Language learning is often a daunting goal when you’re just starting out, even if you’re excited and motivated to try. In large part, that’s because “successfully learning a language” doesn’t (and shouldn’t!) look the same for everyone. It’s also because becoming conversational in a new language is a big undertaking that needs to be broken down into dozens of smaller, more manageable undertakings before progress feels attainable. If you’re just beginning but don’t know how to start learning a language, there are a few solid foundational steps you’ll want to take first.
No matter what language you’re learning (or why), you’ll set yourself up for success by laying the groundwork correctly. Here are five steps you should always take even before you start running your vocabulary drills.
How To Start Learning A Language In 5 Steps
1. Make sure you’re able to define your goals and motivations
A lot of newbie learners underestimate the importance of getting clear on what you’re actually trying to accomplish and why. Isn’t it obvious why someone would want to learn a new language? Doesn’t it just sound good to say you can speak three languages?
It’s actually not that self-evident, though! People learn languages for all kinds of reasons, and those reasons may determine what a successful degree of fluency looks like for you. Besides, the idea of attaining “perfect fluency” is usually not a realistic one, and it’s often the reason why so many learners get discouraged and give up.
Getting clear on your goals and motivations at the start of your journey will help you move past the inevitable learning plateau when it arrives. It’s not really enough to know you want to “learn Spanish.” How will you know you’ve arrived? An effective goal should be concrete and something you can realistically accomplish. It should also be something you can break down into individual, actionable steps.
If you’re not sure why you’re learning yet, try taking this quiz to discover your motivation.
Then, come up with a SMART goal.
- Specific — a good example would be “I want to be able to tell my grandmother about how my day went in Italian,” or “I want to feel comfortable ordering food and asking for directions on my upcoming trip.”
- Measurable — what would concrete evidence of your progress look like?
- Achievable — it has to be something you can actually attain, not some nebulous idea of perfection.
- Realistic — is this something you can see yourself accomplishing, given your current schedule, lifestyle, and commitments?
- Time-bound — defining a time frame will help you stay focused and on track.
Next, break that goal down further into smaller parts. Maybe that’ll include learning vocabulary for food, or mastering the past tense.
2. Consider the methods that have helped you learn things in the past
This applies to all things beyond just language learning, by the way. What has historically worked best for you in the past? Do you prefer to bury yourself in reading material, or learn through experience and immersion? Are there certain times of the day that work best for you? Do you function better when you have a study partner? Do you love flashcards, or maybe watching YouTube videos?
These are all important things to take into account when you’re first figuring out how to start learning a language. Truthfully, the whole idea of “learning styles” has been debunked, at least insofar as one person might be an auditory learner, and another person a visual learner. But it can be extremely useful to use these different learning styles for different kinds of material, so start thinking about the specific ways you sometimes benefit from reading (versus listening, versus watching, and so on).
Then, consider your options when it comes to language-learning methods. Does an offline language learning class make sense for your budget and schedule, and have you had success in those types of environments before? If a private tutor might make more sense, do you have the resources to dedicate to that? What are your realistic opportunities for real-life immersion, if that’s how you like to learn? Would you prefer the flexibility of learning through an app like Babbel, where you can also supplement your learning with games, podcasts, and live online language classes?
There’s no one-size-fits-all learning strategy, and you’ll likely have more success if you create your own recipe that’s tailored to your unique disposition, needs and lifestyle.
3. Collect your toolkit
Now that you have a clear sense of how you’ll be approaching your goal, you’ll want to get all your implements in order. This includes things like downloading any apps you plan on using, signing up for classes if you plan on taking any, buying the relevant books and supplies, setting up your language-learning journal, finding social media accounts to follow, and lining up podcasts, movies and media you can supplement your learning with.
A variety of methods is best, but you also don’t want to overwhelm yourself with too many materials. Try starting with three to five different tools in your arsenal, and then adjust from there as you go on.
For more resources to get started with, check out our collection of links for more information on how to start learning a language.
4. Craft a lesson plan
Based on all the work you did in step one, you should already have a sense of the various skills and knowledge blocks you might need to tackle. (By “knowledge blocks,” think things like “conjugations,” “subjunctive mood,” etc.)
If you’re very new to language learning and have no idea what this would even entail, don’t worry. Learning with an app will usually mean the map is already laid out for you, and if you’re learning in a more self-directed way, you’re almost always guaranteed to start with a few very basic components first.
When in doubt, start by studying the alphabet, basic pronunciation and phonetics, and memorizing a list of the most common words and verbs. Most languages have roughly 100 or so words that make up the bulk of what you’ll encounter in day-to-day conversation. Get really solid on those first, and then start to tackle vocabulary sets that are relevant to what you think you’ll actually be talking about (like business lingo if you’re learning for a job, or food terminology if you’re trying to have a restaurant experience abroad).
5. Create a schedule that fits your lifestyle
Managing your time effectively is probably going to be the number one thing thing that ultimately determines your success. If you can’t build a habit that sticks, you won’t get very far — even if you’re super eager to start from the get-go.
If there’s one thing you take away from this, it should be this: it’ll be far more effective to study for 15 minutes a day than it will be to study for four hours once a week (and then give up because you’re already burnt out). Taking small steps toward your goals consistently is probably the number one bit of advice we’ve gleaned from all the learning experts we’ve ever talked to. Fortunately, that’s actually extremely manageable. Most of us have at least 10 to 15 minutes of idle time in a day.
For starters, it helps to decide what your “triggers” or “windows of opportunity” will be. This could be something like listening to a podcast while you’re waiting in line at the grocery store, or drilling flashcards while you’re waiting in the parking lot for your kids to get out of school, or doing a lesson on your phone after your morning coffee every day. It’s best to tie your studying to a regular, consistent action you’re already in the habit of doing, as well as come up with more than one time in your day so that you have some flexibility.
Also, make sure there’s some variety built into your schedule. That includes things that feel like treats or rewards! You might decide Sundays are for connecting with your study partner over Zoom, and maybe Friday nights are for watching a movie in your target language or doing some other form of cultural immersion, like going to a museum or eating at a restaurant. This might be the right sort of positive reinforcement you need to keep your motivation up over the long-term.