Picking Up a New Language: a Beginner’s Guide

Wave Learning Festival
10 min readJun 20, 2023
a man with black hair and an orange shirt, standing in front of a yellow background, with multiple speech bubbles around him. the speech bubbles contain the word “hello” in different languages, with words such as “salut”, “hola” and “halla”.

Happy summer! Now that you’re no longer burdened with school responsibilities, it’s the perfect time to pick up some new skills or work on passion projects. If you’ve been thinking about learning a new language but don’t know where to start, this guide is for you!

Why should I learn a new language?

There are multiple reasons why you may want to learn a new language, including cognitive, cultural, and professional / career benefits. Knowing multiple languages often results in increased brain performance, more job and travel opportunities, and deeper experiences when consuming art.

Studies have shown that language learning results in various neurological benefits, even if you start your journey as an adult. Language learning has been linked to stronger academic performance, improved concentration and memory, better communication and decision-making skills, increased attention span and bigger creative abilities. Evidence even suggests that learning languages may result in a later onset of dementia! Pretty cool, right?

If you’re passionate about travelling and discovering other cultures, language learning will obviously improve your experience and make you enjoy your excursions even more. While many people believe that a good knowledge of English is enough to get by in non-English speaking countries, that is not always the case, and knowing at least a lick of the local language can go a long way when interacting with the locals. Being able to comfortably communicate in the local language means comfortably navigating in your travel destination — imagine how nice it is to not have to have Google Translate open all the time!

Being multilingual can come in handy when applying for jobs, too. “Knowing more than one language” is one of the skills employers mention the most often when searching for potential employees. Learning a new language is a great way to give yourself a competitive advantage when applying for jobs, as well as to pick up new projects in your current place of employment.

If you’re interested in art such as literature, theatre, music and film, learning new languages means opening yourself up to myriads of pieces you wouldn’t have access to otherwise. Even if a particular piece is available in English translation, learning the original language of that work means being able to re-experience it in a new light, picking up on cultural contexts or nuances you may have missed before. As someone who has read multiple books translated to my native Polish and later re-read them in the original English, I can assure you it is one of the most exhilarating experiences you can go through as a bookworm.

How do I choose which language to learn?

For people just starting out on their language learning journey, it’s sometimes difficult to figure out what language to actually pick up. Here are a few tips to make it easier for you to decide.

  • Think about your “why”: why do you want to learn a new language, actually? Is it because there’s a particular culture you love, you’re trying to get more job opportunities, or you’re travelling soon?
  • Consider your time availability & language-learning experience level: if you don’t have a lot of time on your hands and/or have little experience with learning foreign languages, learning a language with a difficult grammar system or non-Latin alphabet might not be your best option. In that case, consider learning a language which has a grammar structure and/or vocabulary pool similar to English.
  • Don’t be afraid to make a random choice: if you know you want to learn a language for reasons such as cognitive benefits or maybe just for fun, but you genuinely have no idea which one to choose, making a completely random decision isn’t necessarily the wrong option — what matters is that you’re learning, right?

In case you’re looking for some general pointers to start out with, here are the most spoken languages in the world (both as a native and non-native language):

a graphic that reads: “Most spoken languages in the world (native & non-native speakers). English: 1.452 billion speakers. Mandarin Chinese: 1.118 billion speakers. Hindi: 602 million speakers. Spanish: 534 million speakers. Arabic: 372 million speakers. French: 300 million speakers.”
If you’re trying to learn a language with a lot of speakers, these languages might be your best bet!

And here are the easiest languages to become proficient in for English speakers, according to the Foreign Service Institute:

A graphic that reads: “Easiest languages to learn (for English speakers, according to the Foreign Service Institute). Afrikaans, Danish, Dutch, French, Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish, Swedish.”
If you’re an English speaker and you’re learning a foreign language for the first time, starting out with one of those may make the process easier for you!

How should I start learning a language?

Congratulations on choosing a language to learn! Now it’s time to figure out how to start your learning journey.

For me, learning a new language always starts with gathering resources. I usually look for a grammar textbook / blog, a flashcard app for beginner vocabulary, and resources with easy reading and listening materials in my language of choice. If possible, I try to find a textbook or an online course so that I don’t have to make a learning plan by myself and can instead follow the guide made by someone more qualified.

Once I have my materials ready, I take a look at my schedule and attempt to make time for learning my language of choice. It’s generally recommended to study your language at least a few times per week, with the sessions being at least 30 minutes long; with that in mind, I try to plan at least four 30-minute language learning sessions in a week.

If I’m using a course or a textbook, planning individual sessions is pretty easy: I simply follow along. In the case of following my own learning plan, I usually try to divide my study sessions between a few skills I want to focus on, such as reading and listening practice, grammar revision or vocabulary review.

Remember: once you’ve got the basics down, it’s time to incorporate beginner writing and speaking practice into your learning sessions!

What language learning app should I use?

While it’s not always necessary to use a language learning app, they can definitely be a way to start your journey as well as provide you with learning material that you can revise anywhere, anytime.

Some apps, such as Duolingo, Busuu and Babbel offer full-blown language courses for beginners, offering basic information and practice tasks to learn beginner vocabulary and grammar structure, as well as get used to reading and listening to very simple

If you’re looking for a tool to study extensive vocabulary, Drops is probably a good option for you. Although the free version of the app only allows for five minutes of review per day, it comes with a vast range of vocabulary in different categories and great exercises that help you acquire and revise vocabulary. I personally never paid for the Premium version and I still enjoyed my experience and learned a lot!

If your goal is to get more reading practice in your target language, there are many apps that offer you the option of reading texts in the language you’re learning, with parallel translation available when you’re stuck. A few options include AnyLang, Beelinguapp, Lingua and LingQ. All of those apps provide content in different languages and offer different free and premium plans — make sure to take a look and figure out which one works best for you!

Make sure that your learning isn’t dependent on apps, though — while using Duolingo or Drops may be fun, it cannot make you fully learn a language. In fact, some more gamified language learning apps can give you a false illusion of learning, actually making you progress slower than when using other resources!

Why am I struggling with the language I’m learning?

There are multiple factors that can affect your progress when learning a language. For instance, if you don’t have much experience learning languages, you may find the process a bit difficult at first — and that’s completely okay! Learning languages effectively is a skill in itself, and mastering any skill requires sufficient practice. Similarly, if you’re learning a language that’s completely different from any language you’ve studied before — maybe because of its writing system or grammar structure — you may struggle with picking it up at first.

Thankfully, I’m happy to reassure you that language learning does get easier — with the help of sufficient practice. Once you get used to consistent studying, you’ll be able to grasp new concepts more naturally, and the knowledge you’ll have acquired already will provide you with a good base for further learning. If after a few months of regular practice you still feel like you’re not progressing, consider seeking the help of a tutor.

How do I measure my progress in language learning?

You can approach “measuring progress” on your language learning journey in many ways. Which one will work best for you solely depends on your personal preferences and learning style.

Many people choose to measure their progress in language learning according to some official language frameworks, such as the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) or the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) guidelines. Setting your language learning goals based on those frameworks can be useful, especially if your goal is to pass some type of standardized test in your target language and get a certificate of proficiency. If you choose to use a standardized framework to measure your progress, make sure to use the one that makes the most sense in the context of the language you’re learning: for instance, Japanese learners might get the most out of using the JLPT scale, ranging from N5 to N1, while those of you picking up Mandarin Chinese might want to consider assessing yourself based on the HSK levels.

If you don’t think that measuring your progress using a standardized system is for you, setting your own goals on your language journey is a great alternative! For instance, you may want to set a goal of being able to read your favorite book in translation, or finishing the entirety of your language course by the end of the year.

However you choose to measure your progress, make sure your goals are SMART — specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-based! Here’s a graphic that explains them further:

a graphic that reads: “What are SMART goals? Specific: What exactly are you trying to achieve? Measurable: How can you track your progress? Attainable: Is the goal possible for you to accomplish? Relevant: is your goal worthwhile? Time-based: What’s your time-frame for achieving your goal?
Setting SMART goals can help you make your language learning journey more effective!

Should I ask native speakers for help?

Coming across a native speaker of your target language might feel like winning the lottery. Here’s a person who knows everything there is to know about the language I’m learning — I’m certain they can help me with whatever I’m struggling with, right? Right?

While you might be able to receive that kind of support from a native speaker, it doesn’t always have to be the case. Think about yourself and your native language — do you think you’re able to explain all the intricacies of its grammar and sentence structure? You’d probably struggle with that — and it’s going to be similar for a native speaker of your target language. Even despite their good intentions, they might not always be able to help you the way a teacher or a tutor would.

Once you’re a bit more comfortable in your language, practicing speaking with a native speaker might be a good thing to incorporate into your study sessions — however, make sure to not jump into it too quickly. A native speaker can have trouble with distinguishing what’s considered a beginner piece of vocabulary or grammar and what’s more advanced, so if you’re only just getting the hang of your target language, they might just make you more confused and actually slow down your learning process.

How do I practice the language I’m learning?

When you’re learning a language by yourself, it can be hard to practice skills such as writing and speaking — and, more importantly, it might be hard to assess if you’re doing things right. Catching your own mistakes as a beginner borders on impossible, and with a lack of a teacher, it can seem hopeless and even discourage you from trying to write and speak in your target language.

In my experience, joining a language learning community on Discord can help with language practice immensely. Those servers are filled with people speaking your target language with varying degrees of fluency who are more than happy to help you and correct your mistakes. Many of those servers also provide additional resources for learners or even host conversation classes for server members! Big language learning servers tend to be heavily moderated and allow you to remain anonymous, so you don’t have to be too concerned with safety.

Additional tools to make your language learning journey more enjoyable

If you’re looking for some online tools to improve your language learning experience, here are a few options:

  • Readlang is a website and Google extension that helps you learn a language by reading. When you’re consuming content in your target language and are struggling with particular words, Readlang offers rapid translation of words and phrases upon clicking on them. If you have an account, the words and phrases you’ve clicked on are automatically saved as flashcards, ready for you to review them later!
  • Language Reactor, previously known as Language Learning with Netflix, is a website and Chrome extension that adds dual language subtitles and a popup dictionary to your screen when you’re watching something on Netflix or YouTube. It’s a great resource to use if you’re trying to combine your listening practice with watching your favorite content!

Happy learning!

Written by Magdalena Styś

Wave Learning Festival is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit providing free, live seminars, tutoring, college application help, career mentorship and more. If you would like to learn more about Wave Learning Festival, check out our website or contact us at hello@wavelf.org. Please consider contributing to Wave’s mission of making education accessible to all.

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Wave Learning Festival

Wave Learning Festival is a nonprofit committed to combating educational inequity.