It’s great that you have decided to learn another language. Learning to speak a language, even just a little bit of one, gives you a boost. It’s thrilling to know that what you are learning can open you up to communication with new people and allow you to express what you’re thinking in a totally different way. There’s no two ways about it: language learning is a real buzz. A natural high for your brain.


However, while this is all very exciting, it begs the question, where does the language learning journey begin? And what do we need to consider before we even start? The truth is that starting out on the right foot is the key to successful language learning.


People often wonder what the easiest way of learning a language is. The answer to that question is to start by making sure that you have picked the right language to begin with, and that you have clear reasons and goals for learning it. Considering your motivations and aims carefully is vital to maintaining momentum in your learning.  


For me this is a three-step process:


  1. Picking a language.
  2. Assessing my reasons and motivations for learning it.
  3. Choosing short-term and long-term goals.


Step #1: Picking a language


Usually, we start with a particular language because we have been attracted to it in some way. Sometimes we have a couple of languages that we’d like to learn and cannot decide which one to study. If this is the case, then assess all your options and see which one is the most compelling.


Reasons for learning a language vary from person to person. There are no reasons that are right or wrong, though some are better than others at holding our interest and maintaining motivation. Perhaps you may be learning a language because of a friend, family member, travel opportunity or even a new relationship. Maybe you just like the sound of the language. Whatever the reason, we need to then delve into it in more detail so that we can move on to Step #2 in the process. We need to tease out those underlying reasons and really assess our motivations for learning it, as well as come up with a set of concrete goals for our progress.


Step #2: Assessing my reasons and motivation


I go through this process every time I learn a new language. I need to be very clear why I am learning it, therefore, I pose the following questions to myself. The answers help me to then focus my goals in Step #3:


  1. How do I see myself using this language?
  2. When do I see myself using this language?
  3. How often will I use this language?
  4. What do I need to be able to say or do in this language?
  5. Do I plan to use this language in a year? Two years? Five years?


Usually, after I have been through these questions, I either feel more strongly about the language or I realise that perhaps I need to re-think my decision and the use of my time. After all, this language is going to be part of my life, right?


It is important that I answer these questions honestly and set realistic goals for myself. These goals and the reasons for learning the language itself are intrinsically linked in my view. Usually, I start out with some long-term reasons for learning the language. They could be anything from “I want to go on holiday in the country where it’s spoken” to “I want to communicate with my partner’s family in their language.” Clearly these are vastly different reasons, with different language goals attached to each.


For now, I will use a real example to illustrate my point. This year I am working on improving my Greek. So my answers to my previously mentioned questions are:


  1. How do I see myself using this language? In the short-term, I will use it for day-trips, since I live just across the border from Greece in Skopje. In the long-term, I will need it in order to organise the Polyglot Conference in Thessaloniki in October of 2016, as well as for interacting with people at the event about various topics related to the conference.
  2. When do I see myself using this language? I see myself using this language when I am abroad with friends, during short trips to Greece, in my italki lessons, and when I am speaking with a Greek man who attends my school.
  3. How often will I use this language? I will use this language at least twice a week during my lessons with my teacher and once every two to three months during my trips to Greece.
  4. What do I need to be able to say or do in this language? I need to improve my very basic knowledge of the language needed for introducing myself and expressing likes and dislikes. I also need to improve my vocabulary and grammar, and then build on that to be able to talk about a wider variety of topics, including catering and dealing with the venue in Thessaloniki. Finally, I also need to be able to talk about language-related topics with others.
  5. Do I plan to use this language in a year? Two years? Five years? Yes. I often go to Greece because it is close to my country. Therefore, knowledge of Greek will be useful for me in the long-term by enhancing my experience during those trips. I also hope to make some stronger friendships in Greece for when I travel there.


Next, we need to move on to Step #3 in the process. Here, we will consider our goals so that we can better focus our learning and ensure that we are doing what we need to do. So far, Step #2 has already helped us to better make sense of our reasons.


Step #3: Choosing short-term and long-term goals


At this stage, we need to consider what our goals for learning the language are.  Separating these out into long-term and short-term goals helps us to focus our learning better. We can set ourselves targets for each week that progressively build up to our final goal in the language. Remember, putting yourself in front of the enormous mountain of “speaking the language fluently” can be scary. Having smaller goals and breaking them up so that you are climbing that mountain with clear rest points makes things more manageable.


If you already have an idea of where you want to get to with this language, you can often easily work backwards from there. For me, I would like to be able to manage a conference and discuss the topics considered at that conference in Greek. That is my long-term goal. The level of Greek required to do that is intermediate to upper-intermediate (B1/B2 in CEFR) because I need to discuss all the basic conversation points and discuss more complicated matters too.


I then look at what is needed to reach that level and start breaking it down into smaller, more manageable goals. In my case, I will need to be certain that I can do the following language tasks:


  1. Talk about myself (name, age, family, country, languages spoken, likes/dislikes).
  2. Talk about food and drink, as well as the heating and lighting levels at the venue (including ordering food and paying bills).
  3. Talk about the things that are needed at the conference centre, comment on whether or not these things work and ask about how they work.
  4. Discuss my past and future plans for language learning, as well as my life experiences.
  5. Talk about language learning topics that interest me (various).


Each of these example topics can be broken down even further. I usually start a new language by making sure that I can talk about myself and make basic introductions. I also like to be able to ask questions of others too. That way, I can have a conversation quite early on in the learning process. You can also set a deadline by which you would like to master a short-term goal and then test yourself on it at the end of that period.


Next time, we will see how time can best be spent with your italki teacher so that you can better achieve your language goals.


Richard works as the Language Director at Emoderation. He also has a website and Facebook page about language learning. You can reach out to him to find out more about his learning techniques, which he explores in online and in person workshops that are geared towards anyone who wants to succeed in their language studies.


Image Sources

Hero Image by Olga Lednichenko (CC BY 2.0)