The “Secret” to Learning Any Language

Man, that’s an ambitious title, right?

Well, I’m about to give it to you, the secret to learning any language. It doesn’t matter which language, what your language aptitude is, how much money you have, where you live. You can learn any language if you apply this secret.

But first, send me four easy payments of $49.99…

…okay, kidding. Here it is:

Persistent Effort

That’s it.

And now you’re thinking, “That’s it?”

Image Source

By Lloyd Smith [CC BY-SA 3.0], Image Source

The secret that’s hidden in plain view

Okay, I suppose persistent effort might not be a secret, per se. But it might as well be, seeing as how badly it’s overlooked.

You have practically infinite options for language learning. Consider all the different learning methodologies out there, all the classes, all the courses, all the books, all the websites, and all the apps, each one claiming to be the best. Then consider all the different things you could be reading, watching, or listening to. The possible combinations of those elements are endless.

Some people are frozen by analysis paralysis. They’re out looking for perfection before they start. They think, “I’ll start learning Chinese when the community college offers a class.” Or, “I’ll improve my Spanish if I can take an immersion trip to Colombia.” Or, “I’ll learn Arabic once I can afford Rosetta Stone.” But with so many options out there, why wait for just one? The sooner you start working, the sooner you’ll get to your goal.

Yeah, of course, some approaches are going to be better than others. But let’s say you’re in a class with a perfectly designed curriculum, being taught by a perfect teacher. How much good would that class do you if you quit it in a month?

There’s so much discussion out there about which language approach to follow, and as a language blogger, I’ve contributed my fair share to those conversations. But a lot of times, we’re arguing about the cherry on the sundae instead of making the sundae itself. You are much better off following an imperfect language routine while making persistent effort than following a near-perfect routine halfheartedly and inconsistently.

(For the record, I know there are some flat-out bad language learning approaches out there. I’m not saying it’s a good idea to waste your time with counterproductive activities. With that said, don’t automatically dismiss activities that seem unusual or that you don’t understand, because sometimes the weird stuff is really good.)

What do I mean by “persistent effort”?

Persistent effort means:

  • You work hard
  • You work often
  • You stick with it for the long term

Working hard

No, you don’t have to have smoke coming out of your ears after a study session for it to be productive. With language learning, working hard simply means that you’re giving your attention to the task at hand.

If you’re listening to a podcast or watching a TV program in your target language, really try to pick up the meaning of what’s going on. Don’t daydream or scroll through your Facebook Timeline.

If you’re speaking with a language exchange partner, don’t switch to your native language because you’re feeling too lazy to struggle coming up with the right words in your target language. Keep struggling.

Engage. Put a little passion into what you’re doing.

Working often

I get the best results when language learning is a habit, when my target language is front and center in my mind. Ideally, I interact with the language several times a day, starting from the early morning and lasting until I go to bed.

I’m really pushing right now, so my schedule is pretty intense. But this is how often a day I get exposure to German:

  • First thing in the morning when I wake up
  • Car ride to work
  • Morning break at work
  • Lunch
  • Afternoon break at work
  • Car ride home
  • Before dinner
  • Before bed

It’s a little embarrassing seeing that typed out. But it’s become such a habit that I don’t even feel like any of it’s a chore. I use a lot of dead time, such as during my commute, and except for me staying up later than my family to study, I’m pretty inconspicuous. For the most part, I don’t think anyone around me even notices that I’m studying so frequently. (For new readers, how I’m studying has been discussed in previous articles.)

And this still only takes up about two hours of my day, three if I’m feeling ambitious. Some of these are longer sessions, but many are only 10 minutes at a time.

My brain is constantly humming with German, and I can really feel the language settling in.

Sticking with it over the long term

It takes time to learn a language. US military personnel and State Department personnel who enroll in intensive language courses study 8 to 10 hours a day, 5 days a week (and often on the weekends too). It still takes them six months to a year and a half, depending on the language, to get proficient.

Even if your goals are modest, it’s going to take time to reach them. It’s very, very difficult to rush language acquisition.

So you have to stick with it for weeks, months, and maybe even years to get to where you want to be.

This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to have a drill sergeant mentality. I think the key to sticking with your studies is finding a few approaches that you genuinely like and that fit your personality. For example, I like language exchanges, but I like doing things on my own schedule more. So podcasts, television shows, and studying vocab maintain my interest and feel manageable. Speaking sessions, not so much. I throw them in when I can.

Maybe you’re the opposite, though. Maybe you’re social and really like engaging with people. Meet ups, classes, and Skype sessions would be your go-to activities, while going through a text book on your own would be something you’d rarely or ever do.

You can take days off, and even weeks off. But part of being persistent is spending more days studying than not studying. Really, the important thing is to be making progress toward your goal, even if it’s slow.

Wrapping Up

So that’s the “secret.” I was being tongue-in-cheek with the title, but at the same time, I really wanted to make you appreciate how important all this is.

It’s kind of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, if you don’t make this persistent effort, you’re not going to make it very far with language learning.

On the other hand, if you make the persistent effort, then you’re over halfway there. Once you have that taken care of, it’s just a matter of filling in the details. The language will come.



  • Amit Kumar Datta

    Thanks Ron for such a motivating article. New learners like us will surely benefit from this.

    • Ron G.

      Thanks for the comment, Amit. In no time, you’ll be a veteran learner. 😉

  • James Hall

    So wait — where is the secret to becoming fluent in 3 days?

    • Ron G.

      LOL! I guess the fiction section.

  • Chris Broholm

    I agree Ron. I think I even wrote this a few times on the blog :)

    • Ron G.

      Awesome :) (By the way, I’ve been meaning to add you to my blogroll, and this reminded me to do it. Love your site.)

      • Chris Broholm

        Oh thank you! That’s very kind.of you to say :) I’m a fan of Language Surfer as well!

  • Red/

    Thank you for the time you dedicate to share your knowledge and thoughts. I am appreciating your website that I only discovered recently.

    • Ron G.

      Hi Red! Thanks for the note. Hope the site gives you some ideas for your own language learning routines and helps you get to your goals.

  • Emma Sibley

    Great post! lol…It did make me smile. 😀

    • Ron G.

      LOL, thanks! This is about as clickbaity as my conscience will let me go. …well, maybe I could go a *little* more clickbaity…haha

  • Muhammad Syaifullah

    i got one friend from india, he came to malaysia to work,already 7 years here,
    then i ask him how they try to fluent in my language (Bahasa Melayu), it take 6 month to understand,speak,write.He say, friend with ppl from here is very fast to learn,then friend with their indian :) sorry bad spelling ^_^

  • Lance

    In order to learn any language on your own, one should follow a method. The method will be only outlined here.

    It is a method that I have used myself and it worked great.

    1. Determine which language to learn

    This can sound obvious to some of you, but in fact, it is a detail that is
    overlooked by many. When learning a language for a specific purpose, it
    is best to learn the variety of the language best suited to fulfill this
    purpose. When talking about a variety, what is usually meant is a
    dialect of a language, although it can be more specific than that. When
    learning Arabic, do you know if you should learn Maghrebi Arabic or Gulf

    2. Find out what resources are available to you
    choosing to learn a language, it is handy to know if you are going to
    have native speakers to practice with and if you’re easily going to find
    some websites which will help you learn the language.

    3. The time and difficulty
    factor that is often overlooked, the time factor. To be successful in
    learning a language, you need to be realistic in the amount of time you
    have to learn it and the amount of time it takes.

    The time factor
    is in direct relation to the difficulty factor. During this step, it is
    important to assess the level of difficulty of a language. By the way,
    for more details on the method, make sure to check out the website
    learnlanguagesonyourown dot com. This level of difficulty has to do with
    the similarities that are shared between the language(s) you speak and
    the language you want to learn. You need to ask yourself, are the
    languages related ? What features do they have in common and which
    features they do not and which might be difficulty to learn?

    4. Practice using Google Translate
    might think that Google Translate is a poor tool to learn a language
    because it is such a terrible translator at times, but you are wrong. If
    used in a cautious way, it is a great tool, especially at the early
    stages of learning a language. It gives you instant translations which
    you can use to communicate with a native speaker of the language you
    want to learn. Google Translate might not give you a grammatical
    translation, but most likely the speaker you communicate with will and
    you should focus on learning on that.

    5. Language exchange, dating websites and games
    exchange websites are great to find people to practice with since the
    people on these websites are just like you, eager to learn a language.
    Dating websites are also great since you do not have to advertise for a
    relationship, all you need is people who to communicate with and there
    are tons out there who are open to friendship. Games nowadays are a
    great way to practice a language; whether it’s a small cellphone game or
    a big PC game, the communication element is now huge in games today and
    it can be taken advantage of by language learners.

    Hope you liked this guide,

    Good luck!