6 Ways to Learn a Language on Your Own

If you’re like me, I had a long list of potential accomplishments while in quarantine. Learning another language was on it. I took nearly 6 years of Spanish in school, but as a soft-spoken teen living in New England, no practice means it didn’t stick. To make up for those 6 years, I’ve come up with 6 steps to learn it all by myself. 

  1. Take advantage of what you already know. I have this lovely book dated 1951 that has changed my perception of picking up a lost language. Margarita Madrigal, with the name of a magician, says the key to language learning is identifying all of the words you already know. She has lists, dialogues, and rapid fire fill in the blanks that have me discovering that I understand more than I thought!

2. Get to 1000 words. So to bring everything back, I started writing down every word I know in Spanish. Apparently if you reach 1000 words, it’s the equivalent of fluency. I got to 507 without counting each conjugation, so now I’m coming up with another 493 words that I’d like to know or seem important and creating a list of those to practice. 

3. Journal in the language. With all of these words, start a foreign language journal! Write passages about yourself, the weather, what you like/dislike and why, about what your day was like, what you hope it will be like tomorrow. When you start writing, you quickly notice the gaps in vocabulary and grammar to fix after. Write freely with what you have off the top of your head, then go back with a dictionary to fill in the gaps. This is also really helpful because you have a basic script for small talk to use in live conversations.  

4. Watch movies/series in the language. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met who have said the show Friends taught them to speak English. It helps with understanding in a casual context. Find a show in the language you want to learn! Some of my favorites are Money Heist (Casa de Papel), Valeria (careful, it’s Catalan dialect), and Retablo for Spanish, Cinema Paradiso and anything with Sofia Loren for Italian, Midnight Diner for Japanese, and Rita for Dutch. Once you find one you like, follow the actors on social media. They’ll post in the language for extra exposure.

Find children’s shows for slower speech. I watched Donald Duck in Peru and do not recommend him. I can barely understand his English! On most watching platforms you can switch almost any show to be dubbed in the language of your choice. Personally, I have trouble watching something where I know the actors because the voice-over ruins their performance for me. I don’t know, sometimes it’s distracting to have an over-animated, deeper voice for Leonardo DiCaprio. But, this helps me to branch out and see other, perhaps lesser known shows and movies.

A friend gave me the tip to start out with subtitles of your native language so you can get an idea of what is happening then progress to no subtitles. Subtitles really help me verify that my understanding is correct. What’s great about removing the subtitles (which I do reluctantly), is that you can also get really good at reading body language, and it’s more true to life. I noticed a change in my comprehension after consistent binging. 

5. Talk to yourself. I have no shame in talking to myself. I tend to freeze up when I have to talk to other people and find that I can hardly string a sentence together. To build confidence, or the illusion of it, I’ll translate whatever is around me into Spanish. “I want a beer…spoon…I’m tired.” I’ll even (half) translate to myself what other people say to me in Spanish. Sometimes full hypothetical conversations happen in my head, “Wow, it’s cold! Yes, I need a sweater. I like your blue sweater. Thank you.”

6. Travel. If you have the means, really test that shaky confidence by going where your new language is native! In college, I had As in Italian and felt like I was breaking fluency until I got to Italy. My most used phrase was, “Non lo so—I don’t know.” Of course there’s some discomfort, hilarity, and ridiculous hand gestures that come with interaction, but often people are patient, willing to help, and glad you tried.

Traveling is motivating for language learning because it’s a deeper way of knowing someone and their culture. The motivation also comes from the various situations you find yourself in. There have been times where one word I remembered made all the difference. It’s important to realize not everyone speaks and understands the same way. While you might be regurgitating phrases or concocting words in order, you are still essentially testing a skill. It’s all a test. You could say something to one person with no luck and they call over a buddy who gets it. I’ve failed and humiliated myself all over the world.

Bonus! Music. Since I was in middle school I sung along to songs I couldn’t understand. My best friend and I learned all the words to this random Swedish song on Youtube for no reason but great satisfaction. I sprinkle my playlists with Norwegian, Portuguese, French, Spanish, and Italian songs. Some of them have stimulated conversations overseas through common taste.

My Spanish teacher in middle school used to make us all do sing alongs on Fridays. We’d read lyrics to La Bamba,  Celito Lindo, Es Winnie Pooh (the Winnie Pooh theme), and many more. If he suspected we were only mouthing, he’d joke with a “take it away, Olivia!” All these years later I realize all of his puns and the songs we sang actually stuck with me the most. I was so worried I didn’t have anything meaningful, but I had something. 

The Rosetta Stone in London

Go live fluently! And if your like this page, please share it!

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