My Study Tips for the Casual Language Learner

Many national flags flapping in the wind.
Many national flags flapping in the wind.

I’ve always liked to travel and learn languages: I’ve lived out a suitcase for 8 years and I’m learning my 11th language.

To support my nomadic lifestyle, I came up with the idea of teaching Italian online. I strive to do that the same way I learn language myself. Since I knew that my method worked, I assumed that everyone would naturally embrace it.

However, after 1100+ lessons over 3 years, I realized that the casual language learner experiences problems that never occurred to me. Many are confused by false beliefs, are not motivated, can’t find the time to study, or just have no clue about how they should study by themselves.

In this article, I’ll dispel the most common myths about foreign language learning and share a few study tips based on my personal experience, in the hope that this will make your study time more productive and motivate you to keep studying or take up studying again.

Get rid of the fears you learned at school

We all study languages at school but usually don’t use the best method to study them. Actually, the point is not how to study it, but how to learn it. That’s the same difference between treating a disease and curing it. You want to cure it. You want to learn that language.

Is any of these fears keeping you from learning a language?

  • At school (including language schools), you hardly have time to speak. You’d be listening to your teacher or share practice time with other students. As a result, many are embarrassed because they can understand something but can’t speak. Well, that’s common and it’s usually not their fault but due to their study method.
  • At exams, you’re supposed to answer correctly and if you make mistakes you get bad grades. This makes us nervous because we make mistakes. We are all nervous because we make mistakes all the time. Well, put up with it. That’s the way we learn. So, take mistakes as a sign that you are learning. It’s totally normal to make mistakes and if you set realistic expectations you will not be frustrated.
  • If you’re reading this, you probably passed the critical age for master a language like a native (around puberty) and you general. So, you might fear that it’s too late to start. Yes, it might be too late to sound like a native. However, it’s never too late to start and learn a language. It might take a bit longer if you’re older, but you can certainly make it. You can reach a high level to communicate correctly and effectively in a relatively short time.
  • Now that you’re not a full-time student any more, you might regret that you don’t have enough time. However, as little as 30 minutes per day, every day, is enough to make progress. If you follow a study plan you know what you’re supposed to do and how well you’re doing and you will not be frustrated.
  • With a full-time job and family ties, people only wish they could travel or live in the countries where they speak the language they’re learning. Well, it certainly helps to be on the spot and communicate with locals, but that’s not necessarily. I’ve learned languages without ever visiting a country where they’re spoken.

Now that you’re free from these fears, you need a method. In this article, I’m going to share only one tip. This alone separates successful learners from the others.

Speak to learn, not the other way around

If I had to choose one piece of advice, it’s this: speak from Day 1.

Traditionally, we imagine learning a language for years and then finally being ‘ready’ after learning so many words and rules. That day will never come. On the contrary, it is by practicing speaking that you learn how to speak. And it also improves other important skills like listening, reading, and writing.

As a professional translator, I confess that I rarely remember the new words that I find in the documents I translate. I save them in the term base of the software I use to translate, but I don’t memorize them myself. That’s because I’m not reading them aloud (and also because they’re very boring documents). Reading aloud requires more involvement than silent reading and activates your brain in a way that silent reading doesn’t.

Likewise, passive activities like listening or watching only are much less effective than speaking practice in becoming fluent. If I am to read to learn a language, I always read aloud, even if it’s not required in the exercise or in the situation.

For this reason, you should always study where you’re allowed to talk. That’s why I’d never study a language in a library or in a common study room at school. For the same reason, I rarely listen to music or watch movies with the purpose of learning a language unless I can repeat what I hear.

Even if you can’t find people to practice your target language around you, you can still Skype a native speaker and speak to them to practice your language from the comfort of your home. You can actually learn to speak a language very well by taking 1-on-1 classes or doing a language exchange entirely via Skype.

So, make no excuses and start speaking languages for real. Good luck with your studies!


Stefano Lodola is a member of Mensa Italy. Here’s his bio in his own words: I teach the Italian language the same way I learned 10 foreign languages myself. I have too much free time and spend it watching documentaries, playing chess, singing opera, patting cats, and traveling. I’ve lived out of a suitcase for 8 years. I show how to learn languages on my blog “Fluent. Simple.”