How to Learn a Language from Home

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This is a quick guide with our tips on how to learn a language from home — making the most of resources from outside a country, from people who’ve been doing it for a long, long time.

Put away your obsessive Duolingo streak. Stop randomly browsing “how to learn French” and wondering which expensive course you should pay for. Quit signing up to more channels on YouTube.

There are many reasons you might not be able to travel to another country, including finances, security, family, or work.

But that shouldn’t stop you from being able to learn another language!

Whatever the reason, there are lots of things people think about doing at home, and one of these is deciding to learn a language.

“Above all, don’t obsess primarily over being productive. It’s always OK to be primarily concerned with your family, the people around you and in your community/country, and your own health.”

The problem is that most of us have NO experience with learning languages by ourselves, outside a school system. Even when people go to foreign countries, the first thing they look for is a formal language school.

nice living room with lights, pot plant, coffee table and pink furniture

Googling the issue is very hard. The websites you find all have an ulterior motive. Most guides to learning languages are:

  • Selling their own software as “the” one-stop solution (no such thing)
  • Prioritising selling software that earns them a huge commission (some of us earn us a little, but it doesn’t affect our recommendations, and we avoid recommending the ones that could easily earn us the most)
  • Listing EVERY resource — often written by people who don’t know a language, listing even bad resources, and often even broken links
  • Just doing an incomplete job in some other way

Very few high-quality websites are out there that provide honest, reliable information on language learning. We try to be one of those.

So the question becomes — amidst all the noise of the internet, what is the answer — what is the BEST way to learn a language at home during quarantine?

Note: This post contains affiliate links that earn us a small commission if you buy anything. But this doesn’t change the price you see (nothing can! not even we get a discount!) or influence our recommendations.

Learn a Language from Home — The Resources List!

In summary, here are the steps to learn a language from home. There are more details if you follow the links.

textbooks we used to learn a language from home

Get a teach-yourself style book. (yes, a book. Old school but effective!) from Amazon that has a Kindle version and audio online. These exist for pretty much every language. Use either Routledge Colloquial series, or Teach Yourself.

my favourite chinese teacher feng laoshi

Find yourself a good language teacher online. Use italki. It’s the best resources. Good teachers (the ones we use!) start from $4/hour for many languages, and you can get great ones for under $10/hour in ANY language. See our guide to getting the most out of italki.

Anki flashcards

Set up a flashcard deck for new words and phrases. Use Anki (that’s our set-up guide). It’s the best, and there are many reasons you should use it, from free decks online in many languages, to a wider user base to help you.

Learn Languages with Netflix Subtitles

Consume media you like — TV shows, movies, and podcasts. Many of us are holed up with Netflix, so learn how to use the Learn Languages with Netflix Chrome extension and start soaking up telenovelas, Korean dramas, or French cop comedies.

Language resources for learning other languages

Get the best resources specific to the language you’re learning. Have a look at our language learning resources page. It’s not for EVERY language — just the ones we’ve studied — but those lists are very carefully curated and spam-free.

There are many other things I could recommend — other little bits of software, tips and tricks — but the above is a huge head-start.

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Benefits of learning a language from home

There are some distinct benefits to learning a language from home.

Even though you’re tempted to think “to learn French, I have to go to France! (or Quebec)”, and go book some tickets, you might be surprised that learning from your home country can be more effective.

Of course, if you go to an advanced language school in Paris where you get private tuition, you’ll learn quickly and well.

But if you stay at home in your house in the US or UK, you can get many of the same benefits of private tuition — without the tickets and accomodation cost.

A few benefits of learning from home are:

  • It’s much cheaper. You can get a private tutor on italki for $10-20 an hour and they’re very good! Plus, you don’t have to pay for flights or rent in a new country — you keep paying what you’re already paying.
  • There’s no traffic. Going to a language school is a chore, even if you’re in the other country already.
  • You can set your own pace. Studying 1:1 with a tutor means you dictate how fast it goes.

So yes, it’s lovely to speak to a French baker and order your pain au chocolat in French. But don’t discount the benefits of learning a language from home.

General tips on how to learn a language from home

It’s easy to go and find resources for learning a language online. There are great YouTube courses out there, many books, and lots of podcasts.

The hardest thing, I think, is setting up that first lesson with a teacher online.

This applies whether you’re new, or if you’re just “rusty” in a language. Last week I had my first Italian conversation in ten years. I was terrified. But it was amazing!

The second hardest thing is maintaining any sort of discipline or rhythm while trying to learn a language at home.

After any language lesson, we immediately have 30-50 new words and phrases we have to learn. It’s easy to just look at those notes “some other time” and forget about them. It’s very hard to put them into our flashcard decks and start studying them.

See here for more tips on using online language tutors effectively.

Thirdly, do things that are fun to you.

It’s a stressful period. Going from one anxiety (about life in general) to the next (argh, I have a Japanese lesson and I’m so unprepared!) is not a good recipe for mental health.

In general, I’m a fan of doing fun things when learning languages. There’s no point reading a newspaper if you don’t normally do that in your mother tongue. Many people in Asia, particularly in China and in Korea, learn English by watching Friends over and over and studying the subtitles. Find something as fun as that — TV shows, movies, music — whatever keeps you entertained.

The final thing is that you should avoid over-stressing yourself.

Life tends to throw wrenches into the works. There are kids and their random issues, there’s work instability, and sometimes life just takes twists and turns.

Remember that being able to learn a language from home during the stay-at-home orders is a luxury of sorts. That luxury might change. In light of that, don’t overdo it.

Here’s a reasonable schedule for studying a language at home as you try to keep life going on:

  • Schedule 3 classes a week, 30-45 minutes each. Often, one of those will be cancelled due to the changing nature of people’s daily lives.
  • Don’t add more than 10 new cards a day in your flashcard deck. This may seem like very little, but it builds up very quickly.
  • If the above seems like too little and you have spare time, watch something on TV or read something. Don’t feel obsessed to get exhausted one day and do nothing the following day.

Above all, don’t obsess primarily over being productive. It’s always OK to be primarily concerned with your family, the people around you and in your community/country, and your own health.

What to AVOID when learning a language from home

The thing to avoid when learning a language from home is much like what we recommend in general — don’t waste time over-investing in the wrong tools.

These days there’s an over-abundance of tools out there to learn a language from home (or anywhere). The problem is that many of them claim to be a one-stop-shop, or the only app you need — when in reality, there’s nothing you need more than to speak to people and consume/produce material, NOT use an app.

None of the tools are bad. You’ll definitely learn some words and phrases from any of them. But avoid the productivity trap of continually feeling obliged to open the app, do the clicking, and learn things you may not need (and in a way that might not work).

Avoid apps — whether free or expensive — that claim things like you can click your way to fluency.

They’re basically OK if you think of them as relaxing games (like Candy Crush that may teach you words along the way) if you’re sitting on the john, or for the purpose of learning an alphabet and your first 100 words. Beyond that — there are usually more productive ways to efficiently learn a language.

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