March 22, 2020

How To Learn a Language from Home

general language learning Mandarin Chinese Resources

You don’t have to travel to learn a new language. Honestly, you don’t even need to put on pants!

I’ve studied several languages from home over the last decade. Not that I don't love travel and living abroad: I've spent years living in Nicaragua, Spain, Korea, and now China.

But travel isn't always an option. In fact right now (2020, pandemic) I can't really go very far beyond our apartment complex gates!

I'm not too worried. According to my italki stats (more about italki later), I have studied more than a dozen languages from home (including Ukrainian, Vietnamese, and Malay!)


My Current At-Home Study Goals


I don’t always have time to commute to a language school or take extended immersion breaks. Work can get pretty busy, life gets in the way. I'm sure it is the same for you.

But for the last two months, I've been sticking to the same “training regimen,” if you will, that has helped me learn several languages.

By studying at home with tutors and a few apps (which I'll describe below) I went from Mandarin's HSK 4-level (in 2016) to HSK 5 (2017) and hopefully, to HSK 6 within the next year. [UPDATE: I passed the HSK 6 in 2021!!]

Shockingly fast progress? Fluent in three months? No.

But did I set realistic goals and then knock those goals out of the park while holding down a normal, balanced life?

You bet.

Also, I didn’t stick exclusively to Chinese during that time: I also took breaks to learn Indonesian completely from scratch (after a month of intensive study at home, I was able to place into an intermediate level course in Bali) and to enroll in a Korean university program for three semesters.

So if you stick to one language, you’ll have much faster progress than I’ve had.

Here is how I set up my at-home language learning regimen:


Skype or Zoom Language Tutors using italki


Italki is a platform that helps you find a tutor in nearly any language, from nearly any timezone. If you’re just starting out, choose a Professional Tutor with at least 1000+ lessons taught, so that you know you’ll be in good hands.

That tutor will design the lesson plan according to your goals and your capabilities.

Sometimes they’ll provide you with PDFs of a textbook, or they might ask you to order the book online.

Here is my setup for studying HSK6 with my italki tutor, using the italki video platform.



How Many Hours Should I Study My Language?


I usually book my lessons  a week in advance, when I have a good sense of my schedule. Depending on my goals, I’ll book 2 to 5 hourlong lessons per week.

If things are really busy, I might do 30 minute lessons. Or if I’m really cramming, or have extra time, I might hire more than one tutor and do 2 hours a day.

Most importantly: in the beginning of learning a language, the more time you can spend speaking it and being exposed to it, the better.

You can taper off later, but in the beginning, practice is key. You need your tongue muscles to get used to new moves, and your memory to get used to certain retrieval patterns.

One hour per week won't be enough to get much traction in the beginning: you'll forget everything as soon as you learn it, and your muscles won't properly develop. So try to start out with at least 3 hours, spread out throughout the week.

"Shockingly fast progress? Fluent in three months? No.

But did I set realistic goals and then knock those goals out of the park while holding down a normal, balanced life?

You bet."

How to Design Your Study Plan


1. Guided Lesson Plan + Tutor using italki

Italki tutors are very affordable, with prices ranging depending on the language and the expertise of your teacher.

You can also use Community Tutors if you’re not looking for a fancy lesson plan – they’ll just chat with you, so that you can practice your language.

Community Tutors are like language partners, except you don’t have to waste any time speaking your own native language, and you have to stay accountable to them because you’ve already paid them ?


Why bother getting a tutor when you can just study on your own with a textbook?

It is important to be guided by an expert in the beginning of language learning. It is just like with learning a musical instrument, or a sport.

You don’t want to develop bad habits.

Start with a good tutor, and transition to guided self-study later if that is what you prefer.


What should you do if you are in a hurry to learn a foreign language?

If you have a lot of time, or if you are in a hurry to learn a language quickly, you can use italki to replicate a university course. I did this when I first started studying Korean.

Set up two hours of lessons in the morning, give yourself a lunch break, and then study another couple hours in the afternoon.

Hire a different tutor for each hour, which will expose you to a range of speaking styles and improve your comprehension ability.

After all, you can do it all from the comfort of your own home, with all the coffee and snacks you need!

For more information about how to best use italki to your advantage, check out "How to Use italki Strategically".


2. Do your reps with Glossika


Not all of language learning is fun and games…if you want to make any progress you’ll have to put in some hard work.

Glossika is a great way to improve your accent in a foreign language (which in turn will help free your brain to focus on other elements like grammar or vocabulary retrieval).

Glossika curates sentences with a variety of important grammatical patterns, and presents them to you using spaced repetition. You then repeat after the prompts so that your muscle memory can take over the task of language learning.

I’m not going to lie, it is boring! But it is incredibly effective. Especially if you are learning a tonal language.

I find it hard to stick to a Glossika regimen without external accountability, so I usually hire a cheaper community tutor on italki to just sit with me online for 30 minutes, a few times a week, and make sure I pronounce everything correctly.

Ostensibly I am paying them to correct me when they hear mistakes. But really, the biggest value is that because I pay them, I have to show up and complete the task.


3. Build your vocabulary with Drops, Memrise or Anki


You won’t be able to say much if you don’t have a good vocabulary! Building a good vocabulary is pretty much just memorization in the beginning, although later you’ll be able to learn faster from context and from reading.

But when you’re just starting out, you just have to do a lot of flashcards, there is no way around it.

Try out Drops if you’re looking for a beautiful interface, alphabet help, and a gamified study plan.

Memrise is best if you’re looking for a specific subject domain or textbook’s vocabulary – it has packs just for HSK, for Seogang, etc.

Anki is best if you want to make your own flashcards.

Just remember – these apps are not sufficieint for learning a language.


(Wondering why I haven’t brought up Duolingo? Here are my thoughts on Duolingo here)


Have A Concrete Goal


Your goal shouldn't be "get conversational in French".

Because how will you know when you are really there, and how will you know if you are making progress, or slowing down?

Set a concrete goal like: "speak French with tutors for 10 hours by the end of next week".

Or - "pass a language proficiency test within 3 months" (for example the HSK, or DELF, or TOPIK).


My Current Routine: Learning Mandarin from Home


Right now, like most of the world, I'm isolating at home because of the coronavirus. It has been about 2 months now. I still have a lot to do every day, but I definitely have some extra time saved from not having to commute or go to social events.

So I'm making the most of this time to really cram in as much Mandarin as I can!

Every Friday, I schedule my italki classes for the following week. It usually looks something like the below, although it varies a little bit from week to week.



The HSK is a Chinese proficiency test, sort of like the TOEFL.

Yes, I'm taking a class that focuses on handwriting, even though I'm also studying for the last level of the HSK. This is because I've developed a lot of  bad habits when it comes to writing in Chinese, resulting in some pretty ugly handwriting.

I'm now on a mission to fix that by working with a tutor who focuses specifically on helping me write.

In total, I probably spend about 5-6  hours actively studying Chinese, in lessons, or preparing for lessons.

I also spend about 5 hours per week passively absorbing Chinese media (TV and radio) which helps to reinforce what I have learned. Inevitably, once you learn a weird new word in your class, it suddenly seems to pop up everywhere around you!


Looking for more language-specific resources?

I have extensive "self-study starter kits" that list free and paid resources for several languages, including Chinese, Japanese, and Korean.


Are you thinking about learning a language from home? I'd love to help!

Ask me your questions in the comments!

By the way, this post includes affiliate links. I only promote products that I have tried myself and have found to be effective. If you purchase items by clicking on these links, the prices are no higher for you, but I get a small commission which helps me run this blog. Thanks in advance for your contributions!

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  1. What are your favorite Chinese-language TV shows?? I’m struggling to find one that hooks me, especially looking at the more contemporary series. (My most recent favorite is The Story of Yanxi Palace, but would love to find a more contemporary drama series…)

    • I’m also struggling to find a good Chinese TV show! My favorite Chinese TV show of all time is 都挺好 (All Is Well) which you can watch on YouTube. It is truly quality television. But I have never found another Chinese TV show of similar caliber. Yanxi Palace is fun, but has a lot of classical Chinese so is not ideal for learning Mandarin. Since I haven’t found so many great shows, I instead listen to more Chinese radio and podcasts, including the Chinese versions of NHK and VOA. If anyone else has good recommendations, please let us know here in the comments!

    • My all time favorite Chinese drama has been Love 020. It is funny, sweet, and entertaining. The cast fits well too. Hope you like it!

  2. Nice blog!! Im currently studying Spanish.
    What are your thoughts about the app Busuu? This is pretty complete for me (the pro version).
    My daily routine now is like:
    5 min drops
    10 min reading an article on el Pais
    30 min memrise (special class decks, made by
    60 min busuu
    15-30 min tandem (having conversations with people)

    I’ll add a few lessons (Italki) per week as well, but i’m pretty new to that. On top of that, I’m planning to rewatch La Case de Papel in order to improve my listening.

    Would you recommend any changes as its pretty time consuming?


    • misslinguistic

      This is great! But like you suggest, if it is too time-consuming, it will be difficult to sustain. I spend most of my time taking italki lessons, about 3-5 hours per week. I think of language learning like practicing piano: I want to spend most of my time actually playing the piano, not reading about it or learning scales. The same goes for speaking a language: italki is my only language tool that gets me talking to native speakers in a structured language-learning context, so I try to spend most of my time on italki. But because vocab is also important of course, I also do about 5-10 min of flashcard apps (either Memrise or Drops) per day. Of course, what works for you will be very personal to your own schedule and your own goals! I hope this helps!

  3. This is so helpful! And very detailed!
    Can I ask you a few questions on how you find tutors on italki?
    But first, I need to read all of your blog posts.

  4. This has been very helpful and encouraging to me. I use italki and tandem a lot but I’ve found that many other resources like duolingo, pimsleur, drops, etc don’t have my target language (Tamil). I’ve recently learned that Mango Languages does. Do you personally like it? I’d love to see a post on tips/ideas for learning languages with less resources out there or endangered languages. I often look longingly at the plentiful options for Spanish learners and wish I knew of more options or ideas out there.

  5. Thanks for all your articles! I’ve found them more helpful than anything else on the web. Plus I trust your judgement since my sister also studied languages at Columbia 🙂