Before You Start
This chapter outlines your journey ahead, starting with building a goal and then moving to how you progress.
How long will it take?
The first thing to note is this: there is no perfect level. There are only milestones that you set according to your goals. For any given level, how long it takes depends primarily on two key factors:
Approximately how many hours are required to reach your desired level
How much time you can spend every day—this is the primary factor determining if you can achieve your goal or not
Beginners often underestimate the amount of time it takes to learn a language. If you want a good ballpark estimate of how much time you need, you can use the United States Foreign Service Institute’s Language Difficulty Ranking, which lists the approximate class hours required to reach a competent level.
For an easier language like Spanish or French, most people take around 1–2 years to reach a good level. If you studied 10 hours per day, every day, you could potentially reach the same level in around three months. If you think you can’t reach your desired goals given the time available, you need to either make time or adjust your goal’s timing.
To help you set a goal, it is helpful to understand the CEFR levels.
The A1 and A2 levels roughly correspond to what people call a “beginner”. Learners that have reached the A2 stage can understand sentences and frequently used expressions and can communicate simple ideas.
B1 and B2 are what most people call an “intermediate” learner, particularly B1. B1 learners know enough to get by and can at least understand the main point of a lot of what they hear. There is a big jump to B2, at which point the learner can comfortably interact with native speakers. This is about where most learners would consider themselves “fluent” in a language.
C1 and C2 speakers are the advanced levels. This corresponds with a strong ability at both understanding and using the language in all situations.
In reality, the way people use the words “beginner” and “intermediate” is hazy. People will often refer to A2 learners as being intermediate, and B2 learners as being advanced, particularly those who are good at speaking.
Set a goal
This guide assumes you have already chosen a language. If you haven’t, read Appendix H: Choosing a Language.
To learn a language, you should first set yourself a goal or set of goals. Spend some time properly considering what motivates you to learn your language and the situations you want to use it in. This will dictate the level you need to reach and the kinds of skills you need to focus on. Write your goals down somewhere.
The best goals are SMART goals. That is, they are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound.
Specific—Goals need to be something you can hold yourself accountable to. Don’t make your goal too vague (e.g. “fluency”).
Measurable—Language progress can be hard to measure, but there should be some degree of visible progress towards your goal.
Achievable—Don’t aim too high. You can’t be fluent in a year without working at it for hours each day.
Relevant—Make your goal depend on what you want out of your language. Use Appendix H: Choosing a Language to help you clarify your thinking.
Time-bound—Picking a point in time discourages you from slacking off and letting your progress slow.
If you like, you can have smaller, short-term goals. These can help you measure your progress and track other important milestones such as vocabulary.
Don’t be afraid to revise any of your goals. If you’re going at it for the first time, it can be hard to know how long it will take or if the goal you choose is really what will motivate you in the future.
How you progress
One of the best-kept secrets in language learning is how surprisingly doable it is to reach an intermediate level. The fastest progress will be made just beyond the very beginning stage. Every new bit of grammar and vocabulary will be very common in your language, and this will result in a noticeable improvement. After you hit the intermediate level, however, progress appears to slow down. This results in your progress feeling something like the graph below:
The good news is you can be conversational in a surprisingly quick amount of time. Once you have the basics of phonology and grammar down and know around 2,000 words, you will probably be able to make it through a conversation with an accommodating native speaker. From there, a bit more practice conversing to build more comfort with the language and you can call yourself conversational. This is one of the most rewarding parts of language learning.
Conversely, progress beyond the early intermediate stages will feel slower by comparison. Every new word or form you learn will be much more rare. Becoming fluent means becoming familiar with an ocean of unknown words, nuance, idioms, and complex grammar. Reaching high levels of aural comprehension and pronunciation will take a similarly long time. While you might not need all these forms, idioms, and words to get by, they comprise native-level ability.
Not every learner chooses to progress to an advanced level. In fact, most stop somewhere around the intermediate level, with their exact level usually determined by their goals. There is nothing wrong with this. Learning a language requires trade-offs, and for many people the extra time required to reach an advanced level isn’t worth it.
You are better at language learning than you think
Before we move on to what you will learn, it will be useful to quickly dispel some myths surrounding language learning. If you are already feeling confident and motivated, you can skip this section.
First, you don’t need to be highly intelligent or have a special talent to learn a language. Everybody learns at least one without too much trouble. The technique for learning your second language is not wildly different to your first. The key is that you will learn a lot when you give yourself time.
Second, language learning is not as hard as it seems. While many people recall struggling to learn a language in school, this is more the fault of the school’s curriculum.1 By using content to let the language come to you, the process of learning will seem far less effortful.
Finally, remember that it’s natural to forget things a lot. For many people this is a frustrating experience that can cause them to think they’re not good enough. This is not true. Learning is not instant and every language learner forgets a lot. There is simply too much to learn to expect you will remember all of it. The best way to move past this is to accept you will forget and seek ways to prompt yourself to remember without blaming or criticising yourself.
Your mileage may vary
There is a lot of room for individual preference when it comes to what works in language learning. Recognising this, I have tried to keep this guide as flexible as possible by making you aware of the full range of possibilities available to you. At the same time, the purpose of a guide is to give you best practice without too much uncertainty. This means that I have to give recommendations based on what works for most people. If I recommend something, that means I think it’s a good idea for at least 95% of learners.
Everyone is different, and you may find something I recommend doesn’t quite work for you. Remember: you are in control of your learning. If you find something effective, you should continue to do it without worrying over if other people recommend it or not. You’ll notice me repeat this point throughout the guide.
That said, if you’re new, it’s not always easy to tell what is working well. Until you’re a more experienced language learner, I advise you don’t stray too far from the beaten path.
What you will learn
Languages consist of two core components:
The language is expressed through any of the four skills:
Reading—This is the main source of input for most language learners
Writing—This skill generally comes with reading, but effective writing often requires learning spelling or stroke order
Listening—This involves learning the language’s sound system, including vowels, consonants, and tones
Speaking—This mostly involves learning to produce the language’s sound system yourself
The skills of reading and listening together are called input (or content). The skills of writing and speaking are called output.
Languages are much more than the sum of their parts. For example, simply knowing words and grammar rules won’t tell you which words tend to go together, nor will it help you understand idioms. In addition, languages are interwoven with their culture, and may frequently express concepts that are unfamiliar to you. All of these are aspects of your language you will encounter in your learning.
Once you start the intermediate stages you will have:
Basic grammar knowledge—Basic verb and noun forms, a good understanding of the general structure and logic of the language
A functional vocabulary—approximately 1,000–2,000 words, enough to be understood in basic conversations
The basics of the four key skills—enough to function in whatever context you are learning for
To get there, you need the three core resources. This is what we will look at in the next chapter.
For more information, see What’s wrong with how schools teach languages? ↩