How to Learn English (or any other language)

Language courses? Travel? Study abroad? Self-study? Let me give you my two cents. And in case you’re wondering why I’m qualified to talk about language learning, check out my recent post about Teaching English as a Second Language.

Language learning is complex, difficult, and frustrating, but because it’s good for your brain (it helps prevent dementia) and good for the connections you make with other people, it’s also rewarding. Based on my professional experience teaching language and my personal experience learning a second language (Portuguese) and studying several others, I have been able to narrow language learning down to a few general tips for success.

1) Connections are key

The more personal interest and motivation you have to learn the language, the better you will learn. Certainly people are our greatest connections, so any way you can connect with people who are learning the language and interact with them in a meaningful way is very beneficial. Push yourself to explore new topics and test new vocabulary as you are speaking. If they are native speakers of the language, explain your needs and let them help you. For example, tell them that they should speak slowly and explain things that you might not understand the first time.

Of course, immersing yourself in the new language is the best way, whether through extended travel, study abroad, intensive language courses, or being around native speakers of that language.

Brazilian mother-in-law

Personal connections with people who speak the target language are key.

My greatest teacher of Portuguese has been my mother-in-law, who speaks no English and listens to all my mistakes with a patient ear. I knew I wanted to be close to her, so I learned a little and jumped in, conversing with her for years, first just a little and now in depth. What resulted is a strong relationship that provided a constant motivation for me to learn and practice.

2) Become a real language learner

What I mean by this is to look at language learning as a real learning process. Don’t expect to miraculously acquire the language like children may through exposure–instead, realize that really learning a language takes careful, consistent, conscious learning.

Develop a basic awareness of language patterns, including the rules and reasons behind them. Consider how your native language and new language are similar and different. Develop at least some regular study habits, like making weekly vocabulary sheets, that will help you keep what you’ve learned and make new progress. Remember that language includes many skills, including speaking, pronunciation, listening, reading, writing, and grammar, and give some attention to all of them.

esl students

Successful language students learn with consistent study habits and a curiosity about the “rules” and patterns. They are also brave enough to make mistakes.

3) Don’t aim for perfection

Remember that learning a language takes a lot of time, dedication, and motivation. You may not learn as quickly as you had expected. You will make mistakes even if you’re not accustomed to doing so in other subjects. In fact, errors are a normal part of language development and often a sign that you are trying out a new structure! Expecting to be perfect will hinder progress; instead, be courageous and test the language to your limits, mistakes and all–your skills will improve as a result.

4) Be realistic

As I already said, learning another language is hard work and takes a very long time. Research has shown that it takes 7-10 years of dedicated, consistent study to learn a language at an advanced level (meaning that you could study college-level material in the language). If you are serious about learning, try to think of it as a lifelong process, but one that will bring you many wonderful rewards. I think that way about Portuguese–my skills are good, but I will never stop learning.

When you choose a second language to learn, keep in mind that the languages that are farther from your native language will take much more time. For example, if your native language is English, Slavic languages are difficult because of their complicated grammar, and Vietnamese is difficult because of the tones and pronunciation, but Arabic, Chinese, and Japanese are even more difficult and require years of dedicated study to learn.

wine cellar

Learning Czech was the hardest part about living abroad for me.

5) Finally, make it interesting. 

As I said above, connecting with the language is key, and one way to keep that connection constant is to find ways to be with the language that you find truly interesting. First, get to know the culture. Then immerse yourself in it–watch movies, listen to music, watch TV, read magazines, join chat groups, read children’s books that you can relate to in some way, and, of course, travel to the country where the language is spoken…better yet, stay there and study at a language school while staying with a host family. I did that in Germany, and even though I didn’t keep up my German, it was a wonderful experience that left me feeling connected to the country, people, and language.

What are your favorites ways to learn language? How do you make it relevant to your life? How do you connect with it?


  • monique says:

    great post jenna! I love language learning.
    I found studying and living in Italy was the best way to learn to learn and speak Italian well, although your #3 – aiming too much for perfection – kept me from practicing more sophisticated tenses, etc. (I can kick myself now). Back in the states, we have subscribe to italian TV (RAI) but got too $$, but I do listen to free Milan-based live talk radio on the computer, and read the online daily newspaper, Corriere della Sera. And harass my italian friends in town to talk with me.
    My daughter, on the other hand, goes to public spanish immersion school (100 percent spanish in kinder and1st and gradual small percentages of english instruction 2nd grade on up), – it’s an amazing program and shows that at that age how language just soaks in. Now in 4th, her spanish is better than mine! The best is when she opens her mouth and a mix of spanish and english come out – and she lives in an english speaking household!
    the next language I would love to learn is French….!
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    • Jenna says:

      Yes, that dreaded aiming for perfection can really be a hindrance. I had to learn that the hard way. I love immersion schools and wish there were one closer to our house.

  • Sky says:

    Great post! I loved the tips. Right now, I’m working on learning Spanish because of my love for Guatemala and the friends I made there. Doing a month of intensive Spanish immersion in January, which will definitely be an interesting learning experience!
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    • Jenna says:

      The Spanish immersion sounds like the perfect way to improve your skills quickly. Have a great time!

  • Nailah says:

    Thanks for writing this! I just had a frustrating experience trying to learn Arabic in Lebanon. It probably would have helped if I kept your Tip #3 in mind. I really want to get my Portuguese up to a fluent level, but that may require another stint of living in Brasil. Thinking about it! (PS Had to laugh Bob Marley is the most frequently sighted musician to learn English from…I can barely understand him half the time!)
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    • Jenna says:

      Yes, I’m not sure about the Bob Marley reference either…Definitely living in the country is such a great way to improve your skills, especially if you can couple that with formal study. I spend plenty of time in Brazil but my Portuguese still lacks sophistication because I don’t study (though I did about 11-12 years ago). I just talk and pick up what I hear from others.

  • Ayngelina says:

    I’m trying to get back into learning Spanish and take classes here in Toronto, all this English is killing my memory.
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  • Ryan says:

    One more thing that really helps is setting small, achievable learning goals. I’ve found with my own learning, and the learning of my students, that one of the biggest challenges of mastering languages is simply the size of the task. It’s daunting! If you break the huge task up into small pieces, though, it’s much easier. Plus, you get to accomplish a goal, pat yourself on the back, and then move on to a new goal. It’s very motivating!
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    • Jenna says:

      I completely agree. I try to encourage students to be patient while learning language and to set small goals. When I teach pronunciation, I encourage them to work on one rule/patten per week. Learning another language is certainly daunting!

  • Charu says:

    Good tips! I remember immersing myself in Modern Greek in Athens, and picked it up rather quickly by speaking with the locals. It’s the only way…
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    • Jenna says:

      I’m sure talking to the locals was very effective. It forces us to try, to figure out the structures on our own. But I wouldn’t say it’s the only way. I’ve known some people who have learned very well on their own, or with other English learners, but they were very motivated. In fact, most of my students don’t interact with native speakers.

  • Nice facts you have pointed out on ”How to Learn English”.
    I myself have launched a blog on English language learning that is ”Artistic English”- It’s pleasure reading your nice article. Thank you.

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