How To Learn A Language Without Taking A Formal Class

Nicole Cooper
Jun 5, 2018 · 7 min read

(Or traveling to another country)

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We live in an interesting time. Are you taking complete advantage of it?

While traditional education has its purpose for certain things, many things can be learned without being in this formal setting thanks to our current digital age. Learning a foreign language is one of those subjects.

This may sound a bit hypocritical coming from me since I teach foreign language in a classroom setting BUT hear me out. There are things in a classroom setting that are easier and/or more enjoyable than a self-education setting and vice versa. I think both ways are great and effective when it is done correctly; however, I’m focusing on self-education given that most of the people reading this are young adults who probably can’t commit to a nonflexibile class schedule and/or have the funds to pay for formal classes. Also, doing homework [when it feels like homework] isn’t so fun either.

In grade school and college, I always wanted to take more foreign langauge courses, but it wasn’t feasible due to the available class times and the fact that I had to prioritize the classes within my major, as well as the generic courses that I needed to take in order to graduate. Part of me wishes that I majored in linguistics and/or a foreign language as my second major or minor.

Anyways…

I decided to not let my school’s system be my excuse and found other ways to get the job done without paying an extra penny.

Here are the seven learning methods that I use to learn another language on my own.

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#1 Learn The Alphabet And Phonic Sounds

Knowing how to spell “supercalifragilisticexpealidocious” is cool and all, but do you know how to say it? Go to the building blocks of the language: the alphabet and/or sounds. See how each letter is pronounced. You may come across some letters formed in different shapes, as well as letters containing lines, squiggles, and dots on them like the letters: ã, ç, ü, ß, ø, å, é or æ. For languages that use a different writing system, you may want to first learn the phonic sounds used in that language before tackling their writing system.

#2 Vocabulary

Being conversational in a language means, you need to know a lot of vocabulary. After learning things like “hello,” “goodbye,” “please,” “thank you,” start with the big three: nouns, verbs and adjectives. Think of the most common words from the big three that you use on a regular basis. If you want to mimic a traditional education setting, you can group the vocabulary words by categories (e.g. food and drink, home, places, travel, land animals, sea animals, family, school, occupation, etc.).

#3 Sentence Structure

Learn how to form a sentence in your foreign language by learning the basic grammar structure. Apps like Duolingo are good for this, because they start you off with translating a bunch of basic sentences like the following:

  • “The boy and the girl”
  • “I am a woman”
  • “You eat an apple”
  • “He likes you”

As you translate these sentences be mindful on where the verbs, nouns, adjectives, etc. are placed. In English, we say “The tall girl,” but in Spanish, the literal translation is “The girl tall,” because the noun comes before the adjective. Also, be mindful on any changes in the spelling/pronunciation of noun, verb, or adjective made when the subject and/or the quantity changes, especially languages with conjugations and/or or words that only pertain to males or females. Some examples:

  • In Thai, women say “Sawadeeka” while men say “Sawadeekap.” Both words mean “hello.”
  • In Portuguese, “A mulher alta” (the tall woman) versus “As mulheres altas” (the tall women) versus “O homem alto” (the tall man) versus “Os homens altos” (the tall men)

When you understand the basic sentence structure, you move onto how to ask/answer questions. Who, what, when, where, why and how questions are typically what people learn first.

If the language you’re studying has verb tenses, once you master [simple] present tense, you can learn how to use other tenses like continuous, perfect, past, future, etc.

#4 Make Your Own Sentences

As you learn how to form proper sentence structure, practice writing your own sentences using the knowledge that you’ve learned. This is one way to test whether or not you’re retaining the information that you’ve learned. Start with a self-introduction that includes sentences about the following.

  • Your name and age
  • Where you are from and/or live
  • The members of your family
  • Your likes/dislikes
  • Your occupation

#5 See How Native (And Fluent) Speakers Use The Language

Once you have a basic foundation of the language, see how locals use the language in everyday conversation. Your first instinct may be thinking that you have to get your passport and travel to another country, but you don’t have to do that (though it can help).

Hop on the World Wide Web look up the following:

Music

Listen to music of the language you’re trying to learning and read the lyrics as you listen. When you read the lyrics to a song in your native language over and over, you eventually memorize the words. The same applies in a foreign language. The words will no longer sound like mumbles, and once you have an idea of what the song is talking about, it will develop more meaning to you

For example, many people have heard of the song “Despacito” by Luis Fonsi. It sounds romantic, cute, and lovey dovey, but once you understand the words, you realize it’s more sexual than it seems.

YouTubers

Find YouTubers of x country who vlog about things you like (e.g. Look up French-speaking makeup bloggers). The popular influencers usually have English subtitles on their videos, so you can follow along easier. While you’re subscribed to their channel, follow them on Facebook or Instagram as well. Learning a language becomes more enjoyable when you learn the vocabulary for things that are applicable and relatable.

Twitter

If you’re on Twitter, change your settings to x country so you can see all of their trending news and popular hashtags. Click on a hashtag and see how they form their sentences about that topic. You’re only limited to 140 characters per tweet, so that will expose you to a lot of slang and abbereviations.

Facebook

Do you follow popular Facebook pages that post funny memes/videos, social and/or political news? Look for the equivalent. See how the same type of humor and/or social/political issues are communicated in another language.

Netflix

Make Netflix (and the like) educational. Many popular shows and movies are dubbed in other languages. Start with a show/movie that you’ve already watched. You already know what happens, so now you can focus on how things are being said in another language.

Other Online Communities

There are groups on Facebook, WhatsApp, Slack, GroupMe, and other online forums dedicated towards having a language exchange and people practicing how to speak a certain language [for FREE]. If you can’t travel to another country, this is probably the next best thing. YouTubers Damon and Jo have created a group on Facebook for language and cultural exchanges as well as sharing tips on traveling. This is how I was able to find a WhatsApp groups of people speaking only Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, Japanese, and more.

The threads may be overwhelming at first with the constant chatter, but set aside a time where you can contribute to the conversation and/or ask questions and be on standby for responses.

#6 See What’s In Your City

If you live in a multicultural city, especially places like London and New York City, consider yourself lucky. Depending on the language, you may have a higher chance of shooting your shot and striking up a conversation in-person. This may be a riskier move because you may not be as confident in your speaking ability and the person you want to talk to may not be very friendly, but it’s worth a try.

#7 Passive Learning

Change your cellphone and your computer settings to the language your are trying to learn. You already know how send a email and use social media. You don’t need the English (or whatever language you fluently speak). While you’re scrolling through your timeline or playing on your phone, you can passively pick up vocabulary for functions that you use every single day.

I met someone from the Ukraine while traveling. When I used their phone to find my Facebook page, I had zero problems. I don’t know a single word in Ukranian (or any similiar language), yet the foreign writing didn’t bother me at all.

So…How Long Will All Of This Take?

That will solely depend on you and how much work you put into it. Some languages are much easier to pick up than others when comparing how similiar/different they are from your native tongue and other languages that you know. No matter the time, I believe this is the best way to utilize your resources in learning a foreign language through a customized self-education curriculum.

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Did you learn a foreign language? If so, how did you learn it? What are your best learning methods?

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Nicole Cooper

Written by

Sharing my two cents and sometime-y contrarian view on a variety of topics. Twitter & IG @_nicolecoop

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