Can You Really Learn a Language By Yourself?

Yesterday I took the ACTFL reading test in German. This post wraps up two language projects:

You can click the link above to read the details. The gist of it is that I want to become a German translator and have spent close to a year working toward getting myself prepared for the certification tests.

Did I meet my projects’ goals? I’ll talk about that in a minute. But I want to use this post to answer a different question:

Can you really learn a language by yourself?

Stuttgart, Germany (Image Source)

Stuttgart, Germany
By Alexander Johmann [CC BY-SA 2.0], Image Source

Is it possible to learn solo?

A while back, someone on a language-learning forum asked, “Is it even possible to learn a language on your own?”

It’s a legit question. Consider two students.

The first is a foreign-language major in college. He studied the language for two years in high school and four years in college, having received hundreds of hours of instruction from skilled teachers and professors.

The second is an autodidact. He studies on his own with self-study courses, apps, and whatever else he can find.

Common sense will tell you that the first person is at an advantage. Classes and teachers are great, and they can be useful assets to a language learner. And I wouldn’t blame you if you were skeptical that the second person could even succeed at all.

With German, I’ve never taken a class or even worked with a tutor. That will change someday, but for now, that’s still the case. I’ve always figured that if I could show any kind of external, objective proof of my German ability, I could prove that it is very possible to learn a language completely on your own.

The ACTFL German Reading Test

The background of this project, summed up:

  • I want to become a certified German-to-English translator.
  • One possible pathway to even being allowed to take the American Translator’s Association certification exam is to take two American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages exams. The first is a reading exam in the translated-from language and the second a writing exam in the translated-to language. For this purpose, the passing score on the ACTFL test is an “Advanced Low” level, approximately B2 (CEFR) or 2 (IIR).
  • With some German already under my belt, I studied for 11 months and took the ACTFL exams.

The result?

I passed!


*I also got a “Superior” on the English writing test. As a professional writer with an English degree, I’m glad that I haven’t been a complete fraud in my career.

I’m not going to lie. That reading test was rough. When I left the testing center, I was drafting a blog post in my head titled, “Where I Went Wrong.” I told myself, “Two rules: One, no whining. Two, don’t let them see you cry.”

The test had passages ranging from “Intermediate High” to “Superior” in difficulty. And the whole thing was in German, even the questions. It was like taking an SAT reading test in a foreign language. Even when I knew literally every word of a text, I sometimes got thrown off by the questions themselves. This is how I often felt:

The answer is “B.”

The two things I had the most problems with:

  • Vocab. I didn’t have a problem understanding the sentence constructions. Not knowing the meaning of words in passages or questions was my biggest obstacle. Also, the way the questions were set up, you really needed to know the meanings of words precisely.
  • Critical reading. The questions sometimes asked critical reading questions, similar to reading questions on the SAT or GRE. That kind of reading is a skill in and of itself. I definitely didn’t practice that enough.

But, fortunately, I passed. I can proudly say that my German project last year was a success. My German is far from perfect, I have a long way to go, and my speaking is lagging far behind my reading and listening. But for all intents and purposes, I met my goal and am on track to keep going.

Back to You

So even though I talk about myself a lot on my site, I promise that I’m actually hoping that you get something out of this.

The takeaways for you, between this project and my Spanish project in 2013:

  • You can absolutely learn a language on your own. I haven’t taken a language class in over a decade, but have learned two languages to various degrees since then.
  • Persistent effort can get you far.
  • You don’t need to have a perfect lifestyle or perfect conditions to make good progress. I did a lot of my studying this last year during down time, fitting it in between work and family commitments.

What Now for Me

Well, the test was a reality check. I have a long way to go with German, especially if I want to make this a career. I’m going to stick with it and hopefully take the ATA exam in six months, maybe longer. Not putting a strict time limit on myself, because honestly I’m a little tired of deadlines. I got the ball rolling and now I’ll keep the momentum. When I feel like I’m ready to take the exam and start working, I’ll take that next step.

I also want to improve my speaking. It might not be necessary for my professional goals, but what fun is a language if you can’t speak it with people?

…C2 in German would be cool, too. Maybe I’ll try to throw that in…

Okay, back to studying!

  • Emma Sibley

    Fantastic news! Well done! I’m really pleased for you :)

    • Ron G.

      Thank you, Emma! I really appreciate your continued encouragement. :) Good luck with your Add 1 challenge!

  • bas

    Great job! Your hard work really paid off! Thanks so much for this blog. Until I stumbled onto it, I thought my desire to learn as many languages as possible, even if not fluently, was “weird.”

    • Ron G.

      Thanks! …hahaha, I know what you mean. What I put on the site’s FB page yesterday: “I’m
      sitting outside the testing center waiting to take the ACTFL German
      reading exam. It doesn’t escape me how strange it is that this is how I
      choose to have fun.”

      Ah, can’t help it. Languages are fun.

  • CubsFan76

    Congrats on your achievement! There seems (to me) to be a big jump between high A2/low B1 and a solid B2. What do you feel helped you the most in reaching your German level? Sheer volume of reading?

    • Ron G.

      Thanks! A lot of reading, definitely.

      If you’re at an A2/B1 level, maybe your grammar isn’t perfect yet, but that’s not what’s holding you back. I’m reasonably certain it’s vocab.

      I’ll do a post on this, but one of the best things you can do is get a free account at Then read a difficult (for you) passage every day. Maybe 250 to 400 words. Mark the words you don’t know. Readlang adds those words to your word list and when you use the flashcard features, you get exposed to the words you don’t know over and over. Shoot for 10 to 15 words a day. After six weeks or so, you’ll see a huge bump, and B2 will start seeming very possible.

      I knew from my Arabic studying that this method was a quick way to build up reading comprehension. (I didn’t use readlang back then. Just a language journal.) Oh, another thing is not to make this the only way you read. It’s very slow. You’ll want to read “fast” too. Keep reading other stuff you can handle–Harry Potter, the news, whatever–to build your reading “fluency” and to make sure you get comfortable with actually reading and not just translating.

      I don’t have a precise formula for how much slow vs. fast reading. I was messing around with the ratios until the end, mainly just going by mood.

  • vern777er

    Congratulations Ron.

    • Ron G.

      Thanks, Vern!

  • Natalie

    Congrats! I’m considering taking the ACTFL test in Russian. Technically, I don’t need it in my career (yet)… but it would be nice to have a proper certification in it. How do you actually sign up for the test? The website I went to,, is super confusing.

    Is there any reason you chose German? Do German translators command better rates than other languages? Forgive me if you’ve answered this question, but I’m quite curious!

    • Ron G.

      Hi Natalie! Yeah, that site is really tough to navigate, and I had registration problems and it was very difficult getting this whole thing done. They offer different testing packages for different organizations, but if you’re interested in the ATA route, email me at and I’ll forward you the registration instructions. I had to write in and ask for them.

      German has a special spot in my heart for me since I lived there. But it’s also in high demand in the translation industry, at least according to my friend who was a tech editor for a translation firm.

  • Marc

    It is definitely possible to learn a language by yourself, I have learned Brazilian Portuguese and I just made a website that shows how anyone can do it: