most popular are Duolingo and Babbel. Apps aren’t enough in and of themselves, but they are definitely a useful weapon in your language learning arsenal.

Use your screens!

Films and TV series are a great source of vocabulary and idioms, and subtitles are a fantastic resource. At the beginner stage, try watching in your native language (say, English) and read the subtitles in your target language (say, Spanish). Intermediates can watch in Spanish, with subtitles in English, and then finally subtitles in the Spanish, moving on to no subtitles at all.

Speak to people!

That is, after all, probably the point, isn’t it? If you type in “Russian” and “London” to meetup.com, you will find there are at least seven groups that you can join or visit where you will be able to practise your language skills. And even now, some of them may well be hosting Zoom meetings.

Exchange emails

Remember pen pals, from the days of snail mail? Mylanguageexchange.com helps you to find people with whom you can exchange email, and practise conversation that way.

Little and often is the key

Websites like Transparent.com will email or tweet you a new word or phrase each day in the language of your choice. (For those of us who still like using paper, you can also buy physical calendars.)

Be patient with yourself

Language learning always tends to be slow and steady, but in these challenging times, many of us are finding the ambient stress makes it harder for us to concentrate. If you’re not progressing as fast as you feel you should, that’s okay. We’re all learning to navigate this new normal.

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Claire Handscombe is a British writer who moved to Washington, DC, in 2012, ostensibly to study for an MFA in Creative Writing, but really, let’s be honest, because of an obsession with The West Wing. She is the host of the Brit Lit Podcast, a monthly show about news and views from UK books and publishing; the author of Unscripted, a novel about a young woman with a celebrity crush and a determined plan; and the editor of Walk With Us: How The West Wing Changed Our Lives.

Washington, DC
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