How You’ll Succeed at Language Learning This Time: 12 tips to maximize your chances

Claire Handscombe

Yes, you’ve said it before, that you really do mean to learn Spanish or brush up on your French. But this is the year. This time, it’s really going to happen. Here’s why.

1. You’ll be realistic.

For some people, it’s just about possible to start at nothing and end up fluent in the space of one year if you spend a couple of hours a day studying, and then go and live in the country for three months or so. Otherwise, fluency is a longer term project than that, and in any case, you don’t need to be fluent in a language for it to be rewarding, or to be able to communicate.

Take an honest look at your life — how much time do you have to devote to this, bearing in mind your family situation, your stage in life, your work commitments, your other hobbies, your church attendance? It’s much easier to stay motivated if you set goals that are attainable. What can you realistically achieve?

2. You’ll know why you’re doing it.

There are many great reasons for learning a language, from increasing career prospects to making holidays easier, from communicating with foreign in-laws to warding off Alzheimer’s. What are your reasons? Write them down. One or two reasons will probably come to you fairly easily. Stretch yourself and see if you can come up with five. Then write them on post it notes and stick them everywhere: on your grammar book (you do have a a grammar book, don’t you?), on your bathroom mirror, on your bookshelf: wherever you are likely to see them often.

3. You’ll be motivated.

It’s been suggested that motivation may be the single most predictive factor in whether or not a goal is achieved is motivation, and in my now seven years as a language tutor I would certainly say this theory has been borne out time and time again. Do you really want this? If not, consider shelving the project until you do, because giving it a half-hearted go is not likely to end in success, and that could discourage you from trying it another time. If you find your motivation is flagging — and it probably will, around mid February — check out this post for tips on fanning it back into flame.

4. You’ll be systematic.

Whenever we learn anything, we start at the beginning; sometimes we think that languages are different, somehow, that osmosis or games or random bits of vocab will somehow equal fluency. All of those things are useful, but you need to make sure the foundations are in place first: a good textbook will do this for you, as will a tutor.

5. You’ll be consistent.

It’s far better to go for ten minutes three times a week than to set ambitious goals — like, say, a two-hour session every Saturday afternoon. That way, you are more likely to keep your promise to yourself, which will help with motivation, and if you miss one session, it won’t matter too much: you’ll still be able to cast your mind back to what you were doing the last time. Miss two or three mega sessions, and soon it’s been a month, and you’ll be struggling to remember much at all.

6. You’ll make it a priority.

There will always be a reason not to do your homework. There will always be demands on your time, or you’ll be tired or hungover, or there’ll be this great programme on telly, or you’ll need to go to bed super early so you can get up at 3 am to watch American electoral politics unfold (ahem, perhaps that’s just me.). Here’s the rub, though: we make time for what’s important to us. Learning a language won’t happen if you are casual about it: you’ll need to be intentional, to carve out time, and then to respect it.

7. You’ll enlist your friends to help you.

Know anyone who has also made a new year’s resolution that, this time, they really want to keep? Make a pact to regularly ask each other how it’s going, all the way through the year. Post on each other’s Facebook wall; take each other out for dinner when you’ve reached one of your goals; remind each other of your reasons for persisting. Agree to meet up once a month and help each other set goals, and celebrate your successes together.

8. You won’t go it alone.

Getting a tutor is probably cheaper than you think it is, and here’s the thing: it doesn’t have to be weekly. A “check up” every six weeks or so might be all you need to keep you motivated and give you a forum where you can ask questions that your textbook or iPad apps haven’t answered.

9. You’ll meet like-minded people.

With the ubiquity of social networks and websites like, it’s never been easier to find people with similar interests. I bet there is someone in your area who is also learning Italian and would be happy to get together over coffee to exchange tips or practise conversation, or even international groups who meet up regularly and chat in various languages.

10. You’ll make it fun.

Learning can be fun in and of itself, but it can also feel like hard work when you are faced with yet another irregular verb to learn. Keep yourself motivated by marrying language with other interests of yours, like the Scrabble app on your iPad or a subscription to a foreign magazine which reflects your interest. In some cities, you’ll find languages taught through cooking or board games or reading.

11. You’ll reward yourself.

There is a reason we use star charts with toddlers — and a reason I still use star stickers with my adult students. We like to know we are progressing. Goals will help you with this: promise yourself a treat — a chocolate, a glass of wine, a shopping trip, a holiday to Paris — when you get to the end of a chapter in your textbook, or when you can recite aller in the five main tenses, or when you’ve learned to spell the ten newest words in your vocab book from memory.

12. You’ll vary your learning.

It’s great to have a system that works for you — a textbook or an app that you follow from beginning to end — but from time to time you will need a break from that, and to shake things up a little. You might also be the kind of person who thrives on variety. Check out websites like for games, quizzes, and audio activities, for podcasts, and the Apple store for a wide variety of apps like Duolingo or games like Scrabble or Trivial Pursuit, which are often available in at least the major European languages.

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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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