How to learn a language by yourself
A little background: I didn't have English lessons at my small town school, I had dreamt that one day I could afford a teacher or a language course. But I’m bad at earning money, so the day of getting a proper teacher has never come, though the desire to learn was still there. After fighting my weakness and laziness I started to study systematically and persistently from 2014.
In this article, I gathered all my basic principles and ways of learning a language. So let's get started!
Grammar is a fundament of any language, but because it’s so complex there is always the danger of getting lost in complicated terminology. It’s important to study it gradually, at your own pace without overloading yourself, but to also practice regularly. YouTube is full of short free language courses, so it’s better to choose a proper teacher whose approach and style you like and to follow all his/her lectures. Nowadays you don’t have to struggle with one boring teacher, on the internet your choice is endless, so make sure the people you’re learning from are inspirational for you.
For me, the perfect start was reality show "Polyglot: learn English in 16 lessons“ on Russian TV. Some people criticised the program for oversimplification, but for me it was just about right. The host of the program, Dmitry Petrov gives information in small doses without intimidating students with too many grammatical terms. Of course, you can’t learn any language in just 16 lessons, but you can master the necessary basics. I also chose Petrov's program because he’s a real polyglot who knows 50 languages and I like to learn from people who I admire.
Important note: do not just watch online lessons, it’s crucial to start a notebook to write everything down and constantly repeat.
CARTOONS, TV SHOWS and MOVIES.
This is a simple and enjoyable part in learning a language. It’s handy to get subtitles in the language you’re studying, for example I was watching English cartoons with English subtitles, I paused when it was not clear and to write new words or interesting phrases in my notebook. If you can't find subtitles in the language you’re studying, please avoid using them in your native language - it’s the road to nowhere, you will watch stuff this way for years and will remember nothing.
I started from cartoons, because the language is easy and it’s also one of the more natural ways to learn, as native speaker kids do exactly the same. Then I went to all sort of TV shows, I like everything old and British, my favourites including: "The Wind in the Willows" (1983), "Mind Your Language”, "Black Books", "Father Ted", “Yes, Minister” and “Monty Python's Flying Circus”. As for American TV, I’ve watched all "The Simpsons" and "Futurama" seasons, "Big Bang Theory", "Twin Peaks", "Mad Men" and “Masters of Sex”. That’s just my taste, always choose what you like most and enjoy!
Movies are harder initially, because they’re longer and the language is usually more complex. Plus with TV series you’re more attentive, because after so many episodes you still want (for example) to find out who killed Laura Palmer. It’s something you return to, while movies are a one evening entertainment. But if you’re a cinemacholic, there is one good life hack: some movies I knew well in Russian translation, I then watched in English without subtitles. It gave me the illusion I could actually understand English without always going into a dictionary and such illusions can be helpful, as it’s too frustrating to always analyse what your favourite actors say. But of course, it can’t be the main education method (at least it wasn’t for me). Nowadays I watch most movies without subtitles and understand 90-100% of it.
I guess this method could be more difficult with some other languages, as I found zero cartoons and comedy shows in German. If you’re German and you think I’m wrong, please, send me some links on your favourites, I would really appreciate your help.
Another easy and fun way to learn any language! Just translate, analyse in detail the meaning of your favourite songs and listen to them more often. You will quickly replenish your vocabulary and remember those words forever, because this is your favourite music! If you’re a musical person and can sing it’s even better, because you can simultaneously train your pronunciation.
It’s better to start with children's literature - for me the perfect beginning books were “Winnie the Pooh", "Alice in Wonderland", collections of fairy tales and Roald Dahl's work. I worked with texts on this principle: in the evening I read and write out all the new words in the notebook. I ask friends who know English about the difficult phrases, I repeat the words in the morning, on the way to work/shop/meeting and listen to the audio version of the fragment of the book I had just read.
This method works even better with poetry. Personally, I find it easier to concentrate on poems, as they have a rhythm that helps to keep attention and they are well remembered if you go over them several times. It is also useful to read them out loud and preferably by heart, it adds pronunciation and memory training to other benefits of reading. Some people sing in a shower and I recite “Ode to the West Wind”.
I also love to listen to BBC radio drama - dramatised, purely acoustic performances of literary works. It’s also easier for me to hold my attention on the voices of various actors, rather than usual monotonous prose of an audio book.
In the photo on this post you can see the notebooks I used to write down grammar rules, words and phrases from YouTube lessons, books, cartoons, TV shows and films over the past three years. There are many digital tools for those purposes, which I’m sure work great for many people, but I like to keep in touch with my motor-memory.
There are numerous apps nowadays, but I prefer to not overload my devices and brains with them. I use only the Lingvo dictionary for my phone, which I like because you can create cards from those words that you recently searched for. I put together lessons from recently read books and repeat them whenever possible - in the queue, in the subway, when I wait for the traffic light to change. There are applications that offer to help you learn ten words of their selection a day, but what's the point in words without context? I believe that the approach to vocabulary should be conscious, otherwise it’s a waste of time as you will quickly forget everything. Apps can be helpful, but it’s important to use them wisely, as there is no magic app to learn language, the only secret is regular attentive work.
It was easiest for me to start with written correspondence. On one of the language exchange websites I found an Englishman who was learning Russian. I was very lucky to find him, we wrote long letters every day, corrected each other’s mistakes and explained grammar. It seems to me that our communication was more effective than any tutor, but in a sense, this was tutoring in mutual exchange - he taught me English and I taught him Russian. By the way, this Englishman turned out to be an art collector, and this is how I started selling paintings in England. You never know where your new skill will lead you! Hope that’s inspirational enough to start learning a new language right now!
I have chatted on Facebook and Skype with other foreigners - this is also beneficial, but in my opinion, not so effective. You can just chat for years, constantly repeating your mistakes, it is very important to notice and correct them. So I advise you to find a serious native speaker who will explain in detail what your shortcomings are. There are a lot of websites and communities on language exchange: when I started, I registered on all possible such sites and received about 30 replies, but I only got one truly valuable language partner there. So have patience and look for an intelligent and competent companion.
After a couple of months of constant correspondence, I felt confident enough to start communicating offline. I didn’t have money for travelling, so I began to invite foreigners to stay at my place. I used this website for finding guests:
I rented a small room in a shared apartment, so I could only offer a place on the floor, but there were plenty of people who were ready to stay with me anyway. It was a great way to start talking, because I had to tell them how to find my building, where to go, showed them the city and explained a bunch of household trifles. And it was more difficult than discussing art with my art collector friend!
Together with conversational practice, I made many friends around the world, which is a nice side effect of not having money to spend on English lessons. When I go somewhere, I don’t need a hotel, there will always be locals who are happy to shelter me.
For me, it is still the most important learning tool and I try to write at least one small note a day. In order to inure myself to this practice, I decided to write on Facebook and instagram only in English. I also started to write short stories and created blog on my website:
As a result, I’ve not only got a progressive writing skill, but also 60,000 followers from all around the world.
Tips for those who already write and want to write better, William Zinser’s “On Writing Well” is my bible. I have read this book three times and I keep quotations from it on my desktop. Zinser wrote it in 1976, but it was reprinted many times, became a classic and is still relevant for everyone who wants to write non-fiction.
For those who want to write fiction, I advise the course Creative Writing on the Coursera website: https://www.coursera.org/specializations/creative-writing
For Academic writing I recommend the Advanced Writing course on the same resource. It’s also good for general development, I like the sections on grammar and writing an essay: https://www.coursera.org/learn/advanced-writing
All courses are free for the first seven days, so if you have a limited budget, start the course when you have the most free time. I completed both courses in a week, so everything is real. They won’t give you a diploma if you don’t pay, but I personally don’t care for such things, as knowledge is more important then paper.
This is the most neglected part of my self-educational program. I haven’t done any special exercises, I only tried to recite poetry the way actors from my audio books did. I must confess that I can write much more then I can say, because a lot of words I have only read in books and never heard used in real life. This is a serious drawback of learning English without having experience of living in an English speaking country.
Nevertheless, my foreign friends keep telling me my pronunciation is great (but I think they’re just being polite) - you can judge for yourself, as I have a video of myself talking:
The ideal option to dive deeply into language is to move for a while to a country where this language is native. I don’t have this opportunity, but I try to surround myself with English. When I started my self-education, I changed the language of all my gadgets, started writing and reading only in English. Sometimes I went to extremes - if I want to read an original Russian book, I looked for it in an English translation, the same goes for authors who write in other languages. My friends laughed at me and said what’s the point in complicating things and why do I read Borges in English if we have excellent Russian translations? But now I read in English so quickly that laughter was replaced by envy. My logic is: why waste time on reading in the language you already know, when you can once again practice the language you are learning? If you want a quick and solid result, then you have to work hard, so you need to use time as productively as possible. I have been reading only in English for the last four years and I am still taking notes and learning new words.
At first, reading in English was wildly difficult for me. I constantly had to go to the dictionary or ask friends what the author meant. Reading turned into a battlefield and every day I won back small bits of meaning, breaking through my own limitations, fatigue and laziness. It was incredibly hard and sometimes I wanted to give up everything and read something simple in Russian. But I really wanted to learn English and continued to read an hour a day till over six months It became easier for me, then in a year some texts began to please me and now I take great pleasure from reading.
Also books about the language itself helped me to “dive into”. I like “The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language” by Melvyn Bragg, which shows the history of English from its origins to today’s international fame. It’s written in a simple language and is aimed at a general reader without background in linguistics - a perfect book for beginners.
“The Ode Less Travelled” by Stephen Fry helped me to learn English through poetry. Russian poet Joseph Brodsky used to say that “poetry is an essence of any language” and that if you understand poetry you understand the language. Studying English metre, rhyme, common and arcane poetic forms definitely helped me to deepen my knowledge. Although I don’t write poetry myself, it was still helpful to do poetry exercises from the book.
“The American Swear Book: English As a Second Fucking Language” by Sterling Johnson is an important book for me too, as life is not all about poetry. Quite often swearing can express feelings much better than any literature. This book is brilliant with its easy and fun approach.
All of the above is just my humble experience; maybe something else will suit you better. In a digital age, it’s easier to create your own education programs and follow what’s better for you. Even high school dropouts like me can learn a language! All you need is regularity and persistence.
When I decided to learn English, a great wall of Self-Doubt rose in front of me: “English can be learned only from childhood,” “My Russian is bad, how can I learn another language?”, “You can learn the language only with a good teacher” and so on and so forth. These ideas were fed not only by my low self-esteem, but also by my own social circle, because absolutely all the people who knew languages around me had learned them from their childhood with private teachers and through expensive courses abroad. While they were nourishing their skills and intellects in foreign lands, I was working odd jobs, starving and living in slums. Some of my friends still don’t believe it’s possible to learn a language properly on your own and they say that I can only learn it to “a certain extent” and “your English will be always limited”. With such encouragement it was hard to even start.
It took me a while to realise those from the lower orders like me can learn English. I was reading a lot of articles on language and psychology, looking for positive examples of people who learned English as adults. I really liked the book by Michael Erard - “The Polyglot Phenomenon”, and there are many inspiring examples. A lot of people have their own walls of self-doubt - if that’s your case too, try to realise just exactly what is holding you back. I can’t say I completely got rid of my self-doubt, but I learnt how to put voices of doubt to the back of my head while concentrating on what’s important to me.
However much I’m aware of my shortcomings, I think my English is not bad for the four years of self-education and with continuous hard work it will become better. Of course, limits exists and it’s unlikely I will speak better than people who started to learn English as kids or teenagers, but comparing yourself to others is painful and fruitless business. It’s important thing to remember that your only competition is with yourself.