How to Start Learning a New Language (Right Now. Today. Seriously).

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Starting to learn a language with the right attitude

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Starting a new “confusing” language doesn't have to be so hard

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and learning a language is quite a trip! If you put your first foot wrong, it may seriously slow you down.

I honestly believe that the most important part of learning a language isn't the grammar, or a having wide grasp of vocabulary, it's your attitude towards it and confidence with it – whether the grammar, vocabulary and cultural aspects of it are hard or easy doesn't matter so much as how hard/easy you think it is. When starting a new language it's easy to get discouraged by all the hard aspects of it. But I say, ignore them, especially when you are just starting out. They shouldn't have to drag you down! We should focus on the positive 🙂

It's as if you were being introduced to a new friend, Joe. If, the moment you were introduced, Joe told you that that he farts when he's nervous, he hates children and he is very opinionated, it may be very honest of him but you are going to have a hard time liking him, and you may always dislike him because of these faults. But if the same Joe instead first told you that he has hiked jungles in Africa, works for NASA and shows how kind he is and how great his sense of humour is, then you will likely find him very interesting and a long lasting friendship may begin! You'll accept his faults as all friends do.

When we introduce ourselves to people, we like to present our good side and save the “crazy” until when they get to know us a bit better. Why shouldn't it be the same with languages? I'd prefer to think of a language as my good friend, rather than that annoying co-worker I'm forced to spend most of my day with, wouldn't you?

But… learning a language is SO HARD

It's easy to look at the hard parts of a language and think that it's some cruel punishment, or even a brick wall to prevent us from ever being able to learn it. A few years ago when I decided to start learning Czech, some friends, advice forums and other websites were very quick to “warn” me of the following reasons why it's one of the “hardest” languages to learn: it's got SEVEN different possible declensions for every word (nominative, genitive, dative etc.), there are a lot of words with no vowels and pronunciation of consonant clusters is very hard for English speakers…, vocabulary is nothing like other languages in Western Europe, (a)no means yes, strange accents on letters, confusing word order, 3 word genders…, Lions and Tigers and Bears, oh my!

This warning is not helpful. It's not fair that everyone is bad-mouthing Joe behind his back without giving him a chance to stand up for himself. If you are going to learn the language anyway, then how is all of this discouragement going to help?

I say that we can ignore a lot of these things in the first stages of learning a language. If an English learner ignored subject/object differences and said “That letter is for I”, I could definitely forgive him if he has only been learning English for a few weeks! It's a lot better being able to get his point across first, and iron out the edges when he's more comfortable talking. If he were a perfectionist instead, he may say it correct after 6 months of study, but maybe he never even tried to just say it wrong and missed out on chances to actually communicate. After all, that's what a language is all about, not perfect grammar and tables of rules and lists of vocabulary. It's a means of talking to people!

Why it's easy

So, what I do is look for reasons why a particular language is EASY. We're going to have to work together anyway, so we may as well be friends! When starting out in Czech, the first thing I did was quickly browse my grammar book and find reasons why Czech is easy. I had only gotten through about a third of that book (not studying; just casually browsing and flicking through pages) and this is what I found:

  • No definite/indefinite articles, i.e. no word for “a” or “the”; it's implied from the context. This makes it a lot easier to construct a lot of basic sentences that are entirely correct without worrying about the gender of the noun (e.g. “The car is here” begs the question in French, Spanish, etc. whether to say el/le or la)
  • It's a phonetic language; so when you see a word spelt you know exactly how to pronounce it, and when you hear it, you know how to spell it. Not quite as phonetic as Spanish, but more phonetic than French. And a hell of a lot more phonetic than English. You appreciate how messed up English is with phonetics when you try to read this aloud: “which rhymes with enough – though, through, plough, or dough, or cough?”
  • Conjugation that is oddly similar to Spanish/Italian at times: děláme, děláte; facciamo, fate (both “we do, you (pl.) do”, in Czech and Italian respectively”)
  • Although there are a lot less similar words with English and Czech than there are with English and Latin based or Germanic languages, there are still loads of words that you don't need a dictionary to understand! A few I've seen so far include problém, systém, optimista (& optimisticky) kapitalista, (and loads more -ists), profesor, kilometr, mapa, doktor, telefon, and of course the word the Czechs came up with themselves, “robot”. I imagine there are plenty more to discover, which means that in a few days I could potentially learn maybe a thousand words with zero effort!

And while browsing I unintentionally picked up some grammar and actually learned something other than what I wrote above. This wasn't bad for my first day of Czech investigation! I realise that saying how “easy” a language is may all sound quite naïve, overly optimistic and even arrogant at first, considering you're just a beginner in your target language. But continue to make excuses to make this not seem like work, and to make it feel more fun. Attitude is everything!

I plan to keep on looking and learning all the easy bits first and then working my way up. The advantage of this method is that by the time I get to the harder bits I'll already recognise sentence structures, lots of basic words etc. and it will make sense based on what I've seen up to now (“Ah, so that‘s why they write it that way!”). Discovering these usually disliked rules, after you've already started learning the language and seen them applied a lot of times, is a whole different game and can actually be interesting and fun believe it or not!

So try this if you are starting a language; find the easy bits first and learn them. Jump from chapter 1 to chapter 20 in the grammar book if you are bored (they are rarely ordered by difficulty, but rather grammar category), learn lots of easy words before getting to the harder ones. Then you'll actually have a structure to build the upcoming studies on. The traditional approach of systematically covering all grammatical concepts, or starting straight into learning basic phrases that most books and courses cover seem to miss out on this idea.

author headshot

Benny Lewis

Founder, Fluent in 3 Months

Fun-loving Irish guy, full-time globe trotter and international bestselling author. Benny believes the best approach to language learning is to speak from day one.

Speaks: Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Esperanto, Mandarin Chinese, American Sign Language, Dutch, Irish

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