January 27, 2019

What You Need To Learn a New Language

English general language learning Linguistics Uncategorized

Apps, textbooks, and tutors will definitely form the basis of your language study. However, without the right frame of mind, it will be hard to actually design and follow through with your study plan. Here are some things that will help you create an optimum environment for language learning, and guess what? They all cost you $0.


Mark Twain famously said: “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.”

And honestly, I don’t think he was just being humble. Curiosity can drive diligence in a way talent never can.

I don’t think I have any particularly outstanding talent at learning language–and I say this because I know people that do learn languages remarkably fast. What I do have, however, is boundless curiosity. Just think: every new language you learn will show you a new way of looking at the world, whether it be through vocabulary that doesn’t exist in your native language, or a verb conjugation that you wouldn’t ever think you’d need. Languages view time and space in different ways, and they structure themselves accordingly.

Languages even categorize color in different ways. A great psycholinguistics experiment pitted Russian speakers against English speakers and tested their memory of color slides. Since Russian has two very different words for what English speakers would call light blue and dark blue (in Russian, goluboy and siniy), they were better at remembering different shades of blue they had seen than the English speakers were (Winawer 2007).

Did that blow your mind? Good! Now think of all the other ways languages could possibly catalogue and categorize the world. Don’t you want to know them?

Some people do drugs in order to see the world through a new lens. You could just learn languages.


I have definitely been guilty of letting impatience thwart my goals. At times I have declined to take on a new project because the completion date felt so impossibly far off. But then that completion date would arrive, and I’d realize, if I had only just started, I would be done by now.

It took me about eight years of haphazard study to become professionally fluent in Spanish, about four to become conversationally fluent in Mandarin. Those time periods might sound impossibly long, but trust me, the value of being able to speak these languages is not diminished by the time it takes, and this is an investment that the stock market can never take away from me.

Also, you stand to gain a lot from having even just elementary ability in a language. Every new language you learn teaches you something new about phonetics, about grammar, and may someday come in handy in ways you cannot predict. Do not discount the benefits of dabbling.

As a thirty-something, I hopefully have about another six to seven decades left on this earth. I’ll have plenty of time to enjoy the fruits of this labor (and to pick up a few more languages I hope!)


I know I just said you had to be patient, but if you don’t set short term goals, you won’t have enough structure and will quickly lose motivation. Great short-term goals include registering for a proficiency test (DELE, DELF, TOEFL, TOPIK, HSK, etc.) or planning a trip to the country where they speak your language. Sometimes the money you spend on that plane ticket will get you a better ROI than the fanciest language-learning software. Why? Because you’re excited to travel, you’re excited to show off your language skills to the people you travel with, and you’re excited about what profound experiences you might be able to have with even just a little bit of language skills. That keeps you picking up your phone for another hit of the Drops app, and keeps you hammering out those conjugation charts.


Guys, I don’t want to sound old, but when I started learning languages the internet was not what it is now. To learn American Sign Language when I was living in Manhattan, I had to take the subway all the way down from the Upper West Side to midtown, and then take a crosstown bus to the Sign Language Center. A crosstown bus!!! You don’t know the pain. For a 1.5 hour class, my roundtrip commute was two hours. That doesn’t even include the time to brush my hair and put on pants.

Now, you can learn ASL (and many other languages) online, in your pajamas. You have YouTube (and websites that literally download the subtitles into a word file so you can study new vocabulary at your own pace). You have italki. You have HelloTalk. You can stream news programs and TV shows from anywhere in the world, read Russian newspapers, join Korean chat forums. There is just no excuse.

I really hope this helps potential language learners get motivated to learn a new language this year. If you have more recommendations for language learners, please leave them in the comments!

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One comment

  1. I am always very curious about a language and culture but most times I lack the patience and I get frustrated easily. I would look into setting short-term goals, that might just help me.