Language Learning Quick Start Guide

The holidays are wrapping up, New Year’s resolutions have been made, and you want to learn a new language.

That’s awesome! You can absolutely do it.

People from all over the world, from all walks of life have learned second or third languages, so there’s no reason to think you can’t do the same. In fact, it’s more arrogant to think you can’t learn a language than it is to think you can. It takes a special kind of ego to assume that your language learning abilities are so defunct that you can’t do something that people are doing everywhere, all the time, regardless of their age, gender, social status, or “natural ability.”


By Arild Vågen (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], Image Source

Thinking about signing up for a class or plopping down a couple hundred dollars on an expensive piece of software? That’s cool–those are effective tools for any language learner. But before you do, take a few minutes to read this article so that you can use those tools to the fullest.

The goal here is to give you the right mindset going in. I want this to be the year that you actually make a dent in your language goals.

Step 1: Acknowledge the Challenge

How long does it take to learn a language? Well, that depends on a lot of factors, and I’ve written an article with more specific estimates.

But just to keep things simple, if you’re studying daily, expect:

  • 3 to 6 months to get to a survival level–being able to handle day-to-day activities like shopping, eating out, or asking directions with patient conversation partners.
  • 6 months to 1 year to get to a functional level–being able to have simple, strain-free conversations and understanding the main idea of most texts.
  • At least 1 to 2 years to get to a highly proficient level–being able to do pretty much whatever you want in the language.

Learning a language takes time. There are a lot of changes that take place in the brain to make it happen, and those don’t happen overnight. But I’d rather you go in knowing what’s ahead of you rather than thinking it’s easy and getting discouraged at the six-month mark because you can’t, say, understand economics textbooks.

Step 2: Pick a language

Chances are, you already know which language you want to study. If so, don’t second-guess yourself.

But if you don’t, pick a language that means something to you.

Ask yourself what you really want. Do you want to travel or live abroad? Do you want to get in touch with your heritage or speak to your grandparents? Do you want to be able to watch French films, or read Japanese Manga, or listen to Korean pop music?

Don’t pick a language because you think it’s easy, and don’t shy away from a language because you think it’s hard. Every language takes time to learn, so pick one that really resonates with you, deep down, so that you’ll be more likely to stick with it for the long term.

Step 3: Come up with a routine

Figure out how you’re going to study. There are plenty of articles on my site with tips, but let’s keep it simple.

When you’re starting out, you don’t even know what you don’t know, so take a class or follow some kind of course. These don’t have to be expensive courses or classes. In fact, there are tons of free resources online:

If you follow those links, you’ll find lists of literally hundreds of resources spanning dozens of languages. Some are really high-quality stuff that rival any expensive language program.

While you’re taking those courses, make sure you also get plenty of practice actually using the language. Pay attention to all four skills:

  • Reading
  • Writing
  • Listening
  • Speaking

Use some common sense with how you use the language. If you’re a beginner, you’d be better off with reading a children’s book rather than trying to tackle something like The New York Times.

If you’re looking for speaking partners, consider a language exchange website like italki. If you’re looking for writing practice, consider the site Lang-8.

Throw in some vocabulary drills and grammar drills to round out your efforts.

Combine all these elements as you see fit.

Step 4: Commit to 21 Days

Getting started can be overwhelming. Whatever routine you come up with, commit to sticking with it for 21 days.

As I explain in this article, 21 days is long enough to see improvement while short enough not to be overwhelming.

Once you see that you are actually making progress, you’ll be motivated to keep going forward.

Step 5: Listen, listen, listen

Out of all four skills I mentioned–reading, writing, speaking, and listening–I firmly believe that listening is the most important.

Why? There are too many reasons to go into here. But the short of it is, listening primes your brain for language acquisition. It assigns aural context–rhythms and intonations–to words and phrases, basically turning symbols and codes from something 2D into something 3D.

Listen to the radio in your target language. Watch movies. Listen to music. Have conversations and pay attention to what your partner is saying. Even if you can’t understand every word, try to follow along and understand the best you can and let your brain try to assemble meaning out of verbal chaos.

Step 6: Make language learning a lifestyle

I know that all of you, without exception, are busy. And I know that most of you want the rewards of language learning and aren’t necessarily looking forward to the hard work.

So if I told you to study two hours a day, most of you would tell me to get lost. And truthfully, I’d understand.

But there is no substitute for persistent effort. If you’re serious about reaching your goal, you have to put in serious work. There is no quick fix.

Look, I get it. I have a forty-hour a week job, a commute, and a family. I’m not exactly swimming in free time either. But I’ve still managed to make language learning a lifestyle.

I sneak in language throughout the day. 10 minutes in the morning reading the news online, 30 minutes listening to a podcast in the car on the drive in, 15 minutes watching TV on my break. My brain is humming with my language all day long, and by the end of the day, I’ve snuck in two or so hours of exposure mainly by using my dead time.

When I started this website, I decided early on to cater to the hardcore language learning crowd rather than the dilettantes. A lot of my articles go into the weeds on language learning and recommend stuff the casual learners would never do.

But that’s because I realized the only difference between someone who is passionate about language learning (and anything, really) and someone who isn’t is that the former decided to be that way. And a year from now, it’s those people who will have reaped the benefits of their efforts.


If you’re up for the challenge and are serious about reaching your language goals, subscribe to Language Surfer for tips, ideas, and motivation:

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  • vern777er

    Hola Ron, Feliz navidad y un próspero año nuevo. Ahora he estado aprendiendo espanol para una ano! Todavia no hablo bien pero he mejorando mucho en una año.

    This article hit a cord with me because I have now studied Spanish every day for one year. I have used a lot of your techniques like using spare time to study and I’ve done quite a few language exchanges. I am not as good as I would like to be but I can make conversations with my language partners and read the sports papers without having to look up many words. Most of all I have remained motivated and feel even more motivated this year than last. I think I know enough now to move to the next level (i won’t use the f word) I’m hoping to go to Spain at the end of next year and would like to be able to have ‘natural’ conversations with people. It hasn’t been easy but it has been fun.

    I hope your German is going well and keep up the good work.

    • Ron G.

      Vern, what’s up?! You have no idea how happy I am to see you typing Spanish and to hear of your progress.

      “It hasn’t been easy but it has been fun.”<— That's the real key. Based on the descriptions of what you can do with the language, you are well on your way.

      I'll tell you from experience that this is the year when the language is really gonna start coming together for you. The hard part is behind you, and now every time you read the newspaper or listen to the radio you're going to be improving almost effortlessly.

      Keep it up and keep me posted. Since switching back to German, I'm rusty with my Spanish, so I'm jealous! haha…jealous in a good way, though. More like, it's motivating to see your progress.

      • vern777er

        Hola Ron, Gracias por tus amables comentarios. Mi espanol no es bueno despues una año. Puedes ver que mi gramática es mal y la estructura de la frases es muy basico. Pero creo que he mejorado mucho ya que empiezo estudiando el gramática. Al principio solo hablé con personas y lei los deportes en el diario y no estudio la gramática. Ahora estudio mucho gramática.

        Me gusta mucho tus artículos. Siempre me hacen penso.

        I was very interested in your article about grammar. One of my goals at the beginning was to learn the language without spending any money. Now I’ve decided that spending a little money won’t hurt! Anyway I’ve bought a couple of grammar books and since I’ve started using them I’ve really improved. I don’t really believe this theory that you just acquire the grammar. I think a little study of the basic rules really helps, I mean what other activity do you not study at least the basics?

        I also loved your article on the secret to language learning. I tell my kids that secret all the time. My 14 year old son still doesn’t think it’s much of a secret!

        • pablomaz

          You’re doing great, man, believe me. I’ve been studying Spanish for 2 years now, but since I’m Brazilian, things are much easier for me (gender of abstract concepts such as “gramática”, for instance) and Spanish is kind of “second nature” for us. Keep the good work!

  • pablomaz

    Hey, Ron, how are you doing? Me again.

    First, I got to tell you that I’ve been seeing very good results after adopting your protocol a month ago. OK, someone could say that maybe it’s just the more proactive attitude towards language learning, maybe it’s some sort of “placebo effect” boosting my confidence about my Spanish…

    But maybe not. Maybe this idea of the language “sinking in” with listening activities really works. If you ask me, man, I’d say that it DOES work, and my intention is to keep investing in that…

    So, as I told you the other day, I decided to learn Russian. In Language Master Key, in the case of a language that uses an alphabet you’re not familiar with, you suggest learning the alphabet first (i.e., how sounds are represented in letters). After two weeks, I guess I can say that I’ve learned the Russian alphabet (it took me longer than I expected, but it was easier than I thought it would be): I see the text and I don’t understand a word, but I’m pretty confident on how they are supposed to sound.

    Question is: you’d recommend to listen and listen to things I won’t understand a word? What’s your thought on that?

    • Ron G.

      Hi Pablo,

      Tough question (but good question). If I ever update the book, I’m going to expand on this more.

      For free listening, I think listening to stuff that you can’t understand at all is okay, as long as you also listen to stuff you CAN understand a little of too. Just mix it up.

      For active listening, I think you should try to find stuff you can understand at least 50% of. I understand it’s difficult to find texts like that at the beginning, so here are some things you can try. The important thing at this stage is to able to follow along and let your brain try to make sense of the audio input:

      – Watch a Russian video with Portuguese (or English) subtitles. You get the action on screen, the translation, and the original Russian audio. It’ll feel like cheating, but it has its benefits.
      – Seek out additional courses for beginners with an audio component. Even if you don’t go through the course, just listening to the dialogues will help. Lots of free courses out there, such as the FSI courses.
      – Listen to children’s books that are read aloud. Here’s one on YouTube from bookbox:

      Also, now that you’ve learned the alphabet (congratulations!) be sure to check out Pimsleur’s free PDFs with simple reading materials:

      With a language as exotic as Russian, this beginning time is difficult. Just keep going through your course and learning new words. Now that you’ve learned the alphabet, the vocabulary will start to get a little easier to pick up. Soon you’ll be able to pick up a Russian phrase book and start learning phrases using the alphabet. You’ll really pick up speed then.

      I’m happy to hear of your progress so far.

      • pablomaz

        Thanks again, Ron. I’ll just keep going.