How to Start Learning a New Language (Right Now. Today. Seriously).
Let me ask you a question:
If you really wanted to learn a new language, what would you be doing right now to make that happen?
The thing with language learning, and really with any goal or desire we have in life, is that we spend a lot of time thinking about what we want and talking about what we want, but way less time actually doing anything to get us towards that goal.
This isn't news. People want a lot of things that they never do anything about. We all want to be in better shape. We all want to start eating healthier. We all want to learn new languages. So we start crafting these plans in our minds to start these projects “soon” or “tomorrow” or “next year” or “when we go to Paris” … and what ends up happening is that this mental process of “planning” actually tricks us into thinking that we're on track towards our target, when in reality we have not yet taken a single step.
Right now rarely ever occurs to us to be a good time to start our projects. Instead, “soon” tends to be the most appealing option.
We leave A LOT of our problems to be solved by a future version of us, because we imagine that Future Us will somehow feel more motivated and energized, will have more time, more money, be more handsome, will have learned to wake up earlier, and will be managing life better.
So we wait.
I know this because I'm guilty myself of leaving tasks for Future Benny to solve.
The problem isn't that we don't have the information we need to get started right now. In fact, most of the time it's the exact opposite! We know that we should exercise more, eat less, speak from day 1.
Future Benny is never going to have any better information about how to get started towards those goals than Right Now Benny does. Yet, in my mind, Future Benny just sort of feels like he'll be more up to the challenge than Right Now Benny is.
Sorry to break this to you, but that is just not the case.
If you know what you want to do (learn Hungarian/Mandarin/Sign Language…), then the next step is doing.
So the question is: What would you be doing right now if you really wanted to learn a new language?
There are a few big truths about this I want to make clear.
1) Do nothing is not the answer
Obvious. And yet you are guilty of it, because thinking about learning a language is the same as doing nothing. Quite literally. Sorry to have to tell you this, but thinking about your goals will not get you any closer to achieving them. Only doing can do that.
This can be tricky, and it's a black hole that we all fall down into at some point, because thinking about how we'll achieve our goals feels good. It makes us feel excited about the amazing future person we imagine that we'll be.
You might start to envision Future You learning Spanish, then going to Spain and making Spanish friends, ordering Sangria in the perfect Spanish accent, and being able to name 30 different types of tapas. This mental story – the process of imagining yourself going through all these steps – actually makes you feel like you have done something! And of course, in fact, you have done nothing but think your way out of taking action now.
Planning to learn a new language is also doing nothing, by the way. Even the best laid plans are not actions. They are just organized thoughts. Planning is thinking about doing – making decisions about how or when you'll do something – but it occurs completely in your mind and involves no action. And definitely no language learning.
2) Researching the best way to learn a language is not the answer
Like thinking, spending endless hours on Google scouring the Internet for the “best” way to learn a language is NOT doing – although it definitely feels like it is.
Saving those websites in your bookmarks and putting that phrasebook in your Amazon wishlist makes you feel like you've done something. Do not trust that feeling! This is yet another endless downward spiral that can actually paralyse you rather than help you, because there will simply always be blog posts you haven't read yet, and Internet search terms you haven't Googled, and products you haven't reviewed… and just an endless amount of information that will keep you busy “researching” until the end of time if you let it.
And what's worse is that after you spend hours and hours reading advice about language learning, and trying to decide which course to buy, and being confused about which language learning technique is the best will, in the end, leave you feeling frustrated with all the uncertainty. And many of you will decide that “figuring out what to do” is just too hard, and you'll quit. (…or, in reality, never get started).
I actually agree that figuring out what to do is too hard. It's really hard, actually, if not entirely impossible. So I advice against it, and I suggest something else instead.
3) Just do it is not the answer
I don't like the catchphrase Just do it for language learning because that leaves a question mark for you to fill in by deciding what exactly “it” is. I get this question all the time: What should I do to start learning Spanish? And actually, this question has a never-ending list of answers. It also has no answer. There is no one thing you “should” do to start learning a new language.
There are just lots and lots of options. And because I'm not you, I can't tell you with total certainty which of those thousand potential starting points is the best one for you.
I can, however, tell you this: Any time you spend thinking about, planning or researching the best way to learn a new language would have been better spent actually studying and speaking the language.
So my advice to you is simple: Just start.
Don't worry about where to start. Don't worry if the phrasebook you can afford isn't the best one. Don't worry about which of the four online courses you've found is the best. Just start. Start learning, start speaking, start reading, and you will be doing more actual language learning than any amount of thinking or planning or researching can ever give you.
The question I asked you at the start of this post was: What would you be doing right now if you really wanted to learn a new language?
The key idea here is RIGHT NOW, and the answer is something. Anything. It really doesn't matter what you do, just start, and start now.
If you don't want to start now, then you have to ask yourself, is this even something you really want? For some people, the reality is that they don't really want to speak Japanese – they just kind of like the idea of it. And so they'll spend their time thinking about how “cool” it would be to speak Japanese, but never actually learning to speak Japanese.
But if you really, really want to learn Japanese, then just start. Start doing the thing you want to do right now.
So how do I “just start”?
Recently, I launched a new email course that guides you through the process of starting a new language project. It's called “Conversation Countdown” and it promises that if you follow its instructions, you'll have a simple conversation in your target language in 7 days. It's been a huge success, I get thank-you emails every day, and my readers love it.
You may be wondering what its trick is. I'll tell you.
The trick appears in the very first day, when I give the starting challenge of the week. Are you ready? It's pure magic.
Step 1 is… Learn to say Hello.
And then, when you've done that, learn to say My name is. And then learn to say Nice to meet you. It pretty much goes on like that.
Hopefully you're seeing the point here is that there is no “trick” to getting started. You literally just start. And for me, since language learning is all about talking to other people, “Hello” seems like an ideal place to start. You may prefer to start with “My hovercraft is full of eels” instead, and if that's relevant to you in some way, that's fine too.
Are you ready to start?
Okay, so I'm being a little cheeky.
Of course there are hints and tricks I can give you that will greatly increase your chances of success and help you keep up your momentum. (I have, after all, been doing this a long time). But you need to decide right now to become more than just a hoarder of great language hacking ideas. Put these ideas to use already!
So since I've convinced you to get started today, I'll share some key insights for getting started with you now:
1) Start learning with a buddy, group, or support network
2) Be public about your goals
3) Start in many ways, test things out, and change it up if you're bored.
Lauren, my girlfriend, just completed her first ever language mission in Esperanto, and at the end of her challenge she wrote about the importance of using lots of different methods. This is key, and this is also why finding the “best” technique isn't so important. During your project, you should use lots of techniques and lots of resources, and you'll learn faster. Don't be hesitant to start any particular one. Just start something, and if it's boring, start something else.
Also, if you say your goals out loud on Facebook, on your own blog, on my forums, or anywhere else, it means that there is suddenly something at stake if you don't follow through. When you announce your mission to the world, you'll feel like now you really have to start. Good! If at all possible, surround yourself with other people who are also learning a language to keep you motivated, to steal ideas from, and who will hold you accountable for getting started and moving forward.
Lauren's 3 Month Challenge Announcement (What's Yours?)
Now, Lauren is starting her next language challenge! She'll be taking part in Brian Kwong's Add 1 Challenge, which is an excellent place to work together with dozens of other language learners and see their updates daily to keep you motivated.
Lauren's next language challenge (click to find out which language she's learning!)
I want to know what your language goals are, so tell me in the comments. Make a public announcement here today to the world about what language goals are, what's at stake for you, and how you're going to make it a reality.
From there, your challenge is this: Just start. Pick up a phrasebook. Join the Add 1 Challenge. Learn to say hello. Just start. Today. Right now. Seriously.