How to Teach Yourself a Foreign Language
For anyone who doesn’t understand why learning a foreign language is a good idea, read 5 Great Reasons to Learn a Foreign Language. Everyone else, let’s get started.
Note: I don’t claim that following these instructions will make you fluent. Fluency requires time and immersion. What this post will help you do is become conversant. You will be able to have a simple conversation, ask for directions, order at a restaurant, make small talk, etc. You will also be able to read fairly well with the use of a dictionary. Following these steps will give you a great base in a new language.
The first step is acquiring the materials you will use to teach yourself. The first thing you need is an audio language course. This is essential for developing your basic vocabulary and, more importantly, your pronunciation. I can personally recommend the Pimsleur Language Programs (aff) because that is what I use and I’ve had a great experience with them. Pimsleur uses memorization techniques and question and answer prompts to keep you involved in the lesson and help you retain what you learn. The lessons are about 30 minutes long. A great place to do them is during your commute. This saves you time, makes the drive go faster, and is surprisingly fun. If you don’t want to go with Pimsleur there are plenty of alternatives, but from what I’ve read they are not as engaging.
The next thing you’ll need is a basic grammar guide and a dictionary for the language you want to study. This will help you understand the basic mechanics of the language and the differences and similarities with English. You will use this continuously as a reference.
You should also get some interesting books in the language. For me this is a huge motivator because reading something interesting is much more rewarding than reading a text book. The way to go in the beginning is dual
language books (aff). These have the original language on the left side and a literal English translation on the right. This allows you to start reading great books without having to reach for a dictionary every other word. It is also great for learning idioms, expressions, and verb tenses.
Once you have your materials you are ready to learn. Start off by doing the first lesson of your audio language course. Continue doing a lesson a day. You can do these on your commute or while you exercise to save time. For a while I did lessons while walking up and down the stairs of my apartment building. (No, I don’t care if people think I’m weird.)
In conjunction with this you should read your introductory grammar guide. This will give you a foundation in the language and help you learn the different parts of speech and their English equivalents. Don’t worry about memorizing every single rule. It simply isn’t possible. The idea is to get a general understanding first. This is the most boring part of the process, but don’t give up because it’s well worth it.
When you finish the grammar guide you will also have completed several days of audio lessons. At this point you will feel much better about your learning ability. You will know the important basic phrases and speak much more naturally. This method of learning is much more effective than traditional school teaching because you are actively engaged the entire time. The audio lessons force you to listen and speak more than I ever did in school.
Now it’s time to start reading those dual language books.