The top 9 tips for learning a new language


Are you planning on learning a new language? If so, don’t trust anything you find online that says you can become fluent in a flash – like days, weeks, or even months (barring one or two uncommon scenarios[1]). Getting past the beginner stage with a new language takes considerable time and effort. However, there are tricks to using your time much more efficiently when tackling such a worthy project.

This article details my top 9 tips for learning a second language. It’s a doozy of a post – likely the longest in Linguamonium’s 7-year existence. I incorporate insights from nearly 20 articles on foreign language learning, coupled with my own advice – which is based on linguistic principles and my personal trials with French, Japanese, German, Turkish, and Norwegian.


The tips below are ordered in terms of importance, with #1-4 being the most crucial.


I hope you’ll read to the end, but for those wanting the TL;DR, here’s a very high-level summary:

  1. Start with the basics (Pareto principle) – Start by learning the most common 500-1,000 words in your target language, pronunciation, and minimal grammar.
  2. Seek immersion – Go live in the target country if you’re able, and if that’s infeasible, create your own immersive experience by surrounding yourself with the target language as fully as possible.
  3. Set strong, realistic goals – Understand how long it takes to learn a language. Make specific, measurable, and realistic plans.
  4. Find content you enjoy – Find interesting books, music, podcasts, and TV/film to digest in your target language. Also learn about the target country and culture.
  5. Learn about memory, learning strategies, and learning research – Learn vocab in context and multimodally (using different senses). Know about the best learning strategies (e.g. retrieval, repetition), and learning myths (like “find your learning style”).
  6. Stay positive and motivated – Maintain a good attitude toward your language learning. Be optimistic, persistent, creative, and open to frustration.
  7. Don’t forget audio and pronunciation training – Train your ears and voice on the sounds of the new language by devoting a lot of your learning time to listening and speaking.
  8. Conquer your fears of being judged – Practice privately, with other learners, and with AI language tools. Remember that being wrong actually helps us learn.
  9. Learn (some) grammar – Depending on your personality and background, learn some basic grammar (word order, present tense verbs, word roots and affixes). Try to learn grammar in context.

Alright, ready to dive in? Here we go!


1. Start with the basics (Pareto principle)

Focus on the most basic stuff first. Learn only what you need to start understanding and communicating quickly.


The Pareto Principle

Multiple resources I read mentioned the Pareto principle (a.k.a. the 80/20 rule). Applied to language, this means that 20% of your practice will get you to 80% fluency – if you’re strategic about what you’re practicing. That’s because:

(Higher estimates come from Steve Rubens’ Quora answer here.)

Do you see the diminishing returns after several thousand words? In most languages, very few words (between 500 – 1,500) are used on a regular basis. This is especially true for conversation, versus written material like newspapers or literature.


The basics, categorized

There are a few ways to break down the basics.


Learn 500-1,000 of the most common words in your target language.

    • Many language learning materials, even “cutting-edge” apps, teach words and phrases that aren’t necessarily relevant to your daily life. So it’s likely more efficient to create your own list.
    • Start with the 100 most common words in the language. Create sentences that you’d naturally say with these. Practice them until they’re second-nature. Use flash cards or whatever you like best.
    • Move on to the next 400-900 most common words.
      • [My two cents] At the risk of sounding pedantic: You can either do a search engine search for word lists in your target language and compile results you like, or take a single premade list. If it’s the latter, ensure the words are ones that you personally use very frequently, and switch words in/out as needed.
      • Make sure the list is a good mix of different parts of speech – more “meaningful” words like core verbs, general-use nouns, and adjectives, as well as more functional words like pronouns, prepositions, adverbs, and conjunctions.[2]
    • Once you’ve learned the most common words, it becomes easier to learn additional terms.
    • Limit the number of new words you learn each session to about 10.


  • The advice I’ve read repeatedly is: Only learn the most basic grammar at the beginning, if you learn any at all.
  • [My two cents] Do learn a few things about the grammar of your target language, without spending a ton of time on it. For example, it’s probably helpful to learn:
    • word order (e.g. is your language Subject-Object-Verb [SOV] like Japanese, or Subject-Verb-Object [SVO] like Spanish?)
    • present tense verb conjugation patterns for the personal pronouns
    • how spatial information is expressed (e.g. through separate prepositions, as in English, or through postpositions attached to nouns and other words, like in Turkish?)
    • (maybe) whether and how the language expresses plurality and/or gender on nouns
    • (maybe) whether adjectives and nouns must agree.
  • [My two cents] How much you should learn at the initial stage also depends on whether this is your second or fourth-plus language, whether you’ve had some formal linguistic training, and how interested you are in grammar.
  • See also Tip #9.


  • Familiarize yourself with how the language sounds (listening) and feels (speaking).
  • It will be easiest to get this practice via immersive experiences (Tip #2) and awesome audible content (Tip #4).
  • Also see a more fleshed-out version of this topic in Tip #7.



2. Seek immersion

It’s common knowledge that living in a locale where you’re surrounded by the target language enables you to learn that language much faster. You’re forced to practice all day long, and you get the richest exposure possible – your conversations vary across different dimensions, you read signs and menus and books in the target language, listen to radio and music, watch movies in the target language, et cetera. Whereas many people try learning languages with low intensity, this is the highest intensity learning.

So the top recommendation here is obviously: Go live in (or minimally, visit) the target language country. Next best is taking a year-long immersive program, or dating someone who’s a native speaker of that language. Except that…most folks can’t upend their lives in these more drastic fashions. So the next best thing is to create an artificially immersive environment.


Create your own immersive environment

Surround yourself with the target language as fully as possible.


  • Join in a several-months-long learning challenge with others.
  • Look for native speakers who live near you…make friends with them…hang out and talk!
    • [My two cents] If you can’t find native speakers in your area, find them online.
      • I found an awesome weekly French-English language exchange on (and it’s free!); there’s also italki (see this post) and other apps like Preply where you can pay for live online lessons with teachers from many different language backgrounds.
    • Change the language of your phone/browser/computer/TV (etc.)
    • Listen to podcasts in the target language.
    • Read books, articles, news in the target language.
    • Watch TV and movies in the target language.
    • Label everyday things around your house in the target language (e.g. food in fridge, kitchenware, furniture).
    • Start talking and even thinking to yourself in the target language.
      • Go on a walk and practice out loud – look at things around you and describe them.
      • When you’re past the beginner stage, try to avoid translating into your mother tongue, and instead attempt to understand what the words/phrases mean directly.
    • Lastly, it’s nice to combine immersive and analytical approaches.
      • Analytical here means explicit or more formalized study of vocab, grammar, and other facets of the language (as in Tip #1).



3. Set strong, realistic goals

Much of the advice in this section is not specific to language learning, but outlines general best practices for goal setting. These practices are crucial to learning a new language more effectively.


First: Arm yourself with knowledge about the task and its challenges

To help you set realistic expectations and goals, arm yourself with some knowledge about things like (a) the average amount of time it takes to learn a language to a desired level of fluency, and (b) the different stages of language learning.

How long to learn a language?

The US Department of State’s Foreign Service Institute divides languages into four tiers, based on how difficult they are to learn for native English speakers. Group 1 is the easiest, and Group 4 the most difficult.[3]

  • To reach basic fluency in any language from Group 1, you can assume an average of 480 learning hours; for Groups 2-4, those hours jump to 720.
  • Reality check: According to the above, if you practice 30 minutes a day, 7 days a week, it will take you 2.6 years to achieve basic fluency in one of the easiest languages. Adjust your expectations accordingly!

The different stages of language learning

Knowing about the different stages of language learning can help you plan better for your particular level.

  • The beginner stage is the hardest – everything seems complicated and confusing.
  • The intermediate stage is more fun – since “learning is a byproduct of entertaining yourself” and there’s “so much low-hanging fruit to be had in terms of vocabulary and phrases.” It’s where “you can stumble through some sort of content that you genuinely enjoy.”[4]
  • The advanced stage is about depth, in addition to breadth. When you’ve acquired solid skills, you’ll benefit from deeper, more explicit learning. Try detailed grammar workbooks and asking native speakers to point out your (less frequent) mistakes.
  • NOTE: After you learn a second language, you’ll generally have an easier time learning a third.
  • NOTE: Maintaining a language requires less effort than learning a new one.



Next: Be specific and make things measurable!

Create a solid plan

  • Figure out:
    • Overall timeframe – give your goal an end date.
    • Your schedule – Realistically estimate how much time you’re able to allocate. Break this down into smaller bits: monthly, weekly, daily goals. Commit to a certain time of day.
      • Example: “I will study 30 minutes per day, directly after lunch, 6 days/week (skipping Saturday), for the next 6 months – until <date>.”
    • Skills to work on and purpose of study – Do you want to focus on vocabulary, pronunciation, listening, speaking, grammar, reading, writing…? Are you learning the language for work, for school, for travel, for pleasure, to talk with family…?
    • Resources and methods – Choose among or combine language learning apps, textbooks, courses (online or in-person), personal tutors, flashcards, online videos, books, podcasts, get-togethers with native speakers, etc.
  • Repetition and consistency are the key to any plan.

Be realistic. Set limits

  • For language learning, it’s important to practice every day (even a little bit), or most days of the week. That said – it is crucial to find the nexus of where your schedule and goals intersect! Don’t be too ambitious.
    • I found a great tip on adding “wiggle room”: Determine the amount of time you can spend studying, then subtract 5% (allows for fatigue and other life happenings).[5]
  • Cap your studying at 50 minutes per session. It’s better to have short, regular practices than longer, more intermittent practices. Even 20 minutes a day can be impactful.
  • [My two cents] Set a timer! (This trick has been extremely helpful to me, as I tend to keep going on a given task for much longer than I have the time for, which quickly becomes unsustainable, leading to my abandoning the commitment.)
  • Measure success based on time spent studying, not on arbitrary (i.e. uncontrollable) goals like “I’ll know 500 words by <date>”.

Detail the HOW. Outline ways to follow through and be accountable

  • Be flexible and resilient with your learning pace:
    • Anticipate setbacks and assume that you will fail to be 100% consistent.
    • Assess your progress and update your goals regularly (like once a week, once a month).
  • Be accountable:
    • Write things down.
      • Write down your goals clearly (including WHY you want to learn and WHEN you’d like to reach a certain level) – see Create a solid plan above.
      • Schedule learning times in your calendar. Set reminders on your phone if necessary.
    • Spend money and be accountable to another person (for example, book lessons on italki, or set up mini-challenges with a friend).
  • Language-learning-specific advice:
    • Facilitate anywhere-learning by making your materials super handy.
    • Take advantage of commute times (especially in the morning when the brain is fresh) by doing listening practice.



4. Find content you enjoy

Incorporate your interests

Reflect on the things you enjoy doing and incorporate these into your study plans. For example, in terms of vocab – once you’ve learned the core high-frequency words, start adding some less common terms relevant to your areas of interest.


Reading material and media

To the extent possible, surround yourself with enjoyable reading material and media in the target language.


  • For beginner and intermediate learners, try reading children’s (/young adult) books that you’ve already read in your native language.
  • [My two cents] Bilingual books (with your target language and native language on side-by-side pages) may be a smart idea for beginning learners.
  • [My two cents] As you get to the intermediate and advanced stages, search out magazines and newspapers in your target language. Access to such resources is likely much easier these days thanks to online journals.


  • Listening to and singing song lyrics is a terrific tool for memorizing words and phrases.
    • Find a music genre in your new language that appeals to you. Pick some songs and listen to them repeatedly.
    • Translate song lyrics back into your native language. Practice singing them with your translation handy.


  • Podcasts are perfect for commutes or other “downtime” (washing dishes, doing the laundry, walking to the store).
  • [My two cents] Try searching for programs on Spotify or other audio platforms – I found an excellent Norwegian podcast on Spotify after many fruitless inquiries with search engines.

TV/movies/other video

  • Finding TV, movies, and other video media in your target language is probably easier now than ever before with Netflix, Amazon Prime, YouTube, and other streaming applications.
  • [My two cents] With Netflix, instead of searching for “<keyword/title> <language>” in the Search bar (which I had been doing for some time), I discovered that you can click on “Browse by Languages” in the top-most menu. In addition to selecting your target language, you then have the option to choose between “Original Language,” “Dubbing,” or “Subtitles.” This is awesome, because “Dubbing” and “Subtitles” can potentially double or triple your results (compared with results that return only videos filmed in the original language).

  • Use video media as a tool for explicit study, in addition to more passive watching. Here’s how:
    • Try to choose more popular media that will have subtitles in both your native language and the target language.
    • First, just watch the video. Then break it up into short chunks (like one scene). Play it with subtitles in your native language. Look up the words and phrases you don’t know. Play the clip again, this time with target language subtitles. Play it yet again without any subtitles. Practice the dialogue out loud. Finally, turn off the film and attempt to describe the scene you watched in your target language.


Learn about the target country and culture

  • Both children and adults learn how to read more effectively in a second language when they’ve become familiar with the cultural background of its speakers.[6]
  • It’s become a sort of unmentioned theme across articles on my blog (and I’ll mention it yet again in the tip below), but context is key: “The more you learn about a country’s culture, traditions, beliefs, and important historical events, the easier it gets to understand its language.”[7]



5. Learn about memory, learning strategies, and learning research

If you’d like to hack language learning (or any learning really), it helps to understand a bit about how the brain learns and accesses memories. This section explores how things like context, multimodality, retrieval, and being challenged are valuable tools for your language endeavors.


Context and multimodality

Use all of your senses

Anchoring new words and phrases to the various senses helps with memory formation and retrieval.

  • So, learn across different modalities:
    • Visually read text and also try to visualize new words and phrases.
    • Aurally listen to native speakers (except for signed languages, which will be visual).
    • Aurally and kinetically vocalize new words and phrases (speak/read out loud; obviously sign for signed languages).
      • Phrases must be repeated thousands of times for your lips, tongue, jaw, etc. to grow accustomed to making sounds in the target language. Muscle memory will help you eventually sound fluent.
    • It may sound silly, but: you can even try to mentally hook new words and phrases to your emotions, and to bodily movement (e.g. for ball or throw, make a “throwing ball” gesture while you practice the terms).

Integrate language learning into your normal life and activities

  • Connect words and expressions to places, people, and things in your daily life. Try everyday activities – for instance, cook a meal from a recipe – in the language you’re learning.
  • As in Tip #2 above, it would be ideal to live in or travel to the target country, where you’d experience the language drenched in a multitude of new sights, smells, sounds, and feelings. If not possible, recreate that immersion or sense of novelty by finding restaurants or interesting locations around town to do your language learning. Your brain will associate the new material with these unique locations, increasing recall.


Learning strategies and learning research

Knowing the best learning strategies, and uncovering some fictions about the learning process, will enable you to tackle your second language more productively. I find the learning myths below particularly intriguing. I came across this wisdom in the form of a video about how to study in med school, geared towards incoming medical students!

Best learning strategies

  • Retrieval practice.
    • According to research, retrieval is more effective for memory consolidation than re-studying.
  • Repetition is key. Especially spaced repetition.
    • A German scientist came up with the spaced repetition method as an answer to forgetting curves. Most language learning software these days incorporates spaced repetition into their algorithms.
  • Varied (“interleaved”) practice.
    • Mix up the types of material (e.g. vocab flashcards, grammar books, online videos) and the modalities (visual, aural, etc.). Be careful not to switch too frequently, however.
  • “Synthesis” practice.
    • Find connections between different types of material (without falling into multitasking).

Learning myths (spoiler: “find your learning style” is one of them)

From the video How to Study in Medical School.

  • Myth #1: Learning should be easy.
    • Understand the theory of “desirable difficulty”: “Small but surmountable barriers to learning actually increase long-term retention” – basically, your memory improves if you’re slightly challenged.
    • [My two cents] Particular to language learning: Stephen Krashen, one of the foremost researchers in second language acquisition, argued that we need comprehensible input to really learn another language – by which he meant we must study language material that is largely understandable, but just above our current proficiency level.
  • Myth #2: People are good judges of when they are learning well.
    • We think if we’re enjoying the learning and it comes easily, we’re learning well; contrariwise, if we dislike it and are struggling, we’re not learning much. These assumptions are often false.
  • Myth #3. People should find and use their “learning style.”
    • If the language learning articles that I read mentioned “learning styles,” the suggestion was always to “identify your learning style” (e.g. visual, aural, verbal, kinesthetic, social, solitary[8]) and stick to that style.
    • However (according to the doctor in the video), “no high-quality empirical evidence” supports the “learning styles” theory, and cognitive psychologists who research the learning process don’t endorse it. He says that what people have instead are “learning preferences” – but those preferences don’t necessarily help them do better. Individuals learn best when “the modality matches the material.” And for most topics, a particular combination of styles is what you want.


Other memory tips

  • Try out other common memory techniques like mnemonics and “memory palace,” but be aware of their drawbacks (these are often better for memorizing long lists). General language recall with these practices can end up being too slow for the pace needed to speak naturally.
  • Listen to podcasts or music while exercising! Supposedly the greater brain activity during workouts improves learning.



6. Stay positive and motivated

This tip is short and sweet. It’s about maintaining a good attitude toward your language learning (which is of course more widely applicable to any goals you’d like to achieve). Some cheesy cheerleader pointers:

  • Stay optimistic!
  • Be persistent – never give up!
  • Make learning enjoyable (see Tip #4).
  • Take breaks.
    • Short-term stress has been shown to inhibit memory formation, so if your project has become anxiety-inducing, you’re not doing yourself any favors – step away for a bit.
  • Include variety.
    • If it suits you, try different learning activities in your target language every day.
    • If one type of study (e.g. flash cards, videos) starts to bore you, switch to something else.
  • Curb distractions during your practice time. You know the drill – turn off phone notifications, etc. etc.
  • Be creative.
    • I liked this piece of advice: “Your learning plan will work best if it consists of a balance of structure and novelty.”[9]
    • Combine a more focused curriculum with a variety of other resources and activities that you enjoy.
  • Change your attitude around frustration. (See also Learning Myths #1 and #2)
    • Being frustrated or feeling particularly challenged, versus enjoying yourself the whole time, does not mean you’re not learning –in fact, you may even be learning better. Our impatience with the time it takes to learn or achieve some measure of success is exacerbated by present-day instant gratification culture.



7. Don’t forget audio and pronunciation training

At the beginning of a new language journey, it’s easy to get caught up in the rush to acquire vocabulary words (this is me!) and push aside the listening and speaking parts. But these aspects are also key to language progress, so make sure you devote time and energy to them as well.


The physicality of hearing and speech

  • Spoken language is physical, in addition to mental – you must train your ears and your articulators (lips, tongue, teeth, palate, nasal cavity) on the phonology (sounds) of the new language. (In the case of signed languages, the necessary physicality of hands, arms, and facial muscles is more obvious.)



  • This advice overlaps with several points above, but to reiterate: Listen to oodles of native speaker talk. Find portable audio like podcasts and radio apps on your phone that allows for listening even when you’re out and about. Ensure the level is geared toward your learning stage or just slightly above, so you’re not totally lost.
  • [My two cents] As a complement to all this freeform listening, it’s probably valuable to explicitly study the pronunciation rules of your target language a little too.



  • Copy natives’ speech, be it from videos, songs, podcast dialogues – practice saying what they’re saying out loud. Notice how native speakers move their mouths, lips, etc.
  • Practice with a language learning friend, if you have one. Or record yourself and compare that audio to a native speaker’s.
  • [My two cents] Constantly read out loud – whether you’re practicing flash cards, using a language learning app, or reading a book.



8. Conquer your fears of being judged

Work to conquer your fears of being judged by others when speaking or otherwise using your target language. (Depending on your personality type, this aspect of language learning might be more or less of an issue.)

  • It may be helpful to know that even polyglots struggle with this fear.
  • Practice privately, with other learners, and with current AI tools like foreign language chatbots to help surmount anxiety.
  • Practice by singing songs, which can be easier than speaking.


Be wrong

  • We often learn more from mistakes than we do if things are going smoothly and we’re not being sufficiently challenged. Failing expands your comfort zone – being open to messing up and looking dumb is key to helping you past the beginner stage in your second language.



9. Learn (some) grammar

One commonality I saw across many language learning articles was to avoid focusing on grammar early in the process. Then once you’ve gotten a good beginner’s grasp on listening, speaking, and reading, foray gently into the simplest grammatical aspects of your target language.

I don’t completely agree with this advice. As I mentioned in Tip #1, I think how much grammar you should learn at the outset depends on your personality and background.

In addition to the brief points in Tip #1, here are a few more bits of grammar food for thought:

  • [My two cents] Learn grammar in…(you guessed it)…context!
    • It’s so boring just memorizing conjugation tables. Or reading a traditional grammar textbook straight through. Try to find grammar resources that plunge syntactic topics into real-world situations (think YouTube videos, children’s books, language learning apps, and games).
  • [My two cents] If you do find yourself needing speedy verb conjugations in any of 100+ languages, check out this amazing site: Enter the verb infinitive and it immediately gives you full conjugation tables across all tenses and aspects.
  • For most (non-isolating) languages, you can multiply your word-recognition power by learning word roots and derivational morphemes (for example, noun prefixes and suffixes).
    • Instead of trying to memorize thousands of words, many of which share roots and affixes, learn some of the common roots and affixes first – you’ll be able to spot them in new words and grasp the larger meanings of the unseen terms.
  • Here’s a fun tip, which actually operates beyond the sentence level, at the level of discourse: Learn filler words. In linguistics, these are called discourse markers.
    • These are the little “words and phrases people say all the time between sentences” that “have no meaning” and allow you to “buy time in a conversation and increase your confidence.”[10]
    • Examples from English: so, well, like, I mean, okay, you know.


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


So there it is. If you made it to the end of this very long post, congratulations! You have curiosity, patience, and stamina – now go put those qualities to use in your language learning project. 😊



List of resources

The 9 tips above are massively consolidated and reorganized (with my ideas liberally sprinkled in) from the articles and forums below. Many of these are already cited inline, but here is the complete list:



[1] A scenario like: maybe this is your fourth or fifth language and it’s very similar to one you already know. Even then, fluency will be months, not days. I really liked this phrasing from Jake Way on Quora: “[…] people that purvey this ‘learn a language in only (insert short amount of time here)’ marketing are on my shit list for two reasons. One, they give people bad information about how languages can actually be learned that is entirely contrary to proven research in learning science. Next, there are people diligently over many months or years trying to reach a level of mastery that hear of some guy that did it in only six months and then feel like crap. Don’t listen to these people. They just want to sell you stuff.”

[2] This is my personal advice, which differs from that of Steve Rubens in this Quora thread, who recommends “But if you made a list of the most commonly spoken words you would find that most of them are preposition, articles or pronouns, such as or, for, on, he, the, and but. Although very common, these words do not convey a great deal of meaning. If you were to remove these words from a sentence, the general meaning would still be clear. Real meaning tends to lie in verbs, nouns, and adjectives. So the focus should be on the most frequently used words that convey meaning, which is to say the most commonly spoken verbs, nouns, and adjectives.”

I disagree! Knowing the basic personal pronouns and a sprinkling of prepositions and conjunctions is key to being able to string even short sentences together – these parts of speech are the “glue” for more meaning-heavy nouns, verbs, and adjectives. I do acknowledge that you won’t want to go overboard on things like adverbs though.

[3] From 10 Tips to Learn Any New Language Faster

[4] From Learn Two Languages at Once?

[5] From 3 Tips for Learning Two Languages at Once

[6] From Reading in a second language

[7] From 10 Tips to Learn Any New Language Faster

[8] See #3 in Fast and Effective Language Learning

[9] From 3 Tips for Learning Two Languages at Once

[10] From Dave Bailey’s response in this Quora thread. I and other linguists will contest the statement that discourse markers “have no meaning,” but that’s getting off-topic.


Photo attributions (in order from the top): Brain with gears + Hello word cloud (header image); 80/20 mug; writing on wood; Shinjuku signs and people; post-it notes; target; goget’em mug; alarm clock; bookshelves; light bulb; kids and bubbles; learning styles graphic; thumbs-up kid (my own); anatomical mouth and ear diagrams; right-to-be-wrong t-shirt; German grammar wall; Italian building.





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