Internet Self Improvement

How I Finally Learned a Different Language. And You Can Too.

Bryan Clark 25-09-2015

In early 2014 I took a course that guaranteed I’d be conversational in a new language (Spanish) in just 30 days. Not fluent, mind you, but able to hold short conversations with native speakers.


Great. I’m moving to Mexico in May, so I can get ahead of the language learning process, I thought.

The claim wasn’t false.

I was indeed conversational in Spanish after just 30 days. Well, as long as you consider asking for a beer, where the bathroom is, or telling someone that your dog enjoys eating rice and beans, conversational. In fact, if part of Spanish fluency was mastering the art of deciphering strange looks and hand signals, then I was indeed a pro.

The truth is, I learned a few canned phrases but somehow completely overlooked the fact the course didn’t teach me anything outside of simple scripted responses. If the person I was speaking with deviated from this script, my Spanish just couldn’t keep up.

In short, I was screwed. I now lived in a Spanish-speaking country (Mexico), and even with all the effort, I sounded about as well-versed in the new language as the average local toddler.



For the next year I tried just about everything to learn the language. I’d hit a wall. Memorization didn’t come easy, and when it did, recall was tricky. You see, what people don’t tell you about learning a new language is that the speed at which you recall the information is just as important as knowing it in the first place. And when everyone around you speaks a new language, it’s kind of hard to keep up.

After dismal results my first year living in Mexico, I decided to forego conventional wisdom and come up with my own approach. What could I lose? At this point, as long as I was studying Spanish, I would improve, so why not go all out and see what I could do?

The results were far superior to that of Rosetta Stone, Duolingo, and even the occasional session with a tutor.


In just three months, I went from a blubbering idiot to a blubbering idiot that could speak Spanish. Not fluently, of course, but enough to get the job done. I’m even able to hold short conversations with only minor stumbles, and although I’m much more capable of reading and writing in Spanish, my speech is improving every day.

Sidenote to avoid the aforementioned “minor stumbles”:  In Spanish, “año” (year) is pronounced ah-nyo, not ah-no. You only make that mistake once. Trust me. Look it up.

Why It’s So Difficult to Learn a New Language

Everyone is a natural language learner. Think about it; you learned your first language without even really trying, right?

While it’s easy to argue that kids are best suited to quickly pick up new languages (they are), that doesn’t preclude you from doing the same thing. In fact, we now have more tools at our disposal than ever before, and with a realistic timeline, desire, and the motivation to keep going no matter how much you stumble — because there will be stumbles — you too can learn a language.


The Secret to Language Skills

The key is in immersion. We’ll talk about that more later, but to just touch on it briefly, you need to be able to surround yourself with as much of the language as possible. Depending on your study habits, this could lead to conversational fluency in a matter of months, or over a decade.

There are no hard-and-fast rules but one thing is certain; the more you surround yourself with the language you’re learning, the more of it you’ll retain.

I want to put the argument to rest that you need to live in a foreign country in order to experience this level of immersion. While it doesn’t hurt, it’s unnecessary. In fact, you’re probably sneering at the guy that lives in Mexico but tells you that he could have learned the same amount living anywhere else in the world, but it’s true. I live just 45 minutes south of San Diego, and even most of the Mexicans here speak English, so this is not an ideal location for immersion. In fact, I often go days without hearing much — if any — Spanish at all.

Immersion can happen anywhere. The key here is to listen, read, write, and speak in the language as much as possible, and luckily for you, the Internet makes all of that possible.


Here’s how.

My Unscientific but Effective 5-Step Technique for Learning a New Language


People fail in learning a new language as they expect rapid results with a specific tool. There isn’t a single tool on the market that will allow you to reach fluency.

The best approach, is a blended one. Use the tools for what they’re best at, and be sure to vary your studies to keep things fresh and exciting.

The items in this list are in order of importance. Start at the top and only progress to the next step once you feel you’re ready. That’s not to say you won’t be working on any of these things concurrently; you will. But it’s illogical to think that you could go from a few hours on Duolingo to conversing with a native speaker immediately.

By the time you reach the end of the list, speaking, you’ll actually be doing all five of the learning modes below (or most) in your practice sessions – or you should be, anyway.

Pro Tip: Try to study multiple times throughout the day as opposed to one marathon session. Your brain does a better job of retaining information if you give it a rest now and then.

Vocabulary (Duolingo)


Before you can walk, you have to learn to crawl. In language learning, you have to learn words before you learn sentences, grammar, or parts of speech.

We’ve reviewed Duolingo Learn A Language And Translate For Practice With Duolingo (Now Open To All!) The internet has given us some fantastic tools for language learning, and Duolingo is the latest site to give it a go. It's just come out of closed beta and is now available for everyone... Read More previously and most users consider it to be a good tool in the language learning arsenal. It’s important to note that Duolingo was never meant to be the key to fluency. It’s a tool, and much like any tool it has its limitations. I mean, you wouldn’t use a fork to eat soup, right?

If you’re using Duolingo for its intended purpose — to improve your vocabulary — then you’ll get a lot out of it. The interface is slick, the gamification aspects of it are somewhat addictive, and overall it’s just a solid way to improve upon vocabulary in your new language.

It also has another oft-overlooked feature that will greatly improve your language learning, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

Flash Cards (Anki)


The iOS app is pretty pricy ($25), but the Android app and the desktop version are both free. Read our Anki review Learn A New Language With Anki's Flash Card System Read More .

Anki allows you to create flash cards using a scientifically proven memory-boosting technique How To Be A Smarter Learner By Using The Method Of Spaced Repetitions Spaced repetition is a method that can help you plateau out the downward curve of your forgetfulness and help you memorize large amounts of data. It is an accelerated learning technique. This article is about... Read More called spaced repetition. In short, after each flash card, you rate your ability to remember and recall it so that the card shows up repeatedly (every few minutes) if you are having trouble, or every few days if it’s committed to memory.

The system is smart, but it has a severe limitation — you.

Many people use Anki as sort of an on-the-go recall tool of what they previously learned in Duolingo. I put the words I learned in Duolingo into Anki decks as well, but I’m also constantly creating new decks for just about anything, including:

  • Verb conjugations
  • Super specific sentences (eating out, numbers, what to say to the cable guy, etc.)
  • Photos (I use the Spanish word or phrase on the back so I begin to associate things with the Spanish word instead of relying solely on English to Spanish translation – to put it simply, I’m trying to “think” in a new language as well)
  • Conversions from imperial to metric

With Anki, the system is even smart enough to “flip” the cards so that it does not just ask for a translation from English to Spanish (or your language of choice), but from Spanish to English as well.

Television, Movies, and Music (Netflix, YouTube & Spotify)

I was listening to music, as well as watching movies and television anyway, so why not do it in the new language? You aren’t going to understand much at first, but that’s not all that important at this stage. What we’re trying to do here is to train the ear to the nuances of a new language.

There really isn’t a better way to do it than to integrate your entertainment habits into your desire to learn a new language.

One popular method for learning another language through television is actually one I disagree with now. When I first moved here I was told that watching children’s shows, such as cartoons, Sesame Street and Barney would be a great way to learn because the words were simple, and the speech was often slow. This is true.

The reason I disagree with its effectiveness, however, is simple… people don’t talk in cartoon voices all that often in the real world. On top of it being somewhat annoying at times, it wasn’t all that effective in training me to pick up on the nuances of human speech in a new language.

But, as with anything new, your mileage may vary.

Translation (Duolingo)


You might be surprised to see Duolingo again but it’s important to talk about one of its least-mentioned tools, the built-in “immersion” feature. It’s surprising to me that so few people use this, as translation is a great way not only to strengthen your vocabulary, but also to begin seeing these words in context.

It gets you outside of the novice thinking that you can translate sentences or phrases literally from one language to another — you can’t. Actual translation — and speech — requires you to do subtle re-arranging and even some guesswork from time-to-time while you try to decipher the meaning behind the sentence and not just translate it word-for-word.

Duolingo allows you to translate works uploaded by others (usually Wikipedia pages and news articles) by clicking a sentence, and then translating it into a box in the sidebar. When you’re stuck, you can hover over a word and Duolingo will show the translation. If you don’t like any of the items that are currently available to translate, you can even upload your own content.

Once you are finished translating, you submit your work, and others will correct it, or vote it up or down based on how accurate it is. Some will even award you with “Lingots,” which are the in-app currency that allow you to buy additional features.

The reason this means of translation is so effective is due to the near-instant feedback you’ll get . This feedback is invaluable to learning a new language.

Language Exchange Partners

Once you’re about halfway through with the knowledge tree in Duolingo, you should be ready to have simple conversations. After you complete the tree, you’ll actually have a vocabulary of around 1,500-2,500 words, which is more than enough for a more complete, albeit causal, conversation.

The one thing about Duolingo that most don’t like is that it doesn’t improve your ability to recall words, phrases and full sentences as fast as actually speaking them and it definitely doesn’t help with nailing a new accent What Apps & Websites Will Help Improve My Accent When Speaking Another Language? I really want to make my pronunciation match that of a native speaker. Are there any apps or websites that can help me? Read More .

Find supplementary assistance outside of Duolingo in order to practice your speech, once you have an adequate vocabulary.

One of the nice parts about learning a new language is that you’re never alone. There are always people that want to learn to speak your language with whom you can converse. Practicing collaboratively takes the approach of spending half the session speaking in one language, and then rotating to finish the lesson in another. This way you and your language partner both get value from your chats, and you’re able to share tips, tricks and even criticisms with someone who is in the same boat as you.

You can find your own language exchange partner to Skype or email with at these three places:

We have reviewed WeSpeke Learn A Language By Talking With Real People Using WeSpeke Learning a language is hard when you're not immersed in the culture and surrounded by people who speak the language. WeSpeke connects you with fluent speakers of the language you're trying to learn Read More  earlier.

Do you speak more than one language? What tips, tricks or techniques would you recommend for learning a new language? Let us know in the comments below.

Image Credit: IMG 1965 by Tom Page via Flickr

Related topics: Education Technology, Language Learning.

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  1. Honey
    May 6, 2016 at 11:17 am

    This is Cool Bryan.Some thoughts of us came from a question how i finnaly learned a different languages. Learning new language is totally hard and it takes time to learned on it. And im gladly motivpark( share me a lot of things and help me through it to surpass my learning experience on new languages. This article help us more also on motivating leanring new languages. and i really like people like this sharing to everbody. Thanks bryan and hope to see more like this ^_^

  2. Brad Merrill
    September 28, 2015 at 9:03 pm

    I really like Tim Ferriss's approach to language learning:

    He basically takes 12 sentences and translates them into the language he's looking to learn, and those 12 sentences allow him to very quickly grasp the basic grammar rules of a given language.

    • Bryan Clark
      September 28, 2015 at 9:23 pm

      That's interesting. The grammar is helpful, and his way to find these grammar rules would be great for a more intermediate learner. As a beginner, I think grammar is far less important than a decent-sized vocabulary... but, I'm not an expert by any means.

  3. Anonymous
    September 28, 2015 at 3:27 am

    Coming from nation where almost student have memorize and speak in 3 language (local/ethnic, official and english) but I still struggle of learning a new language that use different character as alphabet, like japanese with hiragana, katakana, etc or arabic.

    Seems for me learning to read some japanese word on the internet is just a pain, any suggestion where I can easily learn reading and understand material written in japanese/arabic like when I read article written in english.

    • Bryan Clark
      September 28, 2015 at 9:24 pm

      I tried to do a quick search for you, but none of the resources look like they'll help much. Have you tried a local book store? Or maybe you can find a language partner on one of the sites listed above and they can help you with the alphabet and characters?

  4. Anonymous
    September 27, 2015 at 11:45 pm

    Between Fair And Ugly, My Languages Knowledge Are Somewhere Between 6 And 0.

    In Terms Of Learning:

    A - DUOLINGO Is A Wonderful Tool,

    B - If You Do Not Mind Watching Foreign Movies And Shows With Subtitles, You Can Not Do Much Better Than That - After A Fair While, The Subtitles Are Only Necessary To Tell You If The Translation Your Mind Made, A Fraction Of A Second Earlier, Is Correct.


    • Bryan Clark
      September 28, 2015 at 9:25 pm

      Agreed. Movies and TV shows are a great help.

      For me, I think the biggest help was the music. Like most people, I remember song lyrics without even trying. So, from there it was all about finding out what the lyrics in my head meant, which I was all too happy to do.

      • Anonymous
        September 29, 2015 at 5:15 am

        Unfortunately, In Terms Of Music, I Am Only An Happy Consumer.

        My Connection With It Never Came Even Close To Your Experience.


  5. Anonymous
    September 26, 2015 at 2:55 am

    Sorry, this was meant to be a reply to Yodi Collin's post:

    Pearltrees looks like a very interesting site. I’ve already found some good stuff there. Thanks for sharing it with us, Yodi Collins.

    (Fixed - comments mod)

  6. Anonymous
    September 25, 2015 at 8:31 pm

    I started using Duolingo a couple of weeks ago, and have been pleasantly surprised by my progress. I have been using Anki as a study tool for some time, and find it very helpful too. It's not the easiest thing to set up to start with, but it's a great tool once you get it working how you want it. You can also download decks of cards uploaded by others, which can save you a lot of work. I found a deck for the Duolingo course I'm taking; it contains many words I haven't learned yet, but that's not a problem as I'm going to learn them sooner or later anyway. Duolingo has spaced repetition built in too, as well as flashcards for the words you've already met, and other study tools.

    • Bryan Clark
      September 25, 2015 at 9:53 pm

      Good point about the pre-made Anki decks. I actually forgot about that. I'm not sure I'd use them, as I get the best results out of putting in words I need to know for situations, or should have known for past situations, but it's definitely worth mentioning.

      Also, with the Duolingo deck. Be careful with that. Some words change depending on how they're used within a sentence, so learning them ahead of their grammar rules might actually set you back.

      • Anonymous
        September 26, 2015 at 2:49 am

        Yes, for the most part I'm ignoring words on Anki that I haven't met yet unless they look like cognates, but I had planned to make Anki cards anyway and this saves me a lot of work. I'm already making copious notes and word lists in OneNote, so it sometimes feels as though I'm spending more time writing things down than anything else. I'm thinking about making some small Anki decks of my own for certain groups of words I'm struggling with, or trying to find some from Anki I can modify to suit my needs, though.

  7. Anonymous
    September 25, 2015 at 7:47 pm

    Unfortunately DuoLingo still doesn't have English to Japanese, which is their most requested language, so that's right out. It's also very difficult to find TV and movies in Japanese in America because everything has been subbed or dubbed. I've avoided using music because songs don't pronounce words the same way you do when talking, regardless of what language it is, the words are often stretched out, shortened or sometimes not even said, in order to make it fit the music. I do like the Memrise app and website though and when I get more advanced I'd like to use italki.

    • Bryan Clark
      September 25, 2015 at 9:54 pm

      Memrise is a service I've used as well. It's quite good.

      Sorry to hear about your struggles with Japanese. You'd think more services would offer help.

  8. Anonymous
    September 25, 2015 at 6:39 pm

    I agree with 100% of what you wrote in this article. I use the Duolingo app on my Windows Phone and swear by it.

    You didn't mention, which is similar to Live Mocha. I thought I would bring it up here. And finally, this is an obscure source of language material, but is a bookmarking web site based in France that is chock-full of foreign-language everything -- links to shared cloud repositories containing foreign-language books are plentiful here. The site is transparent by design unless you're a premium user, so most bookmarking fodder is fair game for anyone who makes their way there.

    • Bryan Clark
      September 25, 2015 at 9:56 pm

      Pearl Trees sounds like a great site. I'll have to check it out.

      As for Conversation Exchange, it actually was in the first version of this article. I removed it because the site had been down (for me at least) for over a week. I wasn't sure if they were shutting down, upgrading, or just experiencing tech issues.