I posted an older version of this on a now defunct blog several years ago. I thought I’d repost it here because it is always a useful topic. If you are interested in learning another language, I hope you find this helpful.
1. The key is motivation. Learning a language as an adult is hard. You must make a commitment to study and practice and allow your motivation to help you work past hurdles. Motivation in language learning comes from many sources. Many people learn a language because it’s a school requirement, an asset to finding a good job, or because they have some kind of religious, cultural, or personal interest in the speech community which uses the language. There are many reasons to learn a language. What is your reason for learning the language, and how can you use your reason to motivate yourself?
2. Recognize how you intend to use the target language. Are you going to write a PhD thesis in this language? Do you just want to communicate with people? How high do you need your level of understanding to be and in what context do you plan to communicate? If you don’t care about understanding news broadcasts or literature, and you just want to chat with people or go shopping in a foreign language, what level will you need to do that? What type of vocabulary will you need? Of course it is ideal if you can learn to read and write in the foreign language’s script, and I highly recommend learning the script, but don’t bother if you don’t have time and if reading and writing in the foreign script don’t serve your language learning purposes. (However, I’d still recommend that you practice the language by doing exercises and writing in a transliterated version of the script, and seeking out transliterated readings.)
3. Find suitable language learning tools. Choose a book, website, or software that has easy, clear grammar explanations and vocabulary organized in a systematic way. For example, some books have vocabulary divided into semantic categories like “at the shop” and “visiting a friend’s house” or “in the kitchen.” Other books just give vocabulary randomly as it arises in each lesson. Some books use a lot of grammar terminology: subjects, prepositions, gerunds, and preterite tense. Does that suit your learning style or confuse you? You may like one book’s method over another. Choose the tool that works for you. Stocking your shelf so that it looks like a language institute won’t help either. It is better to limit yourself to a couple of good books.
4. Focus on all four language skills and use them together. Make sure you get adequate practice in all areas; combine reading, writing, listening, and speaking tasks. Even if you don’t learn to read and write in the script of the target language, don’t discount reading and writing altogether because it can help you learn. You can read transliterated texts in many language books (like the Teach Yourself and the Colloquial series), and you can write small paragraphs using English transliteration to represent the sounds. You must also get listening comprehension and speaking practice from movies, shows, and possibly friends. If you use other materials to supplement the book or software you select, then choose materials that use the skills at your level or slightly above. Don’t choose anything too hard or you will get discouraged. Materials that are too easy will bore you. Also, your competency in each skill area will vary. You may understand (listen) better than you can speak. You may speak better than you can comprehend reading texts. This is normal. To really improve, sometimes you have to work on your weakest skill. In the beginning, just get through the first units in your book of choice, and then proceed from there.
5. Lose your ego. Be ready to practice even though you will feel like you are making a fool of yourself. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes or sounding silly. Very articulate people are reduced to sounding like simpletons in a new language. It is like crawling before walking, and you just have to accept that. Don’t be shy. Especially if your goal is basic communication, not writing a doctoral thesis. Some people will laugh at you, but most will be appreciative and even impressed by your efforts.
6. Make a plan and execute it. You won’t learn a language without putting in effort. You have to set aside time to study. It is like exercising. You have to have a scheduled time for it. At least three times per week should be good, but daily is better. The very early stages of language learning involve a lot of memorization. You have to commit yourself to that if you want to get ahead.
7. Live and breath the language. Try to get interested in the culture of the target language. This helps motivation, too. Hundreds of thousands of students around the world study English and are not particularly interested in the cultures of native English speaking countries. These students will probably never need to interact with native English speakers, and are studying English due to its current position as a global language or lingua franca, and its usefulness in various fields on an international level. I am not saying that taking an interest in the culture where the target language is spoken is necessary. However, it does help to increase motivation. In addition, gaining an understanding of the culture where the target language is spoken will aid in attaining sociolinguistic competence in the language. A language is more than just words. One should, for example, know how and when to say things, understand how politeness and formality works in different languages, and have an idea of what topics are culturally inappropriate or taboo. All of this is part of gaining competence in another language just as much as grammar. So it is useful to take an interest in the culture where a language is spoken.
8. Recognize that language learning is a slow and tedious process. Be realistic. Don’t beat yourself up for not learning the language very quickly. Adults cannot learn languages very rapidly. It is a scientific fact. First, you have to build a vocabulary base and know basic grammatical structure and use that for rudimentary communication practice. You will plug the vocabulary into the structure for practice. But it will take years to get really good. A fast learner who has a high language learning aptitude can pick up enough of a language to communicate basic needs very quickly, especially when immersed in a setting where the language is spoken, but it would still take a person of high language learning aptitude a couple of years of dedicated study to become truly fluent. (And for adults, does 100% fluency ever occur? Language learning is really a never ending process for the non-native speaker because there will always be contexts in which one will encounter something new to learn.) You may not have a high language learning aptitude. If you are a slow learner, it could take a long time to become comfortable with using even basic structures in the target language. That is okay. Take your time. (And remember to lose your ego and accept that you will make mistakes.) You will achieve your goals if you are realistic about how lengthy a process language learning truly is.
9. Practice, practice, and do more practice. Do readings, listenings, study grammar, make flashcards for vocabulary. Stick vocabulary labels around the house. Speak to anyone who will talk with you. Be active and take control of the language learning process. The more work you do, the better results you will see. In terms of applied study, focusing on a foreign language can be a bit like exercising at the gym. You have to have to designate time slots during your week to studying, and follow through. Relating to point #6, can you spend 20-30 minutes on Thursday and Sunday evening reading a short text, going over a grammar point, or doing an online exercise in the target language? Can you set a bi-weekly hour dedicated to watching a broadcast in the language? Just like one would supplement the attainment of weight loss goals by going to the gym and parking the car further away from the shops to get in extra walking, what additional actions can you take to incorporate more of the language into your life so that you get more practice and exposure? Is it possible to listen to radio broadcasts of your target language in the car or online? Do you have a person who is willing to practice with you? Be opportunistic by making the most of any presence of the target language in your environment in order to get practice.