Language learning is hard, but it’s tractable if you know how to study and build the right habits and environments to learn. Likewise, if you don’t build the right habits or don’t view language learning correctly you simply will not learn. I’ve studied 4 languages at various points in my life; I stared with French in school, then Japanese in university, then Spanish, and now Chinese (Mandarin). I don’t consider myself “good” at languages. It takes me a lot of hours of consistent practice to improve. Below I’ll first discuss about some of the myths a lot of people believe around language learning, and then I’ll discuss how I think about language learning, and how to be successful at learning. First, the myths:

Myth: You will naturally “pick up” a language if it’s spoken around you

A lot of people believe that if you’re simply in an environment surrounded by a people speaking a foreign language you will naturally just learn it. This sounds plausible, because this is how children learn languages, and children are amazing at learning languages, right? Unfortunately, you are not a child and this will not work. I spent 2 years living in China, and regularly encountered expats who spent 10+ years in the country who can barely speak any Mandarin at all. If you don’t focus on learning as an adult you will not just “pick up” a language by living in a country that speaks that language. However, if you do put in consistent effort to learn then living abroad can be a great way to get better. More on that below.

Myth: You don’t need to study boring vocab or grammar - just learn like a child!

There’s a common belief, again probably derived from watching children learn languages, that if you just try speaking and say what feels right and don’t worry too much about explicitly studying grammar and vocabulary that you’ll be fine. Afterall, toddlers don’t study grammar or vocab and they learn to speak fluently! This is also the approach taken in most apps like Duolingo, which seem to be afraid of explicitly teaching any grammar out of a belief that grammar is “boring”, and learning should be fun™!

While I think this approach will certainly get you farther than following the belief about “picking up” a language, I don’t feel this approach works nearly as well as explicitly studying grammar and vocab. This is especially true of languages that are very different from your native language, like Mandarin (for native English speakers). In my experience, most people I’ve met who have studied using this method struggle to get past a low-intermediate level of proficiency. Sadly, you are not a child and you can’t learn like a child. Learning a language does take work, and it’s not always fun.

That’s it for the myths, now for how to actually learn a language:

Be consistent

In my experience the most important determinate of success is simply keeping up a habit of consistent study. If you can devote even 15 minutes per day consistently to studying a language you will improve. If you study a lot for a few weeks then stop for 3 months you will forget everything. I find getting in the habit of studying right before bed works well for me, but the key is just to form a habit and keep it up. Even something simple like going though a single Duolingo lesson each morning, or reviewing vocab in Anki or Memrise or Quizlet or a vocab app of your choice before bed each night will help.

Taking traditional language classes is great for this as well, since if you’re taking a class regularly then you’re forced to put time into studying every week. It’s also great if the class gives you homework assignments to keep you studying as well. For me I find that paying for a language class is helpful simply because then I don’t want to waste that money by skipping the class.

Treat speaking, listening, reading, and writing as separate skills

Learning a language means learning speaking, listening, reading, and writing. If you master all of these skills, you will have mastered the language. These skills do all reinforce each other, but they are separate skills that each need attention. It’s very possible to be amazing at reading and writing but be completely incapable of having even a simple conversation with a native speaker. I studied French for 7 years in school, but when I first visited France I found I couldn’t understand anything anyone was saying, and couldn’t think fast enough to respond. After a few months of watching French media and forcing myself to speak with locals I was able to improve a lot in speaking and listening to the point I could hold conversations.

Each of these skills will be reinforced by different activities. If you want to practice speaking, have conversations with native speakers. For listening, try watching videos in your target language. If you want to practive reading, find articles in that language online. For writing, try chatting in the language online or taking a class where a teacher can correct what you write.

Spend time memorizing vocab

If you don’t know a key word in a sentence that someone says to you then you won’t understand the sentence. Likewise, if you don’t know the vocab to talk about a topic you won’t be able to talk about it. There’s no real substitute for spending time memorzing vocab. Memorizing vocab isn’t a lot of fun, but it’s not difficult, and there are a lot of really good spaced-repetition apps that make studying vocab much easier. I use Anki, but Quizlet and Memrise are great as well, and I’m sure there are lots of other great apps as well. Whenever I encounter a new word, I’ll add it to my Anki deck. Then I study Anki every night before bed as part of my daily routine, and the app takes care of making sure I don’t forget any new words.

Learn all the grammar

Most languages have a finite amount of grammar. You just need to learn it all and force yourself to practice using new grammar patterns until they become second nature. I try to add grammar rules to my vocab flashcards so I can review them using spaced-repetition as well. You can find all the grammar for most language online or in text-books. For instance, for Japanese there’s Tae Kim’s Guide, and for Chinese there’s the Chinese Grammar Wiki.

Go to language meetups, find a language partner, and/or live abroad

There’s still no substitute for interacting with native speakers. Fortunately, it’s not hard to do, especially if you’re a native English speaker. Most cities will have a meetup for practicing the language you want to learn, and if not, you can start one! You can also try to find someone who’s learning your language and set up a regular time to spend time with them where you talk 50% in your language and 50% in theirs. Of course, nothing beats living in the country whose language you want to learn if you can, but again, you need to focus on studying while you’re there or you still won’t make progress.

Good luck, and good studying!