The Truth About Learning Languages

langHas learning a language always been one of your personal dreams?  It is for a great many people. I’m a big fan of languages and I have quite a few friends who speak at least one language other than their own.  I also have quite a few other friends who have tried to learn a language without much success.  So, over the past few weeks, I’ve made a point of talking to my friends about the process of learning a language.  I combined what I heard with my own experiences, and here’s what I’ve learned.

First, some bad news.  Despite the claims of various ads and even some well-known authors, you simply CANNOT learn a language in 10 days,  You can’t even learn one — really learn one — in three or four months.  It’s going to take some time to be understood and, in particular, to understand what is said to you.  Claims that it’s possible to learn in a language in a very short period of time are snake oil — plain and simple. They only set people up for disillusionment and failure.

Yes, learning a language takes time — just think about how long it took you to learn your first language.  However, that fact shouldn’t deter you.  Instead, think of learning a language as a process of continual exploration and improvement; a source of pleasure that can last for years.  In some ways, it’s much like playing a musical instrument.

There is, however, lots of good news. While you can’t become fluent in 10 days, you CAN make enormous and satisfying progress in a couple of months.  You can learn lots of words and phrases, make great strides in speaking and pronunciation, and in comprehension.  In addition, there are things you can do to enhance and speed the learning process.

Here are 13 useful tips:

1. Manage Your Time Expectations. Given that it’s impossible to learn a language in a few weeks, think of your language learning adventure, from the very start, as a medium-term project.  This will help ward off disappointment and it will set you up with the proper mindset. Also be aware that you’re likely to hit plateaus.  At the beginning, for example, there is typically an initial, exhilarating flush of learning that is followed by a period where things seem a bit more difficult.  Expect it to happen and plan to get though it — that first plateau might be the perfect time for an immersion experience, which we’ll talk about next. 

immer2. Immersion: I notice one nearly universal constant among those of my friends who have been most successful in learning a language; they’ve all spent at least some amount of time in the country where the language is spoken, or taken immersion courses here in the States. Some of them spent a relatively long period of time in country, while others spent multiple smaller periods — such as three two-week periods over the course of a few years.  While this may sound like a major obstacle, it is really a wonderful opportunity to go beyond the typical vacation, which is often limited to tourist attractions.  There are companies that offer language learning trips, and there are also language schools that offer in-country classes so you can plan the trip yourself.

pos3) Maintain a Positive Attitude:  Never say; “I just can’t learn a foreign language” or “I’m not good at learning languages”.  First of all, these statements are not true.  After all; you learned your current language didn’t you? Secondly, if you consistently repeat negative statements like these, your mind begins to accept them.  As a result, they become true — they are self-fulfilling prophecies.  In other words, you definitely CAN learn a new language, but If you tell yourself you can’t, then you won’t really try.

amore4) Love is the Best Motivator:  Since learning a language takes time, you’ll need sustained motivation to make it happen.  In my experience, the very best motivation is love! Yes, love!  If you can find something you love that requires you to speak the language, it provides almost endless motivation. Perhaps you love French food and cooking — then learning French will be an invaluable skill that will add to your enjoyment of the cuisine and its preparation. Similarly, if you love opera, learning Italian, French or German will provide a whole new perspective on the art form. Of course, a desire to visit native-speaking relatives in a country is a great motivator too.  Perhaps the best form of motivational love is making new friends or even finding a significant other in the country of the language you are learning.  If you are interested in this kind of “amore”, there are ways to make it happen.

incar5) Listen and Repeat — Perhaps in Your Car: The thing that boosts my level of language proficiency the most is listening to phrases spoken by native speakers and repeating them — memorizing them. This may seem more like parroting than learning but it really works.  Learning phrases not only gives you a feel for the authentic pronunciation and rhythm of the language, it gives you confidence, and it arms you with things to say in common situations, such as meeting someone for the first time.  In addition, I like short stories in the target language, followed by brief explanations in English. I find this is a great way to use my time in the car, which would otherwise be wasted.  Another bonus;  the car serves as your own private sound booth — so it’s not embarrassing to be talking to yourself! There are lots of ways to get recordings of phrases. Check out the Resources section below for some ideas.  Also check back here on FLYODI, we’ll soon be offering some valuable recordings for learning Italian.

6) The Internet is an Invaluable Asset: The Internet has completely altered the language learning landscape.  So much so, that I sometimes wonder how people learned languages 25 years ago.  Check out the Resources section below for useful websites.   

7) Make Maximum Use of  By visiting, you’ll almost certainly find a group for the language your are interested in learning.  These groups are not only fun, they’re an absolutely invaluable resources.  They give you an opportunity to practice your speaking and comprehension skills — the most important aspects of learning a language. Often you will find native speakers that can explain things to you — such as idiomatic phrases — like no book can.  In addition, you’ll meet others who are interested in learning the language.  You might even find that “love” motivation I mentioned above.

8) Subtitled Movies:  Watching subtitled movies or TV in the language you’re studying is a very good way to practice and expand your language capabilities.  Check out you local video store or for subtitled films.

9) Knowledge of Grammar Streamlines Learning and Provides Confidence:  Some maintain that you don’t need to learn grammar in order to learn a foreign language.  The consensus among my friends who have been successful at learning languages is that this in not true.  As an adult learner, the main advantage you have over a child, is that you can learn and apply patterns — you don’t have to learn everything by repetition.  In many languages, once you learn how one common verb works, you have learned how to use dozens, even hundreds of other verbs.  Thus studying grammar really helps!

10) Remember; Language Skills are Perishable:  If you learn a bit of a language, but don’t use it, you will get rusty quickly.  So, be consistent about your learning and don’t take big breaks. This is yet  another reason to think of learning a language as a medium to long-term effort.

11) Check for Local Continuing Education Programs: Many colleges and universities offer language courses in their continuing education programs.  Typically, there is no need to apply for admission to the school — you can just sign up for the classes.  Usually, the classes are much cheaper than the regular courses too.  These classes are not only great ways to learn, they put you in touch with native speakers, other learners and other valuable resources.  For example the school may make learning software, such as Rosetta Stone, available for free to continuing ed students.

12) Use Anki: Anki is a great flash card program that will help you learn a language.  Check out my previous post about Anki

13) Use Streaming Radio and TV:  If you search around a bit on the Web, you will almost certainly be able to find live streaming media, in the language you’re learning.  It’s very good practice for comprehension.

So, here’s what I recommend:

a)   Find a source of love and motivation for the language you wish to learn; cooking, art, music, a desire to retire in the country, a friend, etc.
b) Plan to study for a couple of months, followed by an initial immersion experience – think of it as a fantastic vacation opportunity.  That will really help overcome that first, (almost inevitable) plateau, and you’ll be amazed at your progress when you return.
c) Start your study with a structured class, taught by a native speaker.  This will give you a great start on the pronunciation and grammar.  After that, find ways to spend time with the language.  If you are serious about learning the language, you’ll want to spend 15 minutes to a half hour a day.
d) Obtain recordings with phrases in English, followed by the equivalent in the language you’re learning,.  Listen and repeat as frequently as you can.
e) Make use of as many of the Internet resources as you can, including Anki and the BBC Languages page.
f) Finally, don’t let your growing language capability get away — find a group and practice speaking with others.  Look for opportunities to watch TV and movies in the language your’re learning and search the web for streaming radio.

Remember to stay with it!  I’ve just heard way too many people say “Oh, I spoke so well when I was in (fill in the country) but now I’ve lost it all. That’s a real shame!


Anki Intelligent Flash Cards
BBC Languages
Stanford Second Language Learning Research Guide
Italian Resource:


Have you had experiences with language learning or thoughts about this topic?  We’d love to what you have to say!  Feel free to make maximum use of the comment box below.

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2 thoughts on “The Truth About Learning Languages

    1. admin

      Thanks for the nice comments. At the moment, I’m probably one of the three people in the country that doesn’t use twitter. I guess I should do something about that.

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