How to Study a Foreign Language When You’re Broke and Alone

Ooooh, secrets.

Do you want to learn a foreign language but are too broke/busy/have no one to talk to?

In an ideal world, this would be the part where I’d drop a miracle cure all product that would magically grant you language fluency after knocking back a shot of mysterious liquid from a skull shaped bottle. Unfortunately no such product exists, so we’ll have to do this another way.

The method I’m about to describe helps with pronunciation, vocabulary, and reading, and works for any language, though for my own example I’ll be using Chinese, which presents its own challenges. If you’re interested, scroll down below to begin!

DISCLAIMER! This method still requires effort, and it’s definitely not perfect, but it’s been useful to me. I am not offering a language study course, but a method that can help you in your overall language studies.


  1. Firstly, get yourself some learning materials that you can read out loud — the best material would be a video you can mimic. Make sure it’s not too easy, you need to challenge yourself here!

In my case, it’s an episode of a Chinese drama on Viki.com, a great site for free Asian dramas. I really recommend finding videos rather than just sticking to written work — you need to practise your listening as well as reading and speaking.

This drama is called “My Amazing Boyfriend”/我的奇妙男友。It’s actually pretty funny; the opening scenes describe how our spectacularly attractive male lead essentially had his coffin dumped in the sea and then came back to life. Weirdly, this drama hired a hot Korean dude for the main part and dubbed his voice over in Chinese, but every other character is actually…Chinese. Importing foreign talent I suppose.

In this part of the drama, the narrator speaks very fast. Luckily, there are optional subtitles for language learners. Without subtitles, I could barely understand it, and after showing this clip to a Chinese friend, he agreed that it was very fast.

2. Write down the sentences you want to practise, as well as any pronunciation markers you need. You can write down definitions/pronunciations for words you don’t know, but don’t start learning the vocabulary like a shopping list!

This is particularly good advice for character based languages. One of the great difficulties of Chinese is the tonal nature of the language, as well as the writing and memorisation of characters. The more you write, the better.

The reason I’m telling you to not learn words individually is because this isn’t the aim of the exercise — vocabulary takes time, and it can stress you out when you feel like you have to store words like a human dictionary. Vocab comes later, and phrases are easier to work with because you’re not plucking random words out of the air.

3. Play the video and listen to it several times. Now, play it again, and read the subtitles out loud along with the video. Can you match the rhythm of the speaker or are you struggling to keep up?

Bingo. Let’s go back to you notes. Forgive my hideous Chinese handwriting.

Eww. So uglaaaay.

4. Now it’s time to tear the sentence to shreds. Break it down, bit by bit.

We’re looking at the “rhythm” here. See those giant brackets I’ve drawn? Those are parts I struggled to keep up with because I didn’t know the vocab well enough or the quick tone changes are threw me off. I took these parts out, wrote out the pronunciations, and read them out loud several times.

Then, I took the sentence and broke it down, word. By. Word. No really, I mean it:

“这。具。休眠体。现在。才。可以。重见天日。法医。验尸。鉴定。结果。为。他。的。死亡。原因。是。由于。颈部。动脉。被。割断。导致。失血过多。初步判断。为。仇杀。”

If you can’t read Chinese, that’s fine, but you see what I mean? To get the tones right, I had to break. It. Down. And. Read. It. Out.Loud.

Then I grouped the sentence by how I felt it flowed from the speaker, and the“rhythm” I got was something like this:

【这具休眠体现在才可以重见天日】【法医验尸鉴定结果为】【他的死亡原因是由于颈部动脉被割断】【导致失血过多】【初步判断为仇杀】

5. Now that you’ve deconstructed your sentence, you need to record yourself saying it out loud. You will have to do this many times. Keep doing this until you are happy with the pronunciation.

I found myself recording stuff 20+ times due to mistakes, rushing, or getting a single word wrong. I used a recording app on my phone for this, but use whatever works for you. I probably deleted 50 recordings afterwards.

6. OK, now we’re going to test your pronunciation skills. For this part, you need Google Translate or Microsoft Translator on your phone.

I’m gonna guess you have a smartphone, but if you don’t I’m not sure what the alternatives are, sorry. After all, this is a study method aimed at people who are broke and alone.

For those who do have a smart phone, open your chosen translation app, connect to the internet, choose your languages, and speak into the mic.

Huzzah! It worked. Kinda. After several attempts.

NOTE: It’s worth remembering that for languages with tough grammar structures the translation is never quite 100%, and homophones are always going to be a problem. For example, in my practise phrase, the second word is 具, which is pronounced jù. Google Translate often mistook the word for 句, which is pronounced the same. Some other words that are also pronounced jù are 据, 聚,and 距, but this problem also springs up in English with words like: led, lead, red, read, click, clique etc.

7. Sit back from exhaustion. You’ve earned yourself a break.

Don’t feel bad if this whole process took you a very long time. For these three lines alone, I spent longer than an hour. You wanna guess how long that phrase was in the drama?

7 seconds.

I have no doubt that the unique difficulties of Chinese contributed to this; had I been studying German I would have spent way less time.

But! If you manage to make this task a habit, the rewards are huge. After practising these sentences, I sent a recording to a Chinese friend to see what he thought. I didn’t give him the translation, and from my speech alone he understood everything. That’s a success!

And hey, don’t feel bad if you think practising this way will take forever. It won’t. You’re improving your comprehension with a method that will speed up over time. You’re also listening to a real native speaker, not some CD that came with your textbook, so it’s going to be far more difficult than what you’re used to.

And in case you’re still feeling bad, imagine being a non-native speaker of English and listening to the first 30 seconds of this clip:

Even I had to pay attention to this one.

I sent this clip to my Chinese friend and he couldn’t understand a thing. Even for a native English speaker, you really have to pay attention! My friend asked me if I understood everything, and when I typed up what Sherlock said, I had to play the video three times because I couldn’t type fast enough! Luckily, somebody found the official script and pasted it as a YouTube comment:

There’s a margin for error but I’m pretty sure there’s a Seven Forty-Seven leaving Heathrow tomorrow at six thirty in the evening for Baltimore. Apparently it’s going to save the world. Not sure how that can be true but give me a moment; I’ve only been on the case for eight seconds.

How long was Sherlock speaking for? 8 Seconds. How many words did he say? 52.

TL;DR:

  1. Get a video that you can mimic. Make sure it’s challenging!
  2. Write down the sentence/paragraph, as well as any pronunciation markers you need. Don’t learn the vocabulary like a shopping list!
  3. Play the video and read the subtitles out loud along with the video.
  4. Deconstruct the sentence. Break it down, bit by bit.
  5. Record yourself saying it out loud. Keep doing it until you’re happy with the pronunciation.
  6. Test your pronunciation skills. Use Google Translate or Microsoft Translator on your phone.
  7. Sit back from exhaustion. You’ve earned yourself a break.

And Remember:

“A phrase a day keeps the language procrastination guilt away!”

We all know that feeling.