Can anyone learn a foreign language?
Yes. You should not expect it to be easy (it’s not) but anyone can learn a second language just like anyone can learn a first language.
How long does it take?
Some people can reach basic fluency in a few months, some need a few years so this question is difficult to answer. It depends on how intensively the person is studying, what methods they are using, and many other factors. If you would like to get feedback about your particular situation, you can ask in our forum.
Is language learning expensive?
Usually it’s not expensive if you are careful and buy only the materials that you need and will use. The most popular languages - Spanish, French, German, and others - have many websites dedicated to them and you don’t have to pay anything to use them. However, if you are attempting to learn your first foreign language on your own, we do recommend getting a good course or a good textbook meant for self-learners, not for classroom use.
Which language is the easiest to learn?
There is no language that would be the easiest for everyone, it all depends on which language(s) you already know. Languages can be arranged in a sort of “family-tree”, which means that there are closely related languages and there are also languages that are not related to each other at all. The closer your chosen language is to your mother tongue or to another language you know well, the easier it will be for you to learn it. For example, Spanish will be relatively easy for Portuguese speakers while Polish will be relatively easy for Czech speakers. For English speakers, the easiest languages to learn are other Germanic languages (German, Swedish, etc.) and also the Romance languages (French, Spanish, etc.).
Please note, though, that the paragraph above is only theoretical. The easiest language for you to learn will be the one you are the most interested in. Think about it - you probably had some language classes at school and chances are you didn’t learn much in them. There could be several reasons for that, but the most important one is that you probably cared more about getting a good grade in the class than about really learning the language. So if you want to learn Japanese or Arabic or Russian or any language perceived to be difficult - go for it, don’t be afraid, just make sure to get good materials to guide you.
What is necessary for a language learner to have in order to be successful?
There are four main things that any language learner needs:
Motivation - There can be various reasons you want to learn a language. Perhaps you have friends or colleagues who speak the language, perhaps it’s your parents or grandparents, perhaps you’d like to go on a vacation in the country, perhaps you think it would benefit your career, or perhaps you like movies or songs in the language. Whatever it is, it should be strong enough to motivate you to learn the language beyond a few weeks. If you lack motivation, your studies will be half-hearted at best and your brain won’t remember new words and grammar concepts because it will not perceive them as important.
Good resources - Every language is different, and in order to learn your chosen language, you need someone to explain to you how it is built and how it works. It can be a teacher or a tutor, or it can be a textbook or a course. There are small or rare languages for which only one or two resources are available, and you have little choice in that case, but the big languages have many different resources available and not all of them explain the language equally well. It’s a good idea to check the reviews of any course or textbook you consider buying, and you can also take a look at our resources section on our WIki.
Time - Learning a language takes many hundreds of hours of dedicated study so you need to think about how best to integrate the studies into your daily routine. If your days are very busy and you are able to study only on weekends, it will take a very long time for you to reach any kind of proficiency. There’s also the problem that you will forget a lot from one Sunday to the next Saturday if you don’t study in between, therefore we recommend studying every day, if only 10-20 minutes.
Discipline - If you have ever made a resolution to exercise more or to eat healthier, you know that discipline - actually doing the things you have planned - is very important, and it’s equally important for language learning. If you have free time and good language materials but you spend time on the internet instead of studying then it’s a problem. That’s why motivation is so important: the higher the motivation, the less self-discipline problems you will have.
What is SRS?
SRS stands for “spaced repetition software” and is an efficient way to review digital flash cards. Spaced repetition is a learning technique that helps you not to forget what you have learned. The word “spaced” refers to the fact that the longer you have known something, the longer you will remember it. For example, if you learn a new Spanish word today and don’t review it for a week, you will probably have forgotten it by then. However, if you review it four times during a two week period, you will probably remember it by the end of the third week.
The most popular SRS program currently is Anki. Many people like using it because it is an efficient way to learn vocabulary, but there are also many people who don’t like it because they find it boring. If you think you might be in the first group, it’s worth checking it out.
What does B1 or B2 mean?
These are CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages) language proficiency levels. There are six levels in total: A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, C2. A1 is the lowest level and C2 is the highest one. You can take an exam at each level and get a certificate if you need it.
The Basics of Learning
Where to start?
You should start with a beginner’s textbook or an audio course. It is important to pick a good one because mastering the basics of a language is a necessary step for further improvement. A good textbook is one that has example dialogues, translations of the example dialogues, grammar explanations, short texts for reading, exercises, key to the exercises, and an accompanying audio CD or mp3 files. It’s also a good idea to check what other learners think of this particular textbook, and you can always ask for advice on our forum.
Some people get very excited about starting a new language and buy tons of materials thinking that every course is different and they should all be useful. That might be true, but the problem with this approach is that often the learners are not sure which course to start with and switch from one textbook to another frequently. If you find yourself in such a situation, pick one textbook and stick with it until the end. Then you can look through the others and see if they have something you didn’t learn from the first book.
Where can I get learning materials?
You can get them in bookstores, libraries, and on the internet. The internet offers many kinds of language materials:
- free sites that contain introductory lessons for beginners, grammar explanations, vocabulary lists, short videos, or other content. Usually these sites are not good enough to replace a textbook but they can be used as additional resources.
- sites that charge a subscription fee for access to their materials. Some of these sites are good, some are not. It’s best to check reviews or ask in our forum before subscribing.
- online bookstores. These are a great place to read reviews of textbooks and other courses.
- other sites that sell materials.
Our language profiles have lists of learning materials to get you started. You can also check out the general language program reviews in our fourm.
What method should I use?
The main language learning methods are listed in a separate article, but those are mostly applicable for intermediate and advanced learners. If you are a beginner and have chosen your course then the only thing left to decide is how you will organize your work and whether you will use any additional resources. Here are some tips for you:
- it’s better to study 10 minutes every day than an hour and a half once a week. If you don’t open your book for a week, you will have forgotten most of what you learned the previous time and will have to start again.
- you will learn better if you are not tired, therefore consider studying in the mornings if your schedule allows it.
- it’s normal to forget some things you learned in the previous chapters. If it’s a grammar concept then you should go back and review it; if it’s just a word or an expression then you can wait until you finish the book and then go over everything again.
- consider making an Anki deck to help you learn vocabulary. The beginner phase is when Anki is the most useful.
- try to listen to your target language as much as you can. It will help you get used to the sound of the language and will also help you with correct pronunciation. Internet radios and podcasts are good for this purpose. Don’t worry if you don’t understand anything - listening will help anyway and gradually you will start to recognize some words and phrases.
How can I practice speaking?
The first step is to read aloud in your target language, most likely this will be from your textbook. Make sure to listen to the accompanying audio to verify that your pronunciation is correct. If you’re not sure how to pronounce something, you should find out instead of guessing. It’s important to get the pronunciation right from the beginning because it’s difficult to fix later.
Once you feel confident enough to start speaking with other people, you can find conversation partners on various language exchange sites on the internet. You can also try a private tutor at Italki.
Do I have to study every day?
No, you don’t, 3-4 times a week is fine. However, on the days when you don’t study, you might want to at least listen passively to the language. If you do even a small language-related activity every day, it will help your brain to better remember it.
I’ve finished my course. What’s next?
Some courses come in different levels. If you have finished level 1, you can move on to level 2. If you don’t feel very confident about what you’ve learned, you can try another beginner textbook. But if you feel very good about your skills, you can try to start using native materials.
Native materials are all the books, movies, TV shows, news articles, and so on that are intended for native speakers, not for language learners. Using such materials is more difficult than learning from textbooks, but it is more interesting (because you can choose the materials you like) and satisfying (because you know that you are studying the “real” language). One good strategy is to pick an activity you do often, such as watching sports or listening to music) and try to do it in your target language. Another good strategy is to find short articles on the internet about subjects you’re interested in. Perhaps you will be overwhelmed by the amount of new vocabulary at first, but don’t worry, it gets easier with time.
This FAQ was written by forum member Evita who speaks four languages: Latvian, English, Russian, German