The Comprehensive Guide to Learning a New Language

My heart was pumping at a fast rate, I was about to see if my year-long experiment had paid off. Backtrack to one year ago, I had made the decision to surprise my girlfriend on her next birthday by only conversing in her native Swedish language. Did it work? At first, she didn’t understand what was going on. She was shocked, then she slowly realised that I had learned another language just to surprise her.

A year has gone by now since the day of the surprise, I realise that I’ve improved further since then. Now that I’m able to converse with my girlfriend and her family in Swedish, I’ve been frequently conversing with them. This is an important lesson when learning another language. The more you use it, the more your skill will improve.

If you don’t use it, you’ll eventually lose it.

When I started learning another language, my intentions were to learn the language as quickly as possible. I had less than a year to surprise my girlfriend. I dedicated weeks researching different methods, I spent money on a variety of courses and I experimented with multiple techniques. After all of my experiments, do you know what I realised? To be able to learn and communicate with any language, it comes down to a simple formula:

Practicing specific exercises + Consistency + Time = Fluency

I’m sure you have questions. What are the exercises? How much time do I need to dedicate? How often do I need to practice? Don’t worry, all of your questions will be answered throughout this article.

I lay out all my findings and what exercises I implemented in order to achieve my language learning goals. I will provide you the same tips and tricks that effectively helped me in my journey. Hopefully, this information will speed up your learning rate and save you a lot of time and money. It’s so simple and it can be applied to all languages. I wish I knew this information before I had spent any money on learning another language, I would have saved a lot!

Before I go into detail on the specific exercises that I implemented into my own practice time, I want to mention a few points that would greatly help you on your learning journey. I believe the following points are just as important as the specific exercises, so don’t skip it.

What is motivating you?

First things first, understanding why you want to learn another language is the first hurdle you need to get over. Do not skip this stage because you think it’s unnecessary, your motivation will be the driving force that will get you through the tough times, believe me, there are going to be a lot of them.

Learning another language is not all fun and games, it’s going to require a lot of hours studying, it can get boring and often at times, frustrating. Understanding why you’re putting yourself through this will provide you with enough grit to continue.

If your ‘why’ isn’t clear enough, you will most likely give up in the first few weeks. Make sure you dedicate time on deciding why you’re doing this, write it down and refer to it often, especially when you feel like giving up.

Why did I want to learn another language? Simple, I wanted to see the surprised look on my girlfriend’s face, that was enough motivation to keep me going. After the surprise, I thought it was pretty cool to be able to converse with her in another language, it would be our go-to secret language we’d switch to whenever it was appropriate.

Updating your ‘why’ throughout your learning journey isn’t unheard of, once you reach certain goals you may need to repeat the process again and move the goalposts a little further.

So what’s your ‘why’? Are you trying to impress a special someone? Is it required for your job? Will it help you make new friends? Before you start anything, take some time out to reflect and figure out why you’re doing this. Make sure it’s a good enough reason to get you through the frustrating times, it would be a good idea to write it down and refer to it often.

How to hold yourself accountable

So you’ve figured out your ‘why’ but you still find yourself slacking around. If you’ve exhausted all of your options and you’re still struggling to motivate yourself, I came across one trick that’ll hold you accountable.

Introducing Stickk.com, a website that utilises the psychological power of loss aversion. The idea of losing something is a greater motivator than getting something for completing your goals. For example, the idea of learning another language isn’t enough, you’d be more driven if you knew something else was on the line, in my case, cash.

This approach isn’t for the faint-hearted and you can lose a substantial amount of money, but at the same time, you can experience great results – I know I did. It’s high risk, high reward.

I had given myself a year to surprise my girlfriend and for the first 9 months, I was simply coasting along. Yes, I was studying the language, but I was not consistent, nor was I disciplined. In the back of my head, I knew why I was learning another language, but it wasn’t helping me move with a sense of urgency. I felt my ‘why’ wasn’t motivating me enough.

When I came across Stickk.com I knew this was all the motivation I needed. I signed up and placed a commitment to studying a minimum of 10 hours a week for the remaining 3 months that I had left. I appointed a friend to be my referee and told him that regardless of whatever excuse I give, if I fail to reach my weekly target, he will notify Stickk.com. That meant I had to pay a relatively large amount to a charity that I didn’t support, otherwise known as an anti-charity.

I understood the psychological impact a big loss would do to my motivation, it had to be a figure that I was not willing to give up so easily. I decided for every week I failed, I had to transfer $20 dollars to my anti-charity, with 12 weeks left I had $240 on the line.

Did I lose all of my money? Out of the 12 weeks, I failed to hit my commitment twice, which meant I had to pay out a total of $40 to my anti-charity. Although I lost some money, the impact it had on my Swedish was outstanding. I stayed committed to studying for 10 hours a week and I experienced vast improvements.

Putting money on the line was a huge motivational push for me, it held me accountable and it can do the same for you, but in order for the effects to work, I suggest you place a large wager that you’re not willing to lose. Also, it’s important that you make the commitment public, invite friends and family to track your progress, otherwise, you have nothing to lose.

Focus on building the right system

After going through my learning journey, I realised that setting goals weren’t as important as the system’s set-up in place for achieving them. Yes, it’s good to set yourself goals to give you direction, but figuring out what is required of you to complete the goal will allow you to fulfill them.

The systems you place will determine your practice time, what area to focus on, and how often you can commit to practicing. Can you practice every day? What time is ideal for you? Is your environment distraction-free? Figuring out your own system is going to be an ongoing experiment, there’s no right or wrong. I outline a variety of exercises you can implement into your practice time, what’s required of you is figuring out how you can stay committed with your practice time.

Yes, give yourself goals, but don’t fixate on the goal itself, figure out your system and commit to it. Once you’ve reached your goals, move the goalpost a little further and repeat the process.

Recommended Reading: How To Take Control of Your Time

Feedback is crucial to your development

In all my research it’s often said that when learning a new language you need to embrace the idea of making mistakes. This is true, but what people often forget to overlook is what happens after you make the mistake.

Immediate feedback is just as important as making the mistake itself. If you don’t understand why you said something incorrectly, you’ll find yourself repeating the mistake again. Languages can be broken down into four categories, Reading, Listening, Writing and Speaking. In order to speed up your learning, you need to make sure that in every category you are getting immediate feedback.

I understand that most of us don’t have the luxury of immediate feedback every time we make a mistake, in a perfect world we all would have somebody hovering over us pointing out every language mistake we make. Come to think of it, I’m not sure I’d enjoy that.

If you’re struggling to find someone to give you feedback, below are a couple of examples that I took advantage of:

Family & Friends

Fortunately, I had family members who were able to converse in the language that I was learning, in addition, they were nice enough to provide me with feedback whenever I asked.

Before you spend any money I would recommend you seek this option first. Take advantage of the resources that you have available to you, ask around and find out if you have any family or friends who are willing to provide constant feedback for you.

iTalki

iTalki.com is an online service that pairs language teachers with students. It’s simple to use and all you have to do is decide on who your teacher is and schedule an appointment with them. Once the teacher accepts the appointment the meetings are held over Skype, depending on your teacher, both voice and video calls are available.

This service can get quite pricey depending on the teacher and how often you want to talk to them. When friends and family are not available, this option would be the next best thing.

Build up your database first

In my experience, I found it important to build up your vocabulary database before speaking a word out loud. Why? It’ll slow down your progress otherwise. If you rush in and converse with a native after learning 100 words, your conversation isn’t going to go very far. If you emphasise working on your database, you’ll find that the conversation will have a better flow and you’ll have more to talk about.

How do you build up your database? Easy. Surround yourself in the language. In this day and age, you don’t have to be in the country in order to learn your chosen language. Podcasts, music, and TV shows are readily available over the internet. You should expose yourself to each medium as much as possible.

Languages can be broken down into 4 categories Reading, Listening, Writing, and Speaking, it should be in that order. By focusing on the first 2 categories you are building up your database of words. Put down your pen and quieten your mouth, I found when learning a new language it is best to open your ears and eyes first.

Recommended Reading: Read This Before Talking To a Native

The 1000 most common words

A great tip that I came across when building up your database is by studying the 1000 most common words used in your language. A simple search on the internet should provide you with the necessary answers. If you can’t find anything, you can find the 1000 most common words used in your native language and translate them directly to your intended language. Google Translate is a useful tool, although not 100% correct, it’s good enough to get you started.

In everyday conversations, you will find that 80% of the words used consist of only 20% of the language. You just need to focus on a relatively small amount of words in order to achieve conversational fluency, obviously, grammar is a major factor, but it’s a great starting point nonetheless.

The way I learned the 1000 most common words in Swedish was by using the Spaced Repetition System (SRS), it’s basically a complex version of the flashcard system. As you become better at memorising specific flashcards, successful flashcards will surface less often when compared to flashcards that you can’t recall as well. SRS programs use an algorithm that calculates how many days or weeks apart each flashcard would appear.

In my experience, Anki is a powerful yet simple program that harnesses the power of SRS. It’s completely free and open-sourced, there’s a big community around Anki that like to share their own flashcard decks with each other. I was able to find a deck that had the 1000 most common words in Swedish already created, you may be fortunate and be able to find one in your intended language also.

Recommended Reading: How To Improve Your Memory

Get yourself a good grammar book

Understanding grammar is another language in itself, but it’s an important element that you cannot neglect. Grammar is what will turn your 1000 words into 10,000 sentences and then some. Unfortunately, grammar is often a boring topic that people brush over because they want to converse as quickly as possible.

Unfortunately, there’s no way around this one, you’re going to have to spend some time studying grammar. Finding a good book about grammar in your language is the best way to understanding the correct rules. A quick internet search should provide you with a list of books, reading the reviews should direct you to the right one for you.

Another method is by reading the written language in books and articles. The more you expose yourself to the written language the more your brain will subconsciously pick up the correct way to construct sentences. This method confirms why you should focus on exposing yourself to the language and increasing your database first.

If you’ve had any experience with children, you’ll notice from a very young age they’re able to distinguish a question from a statement. It’s not like a teacher sat them down and taught them the rules of grammar, however, with constant exposure to the language their brains are able to subconsciously compute and understand the data coming in.

Exposure is a great tool for understanding grammar, but I find studying a well-crafted grammar book to be the best method to mastering the rules of grammar. If you can include a healthy balance of both methods in your practice time, then it’ll only be a matter of time until you start to pick up on how to construct complex sentences.

Consistency is key

With any skill that you plan to tackle, consistent practice is essential to your development. There’s no way around it, you’re going to have to put in the hours in order to get good at languages. There are no quick fixes, no shortcuts, and no alternative routes when it comes to practicing. The sooner you get that into your head, the easier it’ll be.

How much time should you commit to learning a language every day? It’s obvious, the more hours you can commit, the faster you will be at picking up the language, but let’s be real, committing to 5 hours a day is going to be mentally draining and not realistic.

I always stick to the rule of ‘consistency over intensity’. Language learning is a long road. If you’re consistent with your practice time, you will eventually reach a level of fluency. If you can only afford to practice for a minimum of 15 minutes a day, that’s fine, just be sure to be consistent.

If you’re juggling a full-time job and have other commitments that are stopping you from practicing, you need to have a real conversation with yourself and ask why you can’t afford a minimum of 15 minutes a day to language learning. It’s a deep question and an important one to ask. We all have the same hours in the day, how do you spend yours?

Recommended Reading: How to Be Consistent

Traditional Language Schools

I had spent a considerable amount of time researching and developing my exercises, but because I was self-taught, I thought I needed to go to a traditional language school in order to strengthen my foundations and make sure that I hadn’t missed any crucial pieces of information. When the opportunity to study in a language school was available I told myself I would give myself a month to decide if this was for me, after two weeks, I couldn’t take it anymore and decided that was enough time for me.

Personally, I don’t think you need to go to study at a language school in order to learn a language. If you’re hungry enough and you apply the exercises in this book, you will be able to learn another language at a fraction of the time you spend in a traditional language school.

When sitting in a class of 5 or more students, you will find yourself listening to accents that are not well developed and you’ll be exposed to students conversing with incorrect grammar. Not only that, but you will be going at the pace of the slowest person in your class, which could drastically slow down your learning speed. I know it did for me!

Everybody’s circumstances are different, some people find there’s better structure when studying in a language school. In my case, I was confident that I could reach fluency without the need of a formal teacher. As long as you’re hungry and you’re consistent in your practice, it’ll only be a matter of time until you will reach fluency in your chosen language.

Duolingo, Rosetta Stone & Memrise

I’m sure if you have already started learning a new language, you would have come across at least one of the names mentioned in the heading. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, essentially, they are online language courses. A few are free, whilst others require you to pay a monthly subscription.

Having used all three, I can honestly say that neither course will get you to ultimate fluency. You’d progress faster and learn a lot more with the exercises that I provide you in this article. Yes, you’ll be able to say a few words and be able to write down a few sentences, but when I reached the end of the Duolingo course, I realised that I was nowhere near ready to converse with a native.

My advice is to stay clear from any online course and use your time effectively by practicing all of the different methods provided in this article. If you’re consistent with your practice, it’ll only be a matter of time until you reach fluency.

Recommended Reading: Duolingo Vs Rosetta Stone. Who Wins?

The exercises that you need to implement

As I mentioned before, languages can be broken into 4 categories, Reading, Listening, Writing, and Speaking. Remember, because we want to increase our vocabulary database first, we want to tackle the language in that order.

The following chapters detail how I approached each category using a specific set of exercises and tools. Each exercise is transferable and can be applied to any language that you plan to take on.

Reading exercises

Reading will help you understand the rules of a language and how to construct sentences together, this is why it’s high on the list for data input. You should be exposing yourself to good examples of the written language, below I outline the tools and exercises that helped me develop my reading skills:

Anki

I mentioned this before, but I’ll mention it again as it’ll be an important tool for the development of your language learning. Reviewing my Anki flashcard decks on a daily basis helped me remember words and sentences at an alarming rate, this is a great way to expose yourself to the written language.

I had several decks for learning Swedish. Some would require me to translate a word from English to Swedish and others required the opposite. When I would come across words that I didn’t know, I would add them to the deck and increase my vocabulary. Also, I had decks dedicated to common sentences and when I came across a new useful sentence, I would add it to the deck.

It’s really down to you how many decks you’d like to include in your studies. Just make sure that you review each deck on a daily basis, the more you get confident with each deck the less you will have to review each flashcard.

Kindle

I found Kindle to be a great tool that exposed me to the written language. When starting off with the written language it would be a good idea to download stories that are tailored to children. The reading will be light and you’ll be exposing yourself to simple sentence construction.

Once you start to comprehend more words and sentences, you can start to read complex stories. A great tip that I came across was to read a book that you’re familiar with and read it in your chosen language, that way, if you ever find yourself lost in the book, you will have a vague idea and be able to follow along with the story.

My book of choice was ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’, it was light reading and I was familiar with the story. If you can find a story that you grew up reading and read the translated version, it’ll make reading a pleasant experience. I recommend a story that isn’t heavy reading, a simple fiction book would be ideal.

You can either purchase a physical Kindle reader or download the Kindle app on your tablet or phone. Both options work just fine, it’s really down to your reading preference. Since I found the physical Kindle reader easier on the eyes, I opted for that instead.

News & Blogs

Reading the news and blogs in your language of choice is easy to find on the internet, it’s a great resource that I used to expose myself to the written language.

Find a topic that you’re interested in as it’ll make the reading experience enjoyable. I’m a fan of the NBA and anything sport-related, fortunately, I came across a Swedish blog that was dedicated to just that. I recommend you find a blog that is similar to your interests too.

A simple search on Google with the keywords, “Best _____ blogs in (your chosen language)” will be a good starting point.

Movies with subtitles

Finding movies with subtitles can be difficult, but if you manage to come across any, they can be a great tool that’ll expose you to the written language. Similar to reading a familiar book, it’s best to watch a familiar movie. That way, if you get lost in the dialogue, you still have a rough idea with what is happening in the movie.

When learning Swedish, I would watch English speaking films with Swedish subtitles. I found it to be an effective method for learning new words and phrases. Once I started to become confident with the language I would watch the same film with Swedish audio alongside Swedish subtitles. At first, I was lost, but since it was a familiar film I had a vague idea of what was going on.

Netflix is a great tool for this, depending on your region you may be able to change the subtitles to your chosen language.

Lyrics

Reading lyrics whilst listening to songs in your language will help you understand what words the artists are singing. Sometimes it can be hard listening to the lyrics over the music, being able to read the words will allow you to clearly understand the words they are saying.

I would be careful when using this method. In order to make a catchy song, some artists forgo the rules of grammar. Not all lyrics can be used in everyday language. If you’re unsure, I would seek feedback from friends, family and/or teachers.

Listening exercises

Similar to reading, listening is another category that will expose you to the language. You’ll be able to pick up on accents, pronunciation, as well as the rhythm of the language. I can’t say this enough, when learning a new language it’s important to increase your vocabulary database and expose yourself to the language first. Reading and listening are key exercises that’ll allow you to do just that.

In my learning, I came across a few exercises that helped me listen to the language.

Music

Listening to music is a great method to expose yourself to the language. Even if you’re relatively new and you don’t understand much, listening to music allows you to hear how certain words are pronounced. Since the chorus is usually repeated, it allows you to listen to words and phrases over and over again.

When searching for music in Swedish I would use Spotify to find new artists. Finding artists that are similar to your taste in music makes the listening experience enjoyable.

Audiobooks

Listening to audiobooks is another great exercise for exposing yourself to the language. Similar to reading, if you’re able to listen to a story that you’re familiar with, it’ll allow you to loosely follow the story. Not all audiobooks are translated to every language and it can be difficult to find, but if you’re able to find one, having it on repeat would do wonders to your vocabulary database.

Podcasts

Podcasts are a readily available medium and it’s a great way to expose yourself to the language. Listening to two people conversing amongst each other will allow you to pick up the subtle nuances of everyday conversations.

This method is suited for people that can comprehend the language effectively, unlike audiobooks it can be difficult following along, especially if they’re talking at a fast rate. Even if you’re a total beginner it won’t do you any harm to listen to a few podcasts in your chosen language, remember increasing your data input is key.

There are also podcasts available that’ll teach you the language itself. Although I didn’t find them useful in my learning, it could be another way for you to pick up a few new words and phrases.

YouTube

Just like podcasts, finding videos in your chosen language is easily accessible. A quick search on YouTube and you’ll be able to find videos on tips on how to master the grammar and learn the language. Although they are educational and useful, the type of videos I was watching on YouTube were vloggers, or everyday people talking to the camera in their native language.

The aim was to expose myself to everyday conversations, paying attention to how they phrased words and sentences. For beginners, this can be overwhelming, but it’s important to expose yourself to the language as much as possible.

Movies

Similar to audiobooks, if you’re watching a film that you know well, you’ll able to understand what’s going on even though you might be lost with what the characters are saying. I would recommend watching movies that you’re interested in, otherwise the listening experience can get boring.

Unfortunately, this method can sometimes be difficult to source, I too struggled to find movies that I’ve enjoyed in the past in my chosen language.

If you have access to a Netflix account, depending on your region, you may be able to change your audio to your chosen language.

Forvo

In my research, I came across a resourceful website that helps you understand how to pronounce any word in any language. With the tagline ‘The Pronunciation Dictionary‘, Forvo.com is more than just that. Going through the website I came across a section that outlines essential words and phrases that you should know in your language. The best thing about this website is that it is totally free. Every person learning a new language should take full advantage of this website.

Whenever I came across a word that I was unsure of how to pronounce, it was highly likely that I would find the word on Forvo. This is a great method, especially if you don’t have a native on hand to provide you with feedback.

Writing exercises

In previous chapters, I mentioned that instant feedback is essential, otherwise, you’ll be picking up bad habits. This is important when you start to write in your language. You want to make sure that your writing is being checked constantly and you want to understand where you are going wrong.

Journaling every single day in your chosen language is an effective writing exercise that you should be incorporating in your practice time. I would write a minimum of 5 basic sentences that talked about my day and what I got up to. Since my girlfriend knew the language and was willing to help me, she would go over each sentence and point out where I was going wrong with my writing.

At the beginning, I made an unbelievable amount of mistakes, it was a humbling experience. By getting immediate feedback and seeing where I was going wrong, I was able to understand how to better construct sentences together. This is a practice that I keep up to this very day and it has helped me tremendously.

If you’re not fortunate enough to have friends or family members that can critique you on your writing, there are services online where you’re able to converse with native speakers. I’ve mentioned the online service iTalki.com in previous chapters. It’s a great service and I’ve taken my writing to teachers on iTalki.com in the past.

Instead of waiting for the teacher to give you a topic to talk about, I would recommend taking your writing to them and ask for their feedback. Get them to critique you on grammar, choice of words, and the overall flow of the writing.

Whenever my girlfriend would critique my writing, I would sit down and analyse each correction. If I came across new words or phrases that I thought would be useful for me, I would add them to my flashcard deck on Anki.

Speaking exercises

Some find speaking the most difficult category to language learning. Not only do you have to focus on grammar and the right choice of words, but you have to pay attention to your accent as well. Don’t fret, below are a few exercises that I used in the past to get over my speaking problems.

Working on your accent

One exercise I found useful when working on my Swedish accent was to write down 5 sentences about myself and get it translated. I would then record myself speaking each sentence and then have a friend or family member listen to the recording and critique me on my accent. I would do this constantly with the same 5 sentences until I could finally understand how to pronounce each word correctly.

Similar to writing, immediate feedback is important. If you’re close enough to someone that can critique you on your accent, you’ll be able to receive honest feedback from them. Again, if you don’t have access to anyone that can critique you on your accent, using services similar to iTalki.com is another method to get feedback.

Reading out loud

Another exercise I would do quite often would be to read a book out loud, in this case, it was the first Harry Potter book. It was important that I had a native speaker listening as I read out loud, that way I could receive immediate feedback whenever I would say words incorrectly or needed help translating confusing words and phrases. This can be done with a newspaper or any other written medium.

Fortunately, my girlfriend was there to guide me, but you could imagine her patience wearing thin the longer I read out loud. For that reason, I would do this exercise sparingly, but if you have someone on hand to help you and willing to give up their time to listen to you read a book or newspaper out loud, take advantage of it.

Talking in everyday situations

One of the best exercises to get better at speaking another language is to speak it every day. If you have a friend or family member that can converse in the language you are learning, commit to each other that you will only converse in your chosen language no matter what. In the beginning, it can get be slow and frustrating, but the more you push yourself the faster you will see an improvement.

If you’re living in the country of your chosen language, commit to only using that language and not reverting to another language that you’re confident in. It can be hard at first and you will make many mistakes, but using the language in everyday situations, like ordering coffee or buying groceries, will allow you to pick up on useful words and phrases.

How to structure your practice time

If you’re going to excel in any skill, it’s important that you schedule in time for deliberate practice. That means removing any distractions, allowing you to focus on the task in hand.

How should you structure your practice time? Simple, pick a few of the exercises that I laid out to you in the previous chapters and work on them consistently. Remember, when you’re starting off with the language, focus on increasing your vocabulary database first by implementing exercises from the Reading and Listening chapters. When you start to comprehend more words and phrases and you start to become confident in the language, start focusing your attention on the Writing and Speaking chapters.

Finding the time to practice and being consistent can often be as hard as learning the language itself. This is where it comes down to what’s important to you. I mentioned it briefly in previous chapters, but I’ll repeat it here again. How are you spending your time? What is more important to you? The sooner you answer these questions, the sooner you’ll be able to understand when you can implement your practice time.

It’s important to experiment with your time, you may find that practicing in the mornings are better than the evenings. Everyone is different, if it’s possible, experiment with different times of the day and find out what works best for you.

Once you reach a functional level with the language, you can start to incorporate the exercises into your daily life. The more you let your language be part of your daily life you’ll no longer need to sit down and dedicate time to practicing the language. It’ll be part of your routine.

Refer to this Article often

Everything I have laid out has been taken from months of experimenting with my own learning. I realised that there’s a vast amount of information out there, it was difficult to understand which method was effective and which one was a waste of my time. Fortunately for you, you don’t have to go through the same journey as I did. Everything is condensed in this page and it would be a good idea to refer to it often.

If you find yourself not progressing as fast as the next person, don’t feel discouraged. Everyone is different and learning another language can be hard for some people. Trust in your system, practice using the exercises I’ve laid out and only compare your progress with yourself. Don’t worry about anything else.

If you’re consistent with your practice it’ll only be a matter of time until you reach a decent level of fluency. Remember if you don’t use it, you’ll eventually lose it. Stay committed and keep going, even through the tough times. I wish you all the best with your learning journey and I hope you find success just as I did.