how to start learning a foreign language

How to Start Learning a Language By Yourself: A Comprehensive Startup Guide

Figuring out how to start learning a language by yourself is one seriously overwhelming task.

For example, I’ve been studying Thai for about a week now. Thai is not my first foreign language. As of the time that I’m writing this, according to the CEFR scale of language levels, I’m probably C1-C2 in Japanese and B1-B2 in Spanish.

If this clueless guy [=me] could do it, surely you can...
If this clueless guy [=me] could do it, surely you can…
And yet, starting Thai, I was trying to think of a phrase that sums up the experience so far…

Information overload? Plummeting confidence? General Overwhelmedness-ness-ness?

But that’s what it feels like starting any language. It was like that when I first started studying Japanese (x 1,000), and it was even a bit like that when I started Spanish.

That said, years of studying languages the wrong way has helped me to develop a system for starting any new language… a system I’ll explain in this post.

Hopefully this can help you feel just ever so slightly less upside-down as you start to study a language yourself. Be it Japanese, or Thai, or anything really. (For those who are studying Japanese, I recommend my 1-Year Guide).

How to Start Learning a Language By Yourself

Reading Time: 15-20 Minutes

By the way, if you’re interested in learning Japanese, in particular, you should get down on my free course, yo:

An Air-Tight System for Mastering Japanese
"I just wanted to say--thank you so much for setting up this e-course
I've wanted to learn Japanese for a while now, but I wasn't entirely sure how to get started properly until I read these."
-Rachel A.

I get thank-you emails from people reading it almost every day.

Everyone is going to have their own things that work. My system is not necessarily the best system for you personally. But you might be able to get some good ideas from it.

My preferred method for starting a new language by myself has five steps:

How to Start Learning a Language By Yourself
1) Start Audio Lessons
2) Do General Research
3) Build a Foundation
4) Start Making Flashcards
5) Sign Up for Lessons

Step #1) Start Audio Lessons

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Whenever I start learning a language, the first thing I always do is sign up for a free Pod101 account.

Pod101 is a series of audio lessons for different languages. I first became obsessed with their audio lessons when studying Japanese. They have hundreds–and sometimes thousands–of audio lessons tailored to every level of language learner.

JapanesePod101 helped me so much when learning Japanese. Honestly, I can’t adequately describe it in this post alone. The same can be said of SpanishPod101, which I listened to religiously when studying to prepare for my time volunteering in Peru a few years ago.

Here’s a list of the languages they have (in alphabetical order):

Innovative Language Audio Lessons

  • ArabicPod101
  • BulgarianPod101
  • CantoneseClass101
  • ChineseClass101
  • CzechClass101
  • DanishClass101
  • DutchPod101
  • EnglishClass101
  • FilipinoPod101
  • FinnishPod101
  • FrenchPod101
  • GermanPod101
  • GreekPod101
  • HebrewPod101
  • HindiPod101
  • HungarianPod101
  • IndonesianPod101
  • ItalianPod101
  • JapanesePod101
  • KoreanClass101
  • NorewegianClass101
  • PersianPod101
  • PolishPod101
  • PortuguesePod101
  • RussianPod101
  • SpanishPod101
  • SwahiliPod101
  • SwedishPod101
  • ThaiPod101
  • TurkishClass101
  • VietnamesePod101

Since I’m studying Thai at the moment, the first thing I did was sign up for a free account at ThaiPod101 and download some Absolute Beginner Level Lessons… which brings me to Step #1 of How to Start Learning a Language:

How to Start Learning a Language

Step #1 – Start Audio Lessons
1) Sign up for a free Pod101 account (see above).
2) Download some intro lessons.
3) Start listening to lessons whenever you have free time.

I plan to write a detailed post of what I’ve found to be the most effective way to use audio lessons in the future, but, uh, yeah… I haven’t written it yet.

Aside from the fact that audio lessons are an incredibly useful tool for language learning, the main reason that I always start from here when learning a language is that it’s an easy source of structured, informative language exposure appropriate for any level.

As I’ll explain in the rest of this post, starting a new language is mostly just an overload of information and things to learn–everybody has theories about how you should study; lots of people complain that X is impossible, so you should just give up (like they did); others tell you that X, Y, and Z are all possible and effortless… if you just give them a few hundred dollars; Wikipedia makes your head spin with linguistic jargon.

Amid all of this confusion, these simple audio lessons are a source of comfort and motivation.

It’s comforting, because your language ability starts improving from the start.

It’s motivating, because you’ll be listening to native speakers use the language.

Also, I find that audio lessons are a great tool to keep me on track, because lessons are a productive form of study. A common problem I have when starting new languages is to let all of my time get sucked up by activity, when really it should go to productivity.

Activity vs Productivity

Let me know if you’ve ever had an experience like this:

First, you notice a problem, a goal, something you want to change. Maybe you want to lose weight. Maybe you want to get a six-pack. Maybe you want to save money for a trip to Madagascar! Yay!

…Or maybe you want to learn a language.

But it’s so hard to save money and lose weight and learn languages.

So, you start making a plan.

If I study French 5 hours a day for one year, that’s like 1,800 hours of language study. I’ll be so fluent!

If I cut 350 calories per day, then I’ll lose 1 pound every ten days, which means I’ll lose 10 pounds in ten weeks. Awesome!

If I save $10 per day, that’s $3,650 a year. Madagascar here I come!

There’s only one problem with all of this:

Thinking about doing something is not the same as doing something.

  • Thinking about studying French is not the same as learning French.
  • Thinking about losing weight is not losing weight.
  • Thinking about saving money is not saving money.

Don’t get me wrong–I think having a plan is a good thing. This article is about planning, after all.

But plans have their limits. And us humans like imagining that we’re going to accomplish things, because it triggers the same sense of accomplishment as if we’d actually done something. Also, fantasizing too much about positive outcomes is scientifically shown to have a negative affect on the actual realization of goals.

This article you’re reading right now isn’t teaching you a new language. I think I’m sharing some valuable information with you, but a site like this one can only help you so much.

So, yeah. Download an audio lesson. Buy a grammar book. Whatever. Just starting putting this new language in your brain from Day 1.

Activity < Productivity

Audio lessons are the easiest way to expose yourself to a new language. If you’re tired, and you don’t feel like studying, well that’s okay. Just put on your headphones and don’t listen actively. Something is better than nothing. Also, there are structured ways to do this so that even if you’re only passively listening, you’re still actively studying.

So, yeah, I always start audio lessons from Day 1.

They’re my fallback. My constant. My rock. My shoulder to cry on.

And there’s no reason to postpone starting them.

Step #2) Do General Research & Get Pumped

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Other people have learned this language before me. I want to learn from their mistakes. I want to find out what the common difficulties are from other learners. And, most of all, I want to know which shortcuts are available to me.

So I usually start with searching all up in El Internet for the goods on starting the fill-in-the-blank language.

Here are some places to start your general research:

Google.com is usually the first place I go, typing all sorts of stuff about the language into that simple little search bar. Some ideas:

  • how to learn [language]
  • fastest (best / cheapest / etc.) way to learn [language]
  • [language] grammar
  • [language] pronunciation

Because there are already so many good, free resources for just about any language you might want to learn, that alone usually takes up about a week! Luckily, I’m still studying in that time thanks to Pod101 (see Step #1).

Omniglot.com is a huge, free online encyclopedia of different languages and writing systems. So you might want to check that out, too. It’s really fantastic.

There’s also one very important thing to do while you research this new language adventure of yours:

Get excited about this journey.

Step #2 of starting to learn a language basically leaves you with two options:(1) get overwhelmed or (2) get ridiculously excited. As you might have guessed, I’m a proponent of option #2.

The most difficult part of learning any language is not quitting. This means we must do whatever we can to maintain motivation.

Whenever I set out to learn a language, the first thing I used to do was to list reasons mastering this language would be awesome. I’d write down how I’d get all these cool jobs and meet all these awesome people and fill my life with exotic experiences that are just absolutely glistening with bossosity.

It only occurred to me recently that this may have been a mistake. Particularly, after reading about this study on the American Psychological Association’s website, I started to think that maybe wishful thinking really is detrimental to achieving goals. I know that I, in particular, have a pretty bad habit of creating somewhat (that is, vastly) unrealistic fantasies.

The fact is, I don’t ever know where this language is going to take me. I don’t know what parts are going to be thrilling or frustrating or easy. I don’t know how many times I’ll give up and start again. How many times I’ll feel confident, afraid, confused. And, really, that’s what I should get excited about.

Language learning is a journey. And, like any journey, it’s not about the destination. If you’re always thinking about this final destination, this elusive concept of “fluency,” then the chances of you burning out and quitting increase a solid amount. And quitting is the only way you will fail to learn this language.

The Importance of Not Quitting

Every person who has ever “mastered” a language has one thing in common: Thousands of hours of language exposure.

If you look online, there are all kinds of theories as to the best way to learn a language. Some people will tell you that the best way is to get a girlfriend or boyfriend that speaks that language. Others will say that it’s impossible unless you live in a country where the language is spoken. I have my own method for Japanese. Other people have different methods than me for learning Japanese.

It doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is consistent, structured, long-term language exposure. Period.

Anyone that presents you with any language-learning method that does not contain hundreds (or sometimes thousands) of hours of language exposure is not to be trusted.

It takes thousands of hours to learn Japanese.

It takes thousands of hours to learn Chinese.

It takes hundreds of hours to learn even the easiest of languages for English speakers. Here’s a chart that approximates hours required to learn various languages, courtesy of the Foreign Service Institute.

Effective language-learning is measured in hours, not years. Sustained, structured, and consistent accumulation of language exposure will always result in fluency. And I think that’s why it’s really important to enjoy this journey. Studies show that willpower is an exhaustible resource. That’s why we fail on our diets when we’re tired. That’s why it’s harder to go to the gym at the end of the day. And that’s why you’ll quit studying if you don’t enjoy studying.

There is nothing more important than not quitting. And having fun is the best way to avoid quitting.

So let’s enjoy this journey. Eventually, you’ll come to experience a kind of language-study high, which is such an amazing feeling, honestly.

Here are some ideas to get excited about the actual process of language learning…

Make lists of reasons studying this language will be awesome.

For example…

  • It’s great brain training, which will make me a more awesome person in general.
  • Studying a language is a simple way to feel a sense of accomplishment with only a few minutes of effort per day.
  • Studying will help me visualize just how big and awesome this world is.
  • “I’m studying (Thai)” is a nice conversation-starter.
  • Studying a language will help me watch my words, and thus my thoughts, actions, and habits, which form my character (according to Buddha, Lao Tzu, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Margaret Thatcher).

Make lists of ways you might enjoy studying this language.

For example…

  • I could go to my favorite coffee shop and study for hours, drinking 100 free coffee refills!
  • I could listen to audio lessons on my way to work and stop feeling like my commute is a waste of time.
  • I could make a habit of waking up every morning, eating mixed nuts, drinking delicious coffee, and studying my flashcards (this is actually what I do).
  • I could try doing language exchanges with beautiful girls.

Chances are, if you’re planning to study a language, then there is probably something drawing you towards that language. Try to think about how you can incorporate that thing into your studies. This can be a little bit difficult in the early stages, but it gets more feasible as you progress, and it’s a good thing to look forward to.

I used to dream about reading books in Japanese, because I love reading. So I decided that I wasn’t going to read any books in English anymore. It was rough at first (particularly, tackling the Japanese writing system), but when I finally became able to comfortably read books in Japanese, it was such a great reward. And thinking about that reward kept me motivated to study. I always wanted to read. So, I studied.

For more ideas on how to have fun studying a language, you might want to check out this article from Hacking Chinese.

Step #3) Build a Foundation

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Okay. So now I’ve got my audio lessons playing all the time. I’m excited about learning this language. And, thanks to a bit of research, I have a very vague idea of the challenges I’m going to face as I approach it.

This means that it’s time to start studying.

Many language learning sites, books, and so on will start you off with survival phrases and greetings. I think these are useful in the beginning stages, but I usually focus on those things after building a foundation.

Building a foundation, for the most part, will involve two things:

  1. Learning to read this language with proper pronunciation.
  2. Confirming how much of this language you already know.

Building a Foundation, Part 1: Learn to Read Phonetically

In the short time that I’ve been traveling the world, studying languages and teaching English, I’ve really come to understand just how valuable it is to be able to read phonetically.

Teaching English in Japan, the students with the worst pronunciation were always the ones who wrote down how to pronounce English words using katakana (a type of Japanese ‘letter’). In other words, these students put Japanese sounds onto English words. When you consider that English has 19 vowel sounds, but Japanese only has 5… well, yeah, we’re gonna have a problem.

For example, I had a student who couldn’t pronounce the word “violin” in English. Her “v” was surprisingly good for a Japanese person, but she kept pronouncing the second “i” like a hard “e.”

“Violin,” I said.
“Violeen?”
“Violin.”
“Violeen?”

Finally, she wrote down the katakana characters: エ (“e,” pronounced kind of like the “e” in “egg”) and イ (“i,” pronounced kind of like the “ee” in “seen”).

“Which one?” she demanded.
“Neither,” I said. I wasn’t sure what to tell her. “In. Tin. Spin. Fin… Violin.”

The main problem here was not that she had never built a foundation of how English is pronounced. Different languages have different sounds. And it’s very tempting to simply ascribe (sometimes, very similar) sounds from your native language to sounds of a new language. But, this can have drastic consequences.

If you don’t learn the sounds of a language, you will always sound like a foreigner when you speak. At worst, this means causing huge misunderstandings.

I think this is the most important thing, though:

If you learn to read phonetically, you can improve your listening by reading.

If you can hear the words in your head as you’re reading, then your listening can improve naturally. This is very easy with languages that don’t have as many sounds as English (like Japanese), and it’s also very straightforward for languages (like Spanish) with a shallow orthographic depth (words are usually pronounced the same way they’re written). I’m not sure how difficult it is for a language like Thai, which has more sounds than English, but I plan to write updates about it as I explore this new language.

For Thai, my plan is to be able to (1) read each of the consonants and vowels with correct pronunciation. That is, I want to be able to read words phonetically. Then, I want to be able to (2) learn the tone rules so that I can read words with the proper tone.

Reading Thai script takes a solid time commitment, but it’s really not as bad as it looks. In my experience, learning the writing system of every language is doable with a little bit of effort. If I could learn 2,000+ Japanese characters in under 100 days, then surely I could learn a few Thai characters in about a month or two, yeah?

Anyways, yeah, before I try to learn any words, I always try to learn how to pronounce them accurately. Otherwise, I’ll just end up building on an extremely shaky and flawed foundation. I usually work on my pronunciation three ways:

1) Read articles on correct pronunciation of the target language and English accent problems.

2) Listen to audio lessons.

3) Look up YouTube videos on correct pronunciation of the target language.

The exciting part of all of this is that after learning to pronounce a language like a native, I can usually learn a few thousands words in one day. I do this by…

Building a Foundation, Part 2: Look Up Lists of English Cognates

It’s really unfair how many advantages native English speakers have, because there are so many English cognates in virtually every language out there.

Cognates are words with a common etymological origin. Here’s a Wikipedia page that explains the concept of cognates. For example, if a word in English ends in -ion, then there is a large chance that there will be a cognate in a Roman language, such as Spanish or French. Association becomes associación. Relation becomes relación. And so on.

I mean, just look at all of these cognates:

113-2014-06-06-10.55

(Image Source: Cognates.org)

The best part is that cognates are not simply limited to languages of Latin and Greek origin. There are many English cognates in Japanese, Thai, etc. And a lot of times, if you simply learn how people speaking this language pronounce words (i.e. Building a Foundation, Part 1), then you can already guess thousands of words in that new language.

Just look at this video of English cognates in Japanese:

There are some false cognates–words that take on a new meaning in the language borrowing them. For false English cognates in Japanese, this is called 和製英語 (wasei eigo), which literally means “English Made in Japan.” Fun words like…

  • “high touch”(ハイタッチ)for “high five”
  • “hair iron” (ヘアアイロン)for “hair straightener”
  • “diet” (ダイエット)for “diet and exercise”

Realizing that you already know thousands of words in a new language is a great confidence boost, and it can help you move into learning new words and phrases… which is what you can do in Step #4…

Step #4) Start Making Flashcards

Okay… so, don’t panic. But Part 4 of “How to Start Learning a Language By Yourself” is going to require a bit of initiative.

Specifically, I’m talking about flashcards.

Is it possible for adults to learn new languages?

Everyone’s heard it before: The only way to become truly ‘fluent’ in a language is to learn it as a child.

Honestly, that widespread notion scared me for a long, long time. It was terrifying. There are few things in life that I love more than learning languages, and the idea that something I love so much might be stolen from me was truly frightening. Even after learning Japanese, I still had this lingering fear that the next language would be impossible, because (gasp) I’m already 27!

This led to me doing a lot of research. And research led to some good news and some bad news.

The good news is that it is certainly possible for older people to learn new things like languages, music, etc.

The bad news is that older people need more time to learn new things.

If you’re interested in reading up on the overwhelming evidence that learning new languages is still possible with age, here are some interesting links:

Anyways, yeah–It is possible for adults to learn a new language. But it takes time, which is what I’d like to talk about in Stage #4.

I said this earlier, but I think that the best way to learn any language is to get thousands of hours of structured, relevant, and consistent exposure to new words, sounds, and grammar.

And I think that the best way to get this type of language exposure is to use intelligent flashcards.

Spaced Repetition Systems

In this article, I say “intelligent flashcards,” but the technical term is “spaced repetition system,” often abbreviated to just SRS. It refers to software that puts “space” between items you want to memorize. Here’s an explanation from LearnAnyLanguage.com:

“Spaced repetition software (“SRS”) is essentially digital flashcard software. But unlike other flashcard software, it tries to schedule card reviews at efficient intervals.

The theory behind spaced repetition is that humans rarely memorize a new fact all at once. The first time we see a fact, we may only remember it for a day or two. But if we force ourselves to remember or review that fact before we forget it, we’ll remember it longer the next time. So if we review something at increasing intervals, we’ll have a good chance of remembering it indefinitely. It’s possible to do this by hand, using index cards and some sort of scheduling system, but most people use special flashcard software with built-in support for scheduling cards.”

I could talk for ages about why these are awesome, but instead just trust me, please??

Or read all of these articles that elicit the value of SRS:

Download Anki

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There are a lot of different SRS programs out there, but Anki is probably the most popular for language-learning. You can download it here. As you can see by looking at its extensive User Manual, Anki is an impressively versatile and powerful application.

There are two types of flashcard decks that you can use on Anki: (1) decks that you make yourself, and (2) shared decks that you download.

You really really really should have at least one deck that you make yourself. Then, if you want, you can have one more shared deck that you download.

Why do I need to create my own deck?

It’s very tempting to simply download one of the decks from Anki’s Shared Decks Database. And, it’s true that some of them are really great and quite helpful. I use them sometimes myself. But, if I’m seriously studying a language, then a deck that I create myself will always take priority.

The main reason that creating your own deck is so useful is that you will end up studying words that you encounter naturally in your studies and are therefore more prone to remember. Anki works best as a review tool, rather than as a learning tool.

Still, it’s up to you, of course.

Set Up Your First Deck

I always create a custom format for the flashcard deck of a new language. Depending on the language, there is always something different that I’m trying to focus on. For example, studying Thai my focuses are pronunciation, reading phonetically, and listening comprehension. As such, my cards look like this…

Thai Study Deck, Front of Card:

100-2014-06-06-07.28

At the top of the card, I have a sentence written in Thai script, which I’m still trying to be able to read phonetically.

Once I try to guess how to say this sentence, I click the Audio button beneath it, and I can hear the voice of a native speaker taken from ThaiPod101.

Then I click “Show Answer” to see the back of the card.

Thai Study Deck, Back of Card:

101-2014-06-06-07.28

On the back side of the card, I can see: Thai script, romanization, English translation, voice recording, thai script of the word I want to learn, romanization, and English word.

If I remembered this word, I’d click “Good,” and it would show in one day. If it was hard, I’d click “Again,” and it would show in under 10 minutes. Either way, I’m never forgetting this word.

Here’s what this flashcard looks like if I click Edit:

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So I can add, delete, or edit any of the fields of this card. I can also edit how they show up in the program of smartphone app. For Thai I’m using different colors–black, red, and blue.

Adding a New Card would look like this:

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Compare this to adding a new card for my Japanese deck:

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Starting from the top, I have:

  • Japanese Example Sentence 1
  • English Translation of Sentence 1
  • Japanese Example Sentence 2
  • English Translation of Sentence 2
  • Japanese Word I Want to Remember
  • Reading (furigana) of Japanese Characters
  • English Translation of Word
  • Definition of Japanese Word in Japanese
  • Audio

Here’s what it looks like filled out:

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I can make a card like this in one to two minutes. I don’t usually add audio for my Japanese cards, because it’s quite easy for me to pronounce. Also, I took this example from a dictionary that didn’t have audio… and I don’t want to waste time looking for an audio file.

Here’s an example of this card style (Front Side):

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And the back side looks like this:

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That link at the bottom is an automatically generated link that takes me to a dictionary entry for the word I’m trying to learn (in this case, 大気汚染). Like I said, Anki is really versatile.

There are a lot of options for how you style your cards. You could even just stick with simple Front/Back Cards, like this:

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Since I’m a language nerd, I currently have four decks:

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Thanks to Anki, I can study a vast quantity of words over a long period of time. I highly highly highly recommend it.

Download a Shared Deck (If You Want)

Some people don’t like making their own cards, although you’ll find that most people who are successful with Anki do make their own.

But this is your language journey, so you should do whatever you feel like. In which case, you can have lots of fun exploring Anki’s Shared Decks Database.

Set Daily New Card Numbers

When it comes to the settings for your Anki program, two things are very important:

1) Make sure that New Cards are set to show after Review Cards.

2) Make sure that you don’t have too many new cards showing per day. Deciding an appropriate number of new cards will depend on the language that you’re studying. In general, though, it will be less than 30 new cards per day. Maybe a lot less if you’re having trouble retaining things.

How to Study Anki Effectively

Anki is most effective if it is used over a long period of time. I’ve been studying Japanese cards on Anki every day now for just over two years straight, and my Japanese deck has about 20,000 cards. I was able to reach this number simply because I studied consistently over a long period of time.

The same is true of any language. You don’t need to learn 100 new words a day. You just need to learn new words when you have time and always do your cards that are due for review.

This is so important, it bears repeating a thousand times:

Do ALL of your Review Cards every single day.

If you’re tired, and you don’t feel like reviewing, that’s fine–don’t think. Just look at your screen and hit “Good” on the Anki program until your cards are down to zero. Trust me.

For example, this is what my Anki decks looked like this morning (after I’d already studied Japanese):

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So, those numbers under the “Due” column are absolutely mandatory every day, because if I don’t do my Anki Review Cards every day, then Anki stops being effective. If Anki stops being effective, then it’s very hard for me to remember thousands and thousands of words. And that’s when the world crumbles all around us and no one is happy ever again for all of eternity.

You can also take a laid-back approach to expanding your vocabulary. For instance, I’m not really studying Portuguese right now, but I do learn about 15 new Portuguese words per day. I’m planning to start studying Portuguese in a year or two. And, thanks to Anki, on Day #1 of my studies, I should already have between 5,000 and 10,000 vocabulary words under my belt. Boom!

Watch Out for the Anki Avalanche

The Anki Avalanche is the consequence of trying to learn too many new cards per day.

If you do that, the Cards Due for Review will start to have this snowball effect over time, and before you know it you’re waking up every morning with 300 to 500 cards due for review. This number becomes unmanageable, and then you stop studying one or two days. But then the cards due for review hit 800, 1000! And you get overwhelmed.

I personally was a victim of the Anki Avalanche once, and I woke up every morning with 3,000+ Japanese cards due for review. Yikes!

Eventually, I got that number back down to zero, but it really put a damper on my studies. I’ve vowed to never let that happen to me again. Please try to avoid letting it happen to you, too.

Slow and steady wins the race.
慢而稳者胜。
Despacio, pero constante…
急がば回れ。
Qui veut voyager loin ménage sa monture.

Now then… with that out of the way, let’s look at how to start adding new cards!

Start Adding New Cards to Your Anki Deck

Okay! So we’re all set up to start filling our brains with all sorts of language awesomeness… but there’s just one problem:

Where do I get content for my first Anki cards?

Usually, I just add new words and phrases that I take from the LanguagePod101 lessons that I’m listening to. My general strategy is to know every word of every lesson for every level.

For example, let’s say I start with SpanishPod101, Absolute Beginner, Season 01, Lesson 01:

  1. I listen to every lesson of Absolute Beginner, Season 01.
  2. As I listen to lessons, I add new words and phrases that I don’t know to my Anki deck. If pronunciation is difficult for me (e.g. for Thai), then I also add audio to each deck that is taken from their line-by-line audio tracks for each lesson. So, my flashcards for new words are attached to audio tracks from a story that I’ve heard in a lesson, thus increasing my retention.
  3. Once I learn everything in the lessons from Absolute Beginner, Season 01, then I make a separate audio feed of only the dialogues from the lesson. These tracks are short, because they’re dialogue only, which means that I can get through them quickly. They increase my listening comprehension while also helping me review vocabulary I’ve studied.
  4. I move onto Absolute Beginner, Season 02, and I repeat the process.
  5. Once I finish Absolute Beginner, I move up to Beginner Level and repeat the process.
  6. I move from Beginner to Lower-Intermediate to Intermediate to Upper-Intermediate to Advanced.
  7. Once I reach advanced, I should have enough vocabulary to read novels, newspapers, etc. I should have enough grammar concepts to express my opinions on any kind of abstract topic, and I should have a high enough listening comprehension to watch TV and movies without subtitles. It takes time, and there are always variations in the way things progress, but that is the inevitable outcome with structured, relevant, and consistent studying.

If you’re not interested in using LanguagePod101 Lessons, then you could also start with Survival Phrases or just by googling “most common words in [language]. Here’s a grouping of survival phrases on Omniglot, and here’s another grouping on BBC.

Step #5) Sign Up for Lessons

computer-23713_640

The last step in starting a new language is to actually start using it. Thanks to the previous four steps:

  • You’ve already passively participated in a number of audio lessons. (Step #1)
  • You already have a basic idea of what this language consists of and you’re excited to study it. (Step #2)
  • You already know how this language should sound phonetically, even if you can’t pronounce it that well yet. (Step #3)
  • You already know exactly how to remember new things you encounter. (Step #4)

So what are you waiting for? It’s time to start interacting with native speakers of this language. Time to start making a fool of yourself and thinking so much about how to phrase things that you feel like your brain is going to melt.

It’s tempting to put off taking lessons. I know that I’m particularly guilty of this. But don’t.

The faster you start taking lessons, the faster you will learn.

And there are thousands of friendly, skilled people out there who are happy to help and teach you.

Lesson Options

italki

The easiest option for this is italki, which I’ve heard many good things about.

Aside from that, I suppose you could just do a google search for language school and/or teachers in your area.

I save this stage of starting a language for last, but that’s partly because I prefer to build a foundation before I start trying to speak. That’s my style. Yours might be the same, or it might be different.

In my case, I like to do all of steps 1 through 4, then I prefer to move to a country where my target language is spoken and take intensive lessons. It’s pretty much my favorite thing in the world. That said, moving to a foreign country and entering an intensive study program might not be very feasible for many people, in which case your options are probably italki or looking up language schools near you.

Talking is not the same as taking a lesson.

Many people will say that they don’t like the structured approach of classes, textbooks, etc. I think that’s totally fine, but if you’re simply talking to someone in your target language and they’re not correcting you, then your progress in the language will slow down drastically.

Instant feedback on your mistakes via a teacher (or an extremely patient friend) can help you improve your language ability very quickly. If you’re not getting corrected, learning to speak accurately and naturally will take much longer. I’m speaking from personal experience, as most of my Japanese was self-taught with speaking practice mostly done drinking with friends or chatting with my Japanese girlfriend (who refuses to correct me).

If you don’t have money for lessons, then you can probably find a language exchange partner who is willing to correct your mistakes. However, half of your time will be spent teaching rather than learning.

But, hey: If you give a little love, you get a little love of your own.

Here are some language exchange websites that I know of:

I used to think that the best way to take a lesson was to prep for it and instruct the teacher what type of approach you’d like to take. These days, though, I guess I’ve become a bit more lazy, because I prefer to just leave it up to them. I’m studying my own thing at home, anyways. If I’ve already studied what they try to teach me, it will just help to cement it in my brain. If I haven’t studied it yet… well, then I guess I get to learn something new!

Just to recap…

How to Start Learning a Language
1) Start Audio Lessons
2) Do General Research
3) Build a Foundation
4) Start Making Flashcards
5) Sign Up for Lessons

What do you think? Good stuff? Bad stuff? Either way, please let me know in the comments, below.

Also, if you’re into Japanese (the focus of this site), I’d be 100% thrilled if you signed up for this site’s newsletter.

No spam. Not ever. Just useful stuff about languages, travel & whatnot:

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Also, you should probably check out…

Stuff That I Don’t Do In The Beginning… But You Might Want to Consider

What works for me is not going to be 100% the same as what works for you. It’s probably not even 75% the same.

People love to give us advice. But let’s remember what my homie the Buddha said:

“Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.”
the Buddha

So yeah… here’s some stuff that I don’t do when I start learning a language… but that might be really awesome for you personally.

Start Speaking From Day 1

Quite a few language-learning blogs out there will tell you that the best way to become fluent in a language quickly is to start speaking it from Day 1.

Probably the most famous site for this is FluentIn3Months.com, featuring Benny the Irish polyglot. I think his site has some really great information.

If you’re interested in the concept of speaking from Day 01, here are some useful articles I’ve seen:

Use Language-Learning Software

I’ve tried a wide variety of language-learning software. Honestly, some of them have some really fantastic material and approaches. Even so, I’ve never learned a language by using one. I always quit somewhere along the way.

Here are some options:

  • DuoLingo is free and hugely popular. I think it’s good for increasing accuracy, but precisely because of its focus on accurate language, I think it’s too slow for picking up a new language.
  • Memrise seems pretty cool, but I’ve never tried it before. Anki is the only girl for me.
  • Rosetta Stone is super famous. I did the Japanese one years ago. I thought it was helpful, but I finished the whole thing quite quickly and still didn’t feel I’d gotten much out of it. Benny the Irish polyglot wrote a review about it.
  • Pimsleur is also very famous, but I’ve never tried it. Like Rosetta Stone, it seems a bit overpriced to me.

Final Thoughts on How to Start Learning a Language

When I started writing this post, I intended for it to be quite short and to-the-point. I never expected it to grow into this long, comprehensive guide.

I suppose I’ve just been thinking about this topic for years and years. So it’s a bit difficult to be brief.

Do you have any ideas on how to make this article better?

Did it help you out at all?

I always get stoked when people comment on one of my sites… so… well… よろしくお願いします!(Yoroshiku onegaishimasu! / [I have no idea how to translate this Japanese. “Please treat me with kindness” or something weird like that, haha.]

Keep swimming,

Niko

Niko Profile Photo NihongoShark.com

p.s. In case you missed it, here’s my free Japanese course:

Japanese Course Awesomeness.

Niko

Yo! I'm Niko, the founder of NihongoShark. I'm also a Japanese translator, writer, and all-around language nerd.

I created this site to help as many people master Japanese (any language, really) as possible.

Uh, what else? Well... I live in Tokyo, Bangkok, Sapporo, Saigon, San Diego, Tokyo, Chiang Mai, Thailand! So if anyone wants to meet up for a refreshing nama beer, I'm probably down for that. Or a coffee. Learning Japanese is a betch. But we're in this together. ファイト!

Good luck with your studies!

Niko

p.s. The best way to get in touch with me is probably via the (free) NihongoShark Chat Community (signup link)... which is also a sweet place for meeting other motivated students of Japanese.

Niko

Yo! I'm Niko, the founder of NihongoShark. I'm also a Japanese translator, writer, and all-around language nerd. I created this site to help as many people master Japanese (any language, really) as possible. Uh, what else? Well... I live in Tokyo, Bangkok, Sapporo, Saigon, San Diego, Tokyo, Chiang Mai, Thailand! So if anyone wants to meet up for a refreshing nama beer, I'm probably down for that. Or a coffee. Learning Japanese is a betch. But we're in this together. ファイト! Good luck with your studies! Niko p.s. The best way to get in touch with me is probably via the (free) NihongoShark Chat Community (signup link)... which is also a sweet place for meeting other motivated students of Japanese.

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  • Charles Whitaker

    ありがとうございました!

    I’ve been learning Japanese for a few years now and it’s been up and down, but now I’ve actually left Japan I kind of have a renewed determination to get fluent.

    I’m actually in Germany now and just started learning German. Just a quick question – how did you go about adding the podcast vocab audio to your Anki deck cards? Thanks! 🙂

  • Hi Charles!

    First, thank you so much for commenting. It’s nice to know when someone has read an article.

    So, this explanation is a bit technical (I hope that’s okay).

    Technically, I think that we’re not supposed to be downloading the line-by-line audio from Pod101… but I do anyways. I don’t have an active subscription to JapanesePod101 right now, but I can show you how I would do this with my ThaiPod101 account. I think it’s the same interface. Here we go…

    Step #1 – Use Firefox

    Step #2 – Download the FlashGot Extension: https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/flashgot/

    Step #3 – Go to the lesson page that you want to pull audio from.

    Step #4 – Click On “Lesson Materials” (#2), and then click on line-by-line audio.

    Step #5 – Now there is a list of line-by-line audio. However, for some reason FlashGot (on my pc) doesn’t recognize them until I play each one individually.

    Step #6 – After you’ve played each file, you can use FlashGot on the whole page, and the mp3 tracks for the line-by-line audio should show up in FlashGot’s list of available file download.

    Step #7 – Download the tracks.

    Step #8 – Add to Anki

    That sounds like a lot of work, but you’re downloading every line of a lesson all at once. So, I think it’s not that bad. I attached a bunch of screenshots, but I’m not sure if they’ll be much help, because (1) my computer is in Japanese and (2) its on ThaiPod101.com

    I also had to got to Japan and leave once before I really managed to stick to my Japanese studies. Something about the language just kept pulling me back.

    Anyways, just let me know if you have any other questions. I hope those instructions weren’t too confusing.

  • PenguinCake

    Great article! 🙂 I’ve always loved your system (I honestly think it’s the best one out there).

    Just a few questions regarding this article:
    What happened to the Don’t break the chain thing?
    Where’s the 15 minutes of grammar everyday?
    How about the idea of ‘After X hours/months/whatever, you can start speaking and writing’ ?

    This guide just seems to conflict a little with your Guide to Japanese in 1 year … Have you ‘revamped’ your ideas and methods? Or is this just another approach?

  • Hi PenguinCake,

    First, thanks for commenting!

    I still think the ‘don’t break the chain’ concept is really helpful. I thought about mentioning it, but the article was getting to be a bit too long already. also, I tend to overlook that concept sometimes, because daily, consistent studying has become such a habit for me. maybe I should have mentioned it. oops!

    As for the structured amounts of grammar and timing, I do still think that those are useful tactics as one sets out in a new language, especially Japanese. but there are a few reasons I didn’t include them in this post.

    first, this post is just about starting new language, getting moving. it’s less about how to become fluent quickly. talking to a lot of friends and acquaintances, they often want to learn languages, but they just don’t know where to begin. this is kind of a go-to article that I can show them at times like that. then, once they have actually started, they can look at things like study schedules, grammar, speaking, etc.

    talking particularly about the speaking element, these days I kind of hesitate to say something like “after X hours, start speaking,” because I think that “X” will be different for everyone.

    another reason this article slightly conflicts with the advice in the ebook is that this is meant to be for any language. so it’s kind of hard to lay out a detailed plan.

    Anyways, I’m actually in the process of doing a huge rewrite of the e-book. I think it will integrate a lot of these concepts, though it’s still mostly built upon the old structure. Hopefully it’ll be finished within the next couple of months. and then I’ll send it out to everyone on the mailing list.

    thanks again for commenting!

  • PenguinCake

    Hi Niko,
    Thanks for answering!

    I can’t wait for the rewrite to be done! I’m a huge fan of your language method 🙂

  • Lunar

    Just thought I’d let you know – the link for “myths and misconceptions about second language learning” doesn’t lead to the actual article, only to sort of a pdf repository.

    I’m far along enough on my journey through Japanese that the guide probably won’t be of much help to me anymore, but it seems like great help to beginners. Besides, I’m always happy to learn more about other people’s study methods, since I do still have a long way to go towards fluency. Both this and your ebook are about as close as we’ll get to a gamefaqs-style walkthrough, I guess, lol.

    A question about JapanesePod101, though – isn’t it the case that only like 10 lessons of each level are free or something like that? Admittedly, I’m not too fond of Pod101, considering that since I’ve registered years ago they’ve been spamming me like they’re trying to sell me dick enlargement pills, but I was looking for a resource of sentences to add to Anki so I thought I’d give it another shot. Maybe.

  • Hi Lunar,

    Thanks for letting me know about that broken link!

    I’m not quite sure what’s free on pod101 to be honest. it’s kind of confusing actually, because I’ve had people tell me they got full access for a week or so for free before (which is, for some, all you need to download thousands of lessons and cancel).

    I used to get lots of emails from a different pod101, I forget what language. but they stopped when I unsubscribed.

    anyways, if you’re looking for Anki sentences, Pod101 is an option, but I think it’s better for listening practice. have you ever tried something like EPWING2ANKI? here’s a link:
    http://forum.koohii.com/viewtopic.php?pid=181564

    I made some decks using that. it’s an easy way to add thousands of words to Anki. I’ll probably write a post about it sometime.

  • PenguinCake

    So any updates on the e-book? ^^

  • Hi there,

    I’m kind of embarrassed to say that I’m only about halfway done! I got my first translating job back in October (yeah!), and it turned out to be pretty demanding, so I was working full-time on that until December.

    I moved to Sapporo last week, and I’m trying to start working on it again seriously now.

  • Matt Mendoza

    Hi Niko, loving the site.

    I just started getting into learning Japanese. Just curious, when you create new Anki cards with Audio, do you normally record your own or can you add it from the Japanesepod101 course somehow?

    I’ve been using Memrise quite a bit but haven’t used Anki much. Would you say Anki is a bit better?

    Thanks!