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How to Teach Yourself a New Language
A successful method invented by yours truly
About four years ago, I decided to try and teach myself a language from scratch. This was a decision that came after years of believing that learning on ones own was impossible. I have neither the time nor resources to enrol in a formal school program, nor do my circumstances permit me to just take off and live in a foreign country of my choosing for immersion. These were two things I’d long been told were vital prerequisites to language learning, but were both, alas, beyond my reach. Nonetheless, I wanted to give it a shot and see if it was possible for a normal person who is not some kind of John Nash-like savant. I decided I would try and learn a language for which I’d always felt a distant fondness despite having little experience: Persian. I worked on it in earnest over the course of under a year, using simple tools like Skype, flashcards apps, YouTube, and TikTok as my makeshift curriculum. Amazingly, it worked. Today, after embarking on this course of self study, I can speak, read, and write Persian with proficiency – something to which my Iranian friends can testify.
Suffice to say, I was really pleased with this new development. For my entire life I’d been told that learning a new language was a monumental task that was impossible without extensive institutional support, professional in-person teaching, or immersion. In my own experience, that turned out not to be true at all. But Persian is also known as a relatively easy language for foreign learners. That made me wonder whether I had simply hit a softball and was patting myself on the back over something rather trivial.
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At the start of this year, then, I decided I’d try and learn Turkish, a language known to be more difficult and that was likewise foreign to me. I visit Turkey once in awhile and noticed that Turks generally do not speak English at all (even globalized phrases “Hello” and “Thank You” are often met with mystification), so perhaps it would be useful to know for future. I used the same approach that I took with Persian, beginning in January of this year. Seven months since I started, I can say with satisfaction that I speak and read Turkish to an intermediate B1-B2 level. I expect that by the end of year I will be able to feel comfortable enough to say that I’m fluent in the language and plan to visit the country again and test it out.
Today, I’m a polyglot comfortable in four languages. I can speak Urdu, which my family spoke at home, Persian, Turkish, and, of course, English, which is obviously the language dearest to me. I also know some French, Arabic, and a tiny bit of Somali owing to personal circumstances. Depending how life goes in the next few years, I might try to master one of those languages or learn an entirely new one. But I am satisfied now that its possible to do language learning on ones own. I would go even further and say that the internet has created a quiet revolution in language learning that makes it possible for anyone with the motivation to learn any language that they choose. Before the internet, it really was true that you would need to travel or enrol in a school to pick up such a skill. But the affordable and free resources online, coupled with the virtual immersion you can pick up simply by altering your information habits, is really enough over time to hack your brain to learn a language without any of that investment. We are swimming in an unprecedented sea of information, most of it useless, but its possible to make a few tweaks and make it very useful indeed.
With that said I want to pass along my strategy for how to learn a language yourself. If you follow through with these guidelines, I am confident that you will be successful. I would even say that given a dedicated time commitment on your part, learning to an intermediate level is guaranteed.
Here is what I do, and I believe it will work for you too:
Find a Skype Tutor
Getting a personal language tutor or taking classes in the United States is an extremely expensive and time-consuming endeavor. A language tutor could easily charge you $100/hour or more for their time, while classes can run into the thousands. One of the keys to success in language learning is the number of practice hours logged, so this simply will not do for anyone on a reasonable budget. You can spend tons of money for a semester of study and then find that you still can’t speak the language at the end. Fortunately, the internet has created incredible arbitrage opportunities that make finding abundant help affordable. On websites like iTalki, Preply, and Natakallam, you can find foreign tutors who are native speakers in their own language, teach hourly on Skype, and are accessible online at a fraction of the cost. This means that you can find a very professional teacher whom you can work with on a regular basis. That is a game changer for any language learner.
A teacher is more like a guide rather than someone who tells you everything. But they are useful for directing your learning, providing practice conversations and tips, and helping you resolve challenges you may encounter. I found Turkish and Persian teachers offering hourly classes for what were, for me, affordable enough rates to do regularly. I have tutors that charge $10-$12 an hour and I speak with them a few times a week, when we both have free time. There are also non-professional tutors on these sites, just ordinary people, whom you can talk to to swap language knowledge and who charge even less money, or even nothing. The teachers on these sites are really good and know exactly how to help people pick up a language from scratch. Finding a reliable and trustworthy guide in this way is an immeasurable help and would have been impossible a decade or two ago. Having a good teacher in your corner will give you confidence and should be your first step in your journey.
Download a Digital Flashcard App
Throughout the day, whenever I see a new word or phrase, I write it down on a flashcard application that I keep on my phone. The program I use is called Anki, which is a a free application whose function is very simple. You simply type in the cards to create them, with the native version on one side and English translation (You can use Google Translate to find that) on the other, save them to a “deck,” and then every morning the application gives you a fresh set of cards to quiz and memorize. I take this quiz in the morning while I’m having coffee. I have it set up to quiz me on 300 cards a day, which is a lot, but it only takes about 12-15 minutes to complete. In the beginning its a bit hard when the words are all relatively new to you, but after doing it for a few weeks you start to get familiar with the words. The more times you see, hear, or say a word the more your brain begins to internalize it and the flashcards are useful to make sure you’re internalizing a few each day. Eventually you are breezing through it, and can say that you have truly learnt the words that you are seeing. You can also refer back to these cards anytime you want and feel a sense of assurance that once you have stored them on your phone or laptop (Anki also saves to Cloud which is why I prefer it) you have put yourself on the path to making them your own.
Another very important tip that may sound a bit strange, but bear with me: When you are reading the cards, read them out loud. I have been told that this has a positive neurological effect, the specifics of which are beyond me. But I can tell you that it makes a huge difference in speeding up your learning by making you used to hearing and saying the words rather than merely reading them.
Change Your Device Language Settings and Get Algorithmic Immersion
A few months ago, I changed my iPhone and laptop language to Turkish. I was far from proficient at the time I did this. Needless to say, this was a bit challenging to navigate at first. But within about a week, my brain started to register what words and symbols meant what. Even better, since we spend so much time looking at screens all the time now in our digital age, I began to develop a reflexive familiarity with certain terms and phrases. Now, I don’t even notice that all my device languages are in a foreign script and read them instantaneously. When I see the same words in other contexts, let’s say a news article or a YouTube show, I know exactly what they mean by habit. This has been a huge boost.
Some time ago, I also started watching YouTube and TikTok videos in Turkish. My phone now thinks I’m either from Turkey, or a Turk living in America, and feeds me regular content in Turkish on that basis. This algorithmic profiling substitutes for the crucial resource of immersion that I don’t have. The fact is that I don’t live in Turkey, can’t move there, and don’t visit often enough to pick up the language. I also don’t have the time to devote the whole day exclusively to studying. But when you see enough short TikTok videoclips (subtitles optional based on your proficiency) you start getting a lot of the spontaneous hearing and seeing of the language that your brain would get if you were literally in the country. That’s what immersion means, and it turns out this digital substitute works pretty well. There are also great free resources like the Easy Languages series that structure immersion conversations for beginners in an accessible way. I would spend a few hours a week if possible watching videos on YouTube, TikTok, or another program. There are lots of great ones, many of which are simply entertaining in their own right and will also help you learn the argo of the language. Just swap out your normal junk algorithmic content for junk in a different language and eventually you will find yourself learning effortlessly without even knowing it.
Set an Hour Goal and Forget About What Happens in Between
The thing that makes language learning frustrating is that you can spend a lot of time doing it yet feel like you still can’t speak or understand anything at the end. I find that this demoralizing experience, which comes early in the process, is the main reason that most people give up learning early, never to return. When I was learning Persian, however, I saw a helpful video from an Persian-language teacher on YouTube who said that to get to intermediate level you need 150 hours of practice. That didn’t sound like that much, if one was practicing an hour a day. It may be hard going before that, and at hour 30 or 60 you can still feel like you had not made any progress. But it gave me a helpful goal to work towards: I’d just keep doing lessons and other forms of practice with the assumption that once I’d clocked 150 hours, I’d be somewhere. Once I reached that goal within a few months, I found that I was a lot better, even if I still wasn’t fluent and was doing poorly at points in between.
I kept on going, and by 300 hours (my new goal after clearing 150) of various forms of practice spread out over six months I was speaking, reading, writing, and generally felt that I’d become grounded in the language. Before I got to that happy place I sometimes felt frustrated and overwhelmed. That sentiment is very common, including the nagging belief that you simply can’t do it and have bitten off more than you can chew. What I will tell you is that if you just ignore that naysaying voice in your head and keep going, with a number of study hours in mind, ignoring how much you knew on any given day, by the time you hit your hour goal you are going to be much better. With Persian, I felt for a long time I was just learning with nothing to show for it. Then one day I watched a BBC Persian newscast and realized, I understand this. That’s a great moment and its one I hope that everyone can experience.
(P.S. There is an official language hours chart out there that gives you X hours for various languages usually running into the hundreds. I find its a bit of a conservative count and you don’t need as many as indicated but it can be useful.)
Make It Your Hobby
To learn something on your own you have to really enjoy it and want to do it. If you hate learning French or Swahili and don’t care if you speak it, there really isn’t a point. I picked languages that I simply enjoyed, not focusing on how marketable or useful it would be. That made them easier and more fun to learn, but I’ve also found that no knowledge is ever truly wasted. Knowing Persian has come in professionally and personally useful to me in ways I could have never imagined. It opened new doors to the human experience and I continue to benefit from that on a regular basis. I expect it will be the same with Turkish, and I already find myself proactively seeking Turkish reading, videos, and conversation simply because I enjoy being able to learn from a totally different culture. When you enjoy doing something, you will find that there is a wealth of resources to pick it up and you will also always find the time to do it. So cut down on a non-constructive hobby like television a few hours a week, swap it for a language you would love to know, and I promise that you will see the benefits accumulate over time.
You Can Do This
All over the world, people teach themselves to speak foreign languages simply by their wits and with no real resources or support. I’ve met people in the strangest places who spoke fluent English, simply by consuming American media. Meanwhile, here in the United States, where I live, monolingualism is the norm. Are we simply dumb? I don’t think so, but I think that many of us have been discouraged from learning languages by a lot of intimidating propaganda about how language learning is so hard or how you need to pay thousands of dollars for expensive classes that only a few can afford and that often get you nowhere. Beyond the resources I mentioned above the internet is teeming with others, and social media also offers a great way to casually interact with foreign language speakers for free at any time.
So if you’re serious about wanting to learn a language, I want you to do the following today:
Find a tutor on iTalki or Preply (or Natakallam depending on region). You can test out a few and find someone you click with to be your main person.
Download a flashcard app on your phone and laptop. I recommend Anki. Give yourself a flashcard quiz with all your new words every morning.
Commit to doing three hours a week (not hard even for a busy person) of Skype lessons. This would cost you perhaps $40 a week, or $160 a month for a really extensive amount of guidance. If you’re employed and your job has a professional development allowance you can use it to buy credits on these sites.
I like Duolingo and recommend playing it on your phone for 5 to 15 minutes a day as a refresher. You can do this on the train, before bed, or while waiting in line in lieu of playing Candy Crush or fighting with strangers on Twitter.
After three months of learning, change your device language to the language you are focusing on. After about a week the pain will start to go away, and eventually you will have a handheld form of immersion at your fingertips.
If you follow this routine for six months, you are going to be passable in your new language. If you do it for a year, you will be very confident. Like anyone else I have personal and professional commitments and can’t just spend all the time learning stuff. But I find that cutting back a bit on TV, scrolling social media, and other pointless forms of time-killing, you will have enough time to hack your brain to gradually put a new language into it. You don’t need to rearrange your life, all of this learning can take place during short periods of downtime. If it gets hard at any point, which it will, just keep pushing and focus on your hour target. I promise you will break through.
I always had a bit of a chip on my shoulder from the feeling that I went to bad schools that taught me nothing and rendered me a bit of a philistine compared to people who went to Oxford and Harvard or whatever, or even good high schools. Multiple language proficiency was a big part of that. But now, through my own efforts, I speak four languages comfortably and may well speak more in the future. I plan to finish Turkish over the rest of the year, keep up with Persian and Urdu by periodic conversations and reading, and then probably spend the first half of the next year consolidating all my languages at a leisurely pace. If life permits, after that, I will go back and rectify my poor French and make it fluent, or learn something more exotic like Hebrew, German, or colloquial Arabic – just for fun. I will keep you posted. And if you ever want to reach out and discuss language learning with a fellow non-professional autodidact, please consider me your friend in this journey.
Murtaza Hussain is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.