Five Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me About Learning Languages


[UPDATE: I now offer one-on-one language coaching. Read more about what it involves and what kinds of problems it's best suited to addressing.]

I often get emails and requests on twitter about language study methods and tips. I'm no great expert on this, but I have read and experimented a good deal with various techniques while learning languages. I'm often surprised that many people don't know the sheer variety of resources that are available to them, or just the basics of how to go about studying a new language.

I'll be returning to some of these points in a bit more detail in the coming weeks, but these are some thoughts to start off the discussion.

1. Learning a language is the easiest way to put yourself ahead of the competition

This applies for everything from research to journalism to people simply planning a holiday. For various reasons, it's pretty unusual for people living in English-speaking countries to study a second foreign language to anything approaching fluency. Part of this is the social expectation and a feeling that it isn't necessary, and part is a pedagogical deficit in schools and universities that gives people the impression that studying languages is boring.

In reality, studying Arabic, Farsi and Pashto was the single best thing I did in terms of advancing my ability to understand the people and places where I have been working over the past few years. The fact that hardly anyone else bothers means that you are automatically in a better position than they are and more able to be able to engage with the country where you're living working. There's the added bonus that you save money that you would have to spend on translators and fixers otherwise.

(Note that this applies less to non-English-speaking European countries, especially France, where you aren't taken seriously as an area studies 'expert' if you don't speak the language of the country you're studying. It's actually a good way of assessing someone's committment to studying a particular area: if they've put the hours in and can speak the local language, you know they're serious.)

2. Studying languages needn't be expensive

We're living in a golden age of language learning. There are free online resources for more or less all the major languages, so much so that you almost have no excuse for moving forward with that dream you once had of being able to speak a foreign language.

If you want to learn Spanish, French, German, Italian or Portuguese, start with If you're thinking about learning Mandarin Chinese, visit HackingChinese which also happens to be an excellent place to read about study methods. If you're thinking about studying Arabic -- about which more below -- you could do worse than starting here and getting to grips with the alphabet. If you want to study Russian, check out RussianForFree. I could keep going. There are vocabulary study tools available at Anki, Memrise and Keewords. For practicing your writing, set up an account at Lang-8 and have your work corrected by native speakers. Need some practice of your spoken skills? Log on to Verbling.

EVERYTHING IN THE PREVIOUS PARAGRAPH IS FREE. There are other resources which you can supplement these free courses with if you get serious about your studies, but you can go a LONG way with free materials available online.

3. Learning some basic techniques and reading about language study methodology at the outset helps a lot

I'm guessing you haven't spent much time reading about the science of learning, or the science of learning languages. If you're going to teach yourself a language -- and I'm mainly talking about self-study here, not learning as part of a class -- it really helps to have some idea of the basic dos and don'ts.

A few suggestions for things to read. All of these are available as ebooks on the kindle store, so no excuses...

Daniel Coyle's The Little Book of Talent: This short book has 52 practical suggestions for how to learn skills, how to practice, how to make the most of your time. I refer to this book a couple of times a week for suggestions on how to improve my skills. Highly recommended.

Gary Marcus's Guitar Zero: Again, another short book about the science of learning. It's a story of the author's attempts to learn the guitar after turning forty, but really it's a book about different ways to approach learning. A good complement to The Little Book of Talent.

Michael Erard's Babel No More: You could do much worse than reading through this book to get a sense of the different approaches people have to learning languages. Erard's subject is people who are studying five or ten languages (or more) at the same time, so it's at the extreme edge of things, but it's an easy read and extremely interesting.

I haven't dipped too much or exhaustively into the huge number of 'how-to' books on language study, but here are five that I read and found useful:

Amorey Gethin's The Art and Science of Learning Languages: advocates a text-heavy approach with lots of reading to cement vocabulary in the context of 'real language'.

Boris Shekhtman's How to Improve Your Foreign Language Immediately: This is a very practical book with suggestions on improving spoken fluency and your ability to converse with other people. After you've done a few months of study, give this super-short book a read and try out his suggested exercises.

Barry Farber's How to Learn Any Language: Nothing monumentally new here. Mostly common sense, but it's worth reading if you haven't thought about this stuff before.

A.G. Hawke's The Quick and Dirty Guide to Learning Languages Fast: If you need to be able to function in a language very quickly, take a look at this book. Written by a former US Army Green Beret officer (?), it advocates a very practical approach that gets you speaking and mastering the basics in no time. It's worth getting hold of a paper/hard copy of this book since there are boxes and things to fill in once you've decided what language you want to learn.

Gregg A. Miller's The Pocket Linguist: Again, another common sense overview of the kinds of things you should be doing to study languages.

4. It takes a lot less than you think to get to a basic level of usefulness

Hawke's Quick and Dirty Guide advocates diving head first into a language and there is a whole school of language learning that argues you need to be speaking from day one. Benny Lewis of the website FluentIn3Months has some comments on that here and he's one of the more prominent advocates of this approach.

The trick -- as with so many things -- is to do a little bit every day rather than by hoping to cram things in to just a few mega-sessions lasting 5 hours each spaced out over a year. Want to learn Arabic, or Pashto? Do half an hour of deliberate practice every day for a year and I guarantee you'll be able to have a conversation using what you learnt during that year.

5. Learning the Arabic alphabet is your biggest barrier to studying Arabic (or Pashto or Farsi/Dari) -- and it isn't actually difficult

This one's just a bonus, since I've come across this particular hump in a lot of people wanting to study languages that use the Arabic alphabet or variants thereof. Lots of people think that Arabic is hard to learn because of the alphabet, and this seems to be a really common reason for people not bothering to start.

This is really unfortunate, because the alphabet is actually really easy. There are good online courses that teach you how to write and read Arabic letters, and once you've overcome that obstacle your confidence will already be so much higher that the rest that follows will seem easy.

Seriously, if your main reason for not starting to study Arabic (or Pashto, or Farsi/Dari) is the alphabet, you don't have a leg to stand on.


Note that I also write about languages elsewhere online:

My tumblr where I jot down things from time to time relating to how my language studies are going.

My lang-8 account where I practice my writing in Arabic, Pashto, Farsi and Urdu.

My profile on, a really excellent site for discussing learning methods, finding self-study materials and in general discussing the study of languages.